Daniel Catalaa


(Article by Daniel Catalaa, published Jan 2nd, 2012)
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When we say we believe in something, what do we mean? In effect we are saying that we accept something on face value, without complete proof, and take it to be true.

When we state that 'we believe' we typically intend to communicate what we hold to be true but 'believing' is also used in unrelated ways. Statements about belief may denote probability of veracity, i.e. how likely we believe something to be true. This occurs when we say that 'I believe that I left the keys in my purse' or goodness 'I believe in the cause', or veracity 'I believe that an elf with mittens lives in my refrigerator', or future probabilities as in 'I believe that things will get better'.

Objective and subjective truth

There are two types of truth, objective and subjective. If the temperature of the room is 62 degrees Fahrenheit, this is an objective truth. But our subjective truths may be different. You find the room cold and I find it warm. Who is right? We are both right, in our own way. Subjective truths are relative to each person and do not have an absolute validity that dominates over the subjective truths of others. You may have found the presenter offensive while I found them to be humorous.

The interesting thing is that every human being carries around a different set of beliefs and that is why somebody's comment, an unexpected hug, or a specific song mean different things to different people. On the other hand, statements like '2+2=4' or 'There is a pen on the table' have shared interpretations and it's easy to find agreement. But on most other topics, specially those that matter, such as spirituality, the meaning of life, national priorities, how to use and share limited resources, or the best way to live, we invariably come to different conclusions.

One of the most basic needs we have as human beings is to make sense of the world. Unfortunately, everything 'out there' has no meaning other than what we attribute to it. So we rely on mental models called beliefs to understand, predict, and prioritize the data that is constantly streaming in through our senses, intuition, and emotions.

A better understanding of your beliefs and how they operate will allow you to achieve different results in areas of your life where you may have felt stuck or even hopeless and will help you to succeed in areas where perhaps you are succeeding occasionally and randomly.

Let's look under the hood

Another way to understand beliefs is to think of them as the software that runs our minds. If we look at the chain of events that leads to results and hence form our experience of life, beliefs are right at the source of everything as illustrated by this sequence:


The 'DATA' component of the equation just means that, when you think, you are always thinking about something -- a piece of information that either came from a source internal or external to you. The 'BELIEFS' component instead refers to the filters we use to interpret the data and to give it meaning. Here is a worked out example:

DATA: The plant looks wilted.
 BELIEFS: #1. Wilting is a sign of dehydration.
                #2. Water is the antidote to dehydration.
                 #3. A hydrated plant will fare better than a wilted one.
                  #4. Helping plants is good.
                   #5. I want to be a good person.
      THOUGHT/MEANING: Because I am a good person a good people care for plants, I should water the plant.
       EMOTIONS: Empathy for plant, desire to reinforce positive self-image.
        ACTIONS: Water the plant.
         RESULT: Plant perks up and looks better. My self-image as a 'good person' is reinforced and this makes me feel good about myself.

In the example above, the core belief 'I am a good person' and the strength of the downstream empathy felt were essential prerequisites for the action that ensued.

Beliefs act at two levels. First beliefs act as perceptual filters that focus our attention and memory on only a small portion of the data coming in. The filtering is a double edged sword because it acts as a shortcut that allow us to focus on the most important and relevant data but it can also trap us into seeing things only one way. And immediately after, beliefs are used to interpret that data that made it through into our awareness and to make sense of it.

Where do our beliefs come from?

Because our beliefs are private we may assume that we came up with them and that they belong to us. However, we have very few if any original beliefs. We also take for granted that we have adopted these beliefs voluntarily. The ego-deflating reality is that our beliefs were unabashedly implanted in us early in our life by sources of authority such as parents, teachers, clergy, and your group of peers, and later by employers, marketing, society, and other sources of influence. All the same, we can claim as unique and of our own doing the administration of beliefs. is the particular combination of beliefs we hold and which beliefs we chose to keep, combine, share with others, or discard. This edited collection of beliefs is the essence of our being and reflects our current level of consciousness.

Beliefs versus convictions

Some beliefs have stood the test of time so we do not reevaluate them as often. These beliefs are called convictions. For example, I am entirely persuaded about the effects of gravity and do not need to test it by releasing every morning a coin in the void to see if it drops.

Belief system self-correction

In the morning, why is it that, even when we think we did everything right, we still check ourselves in the mirror before leaving our homes? We do it because we may have missed something. Like a stain on our tie, a bit of shaving cream on our ear lobe, or some annoying renegade eyebrow that is doing its own thing. The truth is that we have a complicated relationship with mirrors: We love love them because they tell us the truth and we dislike them for the same reason. We are thankful for the unedited honesty and disturbed by the fact that after glancing we cannot ignore the changes that may be needed.

Like the person who checks themselves in the mirror, healthy belief systems are constantly being revised based on new information that is discovered. Unhealthy belief systems instead stay static and their immutable beliefs do not cope well with change. To learn more about viral belief systems view this related article.

Perfection does not esist in nature, nor does it exist in the world of beliefs. What we find instead is improvement and adaptation through self correction over many design cycles. Biological organisms adapt through gradual change (genetic mutations) and learning (parent-to-offspring teaching and use of tools among some primates) over the course of many generations. Similarly, healthy belief systems always leave a door opend that declares 'I could be wrong, but this is the best model I have so far and I will keep on looking for new data and adjusting my theory to explain all results, exceptions, and anomalies'. The hallmark of a strong belief system is that it explains all past data and adjusts to new discoveries. It does not ignore inconsistencies, anomalies, or exceptions, but pursues them with intellectual honesty mixed with a dose of vulnerability and curiosity.

Certainty is the death of growth while doubt is the wise person's companion. Only when we are sure of our belief's infallibility do we stop searching and justify atrocities against fellow human beings (e.g. the export of 'democracy' by the USA to Irak, the Spanish inquisition, or genital mutilation).

Evaluate a belief system

When you chose to subscribe to a belief system, evaluate it based on these criteria: EXPLAIN CRITERIA (CHECK PHILOSOPHY ARTICLE AND TRANSPLANT SECTION HERE) A fundamental truth can be discovered on your own and will be rediscovered independently throughout history. The merits of beliefs are assessed based on whether they make accurate predictions, describe the present and past events.

Beliefs organize into belief systems

Individual beliefs can be combined together into an interlocking, mutually supporting, system. This amalgamation then becomes a distinct philosophy or ideology. Within the system many beliefs are predicated on more fundamental ones so they are stacked up like a deck of cards. If you debunk a fundamental belief, the whole system falls apart. If I believe that I am separate from nature then I can also believe that I can control it, exploit, and exhaust it, because it is here for my benefit. If I believe that I am part of nature, instead of above or below it, then all the other beliefs mentioned fall flat on their face. Exploiting nature would then be like a long snake that bites its own tail because it believed it was seeing the tail of a different snake.