Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Afflictions of the Mind : Part - 4.1 (The Prison of Beliefs)

4. The Prison of Beliefs

Plato's Cave by Lalita Hamill

4.1 What is a Belief?

We have already discussed beliefs previously in brief. Here I’m going to peel the onions, do hair splitting and perform surgery on them. This is needed because beliefs are one of the most dangerous afflictions of the Mind. A belief is an assumption, an unfounded idea. It masquerades in the form of knowledge. It is a partial or false knowledge, a structure in the Mind, that lacks solidity of experience to support it. A belief is an epitome of ignorance. These will serve as some definitions for the term belief [1].

A belief is a poor substitute for knowledge. If I tell you a story, which is beyond your experience, you have only two options, either to believe it or disbelieve it. Any of them are not going to take you anywhere. I want you to know.
- Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (Paraphrased)

If you look at beliefs via the microscope of self-observation, you will find that they are mental structures called Concepts. So a belief is not a new entity, it is just an idea, a concept, a higher level abstraction. So why do we need a new word, a new definition? Because a belief is a concept that is erroneous. It is an assumption that takes the form of knowledge. It does not come from experience. A concept that is firmly founded on direct experience is knowledge. When you see beliefs, you will find no solid experiences, no impressions, no memories, no logical chains of thought there, they just simply hang in air.A belief is never founded on experience, it is derived from other sources. It can also be an erroneous interpretation of an experience, which again means that the interpretation is unfounded. A belief can be based on other beliefs, which makes the matter more convoluted, because the person may believe that it is based on a fact, and so is a fact. It is easy to get lost in the jungle of beliefs. 

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I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.
- Richard Feynman

It is surely possible that one gets a confirmation of a belief later when a direct experience is encountered. Once this happens the belief is no longer a belief, it becomes knowledge. However, such a possibility is not a justification to believe something. A direct experience may or may not occur. And if it does, it simply encourages the person to form more beliefs about others matters in hopes that they will get substantiated too. It is a big risk, so it is much better to keep the idea in "I don't know" box instead of "I believe its true" box, if it is not substantiated by direct experience. Note that one can test the truth of an idea assuming it is true, but that does not fall in the category of beliefs. It is equally possible to test an idea assuming it is false.    

What we need is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out.

- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) British logician and philosopher.

A concept is formed when a person tries to understand his experiences in terms of other experiences. This is exactly the definition of Understanding – to correlate one’s experiences in a meaningful way. A meaningful structure is the one that results in lowest entropy, it is consistent, logical, perfect, is beautiful and it is right. Mind has this extraordinary gift to arrange its experiences into meaningful concepts and use them to further organize the experiences or to gain new experiences, causing an increase in knowledge. However, the Mind does the same with a belief, once it is formed and survives the logical filters of the Mind, it starts appearing as knowledge and Mind starts “understanding” things in the "light" of a belief.

How does that happen? Isn’t Mind perfect? How is such a gross mistake made? The Mind is perfect just like anything else that exists [2]. A belief is perfect too. Under the given circumstances, if a belief is formed, it is a perfect occurrence, because nothing else could have formed. A clay pot, if it falls on the floor does not remain a pot, it becomes shapeless pieces. When no one is looking, this is just an event, a perfect event, because nothing else could have happened. But when a person sees the broken pot, it is an imperfect state compared to its more structured state as a solid pot from his point of view. So the Mind does not make a mistake, the mistake is seen from the perspective of someone who has a different organization in the Mind, a more meaningful one, since it was founded on an actual experience. 

So all beliefs are happenings in the Mind, one need not worry too much about them, they come and go. If you think some beliefs last for a lifetime, never worry, the bodies come and go. Some last for centuries, but never worry, civilizations and cultures appear and vanish. The whole of the existence is impermanent, nothing lasts. Interestingly, beliefs are even more transient, and concepts with a firm ground last far longer than puny beliefs. So I’m calling them the most dangerous things a Mind can have, as well as I’m calling them puny. How does that make sense? Beliefs are tiny occurrences in the Mind compared to the immensity of the Mind. The errors get corrected very soon when seen from the vast time frames of the Mind. These are dangerous and a big issue when seen from the perspective of human experience. We get a very short life as a human, and since we want to make use of this little time as efficiently as possible, we try to focus on the biggest issues first. Beliefs are your tallest hurdle on your path to freedom. Even if they won’t last, you can make the journey easy, quick and enjoyable if you remove these hurdles. Freedom is nothing but a total absence of beliefs. When everything is seen as it is, you become free.

If not on experience, what are beliefs based on? Beliefs are mostly based on what we called “indirect knowledge” - information coming from other sources, which is stored as knowledge without proper scrutiny. Experiences interpreted in relation to previous beliefs also cause new ones to appear. Illogical thoughts also cause incorrect inferences, resulting in beliefs, even if those thoughts were derived from experiences. Some beliefs are simply copied from others. Some beliefs are a result of indoctrination during childhood. Evolutionary and cognitive biases, peers, books, preachers, myths, imaginations, fears, liars, rumour mills, society, parents, schools, universities, mass media, or anything under the sun that can transfer information from one mind to the other can become a source of beliefs [3]. So one can guess, it is very easy to form a belief and spread it. Whatever is the cause or the source, once a belief is formed, it is very difficult of get rid of it. The amount of ignorance a person has is directly proportional to his beliefs. Perhaps it’s the most difficult and persistent affliction of the Mind.

Why do we need to get rid of beliefs? There is no real need, just like any other affliction, one can live his entire life in the prison of beliefs, there are no natural laws against it. However, beliefs cause a lot of suffering, a telltale sign of affliction. Moreover the path of knowledge is just that – to free oneself from incomplete knowledge, beliefs, delusions and illusions, and gain a full understanding via direct experience and logical thinking. Beliefs stop your progress, and even retard it. Beliefs are harmful, because the actions based on beliefs are mostly harmful, for the self as well as for others. Most of the crimes, wrong deeds, mass killings, wars and such acts have a cause in belief. One can prove it simply by tracing the motivation for such acts to its roots. Beliefs make the lives of people miserable, cause immense destruction and are a major pain in general. Beliefs are a big issue when all one intends is knowledge, beliefs are exactly opposite of that.

Believe nothing, O monks, merely because you have been told it … or because it is traditional, or because you yourselves have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings—that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.

- Guatama Buddha

What is the cure of beliefs? Knowledge. All one needs to do is gain knowledge, it kills the corresponding belief instantly. We have already seen the proper means of gaining knowledge (in brief). Experience is the foundation of knowledge, and when one seeks an experience to answer a question, one reaches knowledge. At least one reaches the conclusion of “I don’t know”. That is - remains Agnostic. An agnostic attitude ensures that the doors to knowledge remain open, and a proper experience may arrive at a proper time to complete the knowledge. A belief will simply close the doors, as it is an assumption - “I already know”, which means the person has no hope of obtaining knowledge, the belief has closed the doors and has imprisoned him. Where to start? Open mindedness. If a person opens up to the idea that he may not know something, or he was merely holding an assumption, it is enough to bring him to knowledge eventually. Closed mindedness, or not accepting that one can be wrong, leads to fossilization of the Mind, and the person becomes incapable of gaining new knowledge. We will see shortly why it is so difficult to be open minded. Beliefs come with an add-on of security and resist their removal.

The word ''belief'' is a difficult thing for me. I don't believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Either I know a thing, and then I know it --I don't need to believe it.

- Carl Gustav Jung

Beliefs can have vast scopes, they become a socio-cultural phenomenon, and entire civilizations are affected. Some beliefs span entire humanity. Some persists for thousands of years. And at the lower end, some beliefs are formed in seconds and disappear in a minute. Whatever is the extent of the belief, all it takes is an experience, a logical conclusion, a correct interpretation and understanding in order to destroy it. Apart from the spatio-temporal spectrum, there is a full spectrum of kinds of beliefs ranging from simple stupid superstitions to complex intelligent delusions. We will try to fit them into broad categories in order to understand them well [4]. But note that a person can suffer from one of these kinds, many of these and a mixture of some. Beliefs have the capability to become far more complex than plain truths.

The following categories will be discussed (broken down into separate articles) :

Finally the difficulties in eradicating beliefs and Resistance to them will be discussed in the last part of the articles on the affliction of beliefs.



[1] Note that by this definition all beliefs are "false", i.e. do not stand the scrutiny of experience or logic. Some people/authors use qualifiers such as "true beliefs" or "false beliefs" etc, but their definitions of belief may be something else in that case. Perhaps by the term belief, they mean any idea, which can be either true or false. But we are going to be precise. Knowledge is "true", belief is not. I guess this is the standard meaning in Philosophy and Sciences. If you are wondering what the sentences like "I believe in myself" or "We must believe to succeed" etc mean in this context, then I need to clarify that they mean nothing, make no sense, they are poetic and nebulous.
[2] If you are wondering that this sentence looks plain wrong, you have not read the past entries. I suggest you please read them first.

[3] Yes, you are right. This blog can also become a source of beliefs. You need not accept the ideas presented here as truth or even possibilities. Burn them in the fire of your experience and see if the survive. Torture them with logical thinking, and see if they divulge their hidden lies. They are anyway based on my experience and may not be true for everyone.

[4] This is going to be a non-exhaustive description. I’m not really an authority on beliefs, and may suffer from some beliefs myself, who knows. I’m going to use the terms – truth, false, facts, right, wrong, good and bad in general sense when describing beliefs. This is just to avoid too much verbosity. If you go a few levels deeper in thought, and as we have already seen, there is no truth, nothing is right/wrong, good or bad.

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