The Foundation of Belief

In our western culture, many of us were raised in Abrahamic faiths like Christianity. But most of the teachers we meet had not experienced what they preached. They asked us to believe without evidence. Have faith. As readers of this blog know, I talk about letting go and surrender. This is indeed a form of faith, but it is much deeper than a conceptual belief. It is a willingness to let go of those notions of reality so we can step through the door into the next stage. I also strongly favour understanding what the process is and relating it to our experience. Then it is faith founded in experience.

And that point is the key here. Knowledge comes from Experience, Not from Belief. But belief is a powerful filter of experience. If we lean on conceptual belief alone, we will only go as far as the story can take us. But with correct understanding, we can step into deeper layers of reality and gain experiential verification.

What has replaced religion for many has been science, a belief system of its own. While it is largely based on evidence (experience), it has a tendency to hold a physical focus and reject anything non-physical. This means it can’t address the big questions of life. In fact it tends to reduce life itself to an accidental byproduct, contrary to physical laws. This approach also lacks a moral compass and tends to give us a rather jaded perspective on life; survival of the fittest, every man for himself, and all that.

The magic is found when we can bring the 2 world-views together. Science can help us  understand who we are and how best we might live, beyond dogma. But science has to step out of its physical box to do that. Religion needs to go back to its roots and revive systematic means of direct experience. Then we can explore subjectivity objectively.

This is a more important idea than people realize. Often, when you have a discussion on metaphysical or spiritual topics, people will assume you’re arguing from a conceptual platform and will counter with their opinions & beliefs. They’ll even argue a position that is not their experience. Many forget the difference between an idea and an experience. But are concepts without experience any greater than dogmatic belief? More importantly, does growth happen through experience or belief?

It’s quite natural for the mind to develop stories about the world. It helps us understand and relate to it. The trouble is when our beliefs are based on false assumptions or are divorced from the reality of our life. Then our life is much more difficult. With direct experience of the nature of life, our stories become aligned with reality. And life becomes so much better.

The foundation of belief is experience. If you want to know something, find a way to experience it. Anything else is just a fantasy.

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7 Responses to The Foundation of Belief

  1. Trin Turner says:

    I’m hoping that you wouldn’t mind posting a few responses to questions I have concerning the post. First, you say:
    “What has replaced religion for many has been science, a belief system of its own. While it is largely based on evidence (experience), it has a tendency to hold a physical focus and reject anything non-physical.”
    Now, there are many ways of reading the above and not all of them are equivalent. For instance, it sounds to me like you are suggesting that science and religion are competing epistemologies (theories of knowledge) with distinct standards of justification for the acceptance of items (e.g., beliefs) into our understanding of the world. Is this correct? I should also note that I find your distinction between knowledge-coming-from-experience and knowledge-coming-from-belief to be somewhat unclear. In philosophy, it is common to define a belief as propositional content about some experience (i.e., sentences that describe that experience in linguistic terms), so this distinction doesn’t seem to get at what you’re suggesting, which seems to be something like (and let me know if I’m putting words into your mouth) “knowledge coming from beliefs are unjustified on the grounds that they cannot be experienced.”

    In any case, you tend to downplay the relation between science and evidential criteria in your above quote. It’s not that science “is largely based on evidence” but something much stronger. In my opinion, science is almost wholly defined in terms of its commitment to rigorous standards of empirical evidence. Now, once that is taken into context, it is easy to see why science MUST reject anything non-physical, if by “non-physical” you mean a phenomenon that is not (1) an item of possible experience by any number of individuals in distinct domains, times, and worldviews, that is (2) describable in terms of our current best physical science (biology, chemistry, physics, neuroscience, etc). In, sum, beliefs in science are only accepted on grounds that they have been empirically evaluated in an open and public manner (new beliefs presented in academic journals etc). Religious beliefs are not held to this standard of justification. In fact, there are at least two ways the standards are different. First, science only accepts “empirical” beliefs (like I described by 1 and 2 above) whereas religion allows for a much larger range of beliefs across many different metaphysical-types of entities. Second, if the belief is deemed properly empirical, then that belief still MUST pass the tests of intersubjectivity, where the beliefs are evaluated in an open and public manner. Religious beliefs typically do not require such public scrutiny.

    And, finally (sorry about the length) what are these “big questions” to which you refer and argue that science cannot address? I will grant you fully the position that scientific questions cannot pass beyond the singularity of the previous Big Bang since one of the primary tools of scientific investigation are the set of physical and biological constants (sometimes called laws) that have been non-zero only since the first instant after that singularity. But when we can no longer use scientific means of investigation, then we no longer have access to the rigorous means of justifying beliefs that is the hallmark of science since its beginning. Thus, we need another means of assessing and justifying beliefs, unless you’re willing to accept them willy-nilly. So here’s the $10 million question: what are the standards of belief acceptance outside of the scientific domain that would cover these “big questions” and, more importantly, how can we assess those standards in terms of their adequacy (their ability to keep out false beliefs and keep in true ones)?

    The point is, of course, that I can freely ask any old question I want, but if there are no antecedent standards in place to assess my answer(s) to that question, then how do I know whether that answer is in fact the right one? So, maybe it’s not that science cannot answer those questions…maybe it’s that science has shown us the limits of our question-seeking ability by delineating the boundaries of what we can be justified in asserting about the universe.

  2. Trin Turner says:

    This distinction between belief versus experience is just not making sense. A belief is, like I said earlier, a proposition ABOUT some experience. An experience is a cognitive state. Having a belief and thinking about a belief IS an experience about a cognitive state. Everything having to do with consciousness is an experience. Dreams are experiences, seeing is an experience, believing or not believing is an experience. I think you really need to think about what content you’re trying to express here because one simply cannot have a belief without an experience precisely because beliefs are the application of a truth-claim about some experience. Like I suggested in my comment, I think what you’re really after is the distinction between beliefs that possess justification versus beliefs that don’t.

    Your third paragraph also seems confused. For example, you simply assume that consciousness is non-physical and then fault neuro and cognitive scientists for their lack of objectivity when they develop a materialist research program that sees consciousness as a side-effect of brain activity. But this was precisely my point about the empirical nature of science in my previous post. When something as nebulous as consciousness is studied, it must be based on purely physical systems–we must have data and evidence. If consciousness is then unable to be properly located, the correct inference to make is NOT that the scientists are biased but that there very well not be this folk concept of consciousness in reality. Consciousness may merely be a byproduct of thinking thoughts in the first person.

    The fourth paragraph presents a very narrow view of evolutionary biology, one that is very far from what any biologist would describe (myself included). No one holds that evolution is a random process, that is pure silliness. Natural selection is a highly ordered and rigid mechanism which takes as input random genetic mutation as ONE of the many mechanisms for maintaining variation in the population.

    Sixth paragraph: you say that you have this experience of physical reality as only the surface reality and that there is another one at a deeper level. What is your justification for this? This is just not a well-defined phenomenon and so I have no idea what you mean.

    Seventh paragraph: you use string theory as evidence that science studies what’s non-physical. There are two problems here. First, the fundamental unit of the theory are “strings” which are fundamental units of measurable electricity; hence, in principle, they are physical and measurable. Second, many physicists are currently debating about the actual status of string theory and whether it constitutes as actual science or whether it is just abstract mathematics. Focus instead on quantum theory and you will see the commitment to physical entities all the way up and all the way down. And the comment about “validity” seems off. Western systems of logic define validity in a formal manner and some multi-ordered logics can assess the strength of any logical system with another one, but there is not some sense in which validity can mean something in Eastern systems of logic that Western systems cannot accommodate and which can then be compared. If the two systems have different formal definitions of logical validity, then they simply cannot be compared. And insofar as “subjective reality” is concerned, ALL western logics can accommodate; a belief is a proposition with a truth value, having a belief is a subjective experience; all systems of logic deal in propositions…so all systems deal with subjective reality.

    I’ll stop here and I hope you don’t find my comments in any way hostile. But your interpretation of science is misleading and I offer my criticisms in the hopes that they are taken to be constructive. While I am sympathetic to the systematic exploration of all possible experiences, I think that when you simply declare that you have an experience of a reality that goes beyond our shared reality and then take that position to scientific research with the hopes of validating your position, you’re no longer doing science but apologetics. The proper scientific attitude is to initiate exploration into the nature of experience and let the evidence decide your position.

  3. Share L says:

    Maharishi said once that knowledge and experience are interdependent. Experience gives rise to knowledge, yes. But knowledge can also give rise to experience.

    PS By knowledge I mean something very different from belief.

  4. Davidya says:

    Hi Trin
    Thanks for the questions. First, I apologize if this wasn’t clear. I hacked the article down substantially to make it a more reasonable length but some of the ideas may not be sufficiently explored. I have touched on some of this elsewhere.

    The main point was that beliefs based on experience have a foundation, whereas beliefs without any experience are groundless. If we fail to recognize the difference, it can get us into trouble. Modern religion has become full of such through the usual historical loss of experiential method. The history of faith is full of this. Science such as physics has begun drifting into some of this as well, building a bit of a house of cards. But that’s another subject.

    Science as an objective means of gaining knowledge is a very powerful tool. That’s why I come back to it in the article. However, in practice, it is often driven by dogma. For example, the subject is often ignored in the search for objectivity, skewing the results. This is most visible in research around non-physical things. For example, because scientists typically hold a materialist worldview, research into consciousness and sense of self is all founded on the idea that consciousness is essentially a side effect of a sufficiently complex system (brain function).

    I fully agree that brain physiology has a profound effect on our experience of the world. I recently studied brain physiology in grad school. But the model doesn’t hold up when we explore various other states of consciousness, yogic experiences, and so forth. It also makes for a very dark view that we are the result of our genetic material (no longer agreed) and a random series of flukes. I can cite the 2nd law of thermodynamics. For a system to “evolve” and develop increased order and intelligence, it has to have a constant input of order. Random mutation does not meet that standard. (and no, I’m not a Creationist)

    Many of the scientists i know view religion as a competing worldview and have some very curious ideas about it. Sunday school may have contributed but there are also any number of people willing to believe some odd things.

    I should observe that my experience of the world and resulting world-view perceives the material world as the surface of realty and not the sole reality. This is not just a philosophical position. (although certainly any experience drives conceptual models) On this site, I describe how our experience of reality evolves through stages of spiritual development. This is not well understood in the west and I have been working to integrate eastern models with behavioral science developmental models and map the underlying process and variations in which it is experienced.

    I quite disagree that science cannot explore the non-physical. It just needs systematic means to do so to gain repeatable results. One only has to look at the frontiers of physics to ask what is physical about a superstring? It also helps to have decent models to experiment from. This is why I was suggesting some of the worlds oldest traditions as they have thousands of years of such research. Much of it is couched in a historical cultural context though, so it has to be drawn out.

    Some religions were originally held to empirical standards. The first of the 6 systems of Indian philosophy is Nyaya, a study of logic that surpasses western criteria for evaluating validity. It also handles the logic of subjective reality.

    The big questions are simple things like who am I? Why am I here? Even from what does the big bang originate? And actually, it is possible to experience beyond the singularity because we are what it originates from.

    Bring science to the table and we can explore these ourselves via direct experience. The limits of science are not in the methodology, they are in the models of the world they’re basing research on.

    I’m not sure if that adequately answers your questions. These are very big subjects, difficult to explore in a comment box or blog post. But taking a look can be a very useful exercise.

  5. Davidya says:

    Hi Share
    Yes, agreed. The point of the article was more that belief requires experience as a foundation. But yes, knowledge can also lead to experience. i touched on that in the opening paragraph but this is more succinct.

  6. Davidya says:

    Hi Trin
    My original point was that some people have beliefs not founded in direct experience. They may relate the beliefs to their experiences and indeed, a belief can be seen as a cognitive state and thus an experience. But here, I’m trying to differentiate between a direct experience and a conceptual framework. The example that comes to mind is the story that Jesus was born of a virgin birth. I’m not suggesting it didn’t happen but many people believe it happened without any evidence.

    So yes, beliefs with a foundation in experience vs those without. Hence the title of the post.

    I’ll disagree that everything about consciousness is an experience. In pure samadhi, one can be aware without content. This value is beyond the thinking mind.

    I also disagree that we can’t study non-physical things. We simply need systematic ways of doing it for repeatable results. I also disagree that consciousness is nebulous. It is only nebulous because it’s not understood. We didn’t understand electricity well when it was first discovered. This is why it’s important to bring some better models to the table and test them.

    Yes, I understand the model of consciousness as an effect of thinking or brain function. But I think it’s incorrect and ignores other factors. For example, in a Self-realized person, they experience awake consciousness throughout all states of consciousness. They are awake within even in deep sleep. (when the mind is asleep) The EEG shows Alpha mixed into the Delta signal. They also do not experience consciousness as having a “location” but rather as non-local.

    My attempt here was to use general examples rather than get into an expanding debate about points from physics, biology, etc. We can certainly go into it but I’m not sure that would be useful.

    It’s not that I experience 2 layers to reality. There’s about 7 of which the physical world is the surface. You’re asking me to justify how I experience the world? Can you justify the taste of a strawberry? This comes back to the 5th paragraph of my original post. That was also the point I raised earlier, that we lack decent working models in science to cover this. But just because we don’t have a concept for it, doesn’t mean it’s not real.

    The reason I mention the old texts is because I’ve found them a useful source of descriptions of others who have had the same experiences. Bring that understanding under the umbrella of working models in science and a lot of the nebulous aspects go away.

    Nyaya includes all of our western model of logic and adds to it. It’s directly comparable.

    I can assure you, I am not doing research to validate my position but rather to better support others who are having these experiences. For example, a colleague recently completed their PhD research on Self realization. However, they were obliged to frame it in terms of “no self” even though most of the subjects did not experience it that way. I can offer a number of such examples.

    I apologize if I’m not able to satisfactorily answer your objections. But I don’t believe the main points are that unclear. My worldview may not match yours but then I’m sure many others also have their own unique take.

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