1 Jul 2009

I Believe

There’s an intriguing story told about that eye-catching insect, the bumblebee. In summertime it is frequent to see its plump form buzzing around gardens or other natural areas in search of nectar and pollen to feed its young. You have probably spotted one flying around tipsily, pollinating flowers and gathering food. They are difficult to miss because of their insistent buzz and striking yellow and black stripes. However, you might be surprised to learn that, according to the laws of aeronautics, bumblebees can’t fly! Restated in another way: the laws of aeronautics still cannot explain how bumblebees fly. In other words this aeronautical model is not altogether wrong, but certainly defective.

Our beliefs are just like this model for flying, they are constructions of how the world works, built up through our daily experience. There is no problem with that unless we succumb to the temptation to believe that our model really explains how the world works. The aeronautical equivalent would be expectations of lots of bumblebees toppling out of the sky.

Beliefs as Generalisations

In his book “Changing Belief Systems”, Robert Dilts defines beliefs as generalisations. According to Dilts they are generalisations about the connection between different experiences. For example one day in the middle of one of your boss’s tantrums you happen to notice that he is wearing red socks. You think it a little unusual and record it in your memory bank. However, the next time the boss goes off the deep end he happens to be wearing the same red socks. This double sequence of events, seeing the boss in a bad mood and seeing his red socks only has to happen to most of us three times and we’ll start believing that there is a causal relationship between the two events. From then on we’ll begin to expect the boss to start bellowing if we notice he has his red socks on because we have generalised the relationship between the two experiences into a reality when in fact it is a coincidence. The important point is that it is we ourselves who forge the connection between the two experiences. It is a mental construct. That is the nature of belief - we construct it in our minds.

The positive angle, of course, is that we can also learn to deconstruct, or change our beliefs. I believe that this is window of opportunity. If we can reconstruct our beliefs to make our lives more fulfilling and happier then we should grasp the chance. Why not learn to laugh at the boss and his red socks instead of seeing them as an ominous sign? Why not ignore them and avoid provoking a confrontation because we believe one should take place?

The Placebo effect

Another striking example of the power of belief to alter our lives is the placebo effect. Dilts looked into the research on placebos done in the USA where every new drug has to be tested against a placebo. He concluded that more than a third of the time placebos had the same effect as the drug being tested. This means that in over thirty-three percent of cases belief in the placebos effected a cure equivalent to the available chemical stimulant. This may not be so surprising if we reflect that vaccination works by eliciting the body’s own defence system and that, possibly, belief has the same immunological effect. However we explain it, the placebo effect remains a powerful example of the capacity of our beliefs to transform our lives. In education, for example, we can turn the placebo effect to our advantage simply by expecting students to learn well. Those who swallow the pill of our expectations will learn more than the subject matter; they will learn the benefits of constructing positive beliefs. Unfortunately our beliefs are often self-limiting and we don’t actually expect as much as we should. As Nelson Mandela put it,

"... our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

A model for beliefs

In his book Dilts goes further and offers a framework which enables us to explore the way in which we construct beliefs. The model of organisation he proposes distinguishes 5 different levels : Identity – Beliefs – Capabilities – Behaviour - Environment. For example if a child is having problems learning maths, a parent might talk about the problem from any one of the 5 viewpoints:

Identity: “You are a poor student.”

Beliefs: “Maths is only one area of problem solving.”

Capabilities: “You’ll have to develop better maths strategies.”

Behaviour: “You don’t put effort into concentrating so you can’t calculate correctly.”

Environment: “You don’t do your maths well because you can’t concentrate on your maths homework and the TV at the same time.”

The impact on the student of an isolated analysis will range widely depending on the level chosen, from Identity : “I am not intelligent.” to Environmental : “I can’t do maths because of the surrounding noise.”. Dilts invites us to view beliefs not as an isolated occurrence but as one level of the system. It is important to note that the higher levels of Identity and Belief have a knock-on effect and that working at these levels is probably more efficient. The function of beliefs, for example, is to activate capabilities and behaviours. The student above is encouraged to improve his maths strategies and make an effort by the belief that in this way she will be better able to solve other problems. In the same way enhancing a learner’s Environment, through supportive feedback, will also underpin their chances of believing long enough in themselves to allow change to take place, despite temporary failures. Belief is a construct and can be analysed as part of a system. It affects and is influenced by the other levels of the system. It is not to be confused with reality.

Belief and Faith

I believe that there is a difference between belief and faith. It is a difference in quality. Both terms suppose a leap in the dark, but faith is a belief which matters deeply, because it makes the world more sensible to the believer. Belief goes something like this:

- Do you believe that Australia exists?

- Oh, yes, I saw it on a TV documentary the other night.

- Did you believe the documentary? (Back to square one.)

Faith, however, goes more like this:

- Do you believe we were created by God?

- Well, no, I’m an atheist.

- Oh, how does that help you to make sense of life?

In other words, faith deals with the unanswered questions which seem to haunt humans. We appear to be doomed, probably by the structure of our brain, to seek to understand the whole meaning of things, including our own existence. This innate impulse towards holistic comprehension of life has lead humans to depths of despair and also to peaks of beauty. This is surely what Art in all its forms is seeking : to give more meaningfulness to life, be it in the form of a symphony, a classic play, a good book or a great painting? This is also what religious faiths are striving to offer us: the ultimate meaning of existence. Sin, after all, is just the name for the contradictory human experience of needing wholeness yet being unable to attain it. The Existentialist philosophers made a brave attempt to live on a horizontal plane with no reference to anything outside mankind. Yet Camus was haunted by what he called “le soup├žon d’autre chose”, the suspicion that there is more to living than what we can quite explain. Sartre himself also admitted that there was no explanation which could account for the suffering of an innocent child. They had come up against ‘sin’, which doesn’t admit philosophy with ease.

We are makers-of-sense and we cannot but help look for patterns in what we experience around us. Christianity, for example, follows the Jewish tradition and sees in the two Genesis creation stories the expression of how life can be given meaning, the affirmation that creation exists for a purpose, not just by accident. The rest of the biblical story is an attempt to analyse and convey the meaningfulness of living. The ancient Greeks, the Maya and the Celts also created a meaning for their world through myth, as all cultures have, because they needed a holistic explanation of how their world was.

Many contemporaries prefer the modern myths of science to those of religion. It is curious to reflect that Science doesn’t claim to give a whole explanation to life but we have such a thirst for complete explanations that we attribute it that capacity. This conjures up that fun picture of bumblebees falling out of the sky.