On Belief and Reality
Two quotes came to me, from wildly different sources, within a fortnight of one another. The first occurred a few weeks back, when I went to the Boston show of the An Absolutely Remarkable Thing tour. Much to my chagrin, I can’t remember which Vlogbrother said this, but I wrote down in my notebook that either John or Hank, I can’t remember which, said something along the lines of
“our reality shapes our beliefs, and our beliefs shape our reality.”
A little under two weeks later, I was in office hours with a professor when we started to talk about faith and religion. I’ve never been particularly religious, but lately I’ve found myself on a spiritual journey of sorts. I’ve talked about it a little bit on here, but the basic sum of it is that I find myself drifting and questioning my reality and spirituality more and more as the days go by. I decided to talk to my professor about it because I greatly respect his opinion, and because he’s great at getting me to think about things in a way that is authentic to myself and never tries to push any kind of agenda, which many people do when discussing religion.
I told him that I have been trying to meditate more often, but tend to find myself frustrated and overwhelmed, which is the opposite of what meditation is supposed to do for people. His advice was to find something that caused me to be contemplative, and suggested that I read that thing as a meditative exercise. As a start, he lent me his copy of Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, translated by Brooks Haxton. Once his office hours were over I still had an hour before my next class so I found myself a bench and started reading. Almost immediately I came across Fragment 5, which is the second quote that strongly resonated with me.
Many fail to grasp what they have seen,
And cannot judge what they have learned,
Although they tell themselves they know.
Twenty-five hundred years separate these two quotes, but as I considered them together a spark appeared in my mind.
I like to believe that I am capable of considering the world rationally and objectively, and that I then model my subjective behavior on what I know to be true. And yet, there are plenty of times when I misstep or misspeak or misunderstand, and all the while I am acting and reacting based upon my beliefs, and thus considering and shaping the reality around myself. My self is shaped by my subjective experience just like everyone else in this world, and I tell myself that what I know is true, but everything that I know is what I believe, and that belief is in the reality that I know. So if I do not grasp and understand my reality, then I cannot learn from it. Without that learned knowledge, I am lacking something that I do not know that I lack, and thus think that I know reality while in fact I do not know that I do not know. I still believe without that knowledge, but because I do not have that knowledge, my reality is limited by my belief. While I can tell myself that I know, that knowledge is dependent on what I believe and understand about my experiences, which are contingent on my beliefs about reality.
Upon coming to this conclusion about belief and reality I sent the unedited fustercluck to my fiancée who distilled my rambling into the idea that there is a dialectical relationship between internal belief/cognition and external reality — they mutually shape one another, and it is impossible to fully separate them. Our beliefs ideally reflect the external world, but they also structure and limit our perception of it, and shape our action and thus the influence we have on the external world.
This all led up to my attendance of an hour and a half long lecture about Mesopotamian Witchcraft, during which my professor made yet another connecting point to the philosophical thought process of the day, which was his admittance that for all that he knows that many of his ideas and opinions are outdated and that many would disagree with his perspective, he has little desire to and does not change the way that he thinks about things. The example that he used in this particular case was that even though there have been numerous advances in psychology since Freud, and there are many cases in which counter arguments have been made toward his theories, the professor still believes in many of the theories from Freud because they make sense in his world view, or rather, the way that he perceives reality.
The professor went on to discuss the idea of publishing academic articles with which one disagrees. This particular professor often assigns readings that he disagrees with, because it is his belief that a really good article written by a really good scholar deserves to be published, whether he agrees with it or not, because people have the right to read and decide for themselves what they believe.
At this point I feel like I must be reinventing a slough of wheels, but what I am trying to get at is that for me, belief in my reality is something that I have oft taken for granted and it was only by engaging in this contemplative and comparative practice that I was able to come to some key conclusions about myself and my place. While I know that I cannot know everything, I find it orienting and in a way comforting to know that in a way, even though it can feel as though my reality is falling apart around me, my beliefs shape that reality in such a way that eventually I will be able to make sense of it all. By observing my reality I can shape my knowledge into something usable, something meaningful, and something that allows me to reflect my beliefs into the world in a way that is positive. I know that may sound a little idealistic, but in a world where it feels like my reality is falling apart at any moment, it’s what I hold on to.