What is True Belief?

Former Whitby councillor Simon Parkes claims that his real mother was an insectoid alien, that alien advisers run the world though the Illuminati… Simon, and people with seemingly delusional belief systems, are to many intents and purposes quite sane. They can feed and cloth themselves, drive cars without crashing because they take a turn in the 4th dimension, they can hold reasonably intelligent conversations. Ex-councillor Parkes has 3 children, whose rearing I am confident is at least adequate, and he has been employed as a natural history lecturer, and was an elected Labour politician. One truly crosses the line dividing the crazy from the sane, not when one believes that one’s real mother was an alien, but when one a) claims that one can throw oneself off a 50 story building but not fall to the earth because one possesses the alien ability to fly inherited from one’s alien mother and then one b) proceeds to throw oneself off a 50 story building…

The craziness of one’s beliefs, is proportional to the extent to which they contradict the way the real world works, to which they contradict what we call “the laws of nature”. Oh you could easily claim to hold beliefs that contradict the laws of nature, but it is when you act on them that you’re genuinely crazy. It isn’t even clear that one so much as holds a belief unless a) it can be put to some kind of real world test and b) one actually puts that belief to that real world test. I think I believe in South Africa, and I haven’t put that belief to a real-world test, but my belief in South Africa is a member of a class of beliefs (beliefs about geography) that I have tested. Beliefs about insectoid aliens and the Illuminati belong to a class of beliefs (bizarre conspiracy theories) that haven’t been put to any credible test. The proof of a belief in a pudding is in some sense in the eating of that pudding.

In the Sci-Fi TV show Dr Who there is a creature called a “Weeping Angel” which always looks like a stone statue when it is being observed. When it is not being observed it moves, and with nefarious intent… And there is a group of creatures called “The Silence” which are forgotten when an observer not directly observing them, and the shows protagonists make marks on their bodies so that they know they have just seen a “Silent”. Both Weeping Angels and Silents are obviously difficult to identify, but both have a real world influence that can be tested for. Imagine instead a creature -call it a ‘Non-Entity’- that exists only when it is not being observed, and leaves no observable sign of itself. There is no difference between the existence and the non-existence of Non-Entities, and a belief in Non-Entities is a non-belief in my terms. At the other end of the belief-spectrum are entities such as birds and trees, which can be readily observed and leave numerous observable traces of their existence, and all beliefs concern things that are more or less observable, and whose footprint in the world of experience is more or less observable. The trouble with certain beliefs -beliefs in insectoid aliens perhaps- is that they are too close to Non-Entities in this scheme of things: they are as dwellers in an unobservable dimension extremely hard to identify, and unlike the Higg’s Boson or sub-atomic particles generally, there is nothing going on in the observable dimension that is best explained as a trace of their existence. The stories of those who claim to have seen them are -like Simon Parkes’ story- too easily explained in other ways, e.g. as lies or delusions.

This is why many people with seemingly delusional belief systems are not really delusional. The thing they say they believe often can’t be tested in the real world, and if it can be tested they avoid putting it to that test. That is, they don’t, deep-down, believe what they say. Belief has to be tied to pragmatism, to what works and doesn’t work physically -not merely psychologically- speaking. If no such tie exists, then there is no such belief. Beliefs lose and gain reality according to the strength of their tie to real experience. Simon Parkes claims to believe his mother was an alien, but what if I were to challenge him to undertake a DNA test and reveal his non-human side to all the world? I suspect he would either say that such a test is too unsophisticated to detect alien DNA, that alien DNA mimics human DNA in some undetectable fashion… or he would refuse to take it. It is typical of a masquerading non-belief that it can’t or won’t be tested in the real world. An ideal belief is one that can be tested in the real world, is tested, and behaves as it was supposed to. What’s the real world you ask? It’s the one where you die when you jump from a 50 story building without a parachute.

The ancient Israelites always set a lot of store by “signs and wonders” when it came to those amongst them making claims to represent or speak for God. No one minds a messiah who can turn water into wine and walk on water let alone a messiah who raises himself from the dead, and no one minds a prophet whose prophecies come true. But the ancient Israelites were intolerant of failure. If you claimed to speak for God, and your claim was contradicted by the real world, then look out. And so it should be. The trouble with Simon Parkes, David Icke, and other conspiracy theorists and new age gurus is, not that they have bizarre ideas – it is that they’re long on goobledegook and platitudes and short on practical applications. One of things I most admire about Isaac Newton and his very theory of gravity is that, despite the theories limitations, it very accurately describes the motions of the planets and the phenomena it was devised to explain. That kind of pragmatism is what any self-respecting member of an alien race with a mastery of time and space should be able to deliver. If you can’t deliver some advanced technology, then like an ancient Israelite in search of signs and wonders, I call your alien credentials into serious question. It’s all about the physics: anyone can devise fancy-sounding metaphysics, but an authentic alien could explain the workable physics. The physics is the proof that the metaphysics is more than hot air.

Similarly -and much more importantly- with religious belief. The reality of belief lies, not in words, but in actions. It isn’t that seemingly good actions necessarily prove that one holds a belief (although throwing oneself off a building is strong evidence that either one wants to die or that one believes one can fly), for one might easily faking; rather, it is that if the belief exists then the actions will testify to it. This what Yeshua means when he says

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 

External piety that doesn’t reflect any internal spirit -this is to say- will only take you so far, because an evil heart cannot produce goodness. This impotence of evil can no more be hidden from view than the powerlessness of the thorn bush to produce grapes can be hidden from view.