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Phantom Belief

It is often said that belief is a powerful incentive to human action. Believing that we can do something renders us more able to do it, more confident and inspired. In this sense William James called “the will to believe” a potent factor in human motivation. Doing so, he did not endorse the content of particular beliefs, which he fully recognized could be fantastic or delusional, but he acknowledged the motive power inherent to the act of believing.

Belief is indeed a potent force, yet belief in itself creates nothing in our lives. Rather, it determines how we perceive and understand all that we create, or can create. Belief is accessory to motivation but its effect is not entirely reinforcing. In fact, belief can blind motivation as effectively as it can boost it. Belief places a filter on our perception of the world and how we act in the world, a filter that may impede our ability to act more than enhance it. This blinding or crippling effect is best seen in the operations of what may be called phantom belief.

Missing Limbs

The syndrome of phantom limb is well known. This is a limb such as an arm or leg that someone no longer possesses, yet which still seems to be there, attached to the body, and continues to cause pain. After an accident or battle, those who lose limbs continue to move and act as if the missing limb exists. Reaching to grasp a pen with a hand no longer there, the amputee is quickly obliged to make a correction. Adaptation to the absence of the limb as a mechanical appendage comes by necessity, but does not come easily. Even with this adaptation, physical and emotional feelings associated with the missing limb persist.

Like phantom limbs, phantom beliefs can be mistaken for living appendages that allow us to act in the world. They can seem to be vitally functional, and cause malingering pain. A living belief is grounded in direct subjective experience, rather than in suppositions or expectations, and produces sane, life-affirming action in the individual or group embracing it. Metahistory proposes that beliefs drive behavior and thus can be assessed by the behavior they produce. A phantom belief is bound to produce pathological behavior, because such a belief, like an amputated limb, has been severed from its source in direct personal experience.

Phantom beliefs are anything but inert in their operations. Indeed, their effects in driving human behavior can be treacherous, life-negating. The definition of phantom belief implies an original experience from which the belief has been severed. Take, for example, the belief that God commanded humanity to dominate the earth, as stated in the Old Testament, or widely inferred from things stated there. This belief has driven human behavior for well over 2000 years. How do we determine if this is now a phantom belief?

One way is to compare the experience that originally produced this belief with the behavior it now produces. The original experience behind the belief in human supremacy over nature was agriculture. Genesis 2:15 says, “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” With the application of agricultural skills and the resulting socioeconomic organization, certain groups of people in the Middle East, whose collective imagination produced the Bible, came to believe they were superior to nature. This belief was source-specific, correctly reflecting their experience, such as it was. Over many centuries this belief came to be adopted on a global scale. (Some would say it was imposed rather than adopted – it depends on who is telling the story.)

Today we who inherit this belief must ask, not is it true or false, but does it permit us to live, does it support sane and functional behavior in our relations with the natural world?

In a generous view, we may assume that all beliefs were originally founded upon valid experience of some kind or other. (This assumption may not be universally true, but it provides a provisional basis for assessment.) Those in the Fertile Crescent who profited from social organization based on large-scale agriculture were the priestly and commercial classes, whose interests were allied. These people may well have viewed themselves as masters of nature, and in a limited sense, in that particular time and place, they were.

One of the most powerful conditioning factors in agriculture is the social control it allows, coupled with a pretense of managing natural forces (mainly via the calender). Out of this culture-nature coupling came a kind of hubris, pride in achievement and belief in what can be achieved. Even though the belief in human supremacy over nature arose in a particular time and place, and was only valid in respect to limited conditions, the empowerment derived from that belief surpassed its experiential basis.

Empowerment through Belief

As a general rule, this applies to all beliefs. Both high advantage and profound risk are inherent to the act of believing. Irrespective of the content, the empowerment that comes from believing something is immense. This explains how beliefs that outlive their specific experiential basis can still be maintained and vigorously enacted.

Today, belief in human supremacy over nature acts like a phantom limb. Although we cannot actually do anything sustainable with this belief, we make the gestures corresponding to it, and the physical and emotional associations attached to it continue to cause pain, discomfort, grief, disorientation. The situation is made worse by the fact that we no longer have an experience of nature intimate enough for us to tell whether we are controlling it or not. The phantom belief about our supremacy acts like the delusional complex of a schizophrenic who, convinced of controlling someone else, is not contradicted by experience because there is no real relation to the controlled person, by which the delusion could be tested. The pathology specific to phantom belief involves a comparable alienation from relatedness, or from the very sources of life itself.

The concept of phantom belief helps explain a daunting paradox of contemporary life: how religious beliefs assume ever more power in the world, even though faith is on the decline.

Consider, for instance, the immense resurgence of Christian fundamentalism in the USA since the Reagan Era, now matched against the intensified ardor of Islam. These developments might be taken to indicate that faith in on the rise, strengthening by intensity and by numbers, but metahistorical analysis suggests that people can be most desperately driven by beliefs when they no longer hold credence in them on experiential grounds. The treacherous face of “the will to believe” only becomes fully evident when its phantom effects are considered. Living belief does not require proof, because it is source-specific, grounded in personal reality, self-evident and self-affirming. But phantom belief borrows power from the genuine case of experiential belief, and falsifies that power.

Faith in Decline

Belief that can neither be proved nor disproved, because it has been totally amputated from direct experience, tends to assume a superhuman allure, an effect that leads away from human potential and may even deviate the sense of humanity of the believers. With phantom effects operating, it becomes more important to fulfill the belief held than to test and evaluate its worth for human survival. Religion may well be on the decline, faith may be waning, the actual numbers of experiential believers declining, but the potency of religious beliefs will become stronger then ever as phantom effects drive humanity to the verge of self-annihilation.

As noted above, belief works through a dual dynamic of volitional and perceptual components. Belief can boost or blind the force of will, and simultaneously act as a perceptual filter on what can be accomplished by human volition. Phantom belief adopts both components and insidiously combines them. It annuls the will power of the individual and then distorts the individual’s perception of how his or her actions are proceeding from a crippled will, a damaged autonomy. In this way phantom belief produces mass behavioral responses that rely on “the mechanism of unanimity” as Rene Girard calls it.

Because phantom belief lacks experiential basis in individual experience, those exposed to it must deny their own experience in order to enact it, yet this act of self-abnegation can be taken for transcendence, a release from selfhood and the responsibilities it carries, including the primary responsibility to judge and decide for oneself.

Phantom beliefs often masquerade as demands for submission to a higher will, but authentic belief allows for the discovery of how human will might be actually, experimentally aligned to divine or superhuman purposes.

Authentic belief proceeds by stages and remains open to change, to grow and constantly redefine itself. Phantom belief is totally static, thus lending itself to doctrinal and creedal formulations, the dead letter of the law opposed to the living language of spirit. To understand how belief can drive human behavior even when it has been amputated from direct experience, it is helpful to recall the distinction set out by R. D. Laing in The Politics of Experience:

We can see other people’s behavior, but not their experience. Nevertheless, the other person’s behavior is an experience of mine, and my behavior is an experience of the other.

This being so, we can evaluate the behavior of others, as we do our own, to see if it is guided by beliefs based on experience, or if it is blind action remote-controlled by phantom belief. Self-critical discernment regarding the operations of belief may be crucial for the physical survival of the human species. It certainly is for our moral survival in a global society increasingly driven by extremist beliefs.

jll April 2004


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.