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A Close Look at Reflex Belief

What is reflex belief? The best way to define it is by example:

If I believe in the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest, it is likely that I will also believe that holding this belief gives me an edge in the struggle to survive.

Here the objective of belief, the issue on which it focusses, is: the process of survival in nature and, by extension, in human society. The belief I hold about survival is one thing, but what I believe about holding that belief is something else again. My core belief and the thoughts by which I reconcile myself to that belief tend to blur in my mind, yet they represent distinct functions of believing.

Social Darwinism the belief that survival necessitates tooth-and-nail competition and sexual selection is the reward for the fittest competitors is a core belief. Once I adopt this belief, I immediately form another belief reflexive to it. This derivative or reflex belief concerns how I feel and think about holding the core belief. In this example, if I believe in theoretical content of Social Darwinism, it is likely that I will also believe that holding Darwinian views gives me an advantage in the social world.

The Glossing Effect

In themselves core beliefs are merely propostions of one kind of another religious precepts, scientific theories, cultural statements. The content of a core belief can be regarded as neutral, and theoretically objective, but the importance attached to holding core beliefs is anything but objective. The value of holding a belief is dually determined by my inner personal needs and social imperatives. These factors combine in the reflex belief that tells me how I am served by the belief I hold. At the same time, the reflex belief acts like a reflecting gloss that blinds me to the actual content of the core belief. Various statements present the content of what is believed, but reflexive to them is the importance attached to holding beliefs, or the attitude in which they are held.

The above example in the format of science reveals how there is a gloss of value on specific beliefs, like a coat of varnish on a painting. Another example of the glossing effect of reflex belief can be seen in the format of spirituality.

If I believe that God observes all human actions, I am also likely to believe that holding this belief will help me act in a good and moral way.

The specific belief I adopt and my belief regarding the adoption of it are separate, but they tend to coactivate and reinforce each other. The belief that God observes all things can stand by itself: it is a neutral proposition, take it or leave it. By contrast, the belief that holding this belief will make me a better person is purely subjective. The reflex reveals how I regard the belief as serving my need, specifically, my need to be a better person, to act in a responsible manner toward others. In and of itself the belief that God sees all does not guarantee the effect of Gods observation in human behavior, but the reflex belief adds this component.

When the reflex is analyzed it becomes clear that the core belief may be adopted because of the reflex belief applied to it, rather than because the core belief is held to be true in and of itself. The gloss of reflex makes the belief attractive that is, tells us how it serves or suits us personally but at the same time it blinds us from reading the core belief in its naked propositional form. The power of reflex belief cannot be understated.

Whether or not it is true that God observes all we do, and whether or not the holder of this belief is really convinced of its veracity, the belief that adopting this belief will enable him or her act in a more conscientious manner is dominant. In many cases, reflex belief determines the behavioral dynamic more effectively than the specific content of what is believed. The three mainstream (Abrahamic) religions comprise many beliefs, dogmas, theological propositions, precepts, rules, some of which are disputed by different denominations. Adherents of these religions all believe that holding these beliefs (whatever they are) will make them better people. The power of reflex belief overrides the specific convictions that may be adopted by the believer. E.g.: Even if I do not understand the doctrine of the Trinity, I will be strongly directed by my belief that holding that belief is important to my spiritual life.

Finally an example from the third format, culture.

If I believe that consuming goods and services is a sovereign right in a free society, then I will also regard holding this belief as advantageous to me.

In this example, the primary and reflexive aspects of the belief blur into each other, yet they can be separated. The belief that consuming is a sovereign right in a free society can drive behavior, but in itself it is a neutral statement. It says nothing about how the act of consuming affects either the consumer or the society in which consumption is viewed as a sovereign right. The reflex belief that I hold toward this belief does not drive behavior but it reconciles me to the behavior so produced. It may even justify the behavior. If I believe, for instance, that I am a helpful and contributing member of society when I act on the belief that consuming is a sovereign right in a free society, then all acts of consumption driven by the primary form of the belief will be glossed obfuscated -- by my socially acceptable, self-affirming attitude toward that belief.

In short, reflex belief is the key component in our construction of egoic defences such as self-justification and pretence.

There are obvious syntactical difficulties untangling how reflex belief formulates itself relative to primary belief, but the exercise is well worth the care it demands. An analysis of ones reflex beliefs reveals one all too human motives and ones general disposition to believe. What we add to a belief by way of the value wee assign to holding it says a lot about us and our reasons for believing as we do. Thus he key to a reflex belief is to understand how it serves the believer, no matter the truth or effect of the core belief.

The Supreme Instance

We invariably develop reflex beliefs about the specific core beliefs we adopt and enact, but why? Why it is so crucially important to believe things about what we believe? What is gained by holding reflex beliefs that would be lacking without them? Answers to these questions has already been partially developed, but there is more, and it is both startling and strange. Why? Because reflex belief conceals the basic mechanism of human self-deception. Analysis of this mechanism is impossible, however, unless we recognize the supreme instance of reflex belief , the one that stands behind all specific and particular instances of it.

It is no mystery that there is such a supreme instance, a universal reflex belief, attached to all beliefs. In fact, we all know what it is, and we exercise it all the time without giving it a thought. The supreme instance of reflex belief goes unremarked because it seems too obvious to mention. It looks silly even to broach the issue. At the first approach the delusional construct can be stated like this:

I believe that what I believe is true in itself.

In itself indicates that the truth embodied in the beliefs we hold is regarded as universal, able to stand on its own. Although a belief is a highly subjective construct, we suppose the beliefs we hold have a truth value (veracity) that exceeds the merely subjective. If we were to think, I only view this belief as true because I choose to believe it, we would undermine the immense social power of believing. Here is a trenchant paradox: as long as we do not choose our beliefs based on a direct personal determination of their truth, they carry enormous social power. This being so, we cannot afford to admit that we do not choose what to believe. The dominant paradox of human belief-systems is that believers insist they have chosen to believe what in fact has been chosen for them, imposed on them, inculcated and enforced by authorities.

For example, Islam is a creed embraced by millions but rarely chosen by anyone, yet Muslims cling to their beliefs as if they were intentionally determined. To admit that they have not chosen what they believe would immediately undermine their faith. To avoid being trapped in this dilemma, they accept what is chosen for them as if they had chosen it for themselves. Paradoxically, imposed beliefs must be regarded as chosen so that the immense power of externally determined belief can be effective down into the inner life of the individual. In metahistory this is called the dilemma of acquired belief.

Because we do not consider if we have actually chosen the beliefs we hold, reflex belief is pervasive. Rather than looking directly at our core beliefs and asking ourselves pertinent questions about their truth value, we assume a secondary belief about what it means to hold them. We assign a glossing reflex belief toward every particular core belief we choose to adopt. Variations of the operative syntax might be:

I believe that what I believe is univerally true.
I believe that what I believe is true on the whole.
I believe that what I believe is true for everyone.

These qualifications are assumed and assigned to the core beliefs we hold, and this is done so unconsciously and so universally that no one takes notice of how it occurs. The syntax stating for everyone is a bit too strong to be openly admitted. Yet upon honest self-examination we might admit that our core beliefs, more often than not, are assumed to be true for others as well. Some people admit this point openly, frankly insisting that their beliefs apply to everyone and ought to be so imposed on everyone. Other people are more discrete, more reticent to admit that they believe their core beliefs apply to everyone.

It is exceptional to hear someone say that their beliefs are valid for themselves alone, and, consequently, that they neither expect nor demand anyone else adopt them. Even when someone alleges this stance, it is usually done for effect. If someone says, Well, I believe it, and I dont care if anyone else does or not, the assertion is likely specious. Examination the belief in question will usually reveal it is embraced by many people, so it is disingenuous to claim to indifference about others stance.

It is extremely difficult for any human being to admit that the truth in what he or she believes is not universal in itself. If I believe that God watches what humans do, I must regard this belief as true for everyone. If I believe the earth is hollow, I must regard this belief as true for everyone who inhabits the planet. If I believe that capital punishment is immoral, I will hold to this proposition universally, across the board. If I believe that material consumption is harmful, I must suppose that this belief embodies a truth that applies equally to everyone in society, not just to myself alone.

Decisive Syntax

The analysis of reflex belief can be tricky, yet once we identify the assumptions assigned to our core beliefs it becomes more or less obvious how reflex belief gets installed. So far the analysis is one crucial step from showing how self-deception operates in a unique way, concealing itself in all variations of belief. Consider now a meticulous display of syntax:

We believe the beliefs we hold are true, but do we also believe we come to hold them because they are true?

The phrase is constructed in two parts: the supreme instance of reflex belief ("We believe the beliefs we hold are true") is restated, followed by a question. The immediate response to the question would seem to be yes. But note carefully the syntax of the question, here converted into assertive form: We believe we hold our beliefs because they are true. This is not the same as saying, We believe that the beliefs we hold are true. In effect, the latter phrase, almost too banal and obvious to be stated, conceals the former. Since we never see the former phrase naked and exposed, we are not inclined to challenge it.

The predictable answer to the hidden proposition regarding beliefs is Yes, we hold our beliefs because they are true. But is this answer correct? Are we safe in assuming we hold beliefs because they are true? That would imply that we go through a preliminary process to assess a belief and determine if it is true or not. The facts of experience show that this is far from the case. We acquire beliefs under compelling conditions and due to urgent reasons, but this often happens without a process of assessment in which we independently arrive at the truth value of the belief before we adopt it. In most areas of life we are obliged to learn from experience and adjust our notionns and interpretations to fit the facts, but belief is impervious to these standards. It admits no reality-checks. The power of belief consists in the way it defies experience. Even when a belief is contradicted by experience, it can persits as reversed belief.

It is possible to look at how we acquired a belief and strip the conditions and reasons that compelled us to do so. In metacritique this is called de-reasoning a belief: i.e., de-rooting it from the specific causes of its adoption. The dereasoning process reveals that believing has little to do with our perception of what is true, or even with our basic need to know the truth. To insist that the things we believe are precious to us because of the truth they embody may be a consummate act of self-deception.

Expedience and Esteem

Metacritique reveals the universal assumption hidden behind the syntax of reflex belief: namely, we believe that the beliefs we hold are true in their own right and thus universal. In its banal form this proposition is hardly worth stating, as already noted. It belabors the obvious. Moreover, it is not a proposition that can be or has to be questioned.

But once we look behind it, this assumption is strangely altered. It discloses another assumption: we have adopted our beliefs because we find them to be true and universal. We genuinely believe that we do adopt them for this reason. This is precisely where are most likely to be deceiving ourselves. It is a hard blow to realize that the truth contained in a belief may not be what compels us to adopt it. It can be, but not necessarily so.

Deception about beliefs is rooted in the assumption that we adopt beliefs because we find truth in them. Analysis of the banal and buried syntax of reflex belief exposes this assumption, detaches us from it and frees us to question it openly. It can be extremely liberating to dissociate belief from truth in this way. Having done so, we are no longer unconsciously biassed by the supreme instance. We do not assume that beliefs are powerful and appealing because they convey truth to those those who adopt them. This is a sobering proposal, to say the least.

Consider the belief in Islam that Allah is great. It is certain that the 1.1 billion Muslims who embrace this belief unanimously hold the reflex belief that it expresses a truth that stands by itself and applies universally, even for those who do not accept it. Allah is great may be true or not true, but what if it is not adopted as a belief by Muslims because it is true? What if it is adopted as true because it suits and serves the believers to regard it so?

Metacritique avoids adversarial posturing as far as possible. I do not claim either that Allah is great is true or untrue. What I do claim is that whether this statement is true or not has precious little to do with its being adopted by more than billion people around the world. We all tell ourselves that we adopt beliefs because they are true, but the reality of the situation is likely otherwise. We adopt beliefs to serve us in various ways but rarely to satisfy our need to embrace the truth. Unfortunately, what we believe is intimately tied up with our identity, even with our dignity as human beings. We assume that our innate need to know the truth is met by the beliefs we adopt. The assertion that our cherished beliefs have little or nothing to do with a genuine quest for truth is a terrific blow to our dignity.

Metahistorical inquiry poses the ultimate challenge to belief: to determine if our need to believe really serves our need to know the truth, or merely serves itself.

The compassionate way to view belief is to dissociate it from veracity.

The functional value of holding beliefs is not veracity but social expedience and esteem. It suits us and serves us to believe certain things, regardless of their veracity. The function of belief is almost entirely to serve the believer, not to serve the cause of truth or satisfy the deep human need to know truth.

Beliefs of all kinds, especially religious and metaphysical beliefs, satisfy two main specifications: they are expedient to our lives externally (for instance, they confer social identity and solidarity) and they engender self-esteem internally. Any belief that meets these specifications will be adopted and passionately defended regardless of its veracity, its inherent value as truth. The need to believe is a socially consolidating factor that serves many other needs in the human psyche and throughout society. The need to believe is not equatable with the need to know truth. In many instances the need to believe can overwhelm and even totally negate the need for truth.

Failure of Belief

If the foregoing metacritique is correct there are crucial questions to ask that will allow us to discover what makes people believe as they do in specific instance:

What inner need of the believer is served by this belief?
How is this belief expedient in the believers external life?
How specifically does a belief confer identity? Solidarity?
Under what conditions of stress or obligation was a belief acquired?

These questions illustrate the technique of de-reasoning belief, unrooting it from the conditions and reasons that determined how and why it was acquired. (Note: The term deconstructing may be preferred to dereasoning, but the notion of deconstruction comes with a load of baggage that dereasoning lacks, awkward as the term may sound.) By dereasoning a belief we strip it back to its veracity, its autonomous truth value, if any.

Once a belief is adopted as true, a rationale always develops around it. The believer attempts to explain, justify and defend the belief. Often the rationale around a belief is a zone of extreme tension. Probing the rationale may produce violent reactions in the believer. Hence, to examine and deconstruct the rationale is called defusing belief. This practice is carefully distinguished from dereasoning, which concerns the analysis of the reasons leading to the adoption of a belief, rather than the reasons attached to it once it has been adopted (the rationale). Time and time again metacritique shows that the compulsion to believe has precious little to do with holding true and veracious principles.

Veracity, the awareness of a truth that one authentically discovers by a process of searching and evaluating, is not the norm of belief. Expedience and esteem are. Social control rather than spirituality is the overridding factor in the adoption and imposition of religious beliefs. The complex subject of belief is immensely clarified once it is clear that beliefs are not generically determined by commitment to veracity.

The advantage of detecting a reflex belief is enormous because the factor of expedience or esteem supplied by a core belief is more usually located in the reflex than in the primary belief associated with it. If I embrace the belief of social Darwinism, I may do so because I am served by the reflex belief attached to those views, i.e., by how I feel and how I appear when I adopt such views, rather than by their actual content. The analysis of what makes people believe what they believe can often be completed by disclosing the reflex beliefs involved, without even discussing the actual content of the core beliefs!

It seems that we live in a time, not when people believe less, but when they know less and less about what they believe. Polls and surveys show this to be the case for many traditional Christians around the world, and even for the priests and clergyman who are responsible for maintaining and explaining the content of beliefs. The headline of an article in the London Telegraph declares: Modern Clergy lack knowledge of Christianity. The article reports that an alarming number of clergymen in the Church of England display a clear deficit of theological knowledge and skills, despite several years in theological college. Apparently men of the cloth responsible for sustaining the beliefs of the congregation are largely incapable of explaining what they, the preceptors and guardians of Christian doctrine, believe.

According to a report commissioned by the Archbishops Council, many curates demonstate poor levels of historical perspective in relation to Church traditions, worship and doctrines, and lack confidence about how to reflect theologically on their role in administering the essential doctrines of Christianity. The article suggests a troubling question: What if curates and clergymen do not need to know what they believe? Given the power of reflex belief, it suffices that they believe in the importance of believing certain things, even if they are not entirely clear on the details. For example, it is not necessary for a curate to understand or explain the doctrine of the Incarnation, but it is sufficient to endorse the reflex belief that embracing this doctrine is desirable and advantageous to all Christians. Thus, I believe in the Incarnation so that I can benefit from whatever comes from believing it in it, regardless if I have any comprehension of what the belief really entails.

What does the failure of belief (that is, the failure to understand what one believes) indicate? Perhaps it means that reflex beliefs are all people need to participate in a belief-system. If the specifics of that system are no longer relevant or resonant, the reflex beliefs keep the faith. A reflex belief is a gloss on the specific content of a belief. What happens when the content dries up and dissolves, leaving only the gloss? Imagine a heavily varnished painting whose original canvas and pigment have rotted away. We see the original image of the painting captured in the gloss, the thick coat of varnish, yet beneath there is longer a canvas covered with colors and forms. Looking closely we see through the transparent medium of the varnish and realize there is nothing behind it.



Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.