People and beliefs

Our experience is one of frequently changing desires, meanings and beliefs. That’s hardly surprising given that we are flesh and blood creatures in a constantly changing environment. If we didn’t change constantly, we wouldn’t be able to adapt to new circumstances. Even at one given time, it seems likely that there are many alternative processes unconsciously within us that are responding to different conditions, with different drives and different implicit beliefs. Whether or not there is any kind of underlying unity or essence in that multiplicity is impossible to tell, but the important point to bear in mind is that just in terms of experience, we are multiple. (See self and ego page for more on this).

When metaphysical beliefs are criticised from the standpoint of the Middle Way, then, it is important to remember that such beliefs are not you, or indeed any other person. They are just one of many beliefs within you. You may identify with such beliefs at a particular time, but the chances are that there are some other times when you do not. This is especially hard to recall in connection with metaphysical beliefs, because metaphysical beliefs tend to work on the assumption that they can completely take over an individual or group of people and have their total commitment.  Holding that belief at all will make it harder to recognise that the belief is just one amongst many.

That is what is often so contradictory and self-destructive about “faith” (whether it is religious faith or faith in some other metaphysical claim such as those of Marxism, scientism or atheism): to remain committed to the metaphysical belief you have to constantly idealise its power over you and repress anything that opposes it. When you do this, the opposing beliefs will just pop up again later and need repressing again, each time requiring more and more energy to keep them in check.

Nevertheless, if someone maintains such metaphysical beliefs, their influence should not be exaggerated. Even the most devout believer in fact maintains many other practical beliefs alongside their religious ones. Your belief that the grocery store will sell you a loaf of bread, or your belief that if you sit on a chair it will bear your weight, depend on experience, not on metaphysics.

The same can be said even for ethical beliefs. Your belief that you should look out for your elderly neighbour is based primarily on a recognition in experience of that neighbour being a person and being likely to suffer if neglected. A decision to actually go and visit her on a specific occasion is not deduced each time from a metaphysical belief in God’s commands, or even from utilitarian rules of maximising happiness, but rather from an identification with her sufficient to move you to action. Identifications and beliefs that move us to moral action are largely a matter of habit, and can be gradually worked on and improved, but they are independent of metaphysical claims.  Metaphysical claims in any case, being absolute, could not imply any one specific thing rather than another.  They are irrelevant to our experience except as a source of loyalty to groups that identify with them. Theists are charitable not because of, but in spite of, their belief that they should follow God’s commands, and Utilitarians act ethically in spite of being Utilitarians.Mixed-forest Oliver Herold

If we think of our set of beliefs then, they might be said to resemble an acre of trees in a forest (a metaphor used by George Vaillant). If you go through and count them all, you might find so many oaks, so many ash, so many cedar etc. The preponderance of a particular type of tree keeps changing as old trees die or are chopped down, and new ones grow up. But the claim that one kind of tree predominates is always a bit of a rough estimate. A metaphysical belief would be one that tried to grow up faster and overshadow all the others, but the fact that such a tree exists in the forest, even in substantial numbers, does not make it a metaphysical forest.

So there is always hope for anyone, however dominated they may be by metaphysical beliefs. There will always still be lots of other beliefs within them that are not metaphysical. To get around the metaphysical beliefs, all they need to do is return to their experience, and keep returning to that experience when metaphysical beliefs obtrude. This is why the practice of meditation is such a helpful prime practice in overcoming metaphysics, as it constantly disciplines us to return to wider experience and thus helps us to see the forest rather than just the trees.


Also see related post exploring this issue in relation to St Francis: Franciscan saintliness.


Picture: Mixed forest by Oliver Herrold (Wikimedia Commons)

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