TANGENT: BELIEF AND EVIDENCE
Most of the meaning that informs experience is, as we have seen, made up of tacit knowledge; that is, knowledge that operates below the level of awareness. Knowledge only becomes belief when knowledge takes a relatively abstract conceptual or imaginal form and the truth value of the knowledge somehow comes into question. In other words, belief requires some awareness of propositional knowledge and some practical or affectively loaded evaluation of the knowledge to be made. To quote Ward Goodenough in his 1990 American Anthropologist paper entitled "Evolution of the Human Capacity for Beliefs:" Beliefs are propositions about the relations among things to which those who believe have made some kind of commitment. Commitment may be for pragmatic or emotional reasons. A proposition's credibility may appear obvious from experience, or a proposition may seem to be the most prudent assumption on which to act. In either case, the commitment has a pragmatic basis. Emotional commitment to a proposition occurs when a person wants or feels a need for it to be true because of what its truth implies about things that matter.
To give a rather trite example, I am ordinarily unaware of my presumption that this flight of stairs is safe to tread. I do not "believe" it is safe, because the safety of the stairs has never come into question. But if for some reason I begin to perceive the stairs as flimsy, precipitous, worn-out, or damaged, then whether I trust the stairs has to do with my belief or disbelief in their soundness. I think about the stairs, or I imagine myself falling through, and I feel anxiety and I wonder how real are these thoughts or fantasies. My beliefs about the stairs are formed as the question of their safety is relevated into awareness, to use David Bohm's excellent term for the lifting into consciousness of some previously unconscious material.
Let me offer another, less trite example of the relationship between belief and experience. An anthropologist, Bruce Grindal, has reported a profound experience which occurred to him while attending a Sisala funeral in Ghana in 1967. He reported this in a 1983 article entitled "Into the Heart of Sisala Experience: Witnessing Death Divination" (Journal of Anthropological Research 39 (1): 60-80). After undergoing several days of arduous stress and privation unrelated to the ceremony -- privation involving fasting, loss of sleep, physical ordeal, and the like -- Grindal attended the funeral of an elder, and during the festivities entered a state of consciousness in which he perceived the corpse come alive, dance and play drums, as well as radiant energy being emitted from the corpse and other people attending the rite. According to him, he might have written off the experience as the weird dream of a very tired ethnographer were it not for a singular fact. Sisala elders indicated that this experience was routine for them at funerals, and moreover that they were aware from watching him that Grindal, unlike other Westerners, had also had this experience. It took Grindal over a decade to come to terms with, make sense of and write about that experience. A major problem he appears to have faced was having no belief structure to give meaning to the experience. I will return to this example in a moment.
Belief, on this account, refers to a model or set of models of the operational environment that have taken conceptual or imaginal form and are consciously held to be true ( disbelief , of course, refers to the opposite). Belief usually refers to knowledge mediated at the cortical level of neurocognitive association and at the (for most people most of the time) higher levels of abstraction from experience. We become affectively attached to a belief, either because it works well within our frame of reference, or because our frame of reference requires its truth. There is an identification between the cognized self and the belief: " I know that corpses don't get up and dance at their funerals." In fact, the ego may become thoroughly entrained as a system of beliefs and disbeliefs. This is one way of understanding any member of a society as a "culture- bearer" insofar as the process of forming beliefs is produced by enculturation.
When society acts to culturally condition the cognized environment of its children, it will generally do so by controlling the environment within which development of intentionality occurs, by controlling which objects within the environment are attended, and by controlling the cognitions (i.e., values, knowledge, imagination, etc.), affects, and responses that become habitually associated within the fields of meaning associated with those objects. Individuals thus come to perceive and conceive of the world and themselves from a cultural point of view. Taken collectively, these more or less conscious points of view make up the system of beliefs, the cosmology, or the worldview characteristic of any social group.
Everybody, including anthropologists and other scientists, develops a system of such beliefs as a member of society. These beliefs, if held strongly enough, become the foundation of our system of conscious knowledge about the world and ourselves. Beliefs are experienced as the habitual knowing of the self or the world from a fixed point of view ; e.g., I know there was a holocaust, I know there are multiple personalities, I know there are such things as psi experiences, UFO's, leprechauns, etc. For example, we may assume that according to Bruce Grindal's pre-fieldwork cognized environment, corpses do not get up and play the drums at their own funerals. He might well have once said he knew corpses don't walk. Now he is not so sure. Most of us know there occurred an event we call the holocaust, while according to the holocaust disbelievers, millions of Jews did not die in death camps during the World War II. Some psychotherapists know that the theory of multiple personality syndrome is true, others know that it is false. Some people know there is the phenomenon of clairvoyance, others know there is not.
Evidence and Belief
As we have seen, the human brain, and its cognized environment are conservative systems. The brain regulates the adaptation of the organism by stabilizing the organism's models of the operational environment and routinizing its responses to events in the world. Moreover, behavior functions not just to effect changes in the operational environment, but also to control perception so that the world that arises in the sensorium is the world anticipated (or "desired") by the organism. In other words, behavior functions within a feedforward loop such that every match between what is anticipated by the models and what arises in the sensorium reinforces the view of the operational environment produced by the cognized environment.
This conservatism and feedforward mechanism does not magically cease at the level of belief. Even though there is at least a modicum of awareness involved in belief, nonetheless actions (i.e., movements, manipulations, communications, responses, perceptual scanning, technological interventions, etc.) taken in the operational environment as a consequence of a belief operate as tests of the truth value of that belief.
But there is no such thing as "pure" data upon which to base a test of belief. As both Karl Popper and F.S.C. Northrup have pointed out, evidence cannot prove a belief or a theory to be absolutely true, for any piece of evidence may be explained by more than one belief. But evidence can go a long way in dis proving (or falsifying) a belief. Evidence of the truth or untruth of belief is always an interpretive process, especially within the everyday lifeworld of people. Belief leads to affirmative or exploratory action in the world, and the action produces phenomenal feedback which is interpreted in terms of the belief that gave rise to the action in the first place. Experience is meaningful precisely because of the intentional projection of knowledge upon sensory events. Experience only becomes evidence when it is recalled (a cognitively selective process in itself) and interpreted relative to the belief being tested. In a very real sense, we see what we want to see, and we want to see because of what we have seen. Thus belief, action, and experience interpreted as evidence participate as phases in a cycle of meaning (remember this from Day Six?) in which beliefs result in experiences that cognitively operate to verify (confirm) and vivify (bring to life), or disconfirm and either transform or annul beliefs.
Bruce Grindal's experience at the Sisala funeral apparently disconfirmed his belief system in a profound way. In a real sense he became very much "in mourning for his theories" (quote from Clive Barker's novel, Weaveworld ). His transpersonal experience proved very threatening to his cognized environment which, to use Jean Piaget's terms, could neither readily assimilate the experience into his models, nor easily accommodate the structure of his models to this new experience of the world. There was a profound mismatch between Grindal's system of beliefs and the evidence of his own direct experience. And it is well to always remember that such conflict is between two neural networks within the same nervous system .
To take another example, I can think of no event in history better documented than the holocaust. Yet there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who believe that the holocaust never happened, that it is perhaps an illusion perpetrated by an international Zionist conspiracy intent upon world domination. I know of no study indicating that these holocaust nay-sayers are psychotic, and based upon the few I have personally known, I doubt the efficacy of psychopathology as an explanation. Experiences such as seeing films or still photos, hearing the testimony of survivors, reading books and historical documents, visiting the sites of death camps, or hearing family recollections are interpreted by most of us as evidence of the truth of the holocaust. Most of us were not there to see the atrocities with our own eyes, but yet we know the holocaust happened. These very same experiences are interpreted by the holocaust nay-sayers as evidence that there exists an intricate world-wide Zionist conspiracy. Both are interpretive treatments of vicarious experience in such a way as the experience confirms the respective belief system.
The Conservatism of Belief Systems
Beliefs can be quite outlandish, and even humorous from our point of view. For instance, some !Kung Bushmen once believed that the vapor trails left by high flying jets were actually long rolls of toilet paper with writing on them shot by whites out of huge guns to send messages to each other from one side of the desert to the other. But such beliefs are normally transformed easily through an encounter with anomalous experiences or through communication of anomalous, but vicarious experience. That is, they readily change relative to the zone of uncertainty produced when anomaly arises. I suspect that the difference between most holocaust believers and the cohort of nay-sayers lies in the relative permeability of the belief structure to anomalous evidence. Nay-sayers probably have egos wedded to emotionally charged, rigid belief structures that over-assimilate information with such tenacity that no conceivable experience or documentation would ever be interpreted as anomalous evidence. By contrast, the Bushmen holding the toilet paper theory of vapor trails have but to hear anomalous information and a better explanation from a white anthropologist to change their belief. They presumably have little ego-stake in the truth of one explanation over the other.
As we have seen in the Bruce Grindal and holocaust cases, intentionality devoted to constructing beliefs also produces constraints upon the range of experiences we will "allow in" as evidence. This touches on an old and venerable question in anthropology and revolves around understanding the relationship between linguistically conditioned cognitive categories and perception. This view is often called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, named for Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir who were at the center of the controversy. The hypothesis states that the language a society speaks influences the way its members think about things. Some theorists have argued more strongly that the language actually determines how members perceive things.
I would expand this view somewhat to say that not only the system of belief, but the entire structure of meaning has a limiting effect upon experience.Barriers to anomalous evidence are very common in culture, and are quite lawful in their operation. Because the cycle of meaning is fundamentally conservative, and serves in the effort for meaning , rather than the effort for truth , anomalous experiences are either not allowed to arise, or if they arise are usually either interpreted in such a way as to confirm the belief, or are held in memory without being assimilated into the belief structure until a pattern of anomaly is cognized over time.
Exclusion of anomalous experiences from consciousness may occur as a consequence of several factors:
There are commonly social factors influencing the relationship between belief and evidence. It may well be the socially-oriented affect associated with the belief that constitutes the barrier to transformation, and not the belief itself. After all, we humans are not rational automatons that automatically transform knowledge in response to a constant flow of anomalous information about the world. Rather, we are highly social animals whose rational faculties are but a part of a vast system of information processing and adaptation. And much of the knowledge we believe to be true and with which we identify as culturally conditioned egos is uncritically learned during childhood. The society has a great stake in controlling the perceptions and the beliefs of its members, and will tend to rationalize the truth value of its belief systems only when belief and anticipated experience become significantly disharmonious or dissonant. It is useful to remember that the dissonance between the intentional structures mediating belief and the sensorial structures mediating perception are experienced as a mismatch between two subsystems operating in the individual brain .
We have reached the end of our discussion of belief and evidence. You may wish to return to our Day Six session on the cycle of meaning, or back to the tutorial index where you can note down where you left off for future reference.