The impermanent belief
Because I am not a trained historian, I have always perceived the recounting of historic events as a feeble attempt to superimpose order on an otherwise chaotic expression of the emergent1 behavior inherent in a complex organism (I consider it quite plausible to perceive the human species to behave as if it were a complex organism).
That is to say that, in retrospect, historical events seem to me to unfold by having the many millions of humans alive at that specific moment in history interacting and making modifications to the behavior of their immediate neighbors; then, these cells of modified behavior in turn modify other cells around them, until we come to the point in time where we take our historical “snapshots”, and where humanity seems to behave as a coherent being – a being whose existence conforms to causality.
But it seems as if this process of emergent behavior is an ongoing thing, which has neither a beginning nor an ending. Literary melodramatic devices of revisionist history editing such as “it all started when…” or “such and such event was the point of no return…” are at best moot, if not misleading.
So, it appears to be a fool’s errand to anchor a belief or system of beliefs on the supposed validity of historical precedent.
It is, then, how I find myself here, at the beginning of the Twenty First Century, considering a peculiar event: for many decades now many of us seem to be losing our ability to match our sense of the numinous2 with the beliefs of old.
We seem to be unable neither to retain the faith passed on to us by our progenitors (which they either discovered through their own sense of the numinous or else received from their ancestors) nor to embrace a new one.
We seem unable to believe anything, or believe in anything3.
Of course, currently many still hold on to the beliefs of previous generations; and, of course, throughout all of history many have had doubts concerning such credence.
But it seems to me, in my limited and distorted personal view, that more and more people are either finding it very difficult to reconcile their perception of the real world with the teachings of their parents’ beliefs or figuring out for themselves that an accurate perception of an all-powerful divinity might be impossible to mere humans. The beliefs of many generations seem to them rather feeble and crumbling, all of the sudden.
And I often wondered why it must be that beliefs, or whole systems of beliefs, should seem so impermanent.
Maybe I am one of the many affected by the aftermath of a rapid succession of paradigm shifts4. Perhaps, I think, people living in the latter half of the Twentieth Century brought about a fundamental change in the perception of reality as a whiplash-like contrary reaction to the Nineteenth Century’s smug determinism and the first half of the Twentieth Century’s bleak realism. Maybe I am one of many who are caught in an emergent cell of behavior.
Regardless, I continue trying to understand.
“Belief” is defined by most dictionaries as the mental acceptance of the validity or truth of any concrete or abstract thing. It is important to notice that only some dictionaries (mostly legal terminology dictionaries) go as far as to include a caveat, indicating that said mental acceptance is contingent upon consideration or confirmation of the facts pertaining to the specific thing5.
But it is also important to remember that, as far as it concerns any human language, any one word is only a sound made to elicit a mental picture in the listener. Aristotle’s views of the perfect forms apply here directly: the word-sound is not the thing itself6. The real thing will forever be out of reach and only imperfectly described by mere word-sounds. Therefore, I find myself using a word-sound that can only elicit an approximate evocation of an undefined and vague concept. By forcing this word-sound to bear such responsibility, I fool myself in accepting said word-sound as if it had a reality of its own, a reality as valid as my own flesh. However, I could place any burden I wanted on this word-sound because it is only an abstraction. Its hint of any real or imaginary counterpart in the Universe depends solely on the acceptance of the one who utters it and the one who hears it.
Still, in the end, it is nothing but a sound.
So, as far as I can tell, from the moment of its inception, the word-sound we humans decided should evoke our mental acceptance of a thing was doomed to be impermanent.
But can I really blame the inaccuracies of history, the inability of my generation to accept past dogmas, or the vagaries of our languages for the impermanent nature of a belief? Or should I blame myself for not opening my heart to receive the beliefs of my fathers (as I was taught when I was a child) as if they were “a priori”?
Clearly, somewhere someone, somehow, is at fault for this…
However, the real challenge is this: once a person’s belief is identified as impermanent by him, should he not strive to find a more durable one?
Notes for further reading:
1 Emergence - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence
2 Numinous - http://www.answers.com/numinous&r=67
3 Nihilism - http://www.iep.utm.edu/n/nihilism.htm
4 Paradigm shift - http://www.taketheleap.com/define.html
5 Belief - http://ajburger.homestead.com/ethics.html
6 Aristotle - http://www.newgenevacenter.org/biography/aristotle2.htm