Unbelievable – why we believe and why we don't

I’ve this review of Graham Ward’s Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don’t in the March issue of Third Way magazine.

The Peterhouse Ghost made an appearance in 1997. The fellows of the oldest Cambridge college were at High Table. Dinner was disturbed by a commotion in the Combination Room. The then dean and author of Unbelievable: Why We Believe And Why We Don’t, Graham Ward, discovered two quaking servants amidst hundreds of fragments of broken china, mute with fear at the spectre that had crossed their path.

What intrigued Ward was not the reality of the haunting (it intrigues me), but the wide range of beliefs that were rallied to explain what had happened, as discussion rippled around the college. For some, the idea of ghosts was entirely acceptable and little more clarification was required. For others, ghosts were an entirely unacceptable proposition and academic disciplines from neuroscience to physics were deployed to explain away the incident. Others again, felt that the sighting was indicative of the inadequacy of scientific materialism and of the need for new explanatory paradigms.

Ward uses the story to launch a wide ranging discussion on the nature of belief. He defines it not as propositional statements to which an individual can give assent. Rather, he convincingly shows that belief is more complex, subtle and primitive. It is a preconscious disposition that informs, shapes and possibly determines the way we then interpret and experience the world. “I trust in God” captures the meaning better than “I believe in God”, as commonly meant.

Belief is, therefore, comprised of many dynamics. For example, it’s partly a product of our embodiment. The medical doctor and philosopher Raymond Tallis argues that the evolution of an index or pointing finger was as crucial to the capacity for belief as anything that evolved in the brain. Only with pointing can you conceive of yourself as having agency and being an agent. It creates an instrumental awareness of the body and the world, and so is a prerequisite not just for advanced tool use but also for the concept of “tool”. Some other animals deploy what we call tools, but without the concept they neither experience nor develop tools in nearly such a rich way. A crow can use a stick but it won’t decorate one, let alone sell it as an expensive walking stick.

Such developments signal momentous changes in consciousness and in the capacity for belief. Ward takes several fascinating chapters carefully to examine the archeological evidence left by our hominid ancestors to track its emergence. Homo sapiens sapiens is a creature that doesn’t just interact with the world like, say, plants. We don’t just perceive the world as, say, single-celled animals do as they are drawn towards nourishment and withdraw from dangers. Human beings perceive the world as this or that. Moreover, such intentional perception of the world incorporates the immaterial as well as the material – the visible and the invisible – in a fine interlacing of meaning.

Consider the role of the imagination. Coleridge argued that imagination creates a potential space that can be then filled with something actual, be that tangible or intangible. This human capacity is required to do everything from carving figurines to composing symphonies. Belief is also a political issue, in the sense that a community of believers – scientists, artists, philosophers, church-goers – play a crucial role in deciding what is believable. This insights helps unpack the depth of the challenge for theists in circles that are broadly atheistic. Evidence or arguments for the existence of God are not enough because there is the prior issue of whether such cultures are predisposed to believe in theism at all. To put it another way, lives transformed or arts that show transcendence are more likely to open an individual to perceiving the divine because such experiences address the issue at the right level. Reason then comes in to aid discernment.

Contemporary understandings of consciousness are crucial to such believability. Materialist explanations render religious beliefs radically unbelievable by reducing them to neural firings. What is often overlooked is that the same move empties the science of explanatory value too. They also can’t explain why we experience the world as 3D and “out there”, an experience unimaginable to the zombie-like registering of electrochemical exchanges in brain states. The writer Will Self offered a more apt image in a recent interview: “We’re a kind of energy field rather than something that’s imprisoned in a small bone globe.”

Ward develops the argument to show how novels and stories work only because we can know characters and visit places that are totally fictional. Even when fiction evokes or references real places and people, the literature speaks to us because it reveals aspects of experience that would not otherwise be known or seen. Take the sign saying “Platform 9¾” at King’s Cross Station. For Harry Potter fans, it turns the spot into something akin to a sacred place.

A religious attitude towards belief, Ward concludes, develops a stage further what is implicit in all belief, which is to say in all human consciousness. If the latter facilities our perceiving the world as this or that, religious belief moves us beyond to perceive the divine, in whom we live and move and have our being. William James grasped this final movement of belief when he defined it as trust in “an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” It’s what Paul meant by “living by faith”. It’s how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews could described faith not as belief in spite of evidence, as is sometimes said today, but as precisely the opposite: “the evidence of things not seen.”

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