I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe--I believe what I believe is right.--George Bush
"He believes what he believes" Sean Spicer regarding Donald Trump's demonstrably false assertion that between three and five million fraudulent votes were cast against him in the general election in November.
Poor Sean Sean Spicer. I wonder how long he'll last. But the "belief defense" has worked in the past when it comes to justifying outrageous assertions of truth on the Right, so while such attempts are laugh fodder for the media and cosmopolitan blues, it makes perfect sense to the conservative red base. But the problem of belief and truth is a big one for all of us late moderns, because we live in an social imaginary in which it has become acceptable to believe whatever you want. The word 'belief' has developed its own legitimating power.
It’s at the heart of the Romantic impulse as it operates in the popular culture. ‘Believing’ is one of the best things you can do. “You gotta believe” is a commonplace in our sports and pop psychological worlds. We are constantly admonished to believe in ourselves and to believe in one another. And the assumption that lies beneath these admonitions is that our believing it’s so will make it so if we have enough faith. Believing is what gives life meaning and purpose. It doesn't matter really what you believe, just so long as you do it one way or the other.
One of the pillars of the postmodern critique of modern rationality (but really traces back to David Hume) has been that most of what we think we know is really only what we believe. Our truths—even scientific facts like our model for the atom—are just provisional metaphors that have meaning only insofar as they fit into a larger metanarrative which we have assimilated unconsciously or which we have chosen in a kind of leap of faith. Our "truths" are simply models that we construct that help us to navigate in the Real.
Truth is what works and what works works because it aligns with reality. The models are true to the degree that they work. But better models might be developed at some time in the future because either they work better or because we discover things about Reality that don't fit with the existing models. So we live in a meaning world constituted by provisional interpretations not by objective truths, by what works, not by what one recognizes as indisputably true. "That doesn't work for me" is all you have to say to reject someone's assertion of fact. "Facts" are really just provisional interpretations of experience. So on a popular level this translates into a mood or mindset that accepts a pluralism of beliefs, and "anything goes", "different strokes", "whatever floats your boat", etc.
Nihilism and Materialism are as much belief systems as trinitarian monotheism. Different people have different criteria that confer legitimacy on their chosen or acculturated belief systems, but ultimately they are subjective criteria that one "believes" are more valid than others. Most people accept unthinkingly the meaning frameworks that are implicit in the social world to which they belong, even when the values of one contradict the values of another. I'm sure there were at least a few executives at Enron who accepted the implicit or explicit Social Darwinian corporate narrative that directed policy there and then went home to their families where a fundamentalist Christian narrative was dominant. One set of beliefs for work; another set for home and family.
There are no purely rational choices, only choices for narratives that are more or less plausible. The postmodern thinkers recognize this, and while I don't buy into the nihilism that many of them think is the ineluctable consequence of their critique, I find what they are saying interesting nevertheless because their mood of "deconstruction" reflects accurately the spirit of our decomposing age.
Now I don’t want to equate the popular or romantic idea of believing as described above with the deeper and more mysterious phenomenon we recognize as religious faith, but it bears a family relationship to it. The practical benefits of belief have a long heritage from St. Augustine’s De utilitate credendi, to Pascal’s “wager” to the pragmatism of William James, to the prescriptions of our current health care professionals who have noticed that people who have religious practices live happier, healthier lives.
This is just another way of saying that the metanarrative precedes the ethical. What we believe shapes how we live, whether our beliefs are superficial or profound. The narrative we choose opens up certain possibilities and closes off others; it shapes what we can see and what we are blind to. But most important, the narrative we choose points to and defines that which we most deeply long for. Every narrative is shaped in one way or another by hope. If you live with a materialistic narrative, your longing focuses on materialistic goals; if a spiritual narrative, spiritual goals.
Is it possible to say one set of beliefs is better than another? I think it is. Reality is real, whatever our beliefs about it, and the more our belief model aligns with reality, the 'truer' our experience. So belief shapes our experience. The richer our experience, the richer our beliefs, and the reverse is true. The richer and more complex our beliefs, the richer and deeper our experience. Good beliefs create the condition for a richer experience, evermore aligned with deeper levels of the Real; bad beliefs create the conditions for a poorer, more constricted experience of the Real.
Donald Trump's beliefs are so constricting that he cannot even 'believe' photographic evidence that contradicts them. His beliefs--his model of the meaningful real--lead him to live in a very small, poor world, indeed. And it is a world, alas, that is deeply misaligned with the Reality, which is the definition of delusion. It is quite possible for people to live in a delusion for a long time, but sooner or later reality asserts itself. Let's hope that when the Trump delusion comes crashing down the collateral damage can be minimized.