I've been going through a bit of a low phase lately. While in this phase, I believe things like:
- I'm actually a failure.
- I've made bad decisions in my life.
- I will never be as successful as my friends are.
If you sit with me and question me on any of these beliefs, I will have little basis to support them. They are just not true, but I have trouble seeing that because my brain isn't firing the right chemicals right now.
This is outside the domain of Philosophy, where the key challenge is to help us arrive at true beliefs. What happens when we believe things that are just false, and how do we get back on track?
Organized belief systems take the challenge of belief very seriously. Prayer and rituals are baked into every religion on Earth. We might hold something to be true, but believing it consistently might still be a daily battle.
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'Kneel, join your hands, and you will believe'
This is a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal, a mathematician and Christian theologian. Kneeling and praying, Pascal suggests, might be far more effective in turning an atheist towards God than arguing with them for hours.
Pascal talks about how our automation (the default set of beliefs we fall into) needs to be tamed through customs:
For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated? Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter... it is custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc.
What Pascal understood, I think, is that there's a naivete in tackling problems of the mind directly. What's often needed is to switch the battleground entirely.
When I feel low, I first spend hours trying to find the ways out of the riddles my brain formulates. At some point, though, I'll get the bright idea to get moving: I'll go ride my bicycle or spend a good few minutes trimming my beard, and that'll help my mood more than any amount of thinking could have.
What are some ways in which you 'persuade your mind without its thinking about the matter', as Pascal said?
The Challenge of Living Truthfully
My life is enriched by the pursuit of meaning, not material pleasure. I know this, and yet I'm finding it difficult to live by. I'm afraid of spending my life responding to fears that are based on beliefs I don't even hold (money = success). Even so, it's such a mammoth task to stay focused and not fall into self-doubt.
I'm afraid of spending my life responding to fears that are based on beliefs I don't even hold.
Pascal was one of the greatest mathematicians to have lived, and yet he was humbled before his own mind, recognizing that belief requires far more than logic. 'Kneel, join your hands, and you will believe.' That's really something, isn't it?
📖 What I'm reading this week
This is a great piece of non-fiction writing about what it takes to be a door-to-door salesman. I've always been curious about how people do it - I'd be so extremely awkward. How would I ever cope with a whole day of ringing bells and getting 'please leave me alone' vibes? And yet, people do. “It’s constant rejection, but if you push through that, you can do anything.”