It has often seemed a hidden truth that people can choose their beliefs much more freely than they think. Beliefs seem or feel concrete, but in reality they are quite arbitrary and liable to change based on time or circumstance.
For example, imagine a person born several hundred years ago but otherwise identical to you. This person likely believed slavery was fine and that there was a literal God in the sky deciding their fate. Go back another two thousand years – a millisecond in cosmic or evolutionary time – and this person believes the earth is flat.
The acceptability of slavery, the literal existence of God and the flatness of the earth are fundamental ethical and metaphysical beliefs. They are foreign to us today, yet our biology is indistinguishable from those who held them. Only the circumstances are different – external factors are responsible for many of our closely held beliefs.
Most people believe they are (or have) a self, which is about as deep a belief as you can get. Yet it too can change. There are few limitations on how differently we might one day perceive reality, and no doubt we will due to the rapid pace of change. Who’s to say you can’t take control of this process and choose the beliefs yourself?
Next consider the importance of narrative. Humans create narrative out of subjective experience – it’s what we do. Sensory phenomena arise and pass away within our field of awareness, and to make sense of it we make stories. A narrative will be formed around essentially every salient experience you have (and most of the mundane ones too) and there’s very little you can do about it.
The formation of narrative is inseparable from experience, and it is made possible by belief. Subjective phenomena do not have meaning in and of themselves in any coherent sense – we must make meaning out of them. Thus narratives are based on sets of beliefs about the meaning of people, objects, or events.
The third piece of this puzzle is ambiguity. There are certain things we can know for sure – let’s call these empirical facts. But unless you are conducting scientific experiments, empirical facts probably only play a small role in informing the narrative applied to your experience. In most cases, many facts are either unknown or cannot be known. This is especially true when the narrative is about complex phenomena like causality in human behaviour or social and historical developments. In cases like these, the facts alone are not enough to form a complete narrative, and there is a lot of interpretive ambiguity.
The narrative we form about the structure of reality itself involves significant interpretive ambiguity. To illustrate, consider that any of the following possibilities could be true.
Each of us could be a character in an elaborate game being played by beings in an alternate dimension. One of these beings inhabits each us and controls our thoughts and actions, and experiences our experience just like we do, except we have no idea because that’s part of the game.
Or consider that you could be the only human on earth who is truly conscious. Everyone else might be a dream, or a figment of your imagination. Well, how do you know that others have the same kind of subjectivity you do? This is a genuine philosophical problem and there’s no real way to tell.
Or imagine that planet earth could be the set of a giant intergalactic reality show, and we’re all being watched at all times by audiences of thousands of aliens on distant planets. This is also possible – we just don’t know.
These examples, true or not, illustrate how much wiggle room there is in the interpretation of subjective experience. The degree of ambiguity is compounded by the fact that most narratives are either retrospective or prospective – they are applied to the past or future. The past is interpretation of (often unreliable) memory, and the future is literally your imagination. Their meaning is highly ambiguous.
Bringing this all together: beliefs are more malleable than we think, and you can probably change them for yourself. Furthermore, the relevant beliefs that underlie your narrative for an experience are most often not informed by empirical facts. In these cases, there is a lot of interpretive ambiguity.
So when you find yourself in ambiguous situations, which as we’ve seen is rather often, it makes sense to choose beliefs that are beneficial to yourself and others, even if they are not necessarily empirically true.