Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/October 1897/The Psychology of Belief

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IN considering the psychology of belief we find ourselves face to face at the very outset with the questions: (1) What is the nature of belief? (3) What are the conditions under which it arises? and (3) What are the causes for its appearance? In trying to answer these questions we have to say frankly, before crossing the threshold of the topic: We have no key to secret chambers; we propose no revelations, but only another look over what may be very familiar premises.

To the question, What is the nature of belief? many answers have been given. Hume declared, "Belief is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object than the imagination alone is ever able to attain." Prof. Bain said, "Belief in its essential character is a phase of our active nature." The answer we shall give to the question shall not necessarily conflict with either of the answers given above. It is best given by defining our point of view.

We look at man as a physical organism of rare sensitiveness, played upon by the forces of the world. Light and sound, the blowing wind and the solid ground, all make their varying sorts of contact with the delicate, susceptible organism. But not all of the myriad voices are heeded, not all the thousandfold seductions entice, not all the sweet odors or the pleasant touches of the great world call forth response. In fact, this human organism is not unlike that lowlier organism, the sponge, through whose length and breadth streams from the great ocean flow. There is no current in the Atlantic, no distant sea, however narrow, but may send its contribution of richly laden sea water to the sponge's mouth. But not all the nitrogen, carbon, iron, that the tide bears is taken up by the sponge. It extracts only what it needs, what it can assimilate, and to most that passes remains, perhaps, insensible. So with our more complex organism—man. He, too, is set in the midst of oceans of sensation. Sounds, sights, odors, tastes, and touches flow round him in limitless variety. Of many, perhaps of most, he is never conscious; to only a few does he respond.

Objection may be made to the analogy, but on examination I am sure it will be found to be sufficiently close for our own purpose. To the mind, sounds, tastes, colors, odors, and sights are what foods are to the sponge—they are stimuli. Specialists on the eye tell us that the range of light vibrations to which the human eye responds is but a little break in a great series, like a short stretch cut out of the middle of an inclined plane. So, too, with our ears. They can intercept only a few of the possible sound vibrations that make up the world of noises. As the sponge, then, comes in contact with but the merest vialful of the great ocean, the human organism also makes contact with mere fragments of the world's infinity of stimuli.

There is a second respect in which the analogy holds good. Just as, out of the limited flow of food-laden sea water that passes its doors, the sponge chooses what it needs, what it can assimilate, so the human organism, out of the limited variety of stimuli to which it is competent to reach, chooses such to respond to as are important.

Now, what has this to do with belief? Simply this, that belief, whatever else it may be, is a human function, and in so far as it is vital and important it must be subject to the fundamental laws of the organism. We can neither believe nor disbelieve what we never come in contact with, and the stress of life causes us to believe only what is important to us, as the sponge absorbs only what will nourish it. I do not say we are incapable of believing a thing that is useless for us. It is possible for an organism to take and to treat as food that which is valueless. But in the main, life means taking what is good, and taking what is not good means death. This is as true of the mental life as it is of the physical life, and for the most part the process of choice is instinctive and unconscious. When the thermometer falls we have sensations of discomfort—we may respond by taking off our clothing. It is conceivable that we should believe it is getting hot. But we do actually respond by putting on our overcoats, which is good evidence that we believe it is cold.

This, I take it, is what Prof. Bain meant when he said, "In its essential character belief is a phase of our active nature," and I do not think it conflicts in any way with Hume's account of belief as a "more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception than the imagination is able to attain." In fact, both of these accounts seem to me very true. What I mean by believing my friend's word is not that I have a clear perception that his words represent definite things, but that I conceive the main thing he describes or the opinion he declares in a thoroughly lively way—in fact, so warmly do I embrace it that I am willing to act upon it.

The nature of belief is to be a part of our active nature; it is related to the will. We believe a thing when we accept it and are willing to act upon it.

We set for our second question, What are the conditions under which belief arises? These are of two kinds. There are mental conditions and physiological conditions.

The physiological conditions of belief will of course be primarily those, if there be such, which are indispensable to all mental activity. Now, since of physiological activities in general there is an unfailing register in the circulation of the blood—i. e., innervation of muscle or nerve at any point is accompanied by an increased flow of blood to that point—we may take the flow of blood as one means of registering physiological activity. With this as a test we can affirm that there are physiological conditions for all mental activity. In fact, the investigations of Mosso, the Italian physiologist, enable us to measure the increased flow of blood to the brain which accompanies simple mental operations. A delicately balanced bed scale on which the subject is placed reveals the fact that the simplest mental operations, as answering a question or working out a problem in mental arithmetic, is registered in increased weight of the head—i. e., greater blood supply. Increased rapidity of circulation is then a prime physiological condition of belief. This gives a key to the conditions under which belief arises. In general they may be summed up under one head—heightened vascular and nervous activity.

If we stop and ask ourselves how did we come to believe such and such a thing, we shall find in almost every case that it was under excitement. Did ever a girl sit down calmly and reason to the conclusion that she was in love? Did ever a man or woman reason to the conclusion that he or she was saved? No, belief does not come that way. Every orator learns that. It is not the close-woven, incontestable argument that leads to belief. It may be a good preparation, but often the result can be gained wholly without it, and I doubt if it is ever indispensable. Men and women are moved to believe, not by argument but by aroused feeling. Just as when anger is aroused some outlet must be had, so when the active nature is aroused something must be believed. The person who at a revival meeting happens to be unmoved, finds it hard even to conceive the intensity of conviction which possesses the kneelers at the mourners' bench.

Anything, then, that arouses the physical activities may be expected to stimulate belief. This will be found to be true. Excitement of any sort seems to quicken conviction. Stimulants arouse belief. I hope some one will make a thorough study of this matter. I am convinced it would repay the labor. The different effects produced by different sorts of stimulants would make a valuable contribution to this subject: for instance, coffee seems to awaken almost as many doubts as it lays, while alcoholic stimulants seem invariably to dispel doubt and enthrone certitude.

Some men depend upon their pipe to give them the needed start to the conclusion of problems. I confess that I seldom feel so sure of the solidity and reality of the world as when I have my favorite amber stem firm set between my teeth. And much of the tenacity of religious conviction of our Methodist and Baptist brethren is due to conceiving the articles of their creed with passion bred in the excitement of camp meetings.

Perhaps more marked than any of these is the effect of sexual feeling. It is practically impossible for either of two people to believe in the love of the other without feeling some warmth of feeling himself. It is the feeling that awakens doubt or conviction.

This leads naturally to the interrelation of feelings and beliefs. The close relation of love and religion has been a topic for ages. It is, I think, remarkable how many women disappointed in love turn to religion for consolation. Girls and women who have never revealed the slightest interest in church or creed become, under the influence of an unrequited passion, the most ardent believers. There is no reason in such cases to charge hypocrisy. They only show how much belief depends upon emotion. It is as if the feelings, deeply stirred, must react strongly. So long as the nature is left passive, belief, whether about love, politics, or religion, seems needless; but once the feelings are aroused, a hunger appears that demands satisfaction in some conviction or other.

The physiological conditions of belief, then, are, in a word, stimulation—excitement. There are also, as we agreed, mental conditions of belief. These are, as follows from the volitional nature of the function, such as conduce to a heightened state of all the mental activities, but especially the imagination and the affections.

Repetition or pondering over a matter helps us to believe it. We accept many a thing by its familiarity. Many of our creeds are believed in this way. The mental condition of acquiescence is brought about by frequent repetition, just as memory is made firm by the same means. Pondering over things, themselves imaginary, makes them real to us. Prophets come to believe in themselves and their mission, not so much by reasoning about it, but by steadfastly fixing the goal of their desire in the mind until, out of a fancy, it grows to a clear conception, and from a conception becomes, for them at least, a reality. So with us all; we gain rest in belief often by putting reason out of doors. Maudsley says: "To say that the great majority of men reason in the true sense of the word, is the greatest nonsense in the world; they get their beliefs as they do their instincts and their habits, as a part of their inherited constitution, of their education, and the routine of their lives."

That this is true is shown by popular superstitions. Almost every hamlet in Europe has its own ghost story, believed ardently by the local inhabitants, and scoffed at by those of the next village.

We have insisted that, because belief is a function of the active nature, whatever conduces to greater physical or mental activity will conduce to believing. We are prepared to believe, then, that in joy we believe more than in grief. A low state of mind—sorrow, remorse, melancholy—is a field where doubts grow rank, but the cheerful, successful, hopeful mind finds belief easy. It is failure that makes us cautious; success emboldens us and like rumor, multiplies as it goes, loosing our fancy and making credible what was but just now impossible.

Again, inaction kills belief, while action of any sort nourishes it. Phillips Brooks was fond of saying, "Do something with your religion, and your religion will not die." So with all our beliefs. Though it is often bred in our mind by pondering things over, calling up images until they become fixtures, belief is oftener born and nourished in earnest action. Lincoln's life gives a notable example. In his pioneer days he was a skeptic. Both Lamon and Henderson say that up to the time Lincoln went to Washington as President he was not a professing believer in any Christian faith. But during the days of the war, when Lincoln bore tremendous burdens of action and anxiety, embodying and enforcing the will of the nation, he became thoroughly religious. It is told that in 1864, when the tension was at its highest, and Lincoln's life was like the action of the heart of the whole people, in that time the President was found more than once on his knees at prayer. Lincoln's faith did not come to him by reasoning, but in the stress and strain of life. He laid hold upon certain great truths with the grip of a hungering and thirsting nature. It is in this way, I believe, that the strongest faith is attained. With his whole nature stretched to its highest tension, no man can avoid conviction. So long as he merely rests, remains inactive, passive, he may get along without a faith; but when his soul is awakened and his feeling is aroused, believe he must.

We have seen that in both sets of conditions for belief, physiological and psychical, the same thing holds; because belief is a function of our active nature, whatever stimulates and rouses to action promotes belief.

We may now turn to the third question we set ourselves: What makes us believe In general and roughly, the answer to this question is—the vital impulse. We believe because we want to, because we have a constitutional trend toward belief. This follows from the fact that belief is a form of action, and we are driven by a passion to act. I have said this is constitutional; it is the very inwards of our vitals; there is nothing that so sums up the meaning and essence of life as the passion to do. A living organism is more than a tense spring; it is a spring growing constantly tenser and fretting to unleash its own forces. This vital tension makes all consciousness motor, and makes every idea a discharging force with inevitable consequences in overt act or intraorganic disturbance. To apply a suggestion to an active mind is like applying anything to a baby's mouth. Both alike show an instinctive tendency to close on whatever offers, be it sealing-wax or sweetmeat. We see this plainly in the workings of a savage mind. For a savage to conceive anything vividly is to believe it. Some such indiscriminate appetency of belief offers the only sufficient explanation for the vast higgledy-piggledy mass of superstition that belongs to primitive peoples.

This is, I take it, what Bain meant when he said that the chief fact of belief was primitive credulity. We are all naturally and primarily credulous; skepticism is a later development and comes from the sort of experience that makes sadder but wiser men of us. It is in life itself, in its appetency, its passion to act, that we find the prime cause of belief, which is, in fact, merely a gratification of this vital desire. As the sponge needs no other justification for absorbing nitrogen from the sea water than its own nutritive instinct, we need no other excuse for believing than the instinct of activity.

Yet this is but one side of the matter, and plainly enough the rougher, more general side of it. I eat because I want to, is but an imperfect answer to the question why I eat, and even the addition that I eat because the vital processes demand satisfaction that can be provided only by food, still leaves the matter much beclouded. In putting down belief as the gratification of a vital desire, we have only found the big, crass motive for believing. To answer fully the question, why we believe, demands that we go further. We must be prepared to find here, too, that the ground is an organic, constitutional one. The first reason for believing at all is because we are alive, not dead, and crave action, not torpor. The reason why we believe as we do, and the sort of things we do believe, is because we have the sort of constitution we have. We have seen already that, of the myriad sights the sun makes, only a slight proportion affect our retina; we have learned that of all the thousandfold possible excitants of nerve and muscle, comparatively few ever produce in us sensation. This is matter of mere physical organization. We are conscious of a much more important selective process. We know that we do choose what things we shall respond to, and what not. We are now brought to see the two chief phases of belief, the voluntary and the involuntary sides of it.

Much has been said of the uncontrollable nature of belief. This is no mere fancy. We do believe in an involuntary sort of way, much as a child puts everything into its mouth. In fact. Prof. James has said, "Whatever is uncontradicted is ipso facto believed." In such a sense as this, belief is uncontrollable. But the other side of the matter is more important. We may will to believe—that is, we may choose what we will believe and what we will not believe.

This possibility of choice depends upon two things, one subjective, the other objective. To the former fact Prof. James has already called attention in pointing out that the same things may seem different to us.[1] My table-top, for instance, will look like a rhombus, a square, or an oblong rectangle, depending upon the point of view. I deliberately choose to regard it as a square, and in so doing ignore the other aspects, which none the less remain equally true and real. The second fact upon which the possibility of choice depends is a matter of mental constitution. Prof. Royce gives this a very clear statement. "We are prejudiced," he says, "in favor of regularity in the world; and so we continually manipulate the data of sense for the sake of building up a notion of a regular, necessary, and simple universe." Just as the sponge, again, by its constitution of calcareous outer skeleton and soft inner substance, must prefer to absorb from the varied materials offered by the passing current lime and carbon, so we choose what we choose largely per force of our racial and individual constitutions.

"And so," continues Prof. Royce, "though it is true that our knowledge of the world is determined by what is given to our senses, it is equally true that our idea of the world is determined quite as much by our own active combination, completion, anticipation of sense experience."[2] It is unnecessary to repeat the arguments upon which the conclusion Prof. Royce reaches is based. I have already indicated them. Because we can receive more sensations than we can follow, we choose to reject some and retain others, thus carrying out consciously the selective process that our organization unconsciously begins. Now, what Prof. Royce emphasizes is the fact that this conscious process of selection, which is inevitable, follows certain lines, namely, of simplicity, necessity, regularity. As he puts it, we are prejudiced in favor of certain aspects of the world, and impose them upon the phenomena with which we come in contact.

This brings us again to the active side of belief. To quote Prof. Royce again: "Every one is certain to be prejudiced, simply because he does not merely receive experience, but himself acts, himself makes experience." That is, everybody makes his own belief, his own knowledge to some degree. And if we will only watch closely our own mental movements during the process of coming to a decision, we shall see how true this is. During such a process there is a period of balancing one side against the other, of more or less keen scrutiny of reasons, of swift discussion back and forth, accompanied by a tension and excitement rising to the height of exaltation. There is perhaps no attitude in which the mind shows greater activity than this of questioning. We have many times felt the drop that comes with decision. The swift and agile leaping back and forth, the piercing looks cast on this side and on that, are all stopped, sometimes for very weariness, but almost always with a slight sense of depression, like settling after flight. The act of deciding, of accepting one of two alternatives, does really seem, at the moment of doing it, like a lower form of action. It is not intellectual, but volitional. I am quite sure no man ever chose a sweetheart without a little sense of coming down from the freedom and daring of uncertainty. It is like the feeling we may imagine a cloud to have on condensing into rain. It has become effective at the cost of freedom and elasticity. This condensing, dampening turn of conception is belief, and it is our will, our activity, the momentum of our life that bring it to pass.

Though belief is thus primarily an expression of the instinctive force of life, determined by intelligence and choice, what we may believe is a matter of circumstance. To believe what one has never heard of is manifestly impossible. Further, inasmuch as belief means laying hold on a conception, accepting it as a basis of action, it is necessary not only to have the matter come before one's mind, but also to attend to it—to see it clearly. Hume was right in insisting on the liveliness, clearness, permanence, and firmness of the conception that is believed. We do not as a rule believe our dreams, but let a dream recur again and again, and few of us will be able to refuse it credence. Many things come to be believed by their traditional weight of authority. The creeds of Christendom have come down to us with the force of centuries behind them. They are accepted in their traditional form chiefly because by multitudinous repetitions they have been beaten in upon the mind, and in most cases have been yielded credence without question or reasoning.

Finally, at the peril of tediousness, let me repeat, belief is a vital function. Whatever arouses and stimulates the active nature, looked at from the physiological or psychical point of view, helps to awaken and further belief. The forces that we call life make for belief. We all want to believe. Primitive credulity is an experience for us all, and it is just this vital side of it that accounts for our tendency to accept rather than to reject. So long as belief remains an active function, and so long as life remains a bundle of functions united to delight in their activity, we shall have a healthy desire to believe rather than to doubt.

  1. Prof. James, Principles of Psychology, vol. i, p. 285.
  2. Religious Aspect of Philosophy, p. 322.