The Psychology of Belief
When your belief system collapses as an individual, then you really are confronted with the dragon of chaos, because all the presuppositions that guide your actions come to an abrupt end. Such a collapse represents two distinct possibilities — either a pathological descent into nihilism, or the construction of a new belief system.
While it can be really difficult to replace your initial set of presuppositions with an entirely different set of beliefs, the benefits of doing so far outweighs the effort that you need to put in in order to integrate parts of this new belief system into your life.
But what are the conditions under which a person’s belief system might collapse? And what would a psychological transformation designed to create a new belief system look like? And why shouldn’t we descend into a nihilistic pitfall, especially when the arguments for it are so compelling?
Let’s take each question apart one at a time. The conditions under which a person might lose faith in their belief system are multifold. A person’s belief system might collapse if the initial set of presuppositions that make up their belief system are insufficiently developed to help the person deal with the complexity of the world. We exist inside the story we keep telling ourselves, and the actions we take in our lives are a reflection of the values that guide us.
When the values that make up your belief system are no longer adequate in portraying an accurate picture of reality, and when there is a clear mismatch between what is happening and what you want to have happen, it can be really easy for you to lose faith in your beliefs. Such a mismatch can be characterized by a surge in negative emotions like shame, guilt, sadness, resentment & meaninglessness.
Another way in which your belief system may collapse is when you’re challenged on your beliefs by others, forcing you to consider alternative perspectives that you hadn’t yet considered, or much worse encountered. When there is a manifestation of facts that directly contradict our beliefs, we tend to either reevaluate our beliefs or double down on them.
Either way, we are met with a surge in negative emotions that we cannot fully control. In such a scenario, withdrawal from your sense of self is crucial for the organization of new values that can orient your life. Things that matter in our lives are always in a sense anchored to our sense of self, but so is the suffering that is so characteristic of the conditions of existence.
So the manner in which we undergo a psychological transformation is to temporarily withdraw from our sense of self and view reality as an observer from the outside. We exist inside a web of interconnected social, cultural and economic threads very intricately woven together that we do not fully understand.
Part of the reason why a belief system is so crucial is because it helps us simplify and make sense of a really complicated world. It can be tempting to draw the conclusion that a collapse in your belief system may result in a total collapse of your life, but in reality it offers you a great opportunity to withdraw from the beliefs that make you the person you think you are.
Such a withdrawal can help you carefully introspect the values that have been guiding your life and can offer important insights into the areas of improvement in your thinking. A psychological transformation like this almost always involves strategically thinking about the root cause of your emotional suffering. More often than not, it is your emotions that indicate if the actions you take in life are producing the results you desire.
A surge in positive emotions may indicate that the beliefs or values that orient your life are sufficiently developed to produce the outcomes that you want to produce, while a surge in negative emotions may indicate that the values that guide your actions are not sufficiently developed to produce the desired outcomes.
We tend to think of ourselves as the thoughts we think as we are always identical to them, but we are also the lose collection of the sub personalities that produce the motivational states that drive us. Our sense of self is essentially an agglomeration of multiple sub personalities which are often at odds with one another. And it is in organizing these sub personalities into a proper hierarchy that forms the bedrock for any psychological transformation.
And withdrawing from your sense of self is the precursor to such a transformation, because such a withdrawal can allow you to do an objective analysis of your life. It can help you recognize the errors in the values that are guiding your actions and enable you to come up with strategies that can rectify those errors.
The new values that you adopt should take into consideration how your sub personalities must be organized to produce the kind of outcomes that you desire. Such careful organization of your motivational states can change your perception of your sense of self over time. This is why it’s so important to have goals in life.
The values that help you undertake the actions that propel you towards your goals are the values that should form the foundations on which your new value system is built. Needless to say, you will encounter challenges irrespective of whatever belief system you adopt, but if you think of yourself as the entity that transcends those challenges across space and time by temporarily withdrawing from your sense of self from time to time, you can manage all your setbacks in the most optimal manner possible.
Human Beings are aiming creatures. A billion years worth of evolution essentially programmed us to be at our happiest when we’re optimally stretched, both mentally and physically, in activities that are in relationship to our long term goals. As we’ve already established, it is the emergence of positive emotions that indicate the strength of the values that orient your life, so we must conclude that without a proper goal in sight, it is virtually impossible for us to feel any positive emotions at all.
As powerful as the arguments for nihilism are, a nihilistic framework of life is mutually exclusive with the emergence of any positive emotions at all. While life generally has no meaning in the grand context of the universe, we would rather feel happy than sad; pleasure than pain; and love than hate. And a life filled with a subjective sense of meaning is the precursor to those effervescent feelings.
Since nihilism is the rejection of any meaning at all, it is simply not commensurate with the values of a life lived in the servitude of self chosen values. And any action that you take that brings about suffering to yourself and others in your life, I consider it to be the highest of moral sins.