A Matter of Trust

By Iain McGilchristApril 15, 2015

Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t by Graham Ward

BELIEF IS NOT what you think. In either sense. The word has an interesting history, which tells us much about ourselves.

Nowadays belief is often viewed as simply a feeble form of knowing, as in “I believe (but am not certain) that the train leaves at 6:13.” But this has not always been the case. The word “belief” has nowhere buried in it the idea of signing up to a proposition, certain or uncertain. It is not a matter of cognition, but of recognition. It comes from the same root as the word “love,” a sense preserved in the now archaic word “lief,” familiar to us from Shakespeare, with which one once described one’s friend, sweetheart, or lord — someone in whom one believed.

Similar considerations apply to the German glauben (related to lieben, to love), and to the French croire and other derivatives of Latin credere, a word which meant originally to “entrust to the care of” (the sense lingers, in reduced fashion, in the idea of “credit”). Belief is about a relationship, in which by definition, more than one party is involved. The believer needs to be disposed to love, but the believed-in needs to inspire another’s belief. Whether this amounts to being worthy of that belief cannot be fully determined in advance. It emerges through commitment and experience.

Does belief historically, then, have nothing to do with truth? Indeed it does, but the word “true” brings us straight back, not to a thing, but to a relationship. “True” (cf. German treu, faithful) is related to “trust,” and is fundamentally a matter of what one trusts or believes. The Latin word verum (true) is cognate with a Sanskrit word meaning to choose or believe: like one’s loved one, the one in whom one chooses to believe and place one’s trust, to whom one is true. We still speak of two surfaces that “marry” well as being true. It is about fit — and fidelity.

Etymology maps the slippage of thought. What it shows in this case is three revealing shifts.

First, the words “truth” and “belief” used to describe a reverberative or two-directional relationship, in which each party is “re-sponsible” for the fit. Truth and belief are no longer relational, but have become propositional. The causation is no longer distributed, but linear.

Second, it suggests that truth and belief used to be embodied actions or processes, involving commitment, not (as they are now conceived) detached, disembodied “things.” Yet an understanding that enables evaluation of truth or belief cannot be achieved by simply sitting back and waiting passively for information to accumulate, since some truths become understandable only when we have made a move to meet them. They are incremental and come with experience.

Third, as processes, truth and belief derived their value from the context, could never be absolute, and were never single or static. The idea of truth as independent of us, immutable and certain, is a recent invention.

As Graham Ward argues in his subtle and wide-ranging examination, Unbelievable: Why We Believe and Why We Don’t, belief is not the antithesis, but the complement of reason; not the opposite of knowledge, but its inevitable basis. Our reasoning is bound up with the beliefs we bring to it as much as belief is bound up with reasoning, in ways that cannot, in principle, be disentangled.

Faith and belief are not optional. A true scientist can be certain of nothing. Science demonstrates no truths, but identifies only what is not true according to (an always provisional) paradigm. The most ardent atheist could not get out of bed in the morning without trust. In science, as in the rest of life, faith and belief depend ultimately on induction, namely experience — guided, moulded, and interpreted by our beliefs, by the questions we ask or don’t ask, what our assumptions allow us to see or prevent us from seeing. Logic is of vital importance along the way, but science is ultimately a form of pattern recognition.

Pattern re-cognition: one compares with a pattern already seen. Indeed all understanding is of this nature. What we mean when we say we understand something is that it is like something else, of which we are already prepared to say “I understand this.” Thus the can is kicked down the road, a road that, however, has no certain beginning or end.

Ward is Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, but his book on the nature of belief, while richly discursive on life, literature, and art, is only tangentially theological. This may be a prudential move, but it is also a little odd, since, precisely because of our beliefs about belief, the belief whose nature has become most problematic is belief in the divine.

Its problematic nature stems from a number of reasons. For one thing, the normal process of understanding by patterns and analogies is no help here, since analogies to something that is in principle beyond analogy do not work. What is taken to be the ground of being cannot be like any specific being on that ground. We cannot see sight itself; we are aware of sight only because of the objects in our field of vision.

Even if the evidence of the senses were a rational way to ground a religious belief, what we perceive, as Ward points out, is never just given: we see each thing “as” a something. Our belief about what we are seeing controls in a literal sense what we see, the majority of it being made up on the basis of expectation — Alva Noë’s “Grand Illusion.” We go to meet reality and help create it. When we pay one kind of attention we see one thing — when we pay another kind, we see another. Whatever it is that we come to see dictates the kind of attention we will pay in future, which in turn dictates what we will in future find. And so the process, starting from a surmise, hardens up into what we call “certainty.” It just happens to exclude everything not implicitly contained in our original, inescapably limited, premises. Our first steps determine the direction of the journey. Certain lands will never be visited.

Logic is no help, either, not because belief in the divine is illogical, but because it is a-logical: logic is an inappropriate tool for the job. It’s like using a sound detector to tell if the sun is shining. It is illogical to use logic to address certain kinds of question. Logic, logically, cannot tell us whether this or that, ultimately, is the case: it can only tell us whether a certain proposition contradicts other propositions we hold to be true. Non-contradiction is usually important in daily life, and, as a consistency tool, logic is therefore invaluable. It’s just that it has its limitations — limitations, like those of Newtonian mechanics, that can be ignored for many everyday purposes (catching trains), but become more significant the further we move from the realm of the banal. By definition, it cannot tell us whether our first, grounding assumptions are true, or how to interpret our final conclusions. Its value, great as it is, comes only at an intermediate stage.

“Giving grounds,” said Wittgenstein, “must come to an end some time. But the end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting.” Propositions, in other words, must eventually give way to dispositions, the stance we choose to adopt toward the world. “Believing that” must at some point give way to “believing in”: knowledge “about” (wissen, savoir) to knowledge “of” (kennen, connaître), which is essentially an encounter, not a bunch of facts. We come down to an embodied apprehension of what kind of thing the world might be and, most importantly, the nature of our relationship with it. In this, religious belief is ultimately no different from any other (for example, materialist) belief we might have about “the nature of things.”

In a book called The Master and his Emissary, which Ward draws on at various points in his book, I contrasted two ways of conceiving the world: one (the product of precise, but narrowly focussed, attention) in terms of objects, entities that are apparently discrete, fragmentary, static, certain, measurable, knowable; the other (the product of a broader and more sustained attention), in terms of relationships, patterns of entities that are essentially interconnected, eternally changing, flowing, ungraspable. I suggested that there were compelling grounds in evolutionary biology for “dual processing,” whereby the brain was capable of delivering both simultaneously, and that the left hemisphere broadly underwrote the first of these takes on the world, and the right hemisphere the second. I also suggested that we are drifting toward reliance on the left hemisphere’s (more limited) mode at the expense of that of the right. As Ward suggests, the shift in meaning of truth and belief could be seen in these terms.

If it is, this is a reason for concern. The function of the left hemisphere is to close down to a certainty; that of the right hemisphere to open up to possibility. Stopping ourselves from closing our experience down into certainty is the only way to allow something new to come into being. Seekers after wisdom — as philosophers once saw themselves to be — need to be able to get beyond the prison our expectations make for us, beyond the Grand Illusion. But how do we break out of this prison?

The wisest philosopher of the Western tradition, Heraclitus, warned us to “expect the unexpected,” a discipline that, as he would no doubt have expected one to see, must be coupled with its opposite, if we are not to lose our balance altogether. Credulity, after all, leaves one open to the possibility of self-deceit. And yet not to be aware of what it is one does not know is also, inevitably, to deceive oneself. Ward’s impeccable argument is for re-establishing a balance.

The unknown is not well evoked by the explicit and lucid, because this has the inevitable effect of leading us back merely to the known and familiar. It is only (Heraclitus again) when we are sufficiently disconcerted — in the realm of the invisible, the half-grasped, the tentative and the apparently paradoxical, namely, the realm of art and religion — that we may gain insights. “Men who love wisdom,” he wrote, “must be good enquirers into many things indeed,” for “Nature loves to hide.”

Nature loves to hide. The obvious — literally, that which “stands in the way,” in both the negative and positive sense — is not, on its own, enough. And so, whatever scientism may suggest, there simply can be no failsafe path to the truth. We must each do the best we can, and be aware that our truth is always partial, a matter of belief.

An evolving understanding of the universe suggests that forces in nature tend to be more like patterns or fields than straight lines. Consciousness, it seems to me, has a similar structure. There are conclusions toward which, though possibly true, we cannot be propelled irresistibly, by any linear process, as it were from behind. Some, like the truths conveyed in great art and the great myths, are of the kind that we are drawn toward, so to speak, from in front. Such “strange attractors” are truest to the meaning of the word “belief,” a gravitational pull that shares the nature of love.

These are not, like fantasies, projected, full-blown, from the workings of our mind. Rather, we have intimations of matters that are glimpsed, but only partly seen; our conscious minds obscure them. They resist explicit formulation because thereby they become something else. This tentative, but rapt, attraction toward something that is not cognized, but at some deep level recognized, is not the work of fantasy, but of imagination. Imagination is far from certain, of course; but the biggest mistake we could make would be never to trust it — never to believe in it — for fear of being mistaken.


Iain McGilchrist is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a former consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London.

LARB Contributor

Iain McGilchrist is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a former consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London. He has written widely on topics in medicine, psychiatry, philosophy, and the history of ideas.

"We have seen that thought probably originates in the right hemisphere, but the left hemisphere has most syntax and most of the lexicon, which makes it very much the controller of the 'word' in general. Coupled with its preference for classification, analysis and sequential thinking, this makes it very powerful in constructing an argument. By contrast it is hard for the right hemisphere to be heard at all: what it knows is too complex, hasn't the advantage of having been carved up into pieces that can be neatly strung together, and hasn't got a voice anyway."

— The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World


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