Chapter 2. Humans are belief machines
Humans are also belief machines.
We’re constantly forming beliefs.
Once we generate a desire, we need to know figure out how to get what we want.
We need to know how to get food for nourishment. We need to know what might hurt us in order to stay safe. We need to know how the concept of money works in order to pay for the products and services we want.
So, we form beliefs about how the world works.
As we learn about the world, we try to understand it and make sense of it.
And every time we learn something new, we form a new belief.
We learn by having direct experiences.
Sometimes, we learn that fire burns our skin by actually getting burned.
We also learn when others share their beliefs with us.
Our parents, our teachers, our friends, the media — others share their beliefs about the world with us and we adopt them.
We form beliefs about everything in our lives.
We form beliefs about nature, humans, and man-made objects.
We believe that the earth revolves around the sun, that humans need water to survive, and that our smartphones need to be charged to work.
We form beliefs about the past, present, and future.
We believe that World War II ended in 1945, that our smartphone will turn on when we press the power button, and that we’ll have self-driving cars in the next decade.
Then, we update our beliefs as we come across better ones.
As we continue to learn about the world, we reject some our previously-held beliefs and update them with better ones.
By better, I mean that they help us better get what we want.
Santa Clause exists until he doesn’t. The sun rises and sets until we learn that the Earth is spinning. Our religion is the right one until we convert.
As a society, we went from aether to relativity. From geocentrism to heliocentrism. From flat earth to spherical (sort of).
Belief is a spectrum.
We call our strongest beliefs facts, truth, or knowledge.
Sometimes they’re strong because we’ve seen some form of proof or because they’re backed by what we perceive as valid logical reasoning.
Sometimes we just feel like it’s the truth even when there’s no objective proof — we call this faith.
Then there’s weaker beliefs which we’re not as sure about. We call those opinions, conjectures, or guesses.
We don’t just form beliefs about the world, but about our desires as well.
Specifically, we form beliefs about how to get what we really want.
A lot of the time, our desires conflict.
We want to play with fire but we also don’t want to get burned. We want to eat healthy food but we also want to eat unhealthy food that tastes good. We want to spend time with our loved ones but we also want successful careers.
So, we form beliefs about which ones to satisfy.
It starts with our parents and teachers who tell us what we should and shouldn’t do.
They tell us not to eat stuff off the ground. They tell us which people to spend time with. They tell us to focus on our schoolwork.
What they’re actually teaching us is the role that time plays in our desires — sometimes, in order to get what we really want in the future, we have to do something we don’t want to do now.
As we grow older, we begin to prioritize on our own, by thinking about what we might really want in the future.
As discussed previously, we search for some purpose or meaning.
Some prioritize health. For others it’s financial stability or success. For the religious, it’s usually the praising of their God.
Or some combination of these.
And we end up with a belief system — a set of beliefs for deciding what we should and shouldn’t do, a way of deciding which desires to satisfy in order to get what we really want.
They go by different names: principles, ethics, morals.
We should eat right and sleep well. We should work hard and be diligent. We should be kind to others. We should take care of our family and friends. We should meditate or pray.
When we tell ourselves that we should do something, it’s because we believe that doing so will get us what we really want in the end.
We should do well in school, go to a college, and work hard because it’ll get us financial stability.
We should help others because it’ll make us feel good and it’ll incline others to help us when we want.
When we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t do something, we believe that doing so will lead to a less desirable future for us.
We shouldn’t murder, steal, or hurt others because we might end up traumatized, we might feel guilty, or we might end up somewhere we don’t want to be like prison or hell.
Humans, at their core, are desire and belief machines. It’s how we function. It’s how our bodies and brains work.
We’re constantly generating desires and forming beliefs from the moment we’re born.
These are the main mechanisms by which we survive, thrive, and live our lives.
Our desires and beliefs are also responsible for the way we are: both who we are and how we are. They’re responsible for our personalities, our character, our qualities and flaws.
Take any characteristic like openness, honesty, or patience, and we can see that it’s some mix of desires and beliefs.
Some want to be or act one way more than others. Some want to be more open, honest, or patient than others. Others want to be closed off, dishonest, and impatient. It’s a spectrum.
And these desires are partly based on our beliefs — beliefs about whether we can get what we want and if so, how. Beliefs about what our purpose or meaning in life is. Beliefs about what we should do and how we should be.
Our desires and beliefs are responsible for all the decisions we make, and thus for the actions we take.
We generate a bunch of desires.
We form a bunch of beliefs about how to satisfy those desires.
We form a bunch of beliefs about which desires we should and shouldn’t satisfy.
Finally, all three combine, the result being our decisions.