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The Perils and Potentials of "I Believe ..."

Paul Grobstein
10 April 2006

Motivated by the National Public Radio series "This I Believe". An earlier, longer essay is available as "I Believe ...": Its Significance and Limitations for Individuals, Science, and Politics." Also relevant is a forum posting on the relation between belief and stories, "On Being a "Lonely" Atheist", "Writing Descartes: I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ...", and "Science as 'Getting it Less Wrong." For a related perspective, see an essay by Judie McCoyd.

I believe that "I believe ..." has its upsides and its downsides.

A remark by George W. Bush in a 2003 news conference, provides a case in point: "I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or another". It is valuable to have reflected enough on oneself to know what one believes in and to share descriptions of one's beliefs with others. What is problematic is trying to "codify" one's beliefs, to say nothing of trying to get others to do so.

As a scientist, I am deeply familiar with this hazard of "belief". It is precisely when one most fully "believes" something that one falls into one or another of several destructive traps

The same hazards, with perhaps even more serious consequences, exist for politicians, and, in one form or another, for all of us in our own day to day lives.

"I believe ..." is a good starting point, but should never be taken as an ending point, either for oneself or in one's sharing with others. As an ending point, "I believe ... " is at best a conversation stopper and at worst the origins of much of the suffering that humans wreak on one another.

As a starting point, "I believe ..." provides not only a basis for acting at any given point in time but, at least as importantly, a foundation from which to create a new future, for noticing current problems (including, perhaps, one's own beliefs) and acting to correct them, for "getting it less wrong" without needing to assert that one is "right", and hence without needing to defend one's beliefs against the beliefs of others. One can instead freely share one's beliefs for whatever use they might be to others, and in turn draw from the beliefs of others whatever value they might have for oneself.

I believe there are yet to be found less wrong ways to make sense of things, and that we will collectively discover/create them most effectively by resisting the temptation to codify "I believe ..." for either ourselves or others. We are better off pairing "I believe ... " with a healthy humility, to use it not to define what some ideal future should be but rather to help us imagine and create the new experiments and ways of thinking that avoid the errors of the past.


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