Why Do We Believe?

Why Do We Believe?

A Story by Rick Puetter

An essay about thought and human nature


Silhouette of man.  Thoughts.  Author: Nevil Dilmen.  2009. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.  The original image can be seen at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mr_Pipo_thoughts.svg



Why Do We Believe?

“An essay about thought and human nature…”


     What is it about people?  We so desperately want to believe.  And I don’t just mean in a specific, necessarily-important idea or thought, but in so many different things.  But I don’t want to point fingers.  I have beliefs, too.  I can’t escape them, and I constantly ask myself, why do you believe in that?  Much of the time I don’t have a good answer, or at least a reason that I can come up with right away.  It makes me wonder.

     To take this away from home a bit, let’s look at ancient religions.  The Greeks believed in a pantheon of gods.  So did the Norse.  So did everyone, really, in their own way, with different beliefs depending where you lived in the world.  It was a wide-spread phenomenon.  Why?  We dismiss these beliefs today as being misguided and ancient.  They’re almost laughable.  We say, boy, that was so primitive.  We “know” those ancient beliefs can’t be right.  But they were held in high regard by nearly everyone--all of these beliefs.  And all of them were different and inconsistent with each other.  So what gives?

     People seem to have a powerful need to have an explanation for things they can’t explain.  It seems if we don’t know the answer to a given question, we make up an answer.  The psychology of religion has been extensively studied.  But I think it is simplistic to think that the human need to believe in something extends only to religious beliefs.  I think we are strongly affected by not-purely-rational motivations in a variety of endeavors.  But since this has been so thoroughly studied in religious beliefs, let’s start there.  It won't be our last stop.

      There are lots of good articles on the psychology of religion.  One could start with the Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology_of_religion, but there is so much additional writing about this subject.  Whatever one’s personal beliefs on this topic, it seems certain that religion seems to satisfy a basic need in people, and this seems to be true no matter what the specifics of the religious beliefs.  Most basically, religion seems to provide a deeply satisfying explanation of the meaning of life and the world.  But are such needs only expressed in religion?  I don’t think so.  Teleology, i.e., the tendency to ascribe purpose to things and objects so as to assume that they serve some external goal, is present from an early age in children, and this tendency is widespread across all topics.  If you ask a child why something happened, they quickly will give you an answer.  They are not making something up to be dishonest.  They are simply expressing a natural tendency and apparently a need.  They feel, somehow, that YOU know there is a reason, and they know that there is a reason.  So they fill in the reason.  And if you challenge them, and ask them again, they will repeat their answer, and insist that it is correct.

     There are also lots of studies on the psychology of uncertainty aversion.  This shares many of the common reasons for belief in religion, or anything else for that matter.  Uncertainty gives rise to anxiety and stress.  Such stress must be eliminated.  Explanations for why things happen, and their meaning, especially if shared by groups of people, is very calming.  So explanations are adopted even if they are non-sensical.  In some individuals uncertainty aversion is so strong that they are assessed as having a clinically significant psychosis.  This can require counseling and in some cases medication.  In any event, Mankind's aversion to uncertainty, and the resulting stress, is a strong and prevalent tendency.

     So why might this be?  I think that the nature of intelligence might be at the very root of the explanation.  While I think humans aren’t the final and perfect “solution” to the ultimate intelligent creature, we are doing relatively well compared to the other creatures with which we share this planet.  So what is it that makes us stand out?  It is intelligence, right?  But what is the nature of intelligence?  Many regard intelligence as the ability to predict the future, at least in the limited sense of what will happen next, based on what has already happened.  Will the lion jump at us?  Will the lion run away?  We hone our predictions on what we’ve seen in the past, and we build an internal mental model of how things work in this world.  In fact this approach has been so successful, and is so essential to our survival, that I think we are programmed to insist on model building to organize the things we see around us, even if there is no organizing principle for these things.  We feel obliged to build hypotheses, to explain why things happen by postulating a god named Zeus who throws lightning bolts, and/or is mad at his brother god, Poseidon, for some imagined transgression, which then motivates why there is a storm at sea.  We need a model of the world.  We need a reason for things, even if there is no reason, because having no reason is not productive, as it doesn’t provide an action that might save our life.  No model, no action.  No hypothesis, no hypothesis testing, and consequently no advancement of knowledge, and perhaps survival.  And you can imagine how persuasive this reasoning would be if you did survive.  If you didn't survive, no matter.  You don't pass on any conclusions or opinions.

     What about science?  Is this discipline immune to coming up with reasons for things that are unjustified?  Well, people are still people and scientists are people.  But science does have a formal, well respected discipline, and that is not to assign certainty to a particular belief without empirical testing.  That is, to strongly recognize unsubstantiated beliefs for what they are, i.e., simply suppositions, and not to afford them more weight than they deserve.  Building of hypotheses, however, is just as important as in every other aspect of life.  But these hypotheses need testing.

     How science evolves has also received a great deal of study, and the fits and spurts of scientific progress are well documented and discussed.  According to Kuhn, in his influential book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, scientific progress is marked by periods of strong, even dogmatic, acceptance of the current scientific theory, punctuated by revolutionary breaks in the current paradigms when new discoveries directly contradict prevalent "understanding".  These revolutions do not come easily, as the scientific community has settled into strong satisfaction with long established principles, one might even say the “religion” of the currently accepted theories.  The first reaction of the community is to reject the new results, saying that this cannot possibly be right.  If this view of scientific progress is correct, then we see in science strong evidence of the same need as in other human endeavors, i.e., the need to have known, comfortable reasons for how things work, which consequently eliminates uncertainty.  How emotionally upsetting, then, to change what you believe.

     And I think we may be witnessing just such an aversion to new, unsettling, scientific understanding right now.  Time will tell.  What I am specifically referring to is the so called “EM Drive” introduced in 2001 by Roger Shawyer, a British aerospace engineer.  (There are, of course, numerous other examples, but let's follow this one.)  The EM drive is an asymmetric resonant microwave cavity that Shawyer, and now many other researchers and supporters, claims to provide forward thrust for a rocket engine without having a propellant.  The main-stream physics community objects that this violates the law of conservation of momentum, and so the community is very skeptical.  If true, however, this would mean that people could build propellantless rocket engines that are so efficient that we could go to other planets in our solar system in weeks or months, rather than in years.

     So is this claim right or wrong?  The gut-level reaction of the physics community is that this is wrong.  It can’t possibly work.  Still, there have been quite a few tests by a number of groups, in a variety of countries.  The results always have turned out positive, and even NASA has tested the engine and finds positive results.  It’s peer-reviewed paper on their latest test will appear in AIAA Journal of Propulsion and Power in December of 2016.  But everyone is treating this with caution, and saying the measured thrust is weak and not significantly above the measurement noise, and that there must be uncontrolled forces in the measurement setup that is fooling the researchers.  Such scientific skepticism is appropriate and healthy.  It is what protects false claims from being adopted as truth.  Scientific truth must pass a very high bar before it is afforded the honor of being accepted as true (probably true--science should never have absolutes).

     What do I think?  Where do I put my money on this new and potentially science changing result?  Is the reaction of the scientific community simply their resistance to new unsettling ideas that disrupt the current worldview?  Well, I’m giving the EM Drive a pretty high chance of actually working.  Why?  Well, there are lots of cases of engines producing propulsion without a propellant being cast out of the back of the engine to conserve momentum.  My favorite example is a rowboat.  Here the people in the rowboat have no propellant; they row against the water.  The water is pushed back conserving momentum, but nothing is being used in the boat except for energy.  The key is there is water against which the boat can row.  So is this possible for the EM Drive?  If so, what might play the role of the water?

     Being a physicist, when I first heard of the EM Drive, I immediately started talking about these wild and amazing claims with my other physicist friends.  Just like the rest of the physics community, we found the claims to be preposterous.  No question about it, the EM Drive violated conservation of momentum.  But why then are there all these repeating, positive tests?  Where are the negative results that must be there if this violated physics?  It makes you pause, wonder, stand back and say "wait a minute!"  And with more discussion more thoughts arise.  “You know,” said one of my very insightful physicist friends, “there is something called the Casimir effect.”  This is a well-accepted effect in which two electric conducting plates in a vacuum feel a very powerful attractive force if placed close enough together.  Feel free to Google this.  It is a fascinating fact.  The force appears because of the vaccum radiation field (a strongly quantum mechanics effect--I apologize to my non-physicist readers, but I don’t have the space to go into this here) pushes more on the outside of the plates than on the inside of the plates, giving rise to a net force of attraction.  So clearly the quantum vacuum can push on real objects. (The quantum vacuum gives rise to other, known, real effects as well.  So this is not the single, known instance of these sorts of effects.)  So if the quantum vacuum can push on us, why can’t we push on the quantum vacuum?  Is the quantum vacuum the “water” against which the EM Drive is rowing?  It is undeniable that there is a gradient in the radiation pressure in the EM Drive because of its asymmetric design.  Pressures that have gradients in them produce forces if there is something to push against.  So what about a net force on the vacuum radiation field?  The vacuum radiation field is known to be there.  Does it feel a push?  I think maybe it should, and hence this sort of engine might work.

     While all this physics is fascinating, and its truth or falsehood will be demonstrated in the coming years (one of the investigators of the EM Drive is planning to launch a satellite in the near future to see if this actually works in space), the lesson is that people strongly hold beliefs.  These beliefs can be religious, and even scientific.  The caution is to recognize them simply as beliefs, and not to insist they are correct without good evidence.  Now some beliefs are held without the ability to easily demonstrate them.  The existence of God is a primary example.  However, it is important to recognize that this is not a demonstrated fact, and that many people have different beliefs.  There are many, very different, religious beliefs in the world.  There are also the beliefs of atheists. (And this is a belief, too.  The non-existence of God has not been demonstrated.)  So let’s keep everything in proper perspective, and recognize that while human emotion and needs enter deeply into the holding of beliefs, we have minds, too, and we need to understand the nature of belief.  I hope we can all do that, so that we can move forward in the most productive manner possible.





Copyright 2016, Richard Puetter, All rights reserved.

© 2016 Rick Puetter

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Wow! Your writing is always so educational for me. This is no exception as it gives lots of food for thought. Conflicts tend to arise when people just accept what they were told without ever questioning it then expect everyone else to believe exactly the same as they do. One thing I truly believe is that if we all keep our minds open and questioning, and learn to respect everyone's right to their own beliefs, we could learn much from one another.

Posted 1 Year Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.


Why do we love? A fellow named John said, we can only love because we were first loved. In the book of Jeremiah the Spirit of God tells him, "I knew you before you were in your mother's womb." So perhaps we believe because the Spirit first chose us and set us apart. That is called the process of election. Perhaps it is not of man who wills but of God who designs and brings those designs to fruition. But putting the Bible aside for a moment let us look to nature. There is great design in nature; from the symmetry of a spider's web to the delicate balance of life on earth. If I were a man in the wilderness and came upon a city I would not say, look what sprouted here in the desert all of its own accord! But I would recognize the design and the architecture as that of a builder. Perhaps that, in and of itself, is enough reason to believe. I've not decided yet if life is a comedy or a tragedy but it is a great play of endless entertainment. If it be a tragedy, then we will all find our end in wailing misery. If it is a comedy perhaps we shall find in death that we have all been played the fool. I rather favor the latter like Voltaire saying, "God is the greatest comedian of all, playing to an audience afraid to laugh". An interesting read my old friend.

Posted 1 Month Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

I found you 'story' fascinating. You write so clearly and with great understanding, but very much with the knowledge of today .
I am always amazed about how the thinking and technology of the times always gets replaced by something previously un-thought of. It is quite a salutary thought that there is probably something un-thought of just round the corner, which will replace everything we now think of as being true.

I am particularly interested in the EM technology. I presume this works by creating some sort of vacuum But bear in mind the saying, 'Nature abhors a vacuum'! I have visions of these rockets setting off and then just disappearing out of existence!

Then, of course, I am a believer that there are other 'existences' right around us.(other dimensions?). I think we are arrogant and rather foolish, to think there is just us, our technology, and our beliefs .

But your story is food for thought!

Posted 1 Month Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

A very interesting topic, indeed. I studied the connection between philosophy and science, and it is interesting how these two separated a few centuries ago. The philosophers seemed to have more "faith" in "what if?" questions, whereas the scientist did seem rather stagnated in the accepted scientific views of the time. I think today we need a new breed of "philosophical scientists" again - those who are willing to start imagining again, using a clean slate. One thought on where God fits into all of this.....and trying to refute a common misconception that those believing in God is "backward" and those who embrace science is "forward"....people like Newton were blatant believers in God, and my theory is that, getting closer to the being who spoke the world into existence, surely would expose one to levels of wisdom and intelligence a human would struggle to reach merely, on his or her own. So why then, do so many "modern believers" seem to actually be so "backward"? Well, maybe they are not as close to God as they claim to be?

Great article. Food for thought.

Posted 6 Months Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Who knows why we believe? My observations make me believe that our ideas are based in one unavoidable fact. We believe because it gives us a way to explain what we cant or wont face in reality. We all know that belief in a god is based on Blind Faith. Not on fact. The only difference in christianity is that we have fairly good evidence that a man name yeshwa or jesus once lived and died on the cross.However I think our devotion to this faith is based upon something else. The idea that we can give away our sins and our responsibility for them to another and hence be bothered by them no more. It is a sad truth that we dont deal much in fact when we contemplate our own faults.

Posted 11 Months Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Dear Rick,

You have certainly presented an essay that stimulates my little grey cells, as Agatha Christie’s “Detective Poirot” would say. I am fascinated with the lesson in Physics as I was unaware of the EM Drive, and the possibility of its proof and further discoveries that loom on the horizon. Because you are a renowned physicist, I understand why the main focus in your essay would be in this area.

I also find interesting the comparisons you have used in explaining your reasoning and opinion regarding “Why Do We Believe?”

Following are my thoughts inspired by your words:

It is my opinion that we choose to believe because it is the innate nature of man to find answers that satisfy one’s need to have control of their life; to understand why something happens e.g. curiosity. Therefore the search is ever in place to know why, when, how, where, what if, what if not, etc. And in that, there is a question because we do have a choice to believe, or not to believe. What determines that choice? Is belief part of satisfying man’s natural curiosity, or is man curious because he can believe, and can rely on the security of that belief?

As I have already stated, we are, by nature, curious creatures. That leads to backing up what we believe with proof for those who are driven to understand why they believe. I think of the philosophers of ancient times, writers who postulate opinions, or groups who advance their ideology to convince others to believe as they do. Many factors enter into the final decision to believe, or not to believe; competition, confidence, fear of mockery, rejection, weakness, power, etc.

Moving on, previous beliefs are always changing because of curiosity as it drives men to seek answers, and/or understanding for the reason as to why something happens, as well as Science that provides proof to validate a belief.

Scientific testing is absolute as far as the procedure/s used at the current time of testing. Progression is made with the advancement of discovery in the field of scientific study with each passing round of constants used to verify the testing results. Even in that, there are possibly examples of the data being biased, based on the curiosity of the person performing the testing. Will that person absolutely test all theories, or limit it to those that interest the tester? Again, curiosity may lead to the theories chosen for the testing, which would ultimately affect the results. In that regard, proof of a belief is temporary, as quantum theory and physics have undone many proofs considered absolute at the time of testing.

Oh my, much to contemplate. I thank you for the opportunity to expand my thinking beyond the “normal events” of the day. I have not specifically mentioned religion, as for me, it is faith and faith alone that allows me to believe. There are sundry facts presented to substantiate one’s belief in God, but because translations may indeed have been dependent on the translator’s interpretation of the words as handed down by Biblical Scholars, found on tablets, or on parchments such as The Dead Sea Scrolls, I would be remiss in accepting all that is written as totally factual. So, I will leave my statements on Religion on the proof of one word that I believe, “Faith”.

Your ability to state what you are saying is excellent, as always! Your essay is appreciated!
Now, I’m off to give my “little grey cells” a break! After that, perhaps some reading about the EM Drive?

Best Regards,
Sheila, The Curious One (LOL)

Posted 1 Year Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Long ago I realized that what we believe is often more important than what we know: soldiers call it morale, doctors the placebo effect, and preachers speak of faith working wonders. And though a layman, like you, Rick, I love science: I'm walking because of it (of course, its downside can be terrible-- germ warfare, the hydrogen bomb, Facebook, etc.) But I'm not sure why you're putting faith in the same basket as science-- and by faith I don't mean any particular religion but the belief, the 'sense' that there is more to our existence than the limits of this mortal plane, that is, the measurable universe. You seem to think (believe?) that people believe in God as a desperate attempt to counteract their mortality, their fear of dying, of no longer existing. Some may, but most of the 'religious' people I've known choose to live with God in their lives, as consciously and willfully as atheists choose to live without God, as in 'a-theism'. (And while the latter oft seem to view the former as naive, perhaps even stupid, it may well-turn out-- in the long run-- that the naivete was in not sensing that there is more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy/science.)

Some of us (including this former agnostic) have been fortunate (unfortunate?) enough to have experienced our immortal part-- yes, the soul, and to know there are other 'worlds' besides our vast and singular universe (though no one should assume they are all filled with the 'white light'). However, that doesn't mean we can understand God anymore than any believer might-- but then logically, how can a lesser intelligence ever understand one greater by an almost inconceivable degree? So our faith is harder in a way, because we know the stakes and know that death is not extinction, not an escape--not a wall but a door. And it is where that door may take us that tests our faith....

Posted 1 Year Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.

Wow! Your writing is always so educational for me. This is no exception as it gives lots of food for thought. Conflicts tend to arise when people just accept what they were told without ever questioning it then expect everyone else to believe exactly the same as they do. One thing I truly believe is that if we all keep our minds open and questioning, and learn to respect everyone's right to their own beliefs, we could learn much from one another.

Posted 1 Year Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.

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7 Reviews
Added on September 12, 2016
Last Updated on December 21, 2016
Tags: belief, thought, emotion, religion, science


Rick Puetter
Rick Puetter

San Diego, CA

So what's the most important thing to say about myself? I guess the overarching aspect of my personality is that I am a scientist, an astrophysicist to be precise. Not that I am touting science.. more..

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