Belief in Belief and the Beetle-Box Metric

by James Somers, March 17, 2010

Any atheist who’s had the opportunity will tell you that arguing against Christians, especially new-agey ones, is exhausting. Whatever angle you take—pick apart the Bible, attack the standard arguments for God, demonstrate indoctrination, etc.—the debate always seems to end up in the same place, what I call the “faith impasse”:

Listen: I just believe. I have faith. I’m sorry if you can’t understand that—I really am—but faith is not about reason, and God is not the sort of thing that you can explain.

This is the discursive equivalent of a guy in a duel insisting, after he misses his only shot, that it’s not fair for you to have a gun. It seems like a very low tactic, like a last resort. But it works. And if we’re going to defeat it, we’re going to have to figure out how.

Belief in belief

Dan Dennett, in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, points out that believing that (a) “democracy is good” is different from believing that (b) “belief in democracy is good.” Someone who held a might write a pamphlet espousing the benefits of a democratic society, whereas someone who held b might see to the distribution of that pamphlet: theirs is a “second-order belief” or, as Dennett puts it, a “belief in belief.”

Historically, religious beliefs tended to be of the first order: “you sacrifice an ox if you want it to rain” because “you really believe that the rain god won’t provide rain unless you sacrifice an ox” (Dennett 227). Belief for its own sake—the kind that drives us to the “faith impasse”—appears to be a relatively recent invention. One explanation is that “the meme for faith exhibits frequency-dependent fitness: it flourishes particularly in the company of rationalistic memes”; since “rationalistic memes” have proliferated in recent centuries, so have calls for “blind faith” and belief in belief (231).

That is, because we have so drastically increased our stock of hard facts over the years—stuff like “rain clouds are formed by colliding air fronts at different temperatures,” or “a baby’s sex doesn’t depend on phases of the moon”—religions that once made all sorts of empirical claims have had to slowly untie themselves from the actual world, in order not to be disproved.

And what happens when a religion no longer has purchase on the real? It retreats into the minds of its believers. All that is solid melts into air: God becomes less a coherent entity than a kind of indescribable omnipresence, an Emersonian oversoul that hears our prayers and “acts in mysterious ways.” He becomes, more and more throughout the years, like a beetle in a box.

Wittgenstein’s beetles

After discussing the Druze—a peculiar religious community based in Beirut where residents insist on lying to outsiders about their beliefs—Dennett goes on, in Breaking the Spell, to quote the following passage at length from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations:

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle.” No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.—Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. —But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?—If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. —No, one can “divide through” by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is. (§293, as quoted on Dennett 235)

Dennett remarks that

much has been written on Wittgenstein’s beetle box, but I don’t know if anybody has ever proposed an application to religious belief. In any case, it seems fantastic at first that the Druze might be an actual example of the phenomenon.

Indeed, the idea of a religion with beliefs that cannot be observed and that (possibly) change constantly sounds a lot like Wittgenstein’s hypothetical box. But the connection seems just as valid for any other religion, or any other belief at all. Every concept, from God to I to chair, is like a beetle in a box: we all use the same word “chair” and say we know what it means based only on our own personal, internal mental contents (the brain state we’re in when we think of chairs), contents which constantly change.

There is a way in which some concepts seem more like beetles in a box than others, though. My concept of two, for instance, is probably very much like everyone else’s; we all have (roughly) the same beetle in our boxes. Thus our word “two” is not pulling any tricks—it is not, as Wittgenstein puts it, that “the thing in the box has no place in the language-game,” for the internal mental contents referred to by “two” are (presumably) not arbitrary. Of all concepts, in fact, two would probably be one of the least like a beetle in a box.

The word “I,” on the other hand, and its corresponding concept of me or my self, is probably much closer to what Wittgenstein had in mind (and to the Druze’s religion). Each person understands “I” based only on his or her own self, obviously, and every self is (just as obviously) different. But still, “I” has a place in the language-game, because everyone who says it is referring to the same type of object, even if the actual constitution of that object is unique. So it goes for any “relative reference”: that chair, the telephone closest to X, etc. Example: “n is the biggest number I can think of” depends on who says it (and is thus just as relative as “I”), but since whoever says it is doing the same sort of thing (mentally) when he “processes” the phrase, it is not useless in the way that Wittgenstein’s “beetle” is useless.

You’ll notice that as we move from one concept to another, we seem to be playing with or turning two critical “knobs,” which together define what I’ll call “the beetle-box metric”: the concept’s articulability, or the degree to which a person can examine and describe his X, and its sharedness, or the degree to which my X is the same as your X.

It should be no surprise that religions—and in particular, their various conceptions of “God”—also admit to degrees of beetle-in-a-box-resemblance. As it happens, these are often distributed across time, with those most like a beetle in a box appearing latest. Dennett gives a run-through, though he doesn’t realize he’s taking steps up the beetle-box ladder: from rain gods and Greek gods to Yahweh of The Old Testament, through to the original New Testament Lord, “that “genderless Person without a body who nevertheless answers prayers in real time (Stark’s conscious supernatural being),” etc., all the way up to “a Higher Power (Stark’s essence).”

What a beetle-box does to your brain

Imagine that in your religion the idea of God is neither shared nor articulable—imagine, in other words, that your most deeply held convictions are about something that’s isomorphic to Wittgenstein’s beetle in a box. What would that mean?

On its own, probably not much. It would probably be harmless. But consider what happens when such a bizarrely vague God-concept is combined with an imperative toward faith, as it is in some forms of Christianity:

I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me. – (John 14: 6)

If your particular brand of Christianity takes this to mean that the only path to eternal bliss is to simply have faith in Christ, then you implicitly have a pretty serious stake in that belief. Dennett warns us what can happen:

Once people start committing themselves (in public, or just in their “hearts”) to particular ideas, a strange dynamic process is brought into being, in which the original commitment gets buried in pearly layers of defensive reaction and meta-reaction.

His point is especially apt when the “particular ideas” to which one is committed are formless and private, like a beetle in a box, because those ideas act like wildcards. That is, ideas that have not been articulated (much) are not yet committed to (m)any facts, and so are compatible with (m)any arbitrary fact(s); moreover, ideas that are private cannot, in principle, undergo the kind of “compatibility checking” with an expert that would elsewise be possible.

The trouble, then, is that it is easy to maintain one’s commitment to these “wildcard” ideas, because there is no inconsistency—logically, cognitively, or publicly—in changing their content if the commitment so demands it. What then happens, as Dennett puts it, is that whatever little actual articulable content comprises the idea gets buried under these changes, or attempts to attack and defend it (his “pearly layers”). This is far less likely when an idea is shared—because an expert’s articulation (the “orthodoxy”) is available—or articulable—because there are more committed-to facts to fix an idea in place.

So someone who claims true belief, but who actually only has a particularly powerful belief in belief, could plausibly not know it, because the truth is buried under all these layers of cognitive infighting.

Through the faith impasse

Where does that leave us?

Well, now we have a (provisional) theory for what leads people to declare their unequivocal faith in a concept they can’t describe. The two critical components are (1) a commitment to belief itself and (2) a sufficiently “slippery” halo of religious concepts to be the object of that belief.

And although it’s a long shot, I’m hoping that we can parlay this theory into a successful attack. The idea is that if we can explicitly articulate the psychological mechanisms at work in a person’s most intimate pernicious religious beliefs, maybe we can help to dismantle them—to at last purge that nasty beetle from its box.