There were a number of lovely subtleties to the old X-Files TV program. For example, Fox Mulder lived in apartment number 42: nicely played X-Files writers! But the little bit of business I’m interested in today is the ever-present poster on the office wall. I want to believe.
I want to believe many things. That life is worth living. That experiences are worth having. That love and thought and life are meaningful, even if they are only temporary. But what are beliefs? I propose that beliefs are wonderful things that are simultaneously experiences and propositions.
Experiences are neither true nor false; they do not have what the logicians call “truth value”. Propositions have truth value, and they may or may not be meaningful. In the Power of Wonder blog, I’m not particularly interested in talking about truth (although I think truth is very important, and my writing is full of propositions that I believe to be true).
So what about this belief business? When I believe something, I’m doing two things. First I am holding a thought about the way things are. I believe that the red spot of Jupiter is a huge storm. I believe that I’m going to have fish for dinner. I believe that it is morally wrong to be wantonly cruel. These are all things that are either true or false. The red spot may or may not be a storm; I might have fish, but I might have something else; it could be that I am wrong about the morality of cruelty. I think I’m right about all these things; that’s why I believe them. But I might be deceived, or deluded, or simply mistaken. This is the thinking, the aware, the cautious part of belief.
But it’s the other part of belief that’s important to me today. Belief is also a psychological state. When I believe, I am experiencing something. Why would I be thinking about the Jupiter’s red spot? Because it’s interesting. Because it holds my imagination. Because thinking about Jupiter simultaneously reminds me of how small we are in this universe, and yet how we are—or can be if we put in the effort—connected to people, places, objects, ideas that are far away in space, time and reality.
Mulder wanted to believe because it would be awesome to live in a world that was visited by aliens. Mulder couldn’t believe because the proposition “aliens are visiting us” just didn’t have enough evidence for him to accept it as true. But he could believe if he just let go the proposition long enough to fully experience the belief. Mulder had moments of great joy when he stopped worrying about what is true, and allowed himself to live in the mental experience of belief.
When we experience magic, artfully performed, we get a taste of that experience. I know that the ball didn’t simply disintegrate, travel outside of space and time, and get itself under that cup. I know that nobody can really read minds. With the propositions front and centre, there is no magic; there is no worthwhile experience. But if I can let go of propositions, even for a few moments, I can experience Fox Mulder’s wide-eyed wonderment. I want to believe. At least for a few minutes.