The Ecology of Belief
by Obi Kaufmann
My relationship to the idea of belief is very specific. It has to be. I’ve worked a philosophy of belief to advance the agenda of my work. My work is the contemplation and celebration, through writing and painting, of earth’s biodiversity and the larger movement to conserve that biodiversity against the crushing wave 21st century threats and ecological stressors. The single greatest of these threats, the threat umbrella under which can be found the milieu of all anthropogenic stressors, the original threat that spawned the sixth extinction of the Anthropocene and now threatens the very fabric that of the biosphere in its current configuration, is the human notion of belief. Belief being the measure by which all human effort is compelled. Belief, both its means and its ends, with its all-pervading ability to unite and divide, is the bedrock of every worldview. Forgive the hyperbole but stay with me when I say that belief doesn’t need to be true to be true. Belief has no problem denying evidence. Belief doesn’t require reason or validity. In relation to my work, questioning the nature of belief is necessary to uncover why this apparent cognitive dissonance is so rampant and also it is a necessary investigation into the nature of how we apprehend and interpret the cosmos.
I am not as much concerned with what people believe, but why people believe. Belief is a psychological pillar of the human mind. The mind, as it has evolved and was originally shaped by the environment of the African savanna since the advent of bipedalism four to six million years ago, underwent a revolution of cognition about 70,000 years ago with the birth of culture. It can be argued that the cognitive revolution is the dawn of human-belief systems. Culture itself is a belief system and is held together by this tribal glue of the common belief. Belief is so powerful that is often the solitary criteria for personal truth.
Religion, any faith-based truth, or any institutional tradition of a supernatural, cosmic order is only one strand in the vast braid of belief that weaves through all aspects of how we see the world. The structures and the forms of mind that project out, probing to build order, that invent stories to understand any work of human art, for example, are rooted in belief. A work of art, a product of the humanities, is any process or artifact constructed to its own end and created through the laborious interface of human conception and human manipulation through media. Religion is art, although religion is not part of the humanities.
Belief is a tool of mind that describes communal expectations in a social context and how we manage those expectations through narrative, both historical and personal, to anticipate the outcome of any relational situation. That anticipation is not temporal, meaning that we use belief to build ideas about both how things are going to unfold and how they’ve unfolded in the past. It is this conflict between expected result, and the process of experimentation that emancipates science from being a belief system.
Centuries of scientific progress suggests that the universe is a reasonable continuum of space and time. Even at both the quantum and the super-galactic levels, where the capacity of the human conceptualizing faculty is tested, we find an environment, a natural world that is investigable and subject to experimental query. While science is not a belief-system in that the results obtained through the correctly applied scientific method are true regardless of belief holding them to be so, that the world will continue to be revealed through scientific inquiry is a belief. The world, meaning the universe, has no responsibility to make sense to our human mind – in fact, it might be that the cosmic order is so vast that our cerebral capacity is simply unable to grasp and unify all of its knowledge.
Belief, as incalcitrant as it is, is subject to paradigm shift, to game-changing. There are moments in human history when we, humanity, begin to believe the truth has a certain orientation and our belief in that orientation is so powerful that we can never go back, we can never return to thinking of the world as we once did. 70,000 years ago, humanity began to believe in the very idea of fiction, or the ability to convey instinctive truths in language, art and narrative story. 10,000 years ago, humanity began to believe that through the technology of agriculture, it had the right and the ability to harness the nature bounty of the earth. 250 years ago, humanity began to believe that all the world’s natural resources were open to industrial exploitation and that progress meant the domination and subjugation of the natural world to our own temporary, even consumable benefit. I see (or rather, I believe that) another seismic shift in the workings of our collective psyche, the mind that governs our society – or the other way around: the society that governs our mind – a slipping of the fault in our anthropocentric world view. At the beginning of the 21st century we are beginning to imagine our place in the world and our relationship to its resources, as we have never conceived before. We are beginning to believe that a reintegration into patterns of renewal, over patterns of extraction, is the path forward for humanity. Once the shift happens, once the ecological paradigm dawns, it will change everything in accordance with the precedent that has been set a number of times before. I am skeptical about how much choice we have about what we believe. The sticky brew that is tradition, heredity and culture is, according to my estimation, largely unescapable. I do, however, believe in epiphany. When, perhaps while experiencing aesthetic arrest, the eye-of-the-universe perceives the thing-of-the-universe and the two are made one and humanity is compelled to evolve and adapt.
Obi Kaufmann is the author and artist behind the best-selling and award winning California Field Atlas. He currently bounces between Oakland and Sierraville, where he is working on his next manuscripts. He is currently booking a book tour for the Summer of 2019 to support his next book: The State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resourse. To contact Obi, please email firstname.lastname@example.org