Have you ever wondered how your beliefs are formed? We all have worldviews that are informed by our beliefs about life. But how are our beliefs created? And by whom? In this article, I explore one possible answer offered by cognitive science. Especially its new branch of inquiry – cognitive science of religion (CSR) – provides an interesting take on the question. If you haven’t read my first piece on CSR and its insights into the evolutionary character of our beliefs, check it out here to get a little more context. And now, let’s see how our beliefs are formed!
The first thing to note is that CSR differentiates between two types of beliefs we have. One is our more intuitive, automatic beliefs. They are readily available to us and do not require much thinking. Another is the more reflective beliefs that demand attentive and purposeful thinking on our part. Then, importantly, there is an overall basic structure within which we as a species form all our beliefs. Think of this basic structure as a foundation of a house. All human beings share that metaphorical foundation atop which they build their worldview houses. Cognitive scientist and psychologist Justin L. Barrett refers to this structure as our natural cognition. Examples include such basic beliefs as ‘I am’, ‘other people have minds’, ‘one cannot pass through solid objects like walls’ etc. This foundation remains relatively constant across our species. In other words, if you are a human being, you will most likely not be able to live without the belief that you exist. Even if you are sometimes inclined to contemplate the theoretical possibility of there being no ‘you’.
So where does this leave us? According to cognitive science – in a circle. Let me explain. The suggestion is that the way we form our beliefs, which inform our general worldviews, is in circles, not in a linear progression. This is how I imagine it looks if you would try to illustrate it in a very simple way.
The idea here is that there is a circular relationship of influence between our intuitive/non-reflective beliefs and our reflective beliefs (more complex ones). All this circularity happens within our species-specific structure – the natural cognition. This relatively constant foundation informs our further nonreflective intuitive beliefs, which play into the circle of mutual influence between intuition and conscious reflection. I can decide to consciously reflect on my intuitive belief and, with practice, alter it (just like with physical practice we can alter our physical bodies). This is possible due to the flexibility of our brain, a trait called neuroplasticity (see an interesting short video on it here).
To continue my house metaphor, we all share the foundations, then we build the general frame of the house (intuitive beliefs), and inside we decorate much more individually (reflective beliefs). Of course, this metaphor goes only so far. The interior design does not influence the structure of a house, while our reflective beliefs flow into the mutually influencing circle of the overall development of our worldviews. That is why, after all, we have such an incredible diversity of cultures in the world – now and historically.
In a separate article, I will explore in more detail what cognitive science tells us on how something becomes an intuitive belief, how our natural cognition plays into our belief formation circle, and what can we do to help ourselves become more flexible and open-minded in our worldviews.