The Balance of Doubt and Belief

May 10, 2015

We see our lives through the lens of our belief systems. We are happy, safe, anxious or mad at any given moment based on how we interpret our conditions as mapped against our expectations. But beyond the emotional, our belief systems also provide the foundation on which we build who we are — both as individuals, couples, teams, companies and communities.  “On the tight-wire of shared beliefs, precariously dances the human condition.”

We must simply “believe” in many things and on these imagined human institutions we truly depend. Law, government, money, corporations, religion, capitalism — just to name a few — all simply require us to collectively buy-in. For each, their legitimacy depends entirely on our shared willingness to accept them as mental models or “truths” from which we can cooperate and collectively co-exist. And on each of these institutions social humanity entirely depends. Without “belief” these inventions cease to exist.

For all of history, our societies have been enabled and held together by shared belief systems. The willingness to believe in the divinity of kings, the influence of Gods and the unique place of humanity amongst the creatures of Earth was needed to hold us in community. To believe was human, while to question was unnatural and to explore deemed futile. All communities sought to maintain the basic status quo.

But beginning in the 1600’s small European pockets began to seed a scientific revolution. For millennia, numbers had been used to count. To calculate taxes, to support the imagined monetary system and to maintain societal evidence, but in the 1600’s it began to be clear that numbers were useful for something much, much more — mathematics. Numbers and their use in calculations could be used to “prove” that something was true or false. No longer did the world need to be held captive with “belief.” With mathematics the principles of the world could be studied, tested and shown to exist. In perhaps the most important book ever written, in 1687, Isaac Newton published The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, teaching us among many other things, how to calculate and predict outcomes in the world around us. In this very moment we moved from belief to evidence, and the world set a new course for entirely new possibilities.

For us to believe we began to expect more. We sought to define our understanding of the world on the basis of data. The more we learned the more we began to understand just how little we actually understood. As the scientific revolution advanced, we embraced ignorance and accepted the limits of our knowledge of the world, but with this we built frameworks from which we could continuously extend our understanding and shared belief system. The paradigm shift was tremendously consequential — our expectations of ourselves and the potential of our world changed forever.

Yet untestable “belief” remains core to humanity. Many times recently we have seen the frailty of our world. London in 2011 and now more recently Ferguson and Baltimore have fallen victim to social unrest that spills forth when our belief or trust in our social systems erode.

We often think of innovation in terms of the technical — a new gadget, advanced algorithm or curative treatment. Yet much of what innovation depends on — education, collaboration, revenue sharing, etc. — are all made possible by the innovation of community. Each is made possible by the ability of deep expertise to be built and shared.

Marriages, exceptional teams and corporations as well all depend on shared beliefs. In some ways often also we seek some evidence — perhaps encouragement, gifts, publications or wins or profits — but what we need the most is confidence that we, together, adhere to shared principles. From this we have what makes humans uniquely remarkable; from this we have trust. Without trust we have nothing, and with it nothing is impossible.

Who we are, where we are from and what we could do or be is accrued from our earliest childhood moments. From what we were whispered, shown or encouraged to “try again” our beliefs were emboldened or confidence dashed. On this most important day of the year, a grateful and deepest appreciation to the greatest innovators of all, “mothers,” and a truly special thanks to mine; I believe.