Beliefs —

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 96 (March/April 2007)

Photograph courtesy of Elan Sun Star

Here is where I break ranks with a lot of my colleagues in the human enhancement field. Many of them are very much involved in discussions of how to change beliefs and belief systems. I can understand why they are, for much of that discussion revolves around how to change dis-empowering beliefs into self-empowering beliefs so that people can get unstuck and move forward, and our job is one of helping people to empower themselves.

One problem with that, however, is — how are the beliefs to be chosen that are to be superimposed over existing beliefs, and who is to do the choosing? If the person with erroneous beliefs is doing the choosing, he clearly is doing so on inadequate and distorted information, by definition. And if someone else is choosing for him, that is like playing God — I don’t think I have that right. But the real problem is this:  without some more general criterion to measure by, picking some beliefs to superimpose over and suppress other beliefs is essentially arbitrary or even random, and can do as much harm as good.

Granted, there is a range of obvious considerations which can indeed act as something of a more general criterion — the survival and long-term well-being of the client, as judged by somebody — but that is generally not clearly defined, nor universally accepted as a criterion, so things are still in a muddle, and the virtue of selecting and imposing certain beliefs over other beliefs is an uncertain quantity.

I propose that we shift at least some emphasis from our beliefs, held as beliefs, toward those things that we can know and see for ourselves.

Here, I buy into Alfred Korzybski’s notion — “the map is not the territory” formulation — that our “job” is to work to bring our respective maps into being better and better approximations of what they are maps of — i.e., reality. For improving our lives, the achievement of our goals, and just possibly our effects upon one another, I suggest that a better strategy is to give relatively more attention to what we can know and see for ourselves. Believing that to be a better strategy is, of course, a belief in itself, but one which brings us closer to reality by being self-correcting.

This is, for me, much more than an intellectual, abstruse point at issue. Some years back, I did a close examination and sampling and found that easily ninety percent or more of everything I had ever been taught was substantially in error. (Makes one wonder about what I myself am teaching, yes?) So:  much as I love to lecture, instead I teach through people’s own first-hand experiences and observations. There is still error, but not as much, and the lessons last a lot longer.

When I teach workshops, I don’t go after people’s beliefs, though I might cite a little evidence or reasoning once in a while in trying to get them to examine some point of the session. Instead, I help them construct experiences, encourage them to examine what they have observed in those experiences, and see what they can learn from what they have observed there.

To “change beliefs” from disempowering to self-empowering, I don’t depend on telling people how wonderful they are, even though they are. I don’t find that terribly persuasive these days. How many times have you been told you are wonderful, and how much of that have you really taken to heart? Instead, through their own experiences, people find themselves doing things which, by their old disempowering beliefs, would be singularities or miracles. After a few such feats, people’s beliefs begin to catch up with and become congruent with their experiences — which, to my mind, is as it should be — and by which time those beliefs are no longer disempowering. Better still, those beliefs are now working closer to effective reality.

Different philosophic views about the nature of reality and how one may find it — different epistemologies — are as diverse as a garden of weeds. I won’t try to change your belief as to which one is more correct — philosophic argument hasn’t settled that for thousands of years. I will simply ask you —

  • Which view is likelier to be correct:  one which is necessarily self-correcting, or one which is not?
  • What, if any, systematic self-correction is featured in your belief as to what is real and what is not?
  • How likely is it, with our human limitations, that any of our beliefs about reality, or generally, is so perfect that it is in no need of built-in, systematic self-correction?

— And does any of this have some application to what you are experiencing today?