Believing makes us human

COVER PHOTO BY R. GARY RAHAM Author Fuentes describes how the ability to believe defines us as human beings.

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By R. Gary Raham

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A biologist-artist’s ruminations about our roles in a science-inspired world

            Believing makes us human…for better or for worse. I was reminded of this fact when I read a book recently by Augustin Fuentes entitled Why We Believe. Fuentes, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, makes a good scientific case for the idea that the capacity to believe impossible—or at least improbable—things is a hallmark of humanity. Religious beliefs may come to mind first, but Fuentes extends this human talent to our willingness to believe in things like global economies and romantic love. “Believing is completely real, but often without material substance,” he said. “And most critically,” he continued, “undergirding and infusing belief is the human capacity to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, and to infuse the world with meaning.”

A recent discovery by an Indonesian archaeologist on the island of Sulawesi shows that humans have exercised this ability for at least 44,000 years. Climbing a fig tree vine, he found a cave that hosted a mural painted with red ocher showing human-animal hybrid creatures pursuing wild hogs and dwarf buffalo. Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia said, “This is the oldest rock art in the world and all of the key aspects of modern cognition are there.” (See https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/12/world-s-oldest-hunting-scene-shows-half-human-half-animal-figures-and-sophisticated?utm_campaign=news_daily_2019-12-11&et_rid=490210352&et_cid=3119883)

PHOTO COURTESY OF SCIENCE MAGAZINE Indonesian cave art 44,000 years old shows that our ability to believe and imagine was established long ago.

The good and the bad of believing

Religions provide their believers with many benefits:

  1. A large community of other people to provide life-long friendships along with aid and support in times of crisis.
  2. A common creation story to explain how and why the world is the way it is.
  3. A moral compass to follow when interacting with others.

Religions turn deadly when those who don’t believe the same ideas are portrayed as something less than human and thus worthy of destruction or subjugation.

Likewise, if we lose trust in the reliability of governments and banks, the “money” in our pockets may become just paper promises that can no longer deliver the goods and services we thought we could buy.

The ancient Greeks defined the concept of love with three words rather than one: Eros, agape, and Philia. Eros meant the kind of passionate desire we call romantic love. Agape implied an all-encompassing, altruistic love. Philia included the love we show to family, friends, and more abstract concepts like love of country or some ideology. Love provides comfort, fulfillment, and satisfaction under the best conditions. When thwarted, perverted or twisted with obsession, it turns deadly.

Our human capacity for belief somehow materialized, as our brains grew larger and more complex. Fuentes reports on studies that seem to indicate that other primates may be capable of experiencing what we might describe as awe—taking the time to ponder an impressive panoramic view, for example—but humans seem to be the only primates that entangle our social skills with creativity in such a way that we can build the wonders we imagine, love and aid complete strangers, but also commit horrendous acts of cruelty. It took an estimated 400,000 people to realize the dream of putting a man on the moon, but approximately 20,000 Nazis pursuing a flawed ideology of racial purity exterminated 6 million fellow humans.

Will we imagine ourselves into a future of vast possibilities or allow our beliefs to consume and destroy us? Whatever path we take, believing is what we humans do best.