Why we believe what we believe

All beliefs are not equal

By Gerald Alper

Someone who says — “I know there is a God” — expresses an emotionally charged, non-verbal experience, of which there can be no doubt. In this sense, the believer, sure of everything his senses are telling him, seems to mean, “I know what I have experienced.”

We all rely on this kind of certitude to make it through the day. Yesterday morning, for example, it did not rain, it poured. On the way to the office I was worried that my umbrella, which has seen better days, would not make it through the storm, that I might have to explain to my patients why I got drenched; that the subway line running from Queens where I live to the Manhattan office where I practice might get stalled from flooding, which has happened before, thereby causing me to be late; that my patients, assuming the downpour constitutes a bona fide weather emergency, will not bother to show up; and that the moldering ceiling in the corridor outside my office, leaky to begin with, will finally begin to come down in earnest. 

But I don’t only worry. I observe, too, I think, I remember, I make many associations to the rain, and I feel varying emotions. I note, for instance, the discarded, wind-broken umbrellas littering the street, already beginning to disappear under filthy pools of the accumulating rainwater, and I am finally grateful when I make it to my office before my first patient is scheduled. I am relieved the corridor ceiling is still in one place as is my battered umbrella. And once inside my office, feeling safe and secure, a bit like a lucky survivor, I can enjoy the rhythmic beating of the rain against the windowpane as I usually do.

Making it through the rain to my office in the morning means many things to me, can spark different memories, and engender manifold associations.   If I should therefore say to someone — “I know that it rained this morning” — I am doing far more than asserting a simple fact of nature. I am referring to a rich penumbra of experiences that I alone indubitably had, in the particular way that it occurred to me, all of which make the truth of what I claim unassailable.

But could I be wrong? Well, there is always the chance I might be off on the timeline, thinking what had really happened yesterday morning had occurred much earlier.  I might be exaggerating what was only a very steady rain and a gusty day into a humongous storm. I might be suffering a more serious memory lapse. It is at least logically possible that what I actually dreamed this morning—when I was in a vivid hypnagogic state—I am confusing with reality.  But what are the chances of that? Much less than one in a thousand. Too many experiences, too many interwoven associations speak against it. I am sure I can tell the difference between a whole segment of a waking day and the passage of a fleeting dream, as almost everyone else can. But I also know there are such things as hallucinations, optical illusions, perceptual distortions, thought disorders, which means saying that I had certain experience does not logically constitute proof that what I described is objectively real.

From that perspective, to say, “I believe in God” means “I believe in my experience of God.” It is another, profoundly different assertion to say, “my experience of God is a perfectly accurate description of objective reality.” Someone who says “I know there is a God,” is therefore not unlike the person who says “I know my mother loves me.” Such a person, often flooded with emotion, under the guise of reporting a fact, is really talking about an overpowering intuition, the feeling of a presence, a connection to an other that can hardly be challenged. Such a person would be wasting his time to seriously doubt that “my mother loves me.” But just imagine for moment a not uncommon scenario: a mother who is being treated by a psychiatrist for her chronic depression. In her sessions she paints the picture of a relationship that her son would be dismayed to hear and find difficult to comprehend. She talks about how in spite of her obvious attachment and concern for her overly sensitive son she has resented, ever since her husband abandoned her, the burden of being a single parent. She reveals she found it increasingly hard, almost impossible not to be critical of and angry at a son she views as being excessively demanding of her attention and affection. She admits she cannot wait for the day her young son moves out of her house and so on. Examples like this—when our subjectivity speaks to us with a seemingly infallible authority—can be multiplied ad infinitum.

Think of the woman who “knows that her husband is faithful” but mysteriously does not seem to also know of the numerous affairs he has discreetly and simultaneously carried on for almost as long as they were married. Or to bring it to the most visceral, concrete level, think of any person, in the presence of whom your flesh begins to crawl and who oddly enough happens to feel the same way about you. Think of how, for example, she sees you as sullen and uncommunicative and you see her as withholding and haughty.  How she sees you as pompous and humorless and you see her as hypothetical in vain. Or think of two people locked in an ugly, escalating argument, each subjectively enraged at the other, each willing to swear, each utterly convinced that whatever the other says must be wrong, that what is claimed to be white must be black. What is held to be black must be white.

We either forget or fail to realize that subjective experience is not a simple mirror or photograph of objective reality, whether interpersonal or otherwise. It is a construct and residue, and end product of a long process. It is an indispensable, direct access to what we call our consciousness and our subjectivity (and therein probably our most prized data). But it is not a mirror or a photograph of our consciousness either. It is not a reflection of our interpersonal relationships. It is not a copy or record of our preconscious or our unconscious. Our subjective experience, regardless of how compelling it may be, tells a little about the raw data of our impressions. How they emerge from our neurobiology, from our molecular biology, from the quantum mechanical processes which underlie it. Most important of all, we overlook that my subjectivity in all but a handful of cases radically differs from your subjectivity.

These ideas, in a different context, are explored in greated depth in my new book, God And Therapy. What We Believe When No One Is Watching (IBooks, Alper).

Published January 21st, 2016


Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.