Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 21, Number 1

I Believe, Therefore I Am!

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Belief: A Challenge to Science

Will LaPage
NAI Fellow

“Interpretation forges emotional and intellectual connections between the audience and the meanings inherent in the resource.” —NAI Definition of Interpretation

René Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am,” is generally credited as the foundation of rational thinking. Unfortunately, it is also viewed as a rejection of belief. However, true rational thinking would never discard any concept as being unworthy of deep analysis. “Deep interpretation” is an expression of a belief that if we want our messages to stick, to have lasting value, they have to be able to penetrate the belief system of the recipient. When this fails to happen, the message may still be highly informative, wildly entertaining, even memorable, but it will not have a high likelihood of being provocative. Without provocation, interpretation fails its primary mission of encouraging change—change in appreciation at a minimum, but hopefully, change in our desire to learn more, to challenge, and to become advocates.

With provocation as our goal, tapping into the belief system of others can be as simple as asking “What do you believe about wolves?” (or whatever it is that you are interpreting). The answers can be fascinating, but what’s really interesting is that you very quickly learn that many people have a deep reluctance to articulate their beliefs and to express themselves publicly. Beliefs are personal. Sharing them makes us vulnerable. So, it may be better to begin by sharing one of your own beliefs—not a fact—a belief. Of course we can believe a fact, but that’s really a copout. The scientist who discovered that fact is more likely to regard it as an approximation, knowing that contradictory “facts” can always come along. So, to avoid the copout, you’d really have to explain why you believe it more than does the scientist1. This requires a little searching because, unfortunately, we’ve never been encouraged to examine our beliefs for what they really are, an amazing window on ourselves. But, even before that can happen, we have to have a better understanding of the incredible importance of our beliefs—how they operate and how they influence every facet of our lives. We have a powerful, and unfortunate, need to separate belief from logic, to treat them as separate realms. It’s totally arbitrary. We believe in logic and in science. Science could not operate without our belief in it and its own beliefs, however flawed, in peer reviews, and that it can find answers. So, where do the underlying beliefs come from?

THE NEED TO BELIEVE is as primal a need as is the need to survive and the need to procreate. Abraham Maslow2 rejected belief as a basic human need. He consequently failed to see basic needs to procreate and to eat as something more than physical acts. Without nurturing, raising, and protecting, all of which require some form of belief in individual and communal responsibility, procreation and survival ultimately fail. Without believing that certain things are safe to eat and others are not, we would have never seen the dawn of civilization—itself a belief in the need for community.

THE POWER OF BELIEF is undoubtedly humankind’s greatest strength. Without a belief in science, how could science exist and get funded? Science got us to the moon only because we believed it to be possible. Science can end wars, but it takes a strong belief to start them. Medical miracles happen in the same way; the Placebo Effect3 is 100 percent belief. Belief is what got us here. We can, therefore, believe our future into reality, personally and collectively, for both good and bad.

THE ORIGIN OF BELIEF, or more precisely, the origin of the ability to believe, is genetic4. The ability to believe is inseparable from the ability to think. We are endowed with an open operating system that runs on what gets imprinted into it. From our earliest days we believed that our mothers would protect us from danger while also believing in the reality of danger and in our inability to protect ourselves. This openness to imprinting stays with us throughout our lives, and is the basis for our belief in the efficacy of experience and education.

THE EVOLUTION OF BELIEF is a necessity flowing from the need to survive. If we were incapable of modifying our beliefs we would be in severe physical danger and lack the ability to compete in our changing world. We are constantly shedding and fine-tuning our beliefs, from the tooth fairy and Santa Claus to believing that good behavior is its own reward. A large part of our being rational lies in our abilities to doubt and to discard outdated beliefs.

THE ECOLOGY OF BELIEF recognizes our human need for trust and companionship; it is the foundation stone of community. A community of like-minded people, whether they be scientists or activists for day-care, share a common bond—a bond that opens the door to effective communication. We are linked, with varying degrees of strength, to a wide variety of communities. And those communities are similarly linked to other communities in a vast network of believers.

THE COMFORT OF BELIEF comes from the reassurance our beliefs give us through knowing who we are, that we are worthwhile, a part of something bigger than ourselves, and that there is a better future. The act of sharing our beliefs is a source of comfort, whether through communal prayer, activism, debate, interpretation, or caring for another. When we plant a seed, there is comfort in believing it will grow and spread more seeds; otherwise why would we bother?

THE PERSONALITY OF BELIEF, or, “we are what we believe,” is our signature, our psychological fingerprint. Our complex belief system of hundreds of beliefs is uniquely, individually, ours. It’s what makes us introverts and extroverts, progressives or conservatives, humans not machines. The sharing of a belief is always a personal statement, far more human and vulnerable that the sharing of an opinion, an attitude, or a judgment.

THE PURPOSE OF BELIEF is to provide order in an unbelievably disorderly world. From order comes happiness; and our lifelong pursuit of happiness is sanctioned and endorsed by our Declaration of Independence. Order is never perfect, as we’ve seen from Maslow’s classification of human needs, and from the psychologists’ separation of attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. But, along with Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, they’re probably pretty good starting points. However, they are only starting points.

THE MAGIC OF BELIEF and believing, is fundamental to the human needs for self expression, self actualization, and creativity. By believing in ourselves, we are tapping into that magic, becoming risk-takers in what would otherwise be a monotonously dreary life. Each of us has a magic kingdom that we can visit anytime we wish, and there discover that the future belongs to those who believe in their dreams.

THE TENSION OF BELIEVING is that element called “doubt,” allowing our beliefs to grow and even be discarded. Doubt is also the very essence of rational thinking and science. It opens the door to discriminating between a good belief and a bad one. A good belief is one that contributes to our health without doing damage to those communities we are a part of, including the natural world. Without that essential tension in our beliefs, we would be very dogmatic, unattractive, humans.

THE UBIQUITY OF BELIEF would be boring if it weren’t so endlessly amazing. We are awash in a sea of beliefs, our own and those of others, and are rarely even aware of it. Political beliefs, marketing beliefs, science beliefs, education beliefs, child-rearing, investments, religion, health, and environmental beliefs batter our every wakeful moment. We believe in the efficacy of traffic controls, in the stock market, and in airplane mechanics we’ve never met. Is it any wonder that we seldom take the time to examine our own beliefs except in the sometimes-shocking context of those of others?

In one of the many remarkable paradoxes that characterize human nature, our love for the thrill of frontiers has yet to extend to studying the frontier of belief. The literature on any of these eleven facets of belief is unbelievably slim. Even more curiously, the profession of interpretation has not jumped into the void and assumed the leadership in addressing this gulf. However, that should not stop us from appreciating the exciting potential of dabbling in the waters of belief and perhaps provoking a eureka moment or two as researchers and interpreters.

It may be that we have become a society of doubters who no longer trust the authority of science, the leadership of politicians, and the promises of corporations. But, it may also be that politicians, corporations, and scientists could learn a thing or two from the profession of interpretation, a profession that has, over the years, earned the public trust not through the science of its methods, but through the passion of its beliefs. It shares those beliefs and that passion because it deeply cares.

In my opinion, interpretation is more art than science. And, by “art” I mean: “a truth powerfully rendered.” Because interpretation is an art, it has a special connection to the visitor—a connection not necessarily stronger than science, but different, going directly to the heart. If the science of interpretation seeks to do more than scratch the surface of that relationship it must seek to understand it. That very special relationship allows us to learn from visitors. If there is a meaning inherent in the resource to visitors it will resonate with their beliefs. What are beliefs of the schoolchild, the first-time visitor, the volunteer, the student, the artist, the potential benefactor? What are the beliefs of the litterer, the vandal, the thief of public property, the disturber of the peace, the violator of rules? Interpretation is all about sharing—sharing information, sharing concerns, sharing heritage, sharing beauty. With provocation our goal, and sharing our medium, let us “Provoke Sharing,” and stop worrying about the rarity of inflicting interpretation. Until we appreciate the role of belief in interpretation, we will never get beyond studying the method of interpretation.

If I were to do just one thing to improve the grabbing power of my messages, I’d share a short personal belief along with a message on the back of a business card, saying: I believe, therefore I am! Such a message was used in the preamble to Americans Outdoors: The Legacy and the Challenge5: “We believe that the outdoors is a statement of the American Condition.” Now, what do we believe about interpreting that statement?

Will LaPage is an NAI Fellow and the author of Rethinking Park Protection: Treading the Uncommon Ground of Environmental Beliefs, CABI, London, 2012; and Parks for Life: Moving the Goal Posts, Changing the Rules, and Expanding the Field, Venture Publishing, State College, PA, 2007.

Further references on the role of belief and disbelief in understanding, see also:

Achenbach, Joel. “The War on Science: The Age of Disbelief. Why Do So Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” National Geographic, March 2015.

Allison, Jay, & Gedman, Dan (eds.) (2006). This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. Henry Holt and Co. in cooperation with National Public Radio.

Dodd, Ray. (2003). The Power of Belief: Essential Tools for an Extraordinary Life. Hampton Roads Publishing, Alexandria, VA.

Fine, Cordelia. (2006). A Mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.

Lipton, Bruce. (2005). The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, and Miracles. Mountain of Love/Elite Publishers, Santa Rosa, CA.

McKay, Mathew, & Fanning, Patrick. (1991). Prisoners of Belief: Exposing and Changing Beliefs that Control Your Life. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA.

Mooney, Chris. “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science.” Mother Earth News, May–June 2011.

Newberg, Andrew, & Waldman, M.R. (2006). Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning. Free Press, New York.

1. See: Atul Gawande, The Mistrust of Science. The New Yorker, News Desk. June 10, 2016
2. See: Simply Psychology. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Saul McCloud. 2007–2014.
3. See: Web MD. What is the Placebo Effect? “It is due to the patient’s expectations (beliefs).”
4. See: The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the power of consciousness. Bruce Lipton. 2005. Elite Books.
5. The Report of The President’s Commission on The American Outdoors. Island Press. 1987.