I remember countless occasions when my belief seemed to either make something happen or contribute substantially to it happening. Sinking a crucial free throw in a school basketball game when I was unbearably nervous but nonetheless believed I would make the shot. Believing that a therapy client who expressed her desire to confront her abuser would not only survive the experience but benefit from it.
Beliefs are outside the realm of empiricism. For that reason, their verite' is frequently subjected to scorn. Given the violence, chaos, and damage that often results from basing actions exclusively on beliefs (such as wars where “God is on your Side”), there’s plenty of justification for that scorn.
There’s also a long history of breakthrough knowledge coming from beliefs, intuitions, and “non-ordinary” ways of knowing: the chemist Mendeleev visualizing the Periodic Chart of Elements in a dream, for instance, or the famous 1941 story of Winston Churchill ignoring his aide opening his car door and illogically entering the vehicle from the other side instead, thus surviving a bomb that subsequently exploded. Arthur Koestler in his book Act of Creation used the term bisociation to describe connections made outside awareness that lead to insights and creativity. Such experiences can be exhilarating when they’re right and devastating when they’re wrong. Exhilaration from experiencing that the pathway to clarity and truth is not exclusively rational and empirical, thus confirming life’s mystery, diversity, unpredictability...and belief in such things.
On the other hand the devastation that results when non-rational decisions go wrong (a military commander sending troops to their death based on a hunch or an ambition, for instance, rather than on intelligence) can be crippling. Not only in terms of one’s own conscience, but in terms of the ridicule that often accompanies any non-empirical approach gone wrong.
Navigating between different ways of knowing, then, becomes a matter of learning when to do what. Should I trust my beliefs in this situation? Should I continue to systematically research the matter before weighing it up? Should I defer to the expertise of more experienced people? Was that an intuition or magical thinking that just happened in my mind?
Navigating through questions such as these is easier when three things are recognized: 1) No situation lends itself to notions of "absolute truth" once context is taken into account. Gravity doesn’t operate the same way in space as it does on Earth. 2) Truth is not distinct from beauty: often the right thing to do will have a pleasing aesthetic that separates it from other options. James Watson marveling at the beauty of the DNA double helix when he accidentally twisted his model into that configuration for the first time, or Mozart reveling in the pleasure of creating a perfect ending to a sonata he'd been struggling to finish. 3) Time expands, subjectively, when you’re on the right track: solving a challenging mathematical equation after hours of work brings a relief that “stops the clock” momentarily.
These three factors are not foolproof by any means. We can think we’ve considered context and then discover a population that is immune to our ideas. Our aesthetic sensibility may correspond to outward standards rather than to a more direct experience in the present. The expansion of time may reflect relief from fatigue more than insight. These are the sorts of challenges we face when we recognize that the ever-changing nature of “truth” requires the ongoing development of an expanded awareness that incorporates everything: empiricism, intuition, belief, and other non-ordinary means of knowing. Once we accept the many ways of knowing available to us, our responsibility is to strengthen all of them.