How enduring can beliefs that can never be substantiated by logical proofs be? Literature, dramas, romance, friendship and, indeed, many endeavors in life require us to take a leap of faith and put time or effort in activities that do not always promise definite paybacks. Still, American author Kate DiCamillo writes dreamily in her award-winning work The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane of “fill[ing yourself] with expectancy,” “[being] awash in hope,” “wonder[ing] who will love you” and “whom you will love next,” even as one season fades into another and years roll by without sight of anyone who reciprocates your feelings.
There are various motivating forces other than reason that drive people to believe in something. These include emotional appeal of a theory, obligation (e.g. trusting the integrity of one’s parents out of a sense of filial piety), tradition (e.g. adhering to the religion of the family or community one is born in) and even a simple desire that something is true. An obvious retort would be that, aside from emotional appeal, what these conditions generate are not genuine beliefs—adherents support the “beliefs” either unthinkingly or in spite of their true opinions (e.g. an investor wishing that his favorite stock would land him a windfall and insisting it would even though he knew that market conditions were unfavorable). While this argument portends to be valid in many instances, holding it as a general truth may, however, belittle the human power to pull wool over our own eyes. Indeed, cognitive dissonance—the mental discomfort stemming from contradictory beliefs, actions and/or decisions—can threaten our concept of self so much that we engage in self-justification strategies to reconcile the differences, and one such strategy may be to persuade ourselves, subconsciously or otherwise, of the soundness of the beliefs we adopt for whatever factor.
Nonetheless, we are not entirely resistant to changing our self-identities and once we entertain doubts about what we stand for, it sets off a cascade of introspections that may lead us to abandon personal beliefs. Beliefs that are not built on rational foundations are, in theory at least, especially susceptible to disintegration under such scrutiny. Beliefs buttressed by facts and reason, in contrast, are hard to disavow unless adherents stubbornly detach themselves from reality—an unlikely phenomenon for sober and mentally sound people engaging in self-introspection. How then can faith rooted more in fantasy than absolute truth be sustained?
In response to this connundrum, DiCamillo proposes in another, similarly themed novel the application of Pascal’s Wager. In this wager, French Philosopher Blaise Pascal argues that people should believe in God even if there is no way to prove His existence, because they have little to lose and everything to gain by living as though God exists. Likewise, DiCamillo apparently thinks, we should keep our hearts open to the possibilities of love even if we cannot know for sure that what awaits us is more than bleak disappointment.
There are many means to refute Pascal’s decision theory but one of the greatest threats to its practical utility is probably mental fatigue. Although it takes little physical exertion to will oneself to hope for love or, for the broader purpose of this article, indulge in beliefs in general, there is only so much heartbreak that many people can take. Emotionally speaking, it appears easier to close off the heart. Expectations, they say, breed disappointment. If you expect nothing from somebody, you are never disappointed. The indeterminate likelihood of rewards at the next try may not be enough to cushion any cumulative psychological damage. Something more definite is needed here.
Rather than look to odds and weights of the outcomes in some decision matrix, a stronger propelling force for pushing on with a belief may be found in the intrinsic meaning of the act. Hoping against hope, persisting in spite of the odds stacked against one, refusing to resign to fate—these displays of indomitable human spirit are admirable whether their efforts bear fruit or not. Besides, the willingness to believe in a good irrespective of outcomes is a love for the good, and a pure form of love at that. From this latter perspective, a woman who, for instance, believing in true love, searches for it all her life has already attained love, no matter whether people or destiny turn their backs towards her. It is this realization that makes it far more possible to enter the world of a story even though its ending may let you down, to envisage a delicate soul residing within a china rabbit, to embrace the possibility of a lonely alien professor living next door, and—
to wait with open arms when someone is somewhere out there …
to wait with open arms when someone may not be there …
to wait with open arms when no one is presently there …
Because waiting is love.