This quotation is from a rather outspoken mathematician named Scott Buchanan, who has studied the style of human thought right along with its mathematical accomplishments. It is meant to describe our style of thinking when approaching mathematics. Yet it seems to me that it has a larger meaning: that it applies to the human style of thought when approaching any problem. Buchanan is telling us that when we are confronted with a problem and a possible solution and we cannot find our way to the solution, we have a tendency to believe in the solution out of pure frustration, or perhaps just wishful thinking.
As in: “that has to be it! ” A similar thing will happen when we are confronted with multiple possible solutions and we cannot show one is true. We choose one, nearly arbitrarily, and believe in it. In a broader scope, this tendency to believe is present in people’s beliefs in general. There comes a point where the events of life force one to consider what one believes. Many people seem to simply “inherit” their beliefs and value systems, giving no more thought to it than that their parents were that way, no more explanation than “that’s how I was taught”.
Other people seem to pick a set of beliefs, almost randomly, according to what “feels right”. Still others seem to pick beliefs as if they were just a facet of their personalities, something to attract people. Finally, there are those who never really address the issue, who are standing right next to those who haven’t decided. Most people when questioned or challenged become rather fervent about their belief rather quickly if they weren’t already, sometimes wandering into blatant hypocrisy. Somehow, while people talk freely and civilly about politics, when the discussion wanders into what one believes about life in general, people clam up.
They become unwilling to discuss their ideas beyond giving you a general sense of what they are. Having chosen a solution to the ultimate problem, to the meaning and point of life, they bear down. Very few are willing to see the whole thing as unsolved, and some are so fervent as to die ( or kill ) for their belief. This belief is here because it is ‘natural’. It is a tendency to ignore other solutions in plain sight when the problem is too difficult, or to go with the one ( potentially inadequate ) solution seen.
This belief, or faith as it is sometimes called, is the tendency to throw aside other solutions, and to abandon logic. It is not a reach for the divine as it is often seen, it is a regression to a “natural” state. It is throwing aside the evolutionarily hard-won difference between human and animal. This is not to say that animals believe in any sort of God, of course. Faith and irrational belief are the remnants of people having discarded logic when faced with the ultimate question. In most cases, the human drive to find meaning, nearly as fundamental as hunger to an intelligent species, is satisfied by this arbitrary choice.
Of the groups mentioned above, I place myself in the group who have not decided on a set of beliefs, in the very small subsection of people who do not intend to ‘decide’. To decide implies choosing between given choices, which does not describe me. I am after the truth, at all costs, including finding the truth to be that life is totally and utterly meaningless. This is why I have been concentrating in science, math and computers. Science has already discarded several possible sets of beliefs held previous to its discoveries, like the idea that storms are god- wars and the idea of the earth-centered solar system.
The tidal wave of genetics is rocking several boats at once. Science embodies the logical reversal: if we cannot directly understand what is true, let us eliminate what is not true. Perhaps all that I will ever accomplish is to eliminate a few more choices. Perhaps I will find the answer, and the answer will be that we are no more than automatons following a course laid out from the beginning of the universe by the laws of interactions of forces. As eventually anti-climactic as this pursuit may be, I cannot be satisfied with any other existence without having tried.