The human brain, it seems, is wired up to believe in things. It likes certainty, and it likes to look for patterns and for intent where neither exists. It likes causality, detests randomness and chaos. It’s hard to use it to get an objective view of the universe, because it keeps getting in the way. Belief — in anything — is comfortable and comforting. It’s a state of mind where evidence is discarded and surety is reached.
It’s also, unsurprisingly, kind of a problem. Discarding evidence leads to making decisions that conflict with reality, sometimes irredeemably — and in these conflicts, reality will win 100% of the time. It can’t not: reality is what is. Belief is just what humans want to be true.
What’s all this got to do with writing? Well, potentially quite a lot! Whether it’s exploring what a world that really is shaped by belief would be like or investigating the rise and fall of unrealistic expectations, it can be found in a thousand and one different ways in stories… and in the head of the author. Which is where this post comes in.
You see, the belief circuitry is a massive disadvantage when it comes to navigating the complexities of everyday technological life. Ascribing agency to your computer means you don’t fix a driver conflict and the little pest keeps crashing “because it just hates you”. Assuming that something is because you think it is, you can assume understandably enough that everyone else thinks the same way, at which point truth (or the best approximation of it we have) and fact become only as “valid” as your own subjective and quite possibly utterly divorced from reality opinion. Which is rubbish. Take that up with the rock you believe is made of feathers that’s about to fall on your head, and get back to me.
But we’ve got all this belief circuitry, like it or not. It’s just more of a disadvantage than the advantage it once was, when we lived in a world that we really couldn’t control and didn’t yet have the tools to understand. So what do we do with it? Well, and finally getting back to the stories, I think a good thing to do is recycle it! Over the years, I’ve built up an incredibly extensive mythos surrounding the things I write: not only does each world have its own suite of physical laws and what-have-you, but beyond all of that there’s an ultimate linking factor, a simple yet complex underpinning with enough give to hold everything comfortably, and just enough structure to bind it all together. It is, if you like, my personal storytelling Theory of Everything. And I like theories of everything.
So that’s where (most of) my belief circuitry goes. It operates on a mental level quite deliberately separated from the everyday, from the real. Ask me anything and I’ll tell you it’s not true, because probabilities are that it’s got nothing to do with reality whatsoever; certainly it isn’t grounded in it. But on the level of my second-layer thoughts, the ones that aren’t allowed to influence important behaviour, I sometimes like to believe it might just be real. Heck, I talk to the voices in my head and I’m capable of running three complex personalities besides my own without experiencing noticeable slowdown, I think I can handle believing one more little story that I know ain’t so.
The trick, of course, is knowing it ain’t so. Fall down there, and you end up divorced from reality, detached from the world, living in a little cocoon because the big wide outside is just too scary. If you’re lucky, you picked a common story, and you’ll have plenty of friends. Unlucky, and you picked a story that has everyone accusing you of wearing a tinfoil hat. Because when you don’t know it ain’t so, you start acting like it’s true, which is no way to behave about anything that has nothing to do with reality. Like I said, if you disagree, take it up with the rock you believe is made of feathers that’s about to fall on your head, and get back to me.
Fundamentally, we don’t know for sure what is and what isn’t. The only way to find out is to ask the world questions time and time again. Come up with an idea it’s possible to disprove and test it, reliably, repeatably, over and over until you’ve run out of ways to disprove it, or until you have disproved it and need a better idea. That’s how it works, that’s the only way to really learn about anything at all, even your own self. Ask questions and never stop asking.
And the bit of the brain that likes to be solid and certain and utterly right no matter what? Well, the best use for it I’ve ever found is to build a wonderful, beautiful framework around everything else that’s unreal — and to keep that inner world a world apart. Make it your own world, make it a safe space, but never, ever, under any circumstances, mistake it for the real. That way lies what we sometimes, inconsistently, call madness.