Believing Fast and Slow

True. There is
a beautiful Jesus.
He is frozen to his bones like a chunk of beef.
How desperately he wanted to pull his arms in!
How desperately I touch his vertical and horizontal axes!
But I can’t. Need is not quite belief.
–Anne Sexton, “With Mercy for the Greedy

The first time I read these lines—it was in a contemporary poetry class at BYU taught by the completely awesome Susan Howe—I gasped out loud right there in the first floor of the old Harold B. Lee Library. I gasped because I thought that the line “need is not quite belief” was true, and I didn’t want it to be. At the time, I knew that I needed the Church to be true, but I wasn’t at all sure that I believed it.

Conflation of need and belief seemed catastrophic to me at the time. Belief was about aligning my opinions and values with capital “T” Truth and ensuring both my terrestrial rightness and celestial glory. Need was just a pathetic form of self-delusion making me pretend to believer what wouldn’t mess up my life too much. It took me years to resolve this conflict, but resolve it I did, not by coming down on one side or another, but by rejecting the original premise. Need, it turns out, is pretty much the same thing as belief if you look at it from a certain perspective. This post is about that perspective.

It is a perspective that requires a few paragraphs of cognitive theory, drawn from Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for proving that economic behavior is not actually rational, has spent much of his career studying what he calls the “two systems” of human cognitive processing.

  • System 1 is “fast thinking.” It “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” For example, you will use System 1 to determine the dominate emotion of the man in this picture. It should take about a fraction of a second:

  • System 2 is “slow thinking.” It “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it” and is often associated with “the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” To give your System 2 brain a workout, count the number of squares in this picture. If you are like me, it will take the rest of the week:

So here’s the thing: in most matters of subjective belief—religion, say, or politics—human beings make decisions based on System 1 thinking but spend almost all of their time explaining their decision (to other people and to ourselves) with System 2 justifications. Complex theological observations come entirely from the intellectual maneuvering of System 2. But the longing to believe, to align ourselves with something that connects us to something capable of providing purpose and meaning in our lives, comes from the deepest recesses of System 1.

So, how does this apply to our experience of need and belief? Look, for example, at the following sentences, any of which might occur in an LDS testimony meeting:

  • I know that the Church is true.
  • I think that the Church is true.
  • I have faith that the Church is true.
  • I believe that the Church is true.
  • I hope that the Church is true.
  • I want to believe that the Church is true.
  • I need to believe that the Church is true.

From the perspective of System 2, these are all very different statements. They contain shades of meaning, agency, motivation, and certainty. As intellectual positions, they are quite distinct.

From the more urgent and, ultimately, more powerful perspective of System 1—which represents our intuitive understanding of the world—they are identical, and they speak to the profound need-desire-hope-belief in something inexplicable, but massively important, that human beings experience. The best word I know for this subjective experience is “faith.” All of the theological shadings that we add to this experience come afterwards. They are not part of the experience itself.

So, when I say that need really is belief, what I am really saying is that the distinction between need and belief is made at a level that is removed from the subject experience of belief. I still love Sexton’s poem, but it is ultimately a poem about an intellectual experience. It is Tennyson, in his wonderful poem “In Memoriam,” that I now turn to to describe my understanding of faith:

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last — far off — at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

Comments

  1. Aaron Brown says:

    Forgive me for pursuing a bit of a tangent right out of the gate, Michael, but while we’re on this subject, please tell me what you understand “knowledge” to mean. How does “knowledge” relate to need and belief? Is it just “belief/need” on steroids, a quantitatively greater amount of belief, perhaps a superlative amount? Or is it something else?

    Aaron B

  2. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    A beautiful post,Mike!

  3. Aaron, I think that, in many contexts, “knowledge” means something materially different than any kind of faith–a certainty that is produced by a process that somebody trusts to produce this level of certainty. I am willing to accept that, for some people, belief in things like God and “the gospel” can be considered knowledge of this type, though that has never been my experience. In most cases, I think, the term “knowledge” when used to describe the religious/metaphisical things one believes in means something like “super-duper belief.”

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I think the title of the poem is In Memoriam A.H.H. (for Arthur Henry Hallam).

  5. Psychology, Kahneman, and Mormonism in the same post? You’re my favorite, Mike!

  6. Brother Sky says:

    Michael, Thanks for a thought-provoking post and for the memories (I had Susan Howe for contemporary poetry as well!). I like what you have to say, but I have to disagree a bit with your comment about System 1 being the dominant mode when it comes to subjective belief. It took six years of studying and praying for me to join the church and that process felt a lot more like system 2 to me. And further, despite the baseball baptism methods employed in the mission field years ago and the way missionaries still push for people to “commit” to baptism, the gospel and its related philosophical and ethical complexities have always struck me as requiring system 2 and that’s supported by scripture, IMHO. “Study it out in your mind,” “nurture the small seed of faith,” etc.

    I also want to thank you for putting your finger on what makes me uncomfortable about testimony meetings. In my area, most of the testimonies do seem to come either from a place of a kind of desperate need to believe or from a place of absolute certainty and neither one of those positions really resonates with me. I would never denigrate someone else’s testimony or belief, I’m just wondering what it is about church culture that makes statements of uncertainty about matters of faith, which are, by definition, uncertain, unresolved, etc., so anathema to many members that I know. Why do we “need” so badly to be so certain about ineffable matters?

    And lastly, I don’t think Sexton’s poem is an intellectual exercise. It’s rather an attempt to ground questions of faith onto a material, concrete worldview in a subjective way (“How desperately I touch…”) and about what happens when we aren’t quite able to do so. That strikes me as being more an issue of faith, belief and despair than being about an intellectual experience. My .02. Thanks for such a stimulating post.

  7. carolinesue says:

    I think listening to/experiencing the Howard University choir/any black gospel choir, sing “I love Jesus”, or any other variation of song on Jesus, will teach you something about Jesus you can’t learn any other way. When you can’t even speak because you know you “needed” that to “know” Jesus. Where does that fit in the pantheon of knowledge, belief, faith, need?

  8. This is really thought-provoking.

    I think theology begins with System 1 type thinking, and somebody experiences God that way, but then we try to make sense of it, using System 2 type thinking, which is when we make sense of what was experienced. I think we then can go back and have a System 1 type of experience that is enhanced (or diminished) by the kind of System 2 theology we have constructed. But I think I agree that System 2 thinking is talking about faith more than it is experiencing faith. Perhaps System 2 is having faith System 1 is exercising it?

  9. Mark Clifford says:

    That was gorgeous.

  10. Beautiful. I believe I needed this.

  11. Thanks for this, I’m in a particularly unpleasant pocket in my familiar abyss of need today. Poetry is good, well-chosen poems help, as does the thoughtful and short essay. I would like (need?) to know more about Anne Sexton and her lines. Tennyson, however, is crystal clear.

    How I wish I could analyze my way out of here, but I may as well wish for rescue like a wailing baby. Seems more likely to be effective.

  12. I see 68 squares…

  13. brenttubbs says:

    Why is the object of faith “the church”, and what does it mean for it to be “true”? I think that focus is part of our problem today, and we’d do better to shift it, as our articles of faith say, to “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”. I have found some peace by no longer needing to believe in the church. I still feel like I need God and Jesus.

  14. Angela C says:

    Well, now I have to dig out my Anne Sexton books! Thanks for this. Lots to think about.

  15. Jacob H. says:

    I count 89 squares: the (1+4+9+16) squares of the large 4×4 grid, plus that of the two smaller 4×4 grids, minus (1+4+9) of the double counting of their 3×3 overlap, plus the four large squares in the lower right (ignore the square they form since it’s part of the “+4” from the large 4×4 square), minus the one that forms a 3×3 outline that was counted among the 4×4 squares. Then the small 2×2 in the top left contributes (1+4) squares, minus 1 for the overlap with the 4×4. Finally, there are two squares on each edge in the bottom right that haven’t been counted, plus the larger 2×2 squares they form that haven’t been counted. Altogether, this reveals 89 squares.

  16. I empathize with the father in Mark 9: Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

  17. I count 82.
    Jacob H wrote: “I count 89 squares: the (1+4+9+16) squares of the large 4×4 grid, plus that of the two smaller 4×4 grids, minus (1+4+9) of the double counting of their 3×3 overlap,”

    The 4×4 and four of the 2x2s in the center 4×4 grid have already been counted (-5 squares)

    Jacob H wrote: “plus the four large squares in the lower right (ignore the square they form since it’s part of the “+4” from the large 4×4 square), minus the one that forms a 3×3 outline that was counted among the 4×4 squares. Then the small 2×2 in the top left contributes (1+4) squares, minus 1 for the overlap with the 4×4. Finally, there are two squares on each edge in the bottom right that haven’t been counted, plus the larger 2×2 squares they form that haven’t been counted. ”

    The two ‘larger 2×2 squares they form’ were also already counted (-2 squares)

    Props to Jacob H for writing it out!

  18. I agree, brenttubbs. If we’re going to go out on the limb, “I know Jesus is my savior” seems preferable to “I know the Church is true.” But perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference to a lot of mormons?

  19. Jacob H. says:

    I stand corrected. Nice counting!

  20. “But perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference to a lot of mormons?”

    If that’s a distinction without a difference to a lot of Mormons, then their statement “I know the Church is true” has even less substantive content than I had thought.

  21. This was lovely, Mike. That Tennyson just wrecked me.

  22. I choose Jesus for my savior.
    I choose to believe the Church is true.

  23. I would disagree with your assertion that, from a System 1 approach, all of those truth statements about the church are identical; I would say the first stands alone, the next four are identical, and the last two are each separate. Therefore I cannot support your premise that need is belief, i.e. I can need things which I do not believe in, and I can believe in things I do not need. But thank you for posting this and inspiring me to think about it.

  24. Nathan Gelb says:

    Quite the thought provoking article. I think it will take me a while to fully comprehend it.

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