Beliefs: What They Are (and Aren’t)

As I mentioned before, the Scott Adams – Sam Harris podcast is a masterclass on belief change. So before we dig into it, some useful ideas about beliefs themselves.

Beliefs, concisely stated, are generalizations of our experiences that save us mental processing time. They also serve a behavioral purpose in addition to serving as a processing shortcut.

Beliefs can be considered feed-forward mechanisms. A feedback mechanism tells you what results you have received, usually so you can make adjustments. A feed-forward mechanism is you communicating what you want to happen so things can adjust to you. More on this in a moment.

Remember, BELIEFS ARE NOT REAL. They delete, distort, and generalize information we take in. They are essentially hallucinations created to approximate the lessons from prior experiences. Consider this: are your most strongly held beliefs the ones that you had the most rational support for, or the ones that had the strongest emotions tied into them?

Also, BELIEFS DO EXIST. Beliefs filter out that which contradicts our beliefs so effectively that they define the realities that we experience. When faced with evidence that contradicts our beliefs, the mind tends to reject the new information rather than update the beliefs. This can be unsettling until we learn to use it to our advantage.

So how can one evaluate beliefs? Most of the world thinks beliefs are true or false. They engage in endless debates talking past each other, occasionally stumbling into a shared reality. Beliefs are NOT true or false; that dimension doesn’t apply to beliefs. Some say beliefs are accurate or inaccurate, but that’s not quite right either. A very good way to evaluate beliefs is if they are USEFUL or not.

So how can we use what we now know about beliefs to our advantage? As we can discover, when you set up your beliefs in ways that support you, not only will your experience change, but your reality will change as well. This means removing limiting or destructive beliefs and adopting helpful and empowering ones. For example, does a belief make you more resourceful, resilient, etc. or the opposite?

Be somewhat careful when adjusting beliefs. Only remove limiting beliefs, not supportive, expansive ones, until you know what you are doing, because removing beliefs without providing proper support can cause unpredictable effects. Confusion and anger are common.

In general, if you aren’t highly trained or experienced enough:

  • leave other people’s religious and sexuality-related beliefs alone. Feel free to alter your own.
  • Don’t alter other people’s identity beliefs, but you can do a lot of good addressing beliefs of capability
  • Political beliefs are generally fair game.
  • Ethics and morality are fair game.

Finally for now: if beliefs determine one’s reality, and all beliefs are in effect hallucinations, how can one find accuracy and avoid being in a bubble built by a set of beliefs that filter out opposing experiences? Great question! When you can try on different belief sets temporarily to evaluate a situation, and take them off at will, you can develop a powerful set of perspectives that you can use to “triangulate” a pretty good idea of what’s really going on. I counted one time and I have at least 17 different “filters” I can evaluate things from. One way to do this is in my FAQ post.

Next up: the first 20 minutes of the Scott Adams – San Harris debate, with my notes of the “level 1” techniques employed.

10 thoughts on “Beliefs: What They Are (and Aren’t)”

  1. Essentially, beliefs dictate how you act and navigate through the world. Many people say their “realists,” but what’s crazy is that many “realistic” outlooks/beliefs cause us to doubt ourselves. This post is very powerful for those who realize that what you do is driven by what you believe. One’s life changes for better or worse based on his/her habits and default modes of actions.

    So like you said, the key is to internalize beliefs that will result in default modes of actions one would be happy with. It doesn’t matter if those beliefs are “unrealistic”!

    I’m currently reading Pyschocerbenetics and that’s why your post resonated with me. It all starts with the mind. Obviously, I want to internalize beliefs that will optimize my chances for living my best life, but there’s a small doubt in me that believes it can’t be that easy…. There’s no way that at will, you can drop all bad and adopt all positive beliefs. Perhaps there’s I’m harboring a belief that these mindset techniques work for everyone except me…You’ve talked about Paraliminals before. I’ve bought the 3 your recommended plus “Talking to Win” and am hoping it’ll shred that hindering belief of mine.


    1. Great to hear! Self-work gets much easier when you realize that all our beliefs are created. Then it’s just a matter of releasing the emotional root of the belief.

      After a few weeks of listening to the paraliminals, let me know how things are different. I found that many limiting beliefs fade away after releasing an emotional issue, even when I wasn’t aware of the belief until it had changed.


  2. First I want to say your parsing has been very helpful, thank you for taking the time to do that. I hope you do more.

    I’m hoping you can help me understand a few things in your setup above.

    1. What do you mean when you use the term “hallucination”?

    I’m used to thinking of hallucinations in the literal visual sense – seeing things with your eyes that aren’t really there, drug-induced visions, etc. I can see how it could be used metaphorically to “see” something that isn’t there, but that seems to start getting into subjective perception – what’s seen in the mind’s eye.

    If one person perceives something another person doesn’t, which one is hallucinating? Many people would say Scott Adams is hallucinating about how persuasive Trump is, yet for those who have eyes to see there is something real going on. Seems like people can throw the charge of “hallucination” back and forth without being able to prove things either way and both walking away thinking they see the real thing.

    2. What do you mean by “beliefs aren’t real?”

    I don’t follow the distinction between them existing, but not being real.

    I don’t think you’re saying beliefs are not real because they’re not tangible, but I’m not sure how to re-word what you mean.

    Not real in what sense? They obviously guide people’s behaviors and have powerful consequences. So by one definition beliefs are real even if you can’t see or touch them.

    3. Beliefs are neither true/false nor accurate/inaccurate.

    I hope this example is appropriate…if I have a true/accurate belief about gravity then I would avoid jumping out of a plane without a parachute. If I believed I could fly my false/inaccurate belief would become evident very quickly. I see how you could argue that the correct belief is useful because it keeps me from dying. But if a belief leads to the result you expect, is that not a “true” belief? Or are you only applying this to things that can’t be measured in the physical world?


    1. Hallucinations in one sense are when our filters and maps of “what is happening” or how “things are” override the information we are actually taking in. (There is another level of hallucination some people talk about in which all the information we take in is itself a hallucination, but save that idea for later if it’s not yet comfortable). For the other questions, reread the post with your other questions in mind and see if the answers appear this time. 🙂


      1. I’ve re-read it a few times, here’s what I’ve come up with.
        Real vs Exists

        If beliefs are hallucinations, then I take it to mean they are not real in the same way hallucinations are not real -> they are not apparent to others in an objective way. If someone reports seeing a flying purple people-eater, we can say what they see isn’t real even though it does exist in their experience, just not in everyone else’s.

        So what is real is what everyone can see and describe independently and rests mostly in the material realm. What exists may or may not be entirely in your mind. From a Venn diagram perspective what is real is entirely contained within what exists, but not everything that exists is real.

        Am I close?

        True/accurate vs. useful

        Didn’t get much more clarity on this one. I think you’re saying that because beliefs are experienced subjectively they can’t be true for everyone like physical laws. I may believe something that is true for me but wouldn’t be true for you. Is that the kind of belief you’re talking about?

        I can see how beliefs can be a feed-forward system, similar to the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems that any belief is based on evidence and it’s possible to draw different conclusions from the same information (climate change, Trump’s persuasion skills, etc.). But some conclusions or inferences are going to yield better results than others.

        When people come to different conclusions after seeing/hearing the same thing why would you say one is hallucinating and the other isn’t?

        Your example of triangulating reality using multiple perspectives reminded me of an object lesson I once saw. Different people were asked to look into a dollhouse from different sides and describe what they saw. It had been designed such that while they saw the same object, the colors and patterns were different. So as they described what they saw there was a disconnect and disagreement about what was real. It wasn’t until they came around and saw it from the other’s perspective that they realized what was happening.

        It sounds like this is what you’re getting at about beliefs and hallucinations. We each see things differently due to our beliefs, experiences, the evidence we give credence to, etc. They are all “true” from their perspective although any single one alone doesn’t describe the entire reality. So the more windows and sides of the house you can see through, the more accurate your perception of reality.

        Is that close?


        How do you tell the difference between a hallucination and a different perspective?


      2. You mean, is that close to my own hallucination? 🙂

        There is truly no way to tell if one person is hallucinating and another isn’t. There is the concept of shared reality, in which people agree on things, but then again reality shared amongst, for example, Muslims is different from the reality shared amongst Buddhists.

        The crux of your question is where do you draw the line between “objective” reality and shared hallucination. I have dug very deep into this, and as far as I can tell, at the very deepest levels, the two intertwine so much it is not possible to tell them apart. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle alone shows that they essentially cannot be separated. For most people, therefore, the best way to evaluate beliefs is whether they are useful, helpful, etc or if they are problematic, dysfunctional, etc.


  3. Thanks. This is helpful, still requires some reflection.
    What does Scott Adams mean when he says “your hallucination is noted”? Is he trying to point out a true hallucination, acknowledge that the opposing perspective/hallucination is different than his, or just get under their skin? I’m guessing it’s a combination. I’m trying to learn how to identify when people, including myself, are hallucinating vs dealing with what’s “real” so can’t quite separate the meaning given the context.


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