To answer this question, one could begin with a philosophical quandary: are beliefs of any sort causes of human action? I expect that most would answer this question with a resounding “of course,” but it is not entirely moot. Without regressing into the metaphysics of free will, the issue has to do with the basic agents of human action and societal development. Marx, for example, placed the locus of social change and indeed all of history not primarily in the hands of individual actors, motivated by core beliefs, but in social structures and material infrastructures. It is not hard to conceive of cases in which actions are not primarily motivated by beliefs, much less fundamental ones.
For example, human beings have sets of nearly automatic reflex behaviours. In these cases, beliefs are not necessary causes of action, unless we take a very broad view of what constitutes a belief. Of course, the kinds of actions that are ostensibly the result of beliefs are more complex than, say, jumping at a loud unexpected sound. But reams of empirical studies show that things like patterns of consumption, movement, diet, health, and so forth, are determined by infrastructural and economic factors, among others. And even here it is not clear if beliefs are a necessary cause for action (again depending on how we define beliefs) and they are almost certainly not sufficient in themselves.
Reciprocally, one could begin with a similarly abstract question: what are the causes of beliefs? Sociological and psychological research firmly establishes that beliefs are demographically predictable, and thus, determined in part by a wide variety of “social” (for lack of a better word) processes. The social determinism need not be due to overt forces like coercion or propaganda; the subtle cultural workings of everyday life have a discernable effect on people’s world views. In short, no matter how rational and well-established your beliefs, they are, in a sense, not entirely your own. So even if beliefs are subsidiary causes of action, the beliefs themselves might have “external” causes, so to speak.
In ever-lasting tension with these views of human belief and action is a taken-for-granted assumption that underlies nearly every extant society: human beings are capable of independent, rational thought; beliefs are at least in part a result of thought processes; beliefs cause actions; thus, people are responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental basis for virtually all legal systems and democratic political systems. It not only expects responsibility, but garners reward: meritocracies require the assumption that success is in large part the result of individual thought and action.
This philosophical dilemma sets the stage to go about answering the title question, and indeed, why it should even be asked in the first place. Continue reading