Why do we believe?

Asking about beliefs may seem an unusual question from a physician-scientist. Don’t scientists operate strictly from facts? Yes, up to the limits of the facts. Beyond that, we must rely on suppositions or informed guesses or… beliefs.

In the course of scientific inquiry, scientists develop a hypothesis, which is basically a statement of belief. A recent hypothesis in my research is: “Certain Haemophilus influenzae [the bacteria I study] strains possess unique characteristics that permit their survival in the middle ears of children, leading to the infection acute otitis media.” Do I know this to be true? No. But through our research, we will uncover the genetic secrets of the bacteria that allow us to know more clearly if the statement might be true. We already understand many aspects of both the bacteria and the infection it causes that support the above hypothesis—or belief—so we say it has biologic plausibility, lending increased likelihood that it is, indeed, true.

Which brings us to the beliefs in Ten Days. As with everyone, Jake and Anna carry around many beliefs—some more securely grounded in plausibility than others. Jake, as a physician, probably demands more factual substance to his beliefs than does Anna, a linguist. In the next several blogs we will examine some of their beliefs.

The first of their beliefs is the angel in the elevator. Without seeing the source of the singing, Anna applies her past experiences, colored heavily by emotional fatigue and terror for her ill son, to explain the singing she hears from the elevator shaft. The music is from Christian liturgy and she assumes the explanation must fall in the realm of the spiritual. Her son has been near death, so her anxieties fill in the details and she concludes the singer is an angel who has taken Eddie from her. She believes this to be true. Jake, on the other hand, knows that laundry carts ride up and down hospital elevators, that there are no angels on Earth, and that laundry workers know how to sing. His beliefs, more firmly anchored in facts, drive him to a different conclusion. Neither Jake nor Anna actually observed the source of the singing. Which of their beliefs is true? What is truth, anyway?