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Epistemology Psychology

Why We Believe The Things We Believe

How is it that there are so many contradicting beliefs in the world? This article explores some ideas on how beliefs are formed.

Ten years before the “Fake News” phenomenon made us think we were living in a post-truth world author and editor John Brockman had the confidence (or should I say audacity) to call this era “The Age of Certainty”.

The book was “What We Believe but Cannot Prove ~ Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty” (Harper Collins, 2006).

The title caught my attention at the local library and its contents did not disappoint.

The book contains contributions from dozens and dozens of great minds who related some of the things they believe but cannot prove.

Some are beliefs which I think are shared by many people. For example plenty of people believe that the earth is round but don’t know how to go about proving it.

Other beliefs though were quite original. For example the idea that ravens call out in a different dialect depending on where they live.

It was interesting to see so many great thinkers still have beliefs which cannot be proven, some even bordering on the irrational.

I think it is quite common for people in all walks of life to believe things that they cannot prove.

Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash

Things People Believe But Can’t Prove

Here are some examples of the type of beliefs included in the book.

These were either ideas which the contributor didn’t know how to prove, or knew that it would be impossible to prove, and yet they still held it to be true:

  • That evolution has purpose and direction
  • That it will someday be possible to exceed the speed of light
  • That life is common throughout the universe
  • That nothing is true if it cannot be proved
  • That the existence of an omni-god cannot ever be proven
  • That knowing what it is like to be dead can never be resolved
  • That reality exists independent of its human and social constructions
  • That the universe is ultimately determined, but we have free will
  • That morality is the natural outcome of evolutionary and historical forces, not divine command
  • That it is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will
  • That people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can’t prove
  • That faith is important far beyond the realm of religion
  • That there is a God
  • That religious experience and practice is generated and structured largely by a few emotions that evolved for other reasons: Awe, moral elevation, disgust, and attachment-related emotions.
  • That deceit and self-deception play a disproportionate role in human-generated disasters
  • That in less than a generation, kids will be amusing themselves and each other in ways we never dreamed of.

Do you share any of those beliefs?

Most of those are hard if not impossible to prove.

Culture, Necessity, and Convenience

So how do these non-provable beliefs find a way into our minds?

How do we choose to believe in one thing over another even in the absence of solid proof?

Culture and Conformity

There is no doubt that beliefs and opinions are often derived from the absorption of ideas tossed around in popular culture. The way a subject is handled in film, television, books, fiction, non-fiction, news, or in the course of a discussion with friends, imparts many subtle undertones.

There is a pseudo-logical idea floating around that if many people agree on something then surely they can’t be too far of the mark.

In 2004 journalist James Surowiecki attempted to make a case for this in The Wisdom of The Crowds (Doubleday; Anchor). He scraped together a collection of anecdotes in support of this argument. The problem is that it can be proven mathematically that crowds are no better at making decisions than individuals.

You may have examples where decisions made by a group were better than those made by an individual. But think about how many times a committee got less done than a determined individual.

I’d go so far as to say that an idea’s inherent validity should be independent of how prevalent it is.

Just because something is popular shouldn’t affect our estimation of the idea, logically speaking, that is.

But we know it does.

We really can’t help falling into the trap of this logical fallacy.

It’s so easy to assume that in the cumulative brain power of a crowd surely between them they thought of everything. Or at least enough to make a better decision than one person would.

It is inevitable that individuals will look to the crowd for wisdom.

We, as beings, do not function well in isolation.

We therefore continue to rely on the wisdom of crowds. Few people have the time, acuity, or nerve to establish their own independent stance on every topic they come across.

Necessity

There often arises a necessity for something to be true.

As strange as it sounds sometimes we simply need something to be true.

This of course does not make it true.

The truth is under no obligation to be anything.

It’s just that the alternative is problematic. So we go along with an idea and start finding little ways here and there to support our choice.

But the truth is under no obligation to be anything.

When you put it that way it seems kind of obvious. But there are so many subtle ways and a variety of circumstances people find themselves in where they feel that one thing just has to be true.

Convenience

There are also times when it’s simply more convenient to go along with an idea because to fight it is too exhausting. This is related to the two previous points of conformity and necessity.

Here is an example of this:

Acknowledging that pollution destroys the very things that make life possible is inconvenient for industries that profit while polluting. By extension all the people working in those industries will by necessity lean toward arguments showing that the pollution is not really that bad.

They won’t see any gain to be had from admitting that the pollution is doing more harm than good. Because in a sense they are experiencing a short term gain from the polluting activities and therefore it would inconvenience them to do anything about it.

So they start justifying their work and find ways of supporting the beliefs that are associated with their choices.

How Beliefs Are Formed May Still Be Unproved

In a beautifully poetic twist of irony the explanation which I found to be the most compelling as to why we believe the things we believe comes from Sam Harris’ contribution to “What We Believe But Cannot Prove”.

Harris suggests that belief is a content-independent process.

false statements may quite literally disgust us

Sam Harris

“The neural processes governing the final acceptance of a statement as true, ” says Harris, “rely on more fundamental, reward-related circuitry in our frontal lobes.”

He is saying that he believes the same regions of the brain that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odors are engaged when discriminating what is acceptable and what is not.

Truth, he goes on to say, may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense. And false statements may quite literally disgust us.

Sources and further reading

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