Why We Believe What We Believe

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m always interested in why we believe what we believe. If the subject interests you as well, let’s explore together. As much as I can in this and the next two posts, I’ll give you that little glimpse into my inner workings and analyze for you why I believe what I believe. But a lot of why I believe what I believe will apply generally, so let’s start with the generalities that apply across the board. Why do we believe what we believe?

First off, let’s define the word “believe.” Can we agree on, “To think to be true”? It’s a nice, simple definition, but it covers all our bases. We don’t need to complicate it further. If we believe a thing, we think it’s true.

Now, the first generality I want to tackle regarding why we believe what we believe is the subject of belief vs. knowledge. Could we also agree that none of us can truly know anything beyond all unreasonable doubt? All we really have is belief. We make decisions about what we think is true. I don’t imagine we could find one single belief regarding which every person on earth would agree. (Flat earthers ruined our perfect consensus.) If there’s room for disagreement, there’s room for doubt. I may think the doubt unreasonable (as in the case of flat earthers), but if the doubt looks reasonable to someone else, who am I to say that my way of looking at things must be the one right way? We’re all human, after all. Very high IQ individuals may be right about more things than the rest of us, but they’ll be wrong about some things. They may be wrong about some things that a lower IQ individual happens to be right about.

Even if we could have perfect consensus on any particular, we could all be wrong. There was a time when perfect consensus could see that the earth was flat. Most of us would now say that consensus was wrong back then. So there’s no way to really know what we know. We use the word “know” but what we mean by “know” is really “believe without doubt.” And what I “know” (or believe without doubt) someone else will disbelieve or doubt. Being fallible, non-omniscient beings, we can’t know anything absolutely. But we will all believe some things and disbelieve others.

So why do we believe what we believe? And here’s the second generality I want to discuss: Authority. All sane people bow to it somewhere, sometime. All of us (if we’re sane) believe most of what we believe because of authority. We all decide what authorities we’ll deem reliable and where and when we deem them reliable. Those beliefs are the foundation for the rest of our beliefs.

I’ve made a few decisions about what I think is true based on my own personal experiences, but my experience is very limited. So is yours. Even if you are some kind of authority on something, you’re no kind of authority on everything. You may be a specialist in something and “know” (I know I just said none of us can know anything, but, well, I mean that we think we know things) more than anyone else on earth about your special subject, but you won’t know as much as someone else on some other subject. Our brains are limited. And even if you are that specialist authority, you’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before. You still must build on the knowledge of others and interpret your own research through it. Otherwise, you’d be reinventing the wheel time after time after time, and that wouldn’t make you the most knowledgeable person about anything. So we take most things on authority. That’s just how it is.

The third generality in our choice of beliefs is evidence. True, we believe most of what we believe based on what some authority or other tells us, but we choose which authorities we’ll believe based on the evidence of their reliability (at least we should. And to some degree, we all do. Another generality we all share is bias in our beliefs. We all have various desires that push and pull at our beliefs, but all of us have some kind of reasoning, evidence-evaluating capacity if we’re not severely mentally deficient. Of course that capacity varies from person to person. And some place more importance on it than others. But it’s there for all of us.)

It’s interesting to me to note that, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we all seem to cling to one authority or another (and sometimes first one and then another) as largely infallible. Our first authorities are inevitably our parents or the adults who raised us, and we start off with the unconscious assumption that those authorities are infallible. Kids believe whatever they’re told. But this is sensible at that level of understanding. When you don’t have the experience to know that those who’ve lived longer than you can be wrong about quite a lot of things (or that they might be lying to you), you’re basing your beliefs on the best evidence available to you. Not having a great deal of evidence at hand yet, you’re doing the best you can.You’re believing what you’re told by those who’ve lived longer and have more experience and knowledge. Generally, when you’re a kid, you don’t have much acquired knowledge and very little first-hand experience, so your best option for starting off that life-long process of choosing your beliefs is to believe what adults tell you.

However, most kids begin to question what they’re told when they begin to notice that they may be hearing quite contradictory things from the adults in their lives or after they’ve caught out those adults in an untruth or two (either an intentional untruth—a lie—or an unintentional untruth—a mistake). This is also sensible. Kids, at some age when critical thinking starts to develop, begin the process of deciding which authorities they think are reliable and which they don’t. Still very sensible.

Back in a day, religion was the next infallible authority. There are still those of us who do, in fact, believe that there are infallible authorities in this realm. And though I’ll touch on it in this post, I want to save explaining my rationale for the particular authority I hold to be infallible until I get to my last post in this series. For now let’s just say that this is no longer the majority position, at least not in the culture from where I’m writing.

Instead, my culture has replaced that infallible authority with a different infallible authority: Science. Now, again, the assumption of infallibility is largely unconscious, and that’s because if it’s admitted and examined, it shows itself as a false assumption within seconds. We talk about “science” as though it’s an impersonal entity, but what we usually mean when we talk about “science” is scientists. And once we call things by their right names, we realize that we’d be very foolish to elevate any scientist to the pedestal of infallibility. Scientists are humans, after all. And we opened this discussion by agreeing (at least, I hope we did) that no human is infallible and omniscient.

But the dogma that “science” may not be questioned once it’s settled as “science” by the majority is pervasive. No one may tell us so, but it’s in our cultural atmosphere that we’re constantly inhaling and exhaling. “Science” has become that parent that tells us, “Because I said so! That’s why!” And those of us who are non-scientists generally accept the dictum without challenging it. After all, I can’t even understand what these people are talking about half the time. Who am I to disagree?

But then, as in our early days, we may begin to notice that our infallible authorities contradict each other. Scientists don’t all agree. How should I know which one to listen to? And what they apparently all proclaimed ten years ago on some piece of settled science or other they may call a science myth today.

We look at the amazing advances “science” has made in today’s world with a smart phone in every pocket and DNA testing solving crimes left, right, and centre, and we accept this as evidence that “Science knows best.” But we should be adults who can see that “science” can’t possibly be infallible. (If it were, those smart phones in our pockets would be infallible instead of constantly glitching out.) We can begin growing up and recognizing that “science” is no more infallible (okay, maybe sometimes a little more infallible, depending on the parent) than our parents were.

But what are we to do, then? How are we to decide what we believe? If our parents and scientists aren’t to be trusted implicitly, how can we know anything at all? The simple answer is, of course, that we can’t know anything at all. We can only decide what we believe.

But (and here’s my fourth generality) there are different degrees of importance when it comes to truth. Sometimes it doesn’t much matter what we believe. To be fair, how much practical difference does it make to our everyday lives to believe that the earth is round or to believe that it’s flat? But the truth about which side of the road to drive on in the UK is going to be an important truth to believe if you ever plan to drive in the UK. Some truths and some beliefs about those truths may not make much difference to our experiences. Some truths and some beliefs about those truths may make a life and death difference to our experiences. And some truths and some beliefs about those truths may make an eternity of difference to our experiences.

And here’s my fifth generality to close with: While we may not know absolutely what’s true and what isn’t, none of us can get by without the reality of a truth somewhere out there for us to believe. Belief may be our only access to absolute truth, but there must be absolute truth to believe, all the same.

There’s a reason we unconsciously make some authority or other infallible. Without some infallible authority or other that we can turn to, for us there is really no such thing as absolute truth. We know that none of us (parents or scientists) are infallible and omniscient. Yet without some infallible and omniscient Mind out there to know all truth and to tell us some of it, then all we would have available to us would be our own different sets of questionable beliefs. All we’d have would be all our different perspectives and varying perceptions. The folks who tell us, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” would be 100% correct. At least, if absolute truth exists in some form, for us it would have no existence. If we have no access to it.

But that is a premise that is essentially unlivable. We’ve tried it embracing it as true (seeing the problem?) for a number of decades since we decided that religious sources were nonsense. We’ve unconsciously elevated “science” to those vacancies, but that just doesn’t work, either. Without accepting some sort of authority as infallible, we are adrift on a sea of speculation and ignorance. And some truths are important. Some truths must be believed in order not to smash ourselves up on the motorways. And some truths may be more important still.

All this leads me to embrace the option that there is an infallible authority available for us to believe. No, we can’t know the truth of it beyond all unreasonable doubt. But a solid belief based on good evidence for what authority we’ll choose to believe is enough to get us through life. And with that, I’ll leave it there. Until my next post and my reasons for believing in a God.

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