Why do we believe what we believe?

Geodesic house
© Wayne McCall 1975

Why do we believe what we believe, and why do we differ so much? We pretty much agree on yes, that’s a sunset and this is heavier than that, and we may disagree on whether we like the taste of fennel, but beyond that, consensus is hard to find. Here are some claims for consideration.

  • You have ten toes.
  • You own the car you drive.
  • The earth is round.
  • The earth goes around the sun.
  • Donald Trump is POTUS.
  • Global warming is a hoax.
  • A free market is the best way to create and distribute goods and services.
  • Vaccines cause more harm than benefit to children.

The simplest kind of belief is something that we experience directly: this flower is yellow; I have ten toes; there is a corner shop at the end of the street. These are generally referred to as facts, the evidence of the senses.

But over millions of years, life in its various forms has started to draw inferences from the facts, firstly using emotions, and later, using the forebrain. An emotional inference might be that the crack of a dry twig means you’re being hunted; the forebrain might conclude from the varying angles of the sun that the world is a sphere of a certain size.

These inferences are beliefs, and on top of them we construct further ones. They are like a geodesic dome of struts and joints where the joints on the ground are facts, the struts are inferences, and the joints in the air are beliefs.

Just like a geodesic dome, a collection of beliefs can form a stable belief system that is resistant to change, and just like a dome, the same basic facts can support different belief systems.

So how do we come to hold those beliefs? There are a number of reasons.

  • Culture: We grew up with the belief
    The belief is so prevalent in our culture that its truth is not questioned. Stress causes stomach ulcers. God exists. Free markets produce the best results. Matter consists of atoms.
  • In-group: We believe what others believe
    We do this to fit in, to avoid being ostracized. It is easier to accept the beliefs of your group than to choose different beliefs and be regarded as delusional.
  • Experts: We trust someone else’s judgment
    We often trust the judgment of people who have studied a field extensively. Would you go against a structural engineer’s recommendations? A nurse? Your accountant? You probably believe the earth goes around the sun without having taken the astronomical observations necessary to confirm it. You trust experts, people who have the expertise, to crunch the numbers and produce the time of sunrise and the phase of the moon and the height of the tides.
  • Feelings: We choose what feels right
    When choosing between one understanding and another, it is hard not to choose the one that feels right.
  • Thinking: We use logic, pattern-matching and probability
    This is the method of rational argument. Prominent periods of this are ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the scientific revolution.

These reasons fall into three groups: what others believe, what we feel, and what we think. Of these, only thinking constructs justifiable beliefs. Feeling beliefs are their own form of truth and are not subject to reason.

Most people think they use rational analysis to reach their conclusions; unfortunately, it is often the other way round: we find reasons to justify an emotionally-held position. The evidence is that thought has but a tenuous hold on our views. When its conclusions contradict the evidence of our senses, the results take a long time to be accepted into the mainstream. Heliocentrism, the idea that the earth moves around the sun, took about 2,000 years to become established. Evolution is still not fully accepted after 160 years. In 2008, only half the U.S. population believed global warming was caused by human activity.

So what can we do with this? We can use it to critique other peoples’ beliefs, but far better is to look at our own. Think of culture, the in-group and experts as a social shell through which thinking must peck its escape, removing assumptions piece by piece. We can know we are successful at this when we are not attached to beliefs, and are prepared to change them when contradictory evidence appears.

(See also my post on why conservatives and liberals differ so radically.)

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2 comments on “Why do we believe what we believe?
  1. Grizz says:

    Just ruminating here: can some beliefs be inherited? Your basis appears to be that beliefs are always learned. I suppose you could create as separate category for instinct or something like feelings are constructed through emotions which are derived from bodily functions generated through natural selection…etc.
    Also, joints on the ground as facts does not seem quite right. It seems to lead to a dearth of facts. Maybe a low number is enough facts for deduction, but not for induction. However, your insight that inferences are strung through beliefs could lead to a dynamic network of edges and nodes using graph theory:
    Or not,its too obscure and yet again something else taking up valuable real estate in your mind.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. pmayes says:

    Yes, graph theory is a better model; I chose a geodesic dome as a more concrete and easily understood metaphor.
    I think the feeling level of belief could be inherited, and if you consider inheritance as DNA + culture (see future post), then clearly, beliefs are inherited.

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