Pascal, in your post titled Romans 1:16 you agreed with the Christians and Buddhists that there is a problem. I doubt there is any religion that doesn’t admit of a core problem and then provide the solution. Christians think that problem is original sin and a savior (Jesus Christ) is needed to redeem them to God. Buddhists think that problem is suffering (which comes partially from attachment) and enlightenment is needed to overcome it. I also think there is a problem. It has some similarities to both the Christian and Buddhist views. Like the concept of original sin, it is there from birth. Like suffering, it is partially fueled by desire. Like both, it is subtle, and identifying the problem doesn’t come easily. It has been in our ancestors’ DNA for millions of years and only very recently were we able to detect it. We cannot excise it or radiate it. It is genetic. We cannot escape it and there is no cure.
So what is the problem? Its discovery and understanding was neither divine nor esoteric. It didn’t lead me to nirvana.
The problem is, we each experience errors in the way we think – including a strong natural tendency to preserve our existing beliefs. The more closely a belief is held, and the more beliefs that rely on that belief being true, the stronger the tendency to preserve it. This one fact changes everything. It is more important than any point I will make. There are natural, non-intuitive, very-difficult-to-detect, problems with the way we think.
Pascal, I know you’ve listened to Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills and are somewhat familiar with this problem, but some of our reader
s might not be. I think it’s worth elaborating.
It is extremely difficult for any of us to examine our own beliefs critically, especially those we are invested in or hold dear for some reason. I believe we each think we are capable of doing so, but believing we are capable and actually doing it are different things. Our belief in scripture is no exception and is as vulnerable to our mental failings as any other. Understanding and being honest about the way we approach and analyze the scripture we believe makes all the difference.
The exact definition of “belief” has been debated for thousands of years. I’m not going to attempt to get into the weeds here (there’ll be enough of that later) but I do want to distill some practical meaning for belief that we can use for the purposes of this topic. We all hold certain things to be true and others not true. In general, the things that we deem more likely to be true than not true, we say we believe.
The manner in which we come to those beliefs is a very complex topic. However, I like complex topics because they represent a puzzle. How can we break them down into simple pieces that are easy to understand? I think there is a simple equation that could represent how we come by our beliefs that would hold true in all circumstances. Understanding that equation could be very valuable, as it could shed light on why we each believe what we do as strongly as we do, and how others disbelieve as strongly as they do. An understanding of how people come to their beliefs could greatly reduce suffering by bringing humanity together.
I do not have that equation ready for this post, but I think it is important enough that I may work on it in the future. Many smarter individuals have probably already done so, but I just haven’t seen it yet. Until then, I’ll start with a rather simplified version as an example of what I’m talking about.
Belief is some combination of objective belief plus desired belief. Objective belief is that which is observable or justifiable by science. It is idealized and may not be attainable, since beliefs are held by subjective individuals, but imagine if you could take all the bias out of a subjective belief. That would be an objective belief. Desired belief is that portion of belief that comes from our hopes, desires, biases, faith, etc. So here’s one extremely minimal equation that should work to get us started:
belief = objective belief + desired belief
The amount of weight desired belief has is not the topic of this post.
We are all victims of the following hidden methods of fallacious thinking that corrupts belief:
- Confirmation bias – we remember the hits and forget the misses; buy a red car and suddenly start seeing red cars everywhere; pray for something and see the answer you’re looking for; you tend to find what you’re looking for more often if you’re looking for it
- Pattern matching – recognizing patterns in large sets of data, even when they are not there
- Innumeracy – our inability to grasp large numbers naturally; misunderstanding of statistics/odds/chance/rates/coincidence/the clustering of randomness/etc.
- Fallacy of affirming the consequent – assigning too high of a level of confidence to the cause of some effect when the cause cannot be known; iMultiverse
- Projection – viewing others from our perspective and seeing our behaviors and desires in other free agents
- Failure to understand the appearance of design – projecting our design ability onto the things in nature we have anthropomorphized, and the seeming design of artificial and natural selection
- Difficulty of leaving current beliefs is proportional to our level of investment in the belief; this is especially difficult when considering faith, which includes in its ante/buy-in the notion of eternal reward (the carrot) or punishment (the stick) for yourself and your loved ones
- Religious faith (in the sense of certainty in direct supernatural causes of the effects we experience) – this is a potential problem because every supernatural claim begs the question and is a victim of the fallacy of affirming the consequent. That does not mean the claim can’t be correct, but it does mean that we should not assign great certainty to the claim unless the evidence is astonishingly high. The problem is faith requires a heavy investment and absolute certainty/belief, which cannot be justified objectively. It is also based on hope, emphasizes trust rather than critical examination, and is the epitome of a high-investment belief structure. It demands commitment, every ounce of which is a buttress against critique.
Those are just a few of the main errors in thinking that relate to religion, but there are many more that influence us. They affect all of us much of the time and make it extremely difficult to come to conclusions that are more in line with objective reality (i.e. more likely true than false). The authors of the Bible were not exempt to these pitfalls.
These problems are part of being human, but unchecked, they also contribute to a catastrophic amount of harm, suffering and death. The unfortunate reality is that we all suffer from these errors in our thinking but they are non-intuitive and thus very hard to detect. Because of the general lack of understanding about these fallacies they are able to divide us, cause us to hate one another, and right now many are dying because others were not aware their minds are victims of these (sometimes) extreme, un-justifiable biases in their subjective thinking.
So where does that leave us? We each have a very serious flaw in the way we come to our beliefs which means some of them are simply false, even very closely held ones (these are actually more likely to be false, on average, because they are relatively unexamined). Wanting something to be true does not give us reason to think it is true. It gives us more reason to question it.
Dear reader, consider this (I believe Pascal already has). I do not know of any specific beliefs I hold that are false. If I did, by definition, I would not hold them. However, I do know that some of the beliefs I hold statistically must be false. I am definitely wrong about some things that I’m certain I have right. Being human, you hold some false beliefs, too. You just don’t know which ones they are. But admitting we are wrong about some of them will make us much more able to evaluate all our beliefs, even ones we feel we cannot abandon.
I think of the problem like a crossword puzzle (see Cruciverb), or a game of Sudoku. Sometimes we fill in what we believe are the right answers using a pen rather than a pencil. Beliefs don’t live in a vacuum. When we use a pen, most future potential beliefs that don’t fit with the penned answers are eliminated prematurely. When one doesn’t seem to fit, you look at the penned answer, decide you can’t change it, and choose a new belief only from the potential set that fits with the foundation you have. This approach is less likely to reveal correct answers because many potentially correct future beliefs are not fully examined. With each new word or Sudoku row, your original penned in answer becomes harder and harder to change. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle leading to ever-increasing confidence in more and more false beliefs.
If only there were a solution…
Gentleness and respect,