Saturday, June 1, 2013

Beyond Belief

Why does it take more than a clear, logical argument to change someone’s mind about something? Why do people cling to a position long after it has ceased to be even plausible? Part of the reason for this is that people do not entirely trust reason. There is some justification for this, as what can appear perfectly reasonable at one time or in one set of circumstances can appear not to be in another. Reason is not infallible. A reasonable position is to remain open to the possibility that better reasoning may refute our current position. However, this should not be used as an excuse for taking a lazier short cut, such as “faith”, for example. Faith may sometimes serve as a stop gap, until we have stronger evidence either to support it and turn it into knowledge, or to refute it and search for an alternative. However, in my opinion, reason always trumps faith. I would emphasise that reason and logic are not identical. It may be that only purely intellectual processes can follow the strict rules of logic. The empirical world is much too “noisy” for pure logic to prevail. However, it is reasonable to assume, based on the evidence and past experience, that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though this cannot be demonstrated by means of logic alone. It is because there is this noise, it is because there are these inevitable gaps in our empirical knowledge, that faith thinks it can sneak in. It can’t, except as a stop gap. It is incumbent upon us to fill these gaps by seeking more information and stronger evidence.

Despite all of this, and despite our pretentions to the contrary, human beings are not very rational. We are usually driven, even in our reasoning, by other, less rational motivations. This is another factor causing people, with some justification, to distrust reason. However, the fact that people who claim to have a rational argument for something are sometimes driven by other motivations does not permit us to believe anything we choose. If we are to overcome our prejudices and our innate selfishness, we need to be prepared to allow reason to challenge our beliefs and our assumptions. We will not always do this well. Sometimes we will do it for misguided reasons. But it is better than the alternatives. 

I understand that people sometimes make a large emotional investment in a belief or set of beliefs. This is true whether these are religious beliefs, political convictions, or a self-image. It is difficult to acknowledge that one has been wrong, in these contexts. In addition, changing our thought patterns requires more energy than simply relaxing and remaining within our existing patterns. Furthermore, if we were to admit our mistake, we might appear foolish; and we might feel that we have wasted our time and energy on something that turned out to be false. As understandable as this is, it is simply part of our history as a race and as individuals. It is called “learning”, “growing up”, “maturing”. Being mistaken is not something to be ashamed of. Clinging to something long after there are good grounds for doing so perhaps is. 

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