toxic thought waste site

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Desultory thoughts on belief and knowledge

When I first hear a new idea (e.g. Daniel is evidence of authentic prophecy) I either have a gut reaction one way or another or I remain neutral. Some ideas are so simple and easy to verify or come from a source so trusted you don't even bother analyzing it. E.g. if my wife tells me there is milk in the fridge I'll just take her word for it. There isn't much at stake even if the belief I form from this information is wrong. (She's never wrong about the milk, so stop thinking she is!).

Now if some one suggests that Daniel is an authentic book of prophecy this really gets my attention. Before I've even finished processing the statement I've already formed a belief regarding the truth content of this statement. In this case a claim is being made that is in conflict with the model of the world that I've been successfully working with for years. If I'm careful I can notice this reflexive belief creation occur. While I may not be able to stop if from occurring (my instincts usually work pretty well for me so why should I?) I can at least make a note of this for subsequent follow up.

When I hear this claim and an evangelical hears this claim we will both have a hunch as to it's veracity. Even though neither of us have been offered any proof yet, we have models of the world that either conflict or synchronize with this claim. At this point we have a choice, we either trust the source or we demand some evidence. If it matches your world view you probably aren't too motivated to critically analyze it. And that's not a bad thing. There are only so many hours in the day and you can't follow every rabbit trail that comes your way. Even if it conflicts with your world view, unless the source of this claim has a history of credibility or if you intuitively sense there is an important challenge to your world view, you won't normally care too much about claims like this.

Now we start looking at the evidence for and against the given proposition. Generally we will be attracted to evidence that confirms our initially hunch. If it doesn't have any gross failures of logic or factual content we'll probably absorb the reasoning and conclusions of "our" side and reject those of the other side. And I think this is how most people operate. I know I do. I have a bias to believe my intuition is pretty good. I tend to trust certain people more than others. I can read opposing views but unless my side can only produce inept responses I'll tend to keep believing what I believe, only more so.

From the above then we might assume that most people just stick with their biases and build an ever more secure fortress of defense against opposing views. And I think it is manifestly true that for most issues most people do a have a sort of inertia with respect to many beliefs in their life.

And yet occasionally one does completely flip on an issue. This is what I'd like to understand. How does one change a belief? You certainly can't choose to believe any arbitrary proposition. E.g. if someone one challenges me to believe the sky is red, I could mouth the words but I wouldn't believe it was true. I don't control my beliefs, they are just something I have.

The most memorable change of belief for me was changing from believing in god to not believing in god. As a quick aside this transition had an awkward phase where I didn't believe in god but I did still believe in hell and that the ground could crack open at any time and swallow me up. Yup, you guessed it, I was really off the deep end for a while. What's salient to me about this belief change is that it came almost entirely from within. I had decided to come up with a fool proof way to evangelize by coming up with a killer argument for the existence of god and his son. So I wondered how I would convince myself. Over the next few months of mulling this over it became clear that I couldn't even convince myself in any rigorous way. And it dawned on me that I had been deluded and had just accepted authority and really hadn't thought for myself on this issue before. And poof, I was an atheist.

So there's the rub. We all have biases. But sometimes we overcome them. How do you recognize that you have a bias and how to you overcome it when it makes sense to do so? That is the question that keeps me up nights. Well, actually I sleep pretty good, but I do wrestle with this constantly. Once burned, twice shy, I suppose.

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