Aug 22, 2006

Why Do We Believe Anything?

There is a very good essay on pharmaceuticals as a faith-based initiative (my phrase but I guess the author would concur) at the Dust blog. I pretty much agree with the Dust's perspective here, but that's not what I want to blog about. Instead, I'm intrigued by a question he asks in passing;
it would be nice if we all came to deeper understanding of just how we “came to believe” the things we believe.
Everyone believes something. Some of us can manage, like Alice, to believe five impossible things before breakfast. Others like to imagine they are "without beliefs" (even "Buddhists without beliefs") but that's a dodge, a fancy card-trick. Agnostics and skeptics are as much rooted in belief as Southern Baptists or Wahabbis. Just different beliefs; in particular the materialist world-view, or at the very least the reality of the external world.

Most of what you think you know, you probably just believe. Most everybody these days believes, for example, in the heliocentric model of the solar system. But very few could come up with cogent arguments as to why the earth moving around the sun and not vice-versa is the real model.

People believe all kinds of things less rational than this, and with less reason. Creationism, materialism, grey aliens, perpetual motion, the Rapture, the benefits of Free Trade; heck, I'm told some people still believe the official version of 9-11.

People who believe any of these things, or their equally faith-based opposites, or anything else at all, can come up with all kinds of rational arguments, and snippets of evidence, to back up their beliefs. Cruise around the internet and you won't take long to find heated debates on stuff like creationism vs. evolution, with carefully constructed arguments on both sides. But here's the really intriguing thing; almost no-one seems to ever change their position based on these arguments. The best constructed arguments on the other side just force a true believer to refine his or her own counter-arguments in an endless dance.

I would like to suggest that evidence and logical reasoning are only called in after the fact, to justify and bolster a belief. In most cases, they really have nothing at all to do with why we believe what we do.

So why do we believe what we believe? I would like to suggest that the real unspoken criterion of all beliefs is aesthetic. We believe what we believe because it is more beautiful, or more elegant than the available alternatives. We feel intuitively that if x is true then the universe is a more satisfying place. This makes belief a matter of taste. Some people revel in the cold, stark vision of materialism. Others go for the warm fuzzies of eternalism.

To go back to the example of the heliocentric solar system; it would be theoretically possible to construct a completely geo-centric model that fits all the observable data equally well. The only problem is that it would be horrifically complicated. This was in fact the reason the geo-centric model was abandoned in the first place. As more data came in, the astronomers had to keep adding epicycles upon epicycles. What really makes my case is that at the time when Copernicus's theory started to gain general acceptance, the geo-centric model, with all it's centuries of accumulated tinkering, actually fitted the known data better (mostly because Copernicus still assumed circular orbits.) The helio-centric model was adopted not because it fit the evidence better, it didn't. It was adopted because it was more elegant.

So it's all a matter of taste. At least, that's what I believe.


Anonymous said...

That was one of the most interesting posts in your blog.

Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Just like animals, humans demand control of their environment to thrive. The first recurrence a baby notices is likely the transition from night to day. We seek predictable recurrences to keep us sane, due to some pattern-seeking mechanism. Not only pattern-seekers, humans have gone futher than animals to become pattern-creators by developing music, the visual arts, and religion.

Man disregards absolute truth for conventional truths, however it is in his best interest for the temporary moment. Any ultimate reality would produce a shock, an awakening that would dismantle any systematic programming and send him/her into chaos. From a distance, people will flirt with this (e.g., the life-threatening rush of experiencing death, horror, and carnage in a scary movie). To flirt with death, a 92-mph ride zooming up and down (and upside down!) a 310-foot-tall roller coaster would do the trick.

Instead of the pursuit of absolute truth, we usually search for man-made programs; the religion of our parents or forefathers. The average man is content with being a follower. The great influencial figures of our times became discontent and disillusioned; they dismantled and reformed existing programs because they had evolved and so improvised a pattern to keep sane.