Thinking About Beliefs

“A vexing problem in the history of human thought is finding one’s position on the boundary between skepticism and gullibility, or how to believe and how to not believe….Clearly, you cannot doubt everything and function; you cannot believe everything and survive.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This quote has been bouncing around in my head all morning. It relates to questions I’ve been pondering a long time. Among them, how do we come to have the core beliefs around which we orient meaning in our lives? How do we determine what is believable and what isn’t? How do we respond to those whose nature and life experiences have led them to beliefs that conflict with our own?

Rene Descartes famously set out to discover truth entirely from reason. He imagined his mind as a clean slate. After first deducing his own existence from the fact of his self consciousness (“I think, therefore I am”), he proceeded from there, ending up constructing a set of truths and beliefs based on analytic reasoning, which were probably identical to those he had before he began to think about them.

According to David Hume, moral reasoning is a sort of mind-trick (my words, not his). Reasoning, he claimed, is merely post hoc justification for our emotions. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Some experiments in neuroscience and psychology seem to support Hume’s belief.

This has some fascinating implications.

If moral reasoning is generally a post-hoc construction intended to justify automatic moral intuitions, then our moral life is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the “wag-the-dog” illusion: we believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion: in a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of an opponent’s arguments to change the opponent’s mind. Such a belief is like thinking that forcing a dog’s tail to wag by moving it with your hand should make the dog happy.

(From HERE)

Take the question of the humane treatment of farm animals, for example. I consider myself an example of someone who was led to change his opinions and behavior on that subject as a result of thoughtful moral reasoning. After I spoke about food ethics at a church in North Carolina last year, a woman tearfully told me that she had given up eating factory-farmed meat after reading my book, and that she and her husband had sold their house and bought a small farm so they could raise more of their own food. I know several people who have become vegans or vegetarians out of a concern for animal welfare. Examples like those seem to indicate that we can change our moral beliefs based on reasoning. But of course it’s entirely possible that in each of those cases the person’s change of behavior was due not to moral reasoning per se, but rather to their innate moral intuitions, which did not arise from reasoning. Maybe they weren’t so much persuaded to change their beliefs, as they were to conform their practices to their pre-existing beliefs.

Descartes argued that animals are mere machines, incapable of feeling pain or emotion. We need not concern ourselves with animal suffering, he reasoned, because there is no such thing. Our only concern should be how to maximize the utility of non-human animals for our own benefit. This Cartesian view of animals became the dominant scientific and philosophical view and still determines how many people respond to animal welfare issues.

I find the Cartesian view of animal suffering immoral, ridiculous and violative of common sense. Are those who adhere to the Cartesian view simply using it to justify a pre-existing insensitivity to animal suffering? Are they just grabbing post hoc onto a rationale for their desire to go on exploiting animals? And what about me? Am I accepting the moral arguments for animal welfare not because of the reasoning behind them, but rather because of pre-existing moral intuitions toward compassion/sentimentality?

Probably even more relevant in our everyday lives is the question of what Lothar Lorraine (in the excellent post linked above) called the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion. We regularly argue with those with whom we have differences of opinion on moral issues.

Both sides present what they take to be excellent arguments in support of their positions. Both sides expect the other side to be responsive to such reasons (the wag-the-other-dog’s-tail illusion). When the other side fails to be affected by such good reasons, each side concludes that the other side must be closed-minded or insincere….They are convinced that reason is on their side, that those disagreeing with them are either morons or profoundly wicked people, and that they deserve to be treated in the rudest manner.

Aside from the fact that such arguments usually bring out our worst manners, it is very rare that they have the effect of changing anyone’s mind. Rather, it has been shown that when confronted with facts that challenge or refute deeply-held opinions, instead of changing those opinions people tend instead to believe them even more strongly! This is what is known as the “Backfire Effect.” So when we get into heated debates with folks whose opinions differ from our own, we not only steer ourselves toward the belief that they are “wicked,” “close-minded,” “morons,” we’re also having the unintended effect of causing them to hold their contrary beliefs more strongly than ever. So our intent to change their minds has exactly the opposite effect. Our arguments backfire.

So maybe we ought to devote less energy to trying to convert the close-minded morons to our way of thinking, and more energy to trying to understand their perspectives. I think I probably do.

I came across this recently, and it resonated with me.

How far is it from here to there?

How far from where I stand — the bit of earth, the people and places, my experiences and my feelings — to where others stand, what they experience, what they feel.

(HERE)

It seems to me that maybe we should be asking, what are the underlying emotional foundations upon which those with whom I disagree ground their reasoning? What can I learn from trying to understand that? How might making that effort affect public discourse? How can we disagree, without being arrogantly dismissive of contrary opinions? What can excuse remaining willfully ignorant of the emotional foundations of contrary opinions? I am reminded of something Richard Louv wrote: “there is no ignorance quite so unattractive as prideful ignorance.” And after all (to drop one more name), as John Stuart Mill noted, if you only know one side of the argument, then you don’t even know that.

As for me, I’m going to try to continue to form moral judgments, and to balance doubt and belief, according to what I perceive to be reasonable, whether or not that’s just an illusion, and whether or not what I perceive to be reasoning is actually the mere slave of my emotions.

And henceforth I’m going to try to be less judgmental of all those close-minded morons who refuse to submit in the face of my superior intellect and morality.

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33 comments on “Thinking About Beliefs

  1. Joanna says:

    I laughed at your final words. In a year where debate became a dirty word and where someone told me they didn’t want to listen to my educated bum but would go with their gut feelings, it feels like reason seems to have taken flight. So yes we need to reach out, but we also need to work through the grief and reorientate ourselves to know where we ourselves stand and then fight on for justice. So here’s to a reaching out to our future.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Hopefully it isn’t as bad where you are. Here it seems we’re no longer content just to disagree on some things. Instead we increasingly say we disagree because those who don’t agree with us are idiots. It seems that on political questions you can predict someone’s opinion with a fair degree of accuracy based on knowing their soci-economic standing. Maybe it’s always been that way, but it seems to me that should give us pause.

      Like

      • Joanna says:

        It has been pretty bad and news coming out of the UK has been getting worse. It is unbelievable that I have just read where an employer of a Swede had to put out an email telling the company employees that xenophobia would not be tolerated. That is a long way down the path of xenophobia and way beyond anything I have ever seen. I do not excuse any form of hatred over race, but never known people in the UK to be so intolerant of anyone else.

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      • Bill says:

        I’m suggesting that when we encounter xenophobia (for example) we ought to ask ourselves why the person is xenophobic, and why we aren’t. What differences in life experience may have caused us to come to different moral landing spaces on that? I’ve read that xenophobia is a natural human condition, a product of biological evolution that helped keep our ancestors alive. Of course nowadays it impedes rather than advances our progress, and over time it should fade away. My guess is that these days most people who are xenophobic are less educated and less affluent than most people who are not xenophobic. As life gets easier and easier for the well-to-do, and harder and harder for the have-nots, I’m afraid that gap will continue to widen. That’s what I meant about trying to understand the underlying emotions that produce the moral opinions that conflict with our own. That doesn’t excuse them, of course, but it does help understand them. We’re going through a time of rapid and profound change and entering into uncharted waters. I choose to believe it’s going to work out for the best, but that doesn’t mean the sailing is always going to be smooth.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the thoughtfulness and the laugh this early Monday morning.
    There are some -of us- who can and do change thoughts, opinions, behaviours through moral reasoning, and experience but what of those who have every reason to, no reason not to, and just don’t.
    Which brings me to your last sentence… I see clearly their position, and am less judgmental & inclined to argue or persuade because I have better things to expend my time & energy on than people who are perfectly happy being unhappy, unmotivated, unfulfilled, unhealthy, unwilling.
    There’s an argument they are who most need our compassion. But we can only do what we do, with them as witnesses, until they become seekers also.

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    • Bill says:

      Well I was only joking of course. But it sure is frustrating when I carefully explain all the reasons they’re wrong and they stubbornly refuse to admit I’m right. Of course I would freely admit to being wrong, if that should ever be the case. 🙂

      Liked by 5 people

  3. Melonie K. says:

    This was all very deep and educational, but then I snort-laughed at the end and felt much less collegiate and educated. I was involved in a discussion at church today where we were talking about ways to be more Christ-like; my goal for this week was simply to not bother trying to take on the judgemental folks on social media. At first I was thinking, this ties right in, because I need the reminder to learn from their judgement of folks… then the last line…. hahaha! Thank you for the full spectrum of thoughts! *chuckling as I wander away*

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks Melonie. I didn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I’m claiming to be innocent of this. But thinking about the Backfire Effect HAS helped me stay out of internet arguments. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. MaryQuiContrary says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Bill……much to ruminate on!

    Like

  5. Thanks Bill, thinking about the back fire effect will stop me from arguing with all the morons on social media. I was wondering why I never seemed to change any ones mind even with all the facts I had. LOL

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    • Bill says:

      It really has helped me. If I see someone posting some ridiculous opinion on social media now, I try to tell myself that the right thing to do is to ignore it, since trying to correct them will only make them worse. And who would want to do that?

      Like

  6. Scott says:

    Oh, man, it seems like it would be fun to accompany you on morning chores. Deep thoughts before breakfast, Bill. 😉
    I got a great chuckle from your last lines and from (talking about Rene Descartes) “…which were probably identical to those he had before he began to think about them.”
    Can I suggest a related blog post? (I’m going to anyway.) Perhaps you’ve already read it, but I found yours well aligned with this one, if coming at the point from a different direction:
    Ben Hewitt – You’re Going to Fail – http://wp.me/pTYZn-sZJ

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Maybe if I had someone to talk to during my morning chores I would be more likely to spare y’all from these kind of posts. I truly love the peace and quiet here but I do honestly sometimes miss having good conversation partners during the day. The goats seem to have no interest at all in my philosophizing.

      Thanks for sharing Ben’s post. I enjoy his blog (and greatly enjoyed his book) but I’ve been bad about keeping up with blogs lately and I hadn’t seen the post. The observation that certainty in one’s beliefs leads to judgmentalism while acceptance of uncertainty fosters compassion is spot on I think. I’m not ready to become a moral relativist, but I am trying harder to appreciate that just because my moral intuitions lead me to a belief, that doesn’t mean that those who end up in different beliefs are necessarily immoral people.

      Like

      • Scott says:

        I didn’t want to sound like you should “spare us”, because I enjoy the deep thinking. 😉
        Which book, Nourishing? I saw that one on your list. Loved it as well, and especially loved the “resources for digging deeper” book list in the back of it.
        After reading that blog post (and others in the same vein) I keep finding myself admitting that I don’t know people’s true motivations, and making plausible excuses for their small slights. I think it’s progress… but it doesn’t happen every time, and sometimes I have to force myself to do that, so it’s a work in progress.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bill says:

        I hear ya. I think we most often get it wrong when we judge the motives of those we disagree with. It’s one thing to say a person has their facts wrong or is badly or insufficiently informed. It’s another to say they have evil or immoral motives. The former is probably often correct (in all our lives) and the later is almost never correct, in my humble opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Leigh says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s often impossible to “reason” with folks because they are frequently emotionally attached to their beliefs, and will stick to them in the face of all (reasonable) reason. Mortimer Adler says faith is a special kind of knowledge, which I tend to agree with. I’d also say that worldview is mostly caught–mostly from our parents or others in our growing up years–less so reached through reason after we’ve grown up. That means the don’t have the benefit of reason, just a dogmatic attachment. It’s very difficult to talk with someone like that, and is probably why they often end up back at the beginning.

    Of the philosophers, I agree with Francis Schaeffer, that one can’t start with Man (Self) and reason one’s way to any reasonable and satisfactory understanding. But to start with the author and creator of the natural world and come to a reasonable and satisfactory understanding of things, requires answering the most fundamental question – does God exist? And if so, exactly who or what does that mean?

    Obviously I’m neither philosophical nor intellectual; I’m just one more in the sea of voices who thinks she has something of value to say and writes to say it. Critics are a dime a dozen, so I just pray that it will be found by those who have ears to hear and encourage them.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks for this excellent comment Leigh. Your first paragraph says it very well and I agree. I’m the kind of geek who is fascinated by the intersection of science and philosophy (especially ethics). It is fascinating to see science seemingly confirming that much of what we think is learned behavior is actually innate. And, as you say, much of our worldview comes from the conditions we’re born into. It’s helpful to stay mindful of that I think.

      I’m know there are plenty of us who love both homesteading and thinking about the “deep” issues, but I do like being reminded of that. 🙂

      Like

  8. Laurie Graves says:

    Deep thoughts during the cold winter. All the points you raised were valid. If we throw a lack of empathy into the mix, then we often have a toxic brew. That is where we are now in this country. Twenty million people without health insurance? Too bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      There’s certainly plenty to be concerned about, but I’m trying to give those with whom I disagree the benefit of the doubt where ever possible (a very difficult thing to do at times). I’m fascinated by the studies which seem to show that empathy is innate. It is one of the things that make us human. There are obviously some sociopaths who don’t have any, but there aren’t many of them. I think nearly all of us have empathy, even though we express it many different ways. It can be rough sailing as we try to reach a moral consensus on something entirely new in human history, but it seems to me that we usually end up in the right place. But I admit to being an optimist by nature. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves says:

        While empathy is indeed innate, I’ve noticed that some people have a very limited circle of empathy. They can extend empathy to family, friends, and perhaps their neighbors, but fail when it comes to the larger society. This is why so many people remain unmoved by the plight of 20 million people—myself included—suddenly not having affordable health care anymore. They just can’t imagine it or care what it is like not to have it. Sad. And scary. But I’d like to think that your optimism isn’t misplaced, that while we might go over the cliff, we will find our way back up. Metaphorically speaking, of course 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bill says:

        I think that’s right. The circle of empathy varies among people and cultures. Originally it would extend only to our clan/tribe, but the arc of history is toward philosophy calls “cosmopolitanism,” which would extend it all people (maybe even ultimately to all of creation). We’re not there yet though. When it comes to health care I’ve seen both extremes. An Israeli friend of mine was flabbergasted to discover that here we have to pay for our health care (other than through taxes). In Israel going to the doctor is like going to the library. In Haiti, on the other hand, people routinely die for want of the most basic things, like a bandage or an antibiotic. If you go to the hospital (the one I saw hardly deserved that name) you have to pay cash as you go and when you run out of money the services stop. Literally if you take a child in with a head wound, you must pay cash for the cleaning of the wound, then pay cash for the stitches. If you don’t have the money for the stitches they won’t put them in, even if the child dies. And they don’t seem to see any problem with that. Nowadays I think most people are OK with extending empathy to our political borders, but not beyond. Over time I think we’ll see those man-made distinctions go away.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves says:

        Oh, I hope so!

        Like

  9. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, another deep philosophical post. As you know I’m just a simple minded guy that trusted logic all my life. It helped me find answers to broken digital problems through out my telecommunication career. Philosophical abstract ideas are very difficult for me to discuss or even digest. It seems that this Winter season you are filled with amazing thought provoking things to make me use the dusty cobweb infested part of my brain that hasn’t been used in decades. Being a little more open minded in my, ahem, mature years, I find it challenging to try to figure out some of this stuff.

    I’m not sure where all my beliefs have come from. I would like to think they came from Scripture reading and faith in God but it goes back even before that. It just feels like some thing was put in my core since the beginning of my life that was confirmed and strengthened by Scripture and faith in God. It’s some that, for me, just feels like it’s always been there and when I follow the right path, it’s a good feeling.

    My method of talking with those that are totally against what I believe leave me out of the discussion. I would ask a question about what they have said some thing like this, “What would you say to people that don’t believe what your have said and believe (what ever the challenging issue would be) . Then I just listen to their response and some times give the Dr. Phil response of “How’s that working for you?”. Dang, I’ve become a philosopher and didn’t know it.

    One good friend was telling me how great it was going to be when a certain political agenda was activated. Some time later when it became a disaster that couldn’t be refuted, I asked him what happened. His only response was with head hanging down, “I’m so disappointed in our leadership.” I’ve learned that those that have opposing beliefs will only change them when continuing to believe them becomes more difficult than changing what they believe. Until that happens, your talking to a stone wall. Some folks are so determined about their beliefs that they will ride them right into destruction before they change.

    We are riding out an ice storm.here. Ice melt doesn’t seen to touch the ice on the driveway or street. I’m not going any where today. So maybe I start cleaning up the seed starting area.

    Have a great philosophical belief day.

    Nebraska Dave
    Urban Farmer
    dbentz24@gmail.com

    Like

    • avwalters says:

      We’re riding out an ice storm alright. And your post puts it into perspective.

      Like

    • Bill says:

      As always I appreciate your thoughtful comment Dave, but I’m not buying that “simple minded” bit. I know you can run laps around me on the things that matter most in life!

      There’s a lot to be said for good manners, I think. I know I’ve been guilty of being too judgmental in the past, when claiming the moral high ground on some issue. As for politics? It seems nearly impossible to discuss that civilly these days. It’s like a minefield, which is why I’ve tried to keep away from politics on this blog for years, although I haven’t always been successful.

      When scientists say humans have innate moral intuitions, they’re really saying the same thing as a non-scientist who says our moral intuitions are “God given.” Either way, we can’t take all the credit (or blame) for them!

      It feels like spring here. We were over 70 yesterday and had another warm day today (cooler, but still warm). Other than our one brief cold spell, it’s been an unseasonably warm winter here, which is fine by me.

      Like

  10. avwalters says:

    Great post. I’ve been pondering much of this myself. Where my ramblings lead to trouble, though, is taking the argument to the (not-so-distant) end game. Ignorance leading to apocalypse. While I’m more that willing to leave plenty of space for the differently thinking, what if that difference leads to harm; harm to individuals, harm to ecosystems, harm to everyone. There, I don’t know what my role is, or should be.

    Just this weekend I visited my sister and her family. Mostly, my family eats pretty clean. Motivations may differ, but there are enough cancer survivors, celiacs and learning disabilities in the mix that most of us shop for organics and locally produced foods.
    “Except bananas,” exclaimed my sister. Bananas you peel…they’re not on the dirty dozen. I buy regular bananas.”
    “Well, I suppose that goes to your motivations.” I shrugged. She knit her brows quizzically.
    “It’s not just about us–the impact on us. I buy and grow organic as much to save the planet, the bees, the climate–all of it. So if you’re motivated by your health, your dirty dozen will help. If you’re in it for the planet, you’re either in, or you’re not.” I shrugged, again. She looked like I’d slapped her–so did her adult daughter.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I know exactly what you mean. I struggle with it too. Ethics is one of my main interests and I’ve spent a lot of time (way too much probably) studying and thinking about it. But what’s the point if there is no effective applied ethics. If trying to change someone’s mind on a moral issue only tends to make them harden their opinion, then we’re better off saying nothing. Yet that seems irresponsible and itself immoral. Plenty to ponder…

      There is some value I think in just living our values as best we can and setting an example that others may find helpful. The Quakers call it letting your life speak. I’m not saying that is the only thing we can do, of course, but getting that part right is a life’s work in itself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        There’s been a good bit of study about the science of persuasion recently. In your face confrontations do not work. Gentle discussion has more to be said for it–but still is not effective (significant, but as in scientifically so–plus or minus 3 per cent.) The most effective method of persuasion measured is if others they know (and who think like them) quietly change their minds. That person truly owns the power of persuasion. I imagine that letting your life speak would fall into one of the more successful methods.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. valbjerke says:

    Little late to comment – but it took some thinking to decide whether I had any input. I used to be very black and white about everything. And very intolerant of what I considered to be ‘stupidity’, ‘ignorance’, whatever. At some point I simply gave it up and decided that if my own set of beliefs made me feel comfortable with my life, then good. Other people are entitled to the same grace – regardless of my opinions. I’ve probably saved myself some serious high blood pressure issues by just taking a deep breath and letting that stuff bounce off my radar. 😊

    Like

    • Bill says:

      You’ve said very well in a few sentences what my long-winded post was driving it. I saw a bumper sticker at the market Saturday that I liked. It read “Harm None. Do What Ye Will.”
      That’s not a bad place to start. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. A Facebook friend, one whose political opinions are the stark opposite of mine, posted today that it’s time for respectful discourse. He asked that we make an effort to talk to someone who voted for a candidate we opposed, and listen with an open mind. I know this is hard, but it’s also the beginning of true understanding. I agreed and happily clicked “like.”

    He couldn’t quite follow through. Within a few minutes comments appeared and my friend’s good moral intentions plummeted. He asked one person how haughty they felt now that their party lost and mocked another person for once gloating about the surefire win that didn’t happen.

    Ah well.

    I’m probably veering pretty far from your original point here Bill, but I think it’s easy for all of us (myself as well as my well-intentioned Facebook friend) to better see where others use faulty reasoning or fail to follow their own moral standards, rather than notice our own. It helps to recognize it’s a process. In psychology it’s called the Four Stages of Competence or Conscious Competence. As we move through those stages it becomes uncomfortable and requires awareness to become more competent. That discomfort, that attention means we’re progressing. Hard stuff!

    “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” Luke 6:41

    Here’s a story about Conscious Competence, if an example is needed:
    lauragraceweldon.com/2013/07/03/how-to-walk-your-talk

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Well said Laura. I don’t see the point of arguing about politics on Facebook. No one in the history of Facebook has ever changed their mind about politics as a result of reading posts by the partisans of the other party. And given the Backfire Effect and the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion, it’s both pointless AND counterproductive. There are some pretty convincing studies showing that we’re largely born with our political leanings, and those that aren’t genetic are largely culturally formed in ways we usually can’t control. My suggestion is that instead of arguing with (and often belittling) those with whom we don’t agree, why not step back and ponder why it is that they’ve come to have those opinions. My intuition is that it rarely is because they’re immoral, evil, or morons.

      I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the comments on this post. How nice it would be if all of our public discourse was of this caliber. 🙂

      Like

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