Making Sense of Beliefs

September 2003


People will believe in the darnedest things. It only makes sense when you figure out that what you believe in is an irrational choice.

Human beings can believe in just about anything. This is one of their defining characteristics. Belief is a very interesting concept. I know things. I also understand things. But unless I believe in something, my knowledge and understanding of it is meaningless. Knowledge and understanding are assumed to be rational processes that spring from some kind of logical foundation. I deduce that if I ram my car into a tree, both I and my car will become damaged. I understand this to be true although this understanding is unsupported by personal experience (so far). Of course, I am extrapolating from other peoples' experience. All I have to do is to assume that my car and I are not different from other people and cars that have run into trees.

Come to think of it I have never seen anyone else run into a tree but I believe in the accounts I have been told by people I trust, so the result of a car hitting a tree is a fact to me. It would be unreasonable of me to conclude that cars do not run into trees. I also have plenty of personal experience to back up the assertion that I am not different from other people where the laws of physics are concerned. Belief is required to transform nonfiction into truth.

The trouble with belief is that it is perfectly possible to believe in all kinds of fiction. Belief operates on fiction just as well as on nonfiction: anything can be true if you only believe it to be so. Our capacity for belief is often the only thing that enables us to maintain some semblance of sanity in this arbitrary and dangerous universe. Believing that the worst won't happen to us or that life will get better -- these beliefs are necessary when all your recent empirical experience would lead you to the opposite conclusions.

We wander through life performing a kind of self-hypnosis of beliefs. For example: the wife who tells herself 20 times a day that "he does his best," "he loves me," "he will improve," "we will accomplish great things together," can stay happily married to the worst bum on the planet. Whereas the same woman, married to the same man who has done, is doing, and will do nothing different will surely become a divorcee when she starts chanting that "he never tries," "he hates me," "he'll never get any better," and "he ruins everything we try to do." Nothing different has happened here except the choice of belief. And the same woman married to the most saintly paragon of a man could become just as happily married or just as gratefully divorced by virtue of what she chose to believe about her husband.

The most frustrating thing about this type of beliefs is that they almost never make any sense. Not making any sense, they don't have to conform to any credible standards, nor does one belief need to be consistent with any other. If you can say one thing about the things people believe in, it is that peoples' beliefs are always inconsistent. If it was necessary for our beliefs to be internally consistent, you could never find someone who believed passionately in the sanctity of life who was also a soldier. Christians wouldn't run sweat shops. Muslims would treat everyone with the same consideration they expected to receive, even women. Everyone believes that you should tell the truth, so there'd be no liars.

There are people whose beliefs are a matter of convenience. Those people really believe that no one believes in anything that is inconvenient. Their businesses receive government incentives but they're against welfare. They see no contradiction in believing in charity and believing that food stamp programs harm people. They deny that you cannot have privileged people without creating underprivileged people. They ask what a ten-year-old boy in an inner city ghetto has done to deserve a safe home to live in and the certainty of his next meal. They never ask what a billionaire's ten year old son has done to deserve good nutrition, the best education, and twice the life expectancy at birth.

It seems to me that if I were in charge of the local universe, I would change the nature of belief so that it carried with it self-evident consequences. There was a comedian, years ago, who had a routine about how he would make cars that would turn left if the left turn signal was on -- you'd have no choice. Well, I would do something like that in an ethical sense. If you believed in equality, you'd have to treat others as your equal. If you believed that your own children ought to have good nutrition, you would not be satisfied until everybody's children were so endowed. If you believed that war is wrong, you'd refuse either to serve or to pay for others' participation in war. If you believed in your own right to own property, you would be incapable of stealing from others, even if it was legal.

I believe that I will continue to expect people to believe in things that make sense. I will expect their beliefs to be consistent and I will call people on it when they do bad things for the best of reasons. This may not make any sense but why should my beliefs be any more reasonable than yours?

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