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Brian (8)

An essay on how I think we work out what we believe

How do we work out what we believe?

When we ask questions like “Does God exist?” we are really asking whether we should BELIEVE that God exists or does not. We are trying to work out what we believe.

So what is a belief - and how do we decide to believe something?

It has been argued by some that the entire contents of our minds are a collection of beliefs and desires (and nothing else). It’s an interesting exercise to contemplate the contents of your mind for a while  - trying to find something that is neither a belief nor a desire (remembering that you can have negative beliefs and negative desires). Even memories are beliefs - that “such and such” an event happened in the past.

Anyway I think everyone would agree that our minds hold a vast number of beliefs at any one time. Many are trivial ("I believe honey tastes nice” or “I believe the weather today will be unpleasant” or “I will get stuck on the freeway if I don’t fill-up with petrol shortly") and some are not (“I believe God doesn’t exist” or “ I believe I have cancer” or “I believe my child is a drug addict”).

These miriad of beliefs are in constant flux. We change our beliefs every day - mostly the trivial ones. But even non-trivial beliefs do change - including the questions on God which we are contemplating here.
Now my focus in this brief essay is to work out exactly HOW we humans come to any sort of belief and also how we go about changing/revising those beliefs. What mental “tools” are we using to arrive at, or change, our beliefs?

I’ll start with a list of all the possible “tools for belief” I can think of - then discuss them. In particular I will discuss how effective the different tools might be at separating truth from delusion.
The tools are:
  • Instinct;
  • Follow the Leader;
  • Follow the Masses;
  • Critical Reasoning;
  • Faith beyond Reason; and
  • Because it feels Good

But what is Truth?

Before discussing the tools of belief I need to say a few words about the two sorts of truth (or true beliefs).
Usually when we talk about the truth we are referring to what is called objective truth.
For example the low level in my fuel tank is objectively true in the sense that it is true regardless of what I might actually believe. If I fail to check my fuel gauge (which is registering "Empty"), and believe the tank to contain plenty of fuel, then this is a false belief. The objective truth here, is that I am about to run out of fuel.
Until about the time of Socrates most people on earth believed the earth to be flat. But the objective truth is that earth is spherical. It is true regardless of what people might believe. When we, as a community, debate the existence of God, we are debating an objective truth. Either God exists or he does not - regardless of what you or I choose to believe.

There is another type of truth called subjective truth. This refers to beliefs related to a person's tastes - in say colour or food or music. My belief that Beethoven's 5th symphony is the most beautiful piece of music ever composed is true for me. You may believe a different (subjective) truth - that Vivaldi composed more beautiful music. These truths can be legitimately true for one person - yet false for another.

In this essay I am considering only the tools we use to discover objective truths.
Now to the tools:


Instincts could be considered as beliefs we are “born with” - possibly programmed into the DNA. These seem to me to be evolutionary in nature - and focused on basic beliefs which are designed to help survival. These would include the belief that 'we should avoid dangerous situations' or ‘we should drink water when we feel thirsty’.  Instinct is not worth too much discussion here -  I only mention it for completeness.

Follow the leader.

When we are very young our parents are the source of virtually all our beliefs. This demonstrates that we start life using what I am calling the “follow the leader” tool to work out what we believe. As the name suggests, when we are using this tool we are saying that we believe something because another person whose judgement or expertise we respect believes it. So once we believe that a certain person is better able to work out truth from delusion than ourselves (in any particular field) then we adopt that person’s beliefs as our own.
Now when you think about it we use this tool very frequently. It has the advantage of being very efficient. In fact I would argue it impossible to exist in this complex world without using it. Time is too short. When the doctor says he believes we have yellow fever we then immediately believe the same thing without question and take the suggested treatment. When the trustworthy mechanic tells us our gearbox is about to self-destruct we accept his belief and get it fixed. When the economist or politician we trust tells us we need to pay more tax to sustain our lifestyle we accept that belief as our own. When the church leader we trust says he believes that Jesus was the son of God we simply adopt that belief if we are relying on this tool alone.

How successful this tool is at identifying truth from delusion depends on one crucial fact - how well that leader is applying his tools of belief? If he is deluded then I am deluded. So your success with this tool depends entirely on how good you are at picking the right people to provide you with each belief. We all know this instinctively but it is nevertheless an interesting exercise to carefully list some of the non-trivial beliefs we have adopted by this method - and which ‘leader’ we are following.

When a child suddenly begins to realise that her parents beliefs might not all be true it is a revelation. When they get to that stage they naturally start using some of the other tools I am about to discuss.

Follow the masses.

'Follow the masses' is somewhat similar to 'follow the leader’ except that we don’t bother to make a judgement about the abilities, expertise or knowledge of a belief-leader - we simply say ‘ if the majority believe X then I will believe X’.

This ‘majority’ could refer to the population as a whole. So if I am using this tool for my political beliefs and most people seem to believe that Australia should send troops to Iraq - then I will adopt that belief.
This 'majority' could refer to say sports journalists. If I am using this tool and most of these journalists are saying that the Wallabies coach should be replaced - then I simply adopt that belief and agree that the coach be sacked.

It seems to me that this tool, on its own, is relatively poor at identifying truth from delusion. History is replete with examples of the masses being wrong - often on very important truths.

Where this tool can be improved is when it is combined with the ‘follow the leader’. Here we look at not one leader (expert) in a particular field, say your doctor, but at the whole medical profession as an expert group. We then ask what the majority of that profession believe is true. On balance the majority of the whole profession is less likely to be deluded on any medical matter than just one member of the profession. I guess that is why, if we wish to be more certain of the truth, we choose to get alternative opinions if our doctor has diagnosed that we have cancer. We also might do some searches on medical websites to obtain a broader number of opinions. However this combination of tools is not without problems. Consider the examples of Thalidomide or, more recently, Vioxx. These drugs were supported by the majority of the medical profession but proved to be highly damaging.

The fact that the vast majority of economists failed to predict the GFC is another high profile example of a failure.

Critical reasoning.

Critical reasoning is a tool which involves a process called 'rational inference' or 'logical thinking'. This tool is founded on the idea that if some belief is true there should be sufficient independent evidence to support it’s being true.

Here is a classical piece of critical reasoning: “Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal.” If we have good evidence that Socrates is in fact a man, and if we also have evidence that the all men are mortal, then, by a process of reasoning, we can say that Socrates must be mortal.

Another example would be “Now and again I drink a lot of wine at one sitting. It seems that every time I do this, I wake up the next morning with a headache. But I also sometimes wake up with a headache without having consumed any wine the night before. So, by a process of reasoning I can say that a) It is very likely to be true that, for me, excessive wine consumption always causes a headache b) there are things other than wine which can give me a headache."

There are a number of very interesting things to notice about critical reasoning as follows:
  • We are not relying on other people’s beliefs in order to establish truth - as we do with ‘follow the leader’ and ‘follow the masses’.
  • Because this process is ‘evidence-based’ the truth of the beliefs it produces are dependent on the strength of the evidence we have used. So the mortality of Socrates is more likely to be true than the belief that wine causes headaches - because the evidence is stronger in Socrates’ case. We can only be absolutely certain about a truth when the evidence have used is itself absolutely certain. I would argue that nothing in this world (outside mathematics) can be known with absolute certainty. So when we face two competing theories (about some truth) we must rationally criticise and evaluate each  - and then take the  most plausible to be true. (This could be called proof on the "balance of probabilities").
  • The greatest discoverer of physical truth in human history (so far) - science - is entirely based on this tool.
  • Our justice systems are entirely based on this tool.
  • There is not a single objective truth which is not discoverable (in principle) by critical reasoning. There’s a challenge for sceptical readers! Remember that critical reasoning is not restricted to finding the truths of the physical world (as scientific reasoning is). Science cannot, for example, tell us whether John loves Jill, or whether it is wrong to steal from your neighbour - but we are still able to discover these truths via critical reasoning.
  • We use critical reasoning, without realising it, many times a day with great effectiveness.
  • It may be true that humans are the only living creature able to use this tool? This may help explain the total dominance of our species?  
This tool is obviously very powerful - but it has one major weakness. It can be very time consuming - especially if the reasoning required to discover some truth is complex (unlike my examples above). Science is a good example of a situation where most people accept the truths established by scientists on face value - we ‘follow the scientific leader’. Most of us simply do not have the time nor capability to go through all the scientific evidence-finding and reasoning needed to work out that, for example, smoking kills - or that the earth orbits the sun.

Faith beyond reason (often called fideism):

Fideism as a tool is usually used in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truths. When there is simply insufficient evidence available to establish some truth via the critical reasoning tool then fideism can be used.
Some religious people (not me) have used this tool to establish the truth of God’s existence because, to them, the evidence is inadequate (or inappropriate) - or they have experienced some sort of direct divine revelation. If God exists then it seems to me that genuine divine revelation would be a more effective pathway to the truth than any of the other tools.
Others, many who are atheists, completely reject fideism as a tool. They claim that anything (including God) that cannot be demonstrated convincingly with physical evidence and critical reasoning cannot be considered as true. Seems like a negative form of ‘faith beyond reason’ to me!

Because it feels good (or blind faith):

This is not to be confused with ‘faith beyond reason’ (above). I am calling this ‘blind faith’ because it means choosing to believe something without using ANY of the above-mentioned tools, and without any spiritual or divine inputs/revelation. I include it for completeness although it is not really a ‘tool'.
It is possible to believe something is true just because it feels good, or just because you want it to be true (regardless of the possibility that all the other tools might be telling you the opposite). I think this ’tool' is rarely used and is the preserve of the 'lunatic fringe’. It has a low likelihood of revealing objective truths - so I will discuss it no further!


So having been encouraged (by Noni and Cheryl) to go through this process of thinking about the tools of belief, I have come to realise that there are six, and only six, ways by which we come to believe anything to be true.

All of them have the capability of discovering facts which are objectively true. Some are more likely to deliver the truth than others.

More than one tool can be used at the same time - to improve the chances of finding those elusive truths.
I have made some fairly contentious statements so I would welcome (reasoned) criticism in the hope that I may continue to learn. Who knows, someone may point out tool of belief which I have completely missed!!

My hope is that, if it does nothing else, this essay will help readers reflect a little on how they came to believe some of their most important beliefs - and whether they used the most effective tools.
I am of course assuming that those readers are interested in actually discovering the objective truths of this world we find ourselves in!!

Epilogue to our educators.

This is a cry of frustration!
When we send our kids to school we are hoping to educate them. This means, among other things, that we want them to learn how to think clearly about the world they live in. We want them to learn how to get good at sorting out fact from delusion. We do this because we parents know that the world is full of uncertainty, falsehoods and competing interests. So we want our kids to learn how to use the tools of belief well - and to recognise when to use what tools.

Now I would contend that they all leave school having unconsciously used all these tools - but the curriculum avoids any specific focus on how we think and how we believe.

Don’t you think it might be useful if we were to include “methods of thinking and believing” in the syllabus.
Hmmmmmm - am I missing something?!!!

Brent (9)

A Stimulating Article

Thanks Brian, very stimulating and expressed clearly. I enjoyed the real-life examples too.

I think that one of the hardest stages of life is when we switch from "follow the leader" or "follow the masses" to "critical reasoning". I guess that for most people, we don't admit to, or are not aware of, using the former tools - especially if the leader/s has used critical reasoning or seems to have. We accept certain things as truths without monitoring or understanding how we came to believe them.

Of course when you "upgrade" to critical reasoning, you often find that some of your beliefs are not well supported, which breaks your confidence in those leaders and can be quite disconcerting. It displaces you. You realise that, as you said, the leaders have followed the leader for so many generations that the critical thinking at the beginning, if any, is hard to find.

Where once is was inconceivable that our beliefs could be wrong, it now seems like you can ber certain of nothing. frightening. Then you are hit with the challenge of the effort required and the time which you mentioned are necessary to build solid beliefs. This seems to be the point where many x-religious people become disillusioned, hopeless, even clinically depressed. It's not an easy road.