Belief or Thought?

The vast majority of people believe what they want to. What distinguishes a thinking individual from a believing individual is that thinking individuals do their best to evaluate all the facts in their environment and in the universe, not just the ones that support what they believe. What complicates this is that some individuals believe in things that are so; that is, what they believe is aligned with what the facts indicate is in fact so, but they do so out of belief, and often the basis for those beliefs rests upon other biases not grounded in fact. Add to that the fact that someone can be a thinking individual in some respects and a total “believer” in something that is anything but grounded in fact in others. In life, most of us are a mixture of thinker and believer.

From what I’ve observed and from what some psychologists report, all too often when “loyalties” that require adherence to a belief ungrounded in fact [and by that I mean the preponderance of fact and not just selected facts] conflict with the preponderance of fact, loyalties almost always win out. Thus, a far greater number of Republicans believe President Obama is a Muslim than do Democrats, while a far greater number of liberals oppose all genetically modified foods than do conservatives. Extreme fundamentalist Christians cannot accept evolution because it conflicts with an essential loyalty. Extreme libertarians believe that minimal or no government secures the most freedom for the most people, despite the bloody evidence of all human history to the contrary.

What makes all this even more of a problem is that when one marshals even what might seem an unassailable array of facts and proof against a belief with little or no support grounded in reality, all such an assault does, in the vast majority of instances, is to strengthen the belief. Which is why a small army of self-proclaimed and armed militia members continue to patrol the side-roads around Bunkerville, Nevada, most firmly convinced that Cliven Bundy, the man who owes the federal government [i.e., the taxpayers] over a million dollars, is a patriot supporting states’ rights, in particular rights that the state of Nevada relinquished in writing upon gaining statehood, and rights that are superseded in writing in the Constitution, that very document those true-believing militia types insist they are upholding.

But then, how many of us have beliefs ungrounded in fact and reality that we uphold against the evidence all around us, evidence we choose not to see because it conflicts with what we need to believe?

9 thoughts on “Belief or Thought?”

  1. Elizabeth Mancz says:

    What’s interesting is that I give my students an assignment to write a summary/reaction to Jared Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”, in which Diamond debunks the idea, long taught, that agriculture was an immediate improvement over hunting and gathering. I continue to be amazed at how hostile my students are to the idea. Diamond presents archaeological evidence to support his thesis, which only helps in a few cases. Some students admit to the evidence, but simply refuse to believe the conclusions. They seem to see Diamond’s article as a criticism of modern progress or something of the sort. Reading your blog, I now can see why – belief really does triumph over thought.

  2. Josh Camden says:

    If there were a biological component that provided humans the ability to believe something without evidence (faith) then we should be able to look at different cultures and see a consistency. The fundamental requirement of Religion is faith; without faith a belief ceases to be Religious. Are there any cultures devoid of Religion? As with all things biological, are there two extremes; are there people with a lot of faith and those with very little? Does this mean that Homo Sapiens will never be rid of The Believer?

    1. Josh Camden says:

      I apologize; it wasn’t my intention to be so vague.

      I was just trying to ask if the human capacity to strongly believe something, even in the face of opposing evidence, is cultural or biological. My only reason for mentioning religion was to use it as a litmus test for the presence of faith, which I define as the capacity for The Believer to strongly believe something.

      If faith is a cultural quality, we would expect to find cultures completely devoid of religion. If faith is a biological quality then it might be possible to genetically modify Homo Sapiens, to remove this capacity and thus The Believer.

      It’s possible to make an argument for and against the idea that the human capacity for The Believer to exist is biological, but what if faith really did turn out to be a genetic trait? At the rate our understanding of genetics is growing, it might be possible in a few decades to modify humanity so we have more Thinkers and fewer Believers.

      I find this a scary concept because genetic manipulation of our children is just around the corner. What is the benefit of The Believer’s blind belief to society and to his self? What would be the result if humanity lost it?

      Conversely, would a government benefit from the creation of more Believers and fewer Thinkers?

      1. Lawrence says:

        I suppose that would depend on what that goverment wanted them to believe.

  3. Thom says:

    That would be interesting, Josh, if it turned out to be genetic. Considering recent events where something appears to be genetic was used as reason for “we’re born that way, so leave us alone”, would the notion that we should try to genetically eliminate “believers” itself be a “belief” based on prejudice rather than fact? If someone is born that way, leave them alone, right?

    I suspect, however, that it’s not genetic, but more of a coping mechanism. Who really has the time to reconsider their belief structures every time new evidence or arguments arise? Especially when much we see in media is itself of questionable veracity. Take for example the recent article claiming that “people who avoid sun are twice as likely to die as people who sunbathe regularly.” That’s the actual headline and first paragraph of the article, but it’s misleading (our chance of death is 100%, period). What really happened is that of the 2500 people out of 30,000 in a study who died during the twenty years of the study, 66% of them were people who avoided sun, compared to 33% of got regular sun exposure. Bad reporting makes for bad science, but most people lack the inclination or the time to question the conclusions the journalists reach.

    Another example is the ongoing threat of the majority of the IT jobs in the US being off-shored to India or China (or Brazil). I’ve been living under this threat for over ten years at least, but am I being foolish/stubborn to remain in IT based on this information/trend? Or is the intelligent thing to do to IGNORE unfavorable data so that I don’t waste even more time and resources trying to change careers? Ten years later I’m still in IT and doing well.

    Continual re-evaluation of our paradigms based on new information sounds enlightened, certainly, but the reality is that in the Information Age, we could end up spending a lot of time spinning our wheels re-evaluating everything. In the context of this post, “belief” may be the only thing keeping us sane and productive.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Where is the pragmatism in the ongoing lurch to the left? Supporting the unproductive via the government is insane; if private compassion won’t enable those who can to support themselves and support those few that can’t, then how can the government possibly do better? The government can jail or otherwise restrain any rioters unwilling to be weaned from the federal teat, but that’s all it has any business doing, and even that is a state and not federal function.

    And where in the Constitution does it say that the federal government was entitled to keep much of the land within states that were formed from former territories? I see in the Constitution that the federal government is entitled to a seat of government (DC), and limited forts, ports, and similar facilities elsewhere with the consent of the states they’re in; not vast tracts held in perpetuity for alleged preservation (but actually just another means of exercising power).

    Bundy is a jerk and may well be just a different sort of parasite from the more familiar welfare consumers (private or corporate, matters not), but that doesn’t make him entirely wrong.

    1. Bundy happens to be not only a jerk and a parasite, but he’s also breaking the law. As for federal lands, you can argue all you want, but the terms of the treaty gave unclaimed lands to the federal government. In other cases, such as building the transcontinental railroad and the homestead acts, the government gifted lands to the rail companies and to the homesteaders. In any nation, government has to be the final arbiter of law. One can change the government or the laws, but disregarding the law as interpreted by the courts because it doesn’t agree with your interpretation of that law is still lawbreaking. You’re arguing from a theory that has been dismissed by the Courts, time and time again. Until the law, or government, is changed, Bundy is legally wrong.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    I’ll accept that Bundy is going about it the wrong way, although paying the fine and complying with an egregious law is ONLY better insofar as it upholds the rule of law.

    People of good will should certainly desire that change happen in a lawful and peaceable manner, not with foolish confrontations.

    Yet the deck is stacked against the change that’s needed, which is rolling back almost everything since before FDR, except for civil rights (which also ought to have results-tested phase-out of requirements on private individuals and businesses – as long as the town isn’t full of bigots, what business is it of anyone’s if I don’t wish to serve those whose conduct I disagree with?).

    Accomplishing that change would take a lot of activism on the part of people who simply want to be left alone, and don’t want to have to engage in such massive and public civic involvement.

    I don’t know what the right answer is. I only know that constant attempts to redefine the center ever further to the left can only end in collapse or tyranny, and it’s overdue to be doing something about it.

  6. D Archerd says:

    I’m not sure upon what basis Mr. Hamilton is claiming a “lurch to the left”. From where I sit as a moderate/centrist, i.e. unrepresented by either major U.S. political party, I see equal “lurches” to both the left and right as the political spectrum in the U.S. becomes steadily more polarized and extreme. We could solve a great deal of this by the simple expedient of removing election redistricting from the hands of the politicians who have a vested interest in promoting those “safe” districts to keep themselves elected, but which has the unintended consequence of putting more electoral power in the hands of the party zealots who matter more in primaries than in general elections. But in order to change the redistricting laws, we have to persuade or somehow bypass those selfsame politician.

    But getting back to LEM’s original point about belief vs. facts, I once saw a wickedly cynical chart of definitions which included:
    o Belief: Something you do not believe
    o Fact: Something you do believe

    The point being that all of us at some point accept certain things on faith. Sometimes it is because to do otherwise would make living impossible or pointless (“I believe that my senses tell me true”); other times it is because we trust the authority from whence we derive our “facts” and choose not to make the effort to independently verify each and every fact we’re presented with day in and day out. But we should all be conscious that any time we choose not to independently verify a “fact”, we’re taking something on faith just as much as someone who accepts something unverifiable as a fact, e.g. most religious beliefs, the only difference being that most secular facts are verifiable should one choose to make that effort.

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