The Tyranny of Belief: Part 2


Continued from Part 1.

Beliefs fall into four main categories: opinions, predictions, superstitions, and strategies. In the first post of this series, we made the distinction between beliefs about the nature of reality, and what would better be termed opinions or preferences. We also discussed a kind of superstitious voodoo ‘belief’ or ‘magical thinking,’ whereby one ‘believes’ they can influence outcomes (either positively or negatively) simply by believing.

There are also predictions, such as “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow,” or “I believe the Red Sox will win the World Series.” An objective person can make such predictions, or educated guesses, (as long as odds are properly calculated). Things will either turn out as predicted, or they will not. Either way, there is a clear method for checking the result, and a person who consistently makes bad predictions is likely to lose a lot of money or credibility with his or her friends.

We also discussed the belief or, value as I would prefer to call it, that states “objectivity about the nature of reality is better than non-objectivity.” I’ve struggled with the idea of this being a belief, because someone could argue that they don’t need objectivity, and that they could be happier spending all day every day praying to Jesus, or being in meditatively or chemically altered states. I would make the case that such people would be disadvantaged when compared with others who took their mundane life a little more seriously.

I therefore maintain that preferring objectivity is not a belief at all, but is rather a learned trait supported by evolution: people who understand the nature of their world generally live longer and can produce more offspring if they so choose. Such people are also less likely to be surprised by unexpected events, or snookered by the unscrupulous. The desire for objectivity and consistency between one’s inner ‘map’ of the universe and the observed outer world is a universal human desire–one necessary for survival.

I’m now going to examine a different sort of belief–one where you need to convince yourself of something you know is unlikely or definitely false. Let’s say you are told you have terminal cancer. A certain percentage of people who get such a diagnosis actually end up making a full recovery. Even if the percentage is very low, and you know it, it is still important for you to convince yourself you will be in that select group. Studies have shown that even among the terminally ill, a patient’s attitudes about their health have some potential to affect their immune system and other resources their body uses to fight off disease. In fact, laughter and positive beliefs have both been shown to have curative powers. There is also the placebo effect, which is well documented. This seems to be more evidence against the so-called “mind-body” duality. We are one organism, and what we think about can affect the functioning of otherwise involuntary metabolic processes. No voodoo here.

Another positive role for belief would be for those embarking on difficult tasks, such as starting a business, running a marathon, surviving while gravely injured in the wilderness, or other feats of endurance. Again, it is important for us to believe in ourselves in these moments: doubt will cause us to abandon our enterprise when the going gets tough. In extreme survival situations, doubt can be fatal. But we have to ask ourselves: is it belief? Or is it determination? I would say the latter. Sometimes doubt is healthy. It goes along with fear. Both can be healthy deterrents to foolish actions. So we can replace “believe in yourself” with “choose a wise course of action, assess the potential for success, and hold strong determination.” A much more powerful strategy than mere baseless belief.
So let’s recap:

The following types of ‘beliefs’ are really opinions or values. Evidence may lean strongly one way or the other, given certain assumptions. But they cannot be stated to be categorically ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’:

  1. Red wine is better than white. [Red could be better if you are talking about preventing heart disease.]
  2. Mac is better than PC. [Could be true if you valued style and ease-of-use over price/performance.]
  3. No one should have pre-marital sex. [Could be true if there actually was proven to be a Catholic god who would consign violators to hell.]
  4. Bush is the worst president in history. [Would have to state criterion for ‘worst,’ and cite evidence. OK, OK, not very hard to prove.]
  5. Everyone should reduce their carbon footprint and we should cap global carbon levels. [Would be true provided we want to survive past the next few generations.]

The following types of ‘beliefs’ are superstitions. They are statements about the nature of reality or events. They cannot be disproven, (since we can’t prove a negative), but no solid evidence supports them:

  1. Positive thoughts can influence external events and make good things happen.
  2. Negative thoughts can hurt other people and make bad things happen.
  3. The motion of distant stars and planets can affect human fortunes.
  4. A supernatural realm exists where your spirit goes when you die.
  5. People have been abducted and experimented on by aliens.

The following ‘beliefs’ are predictions. They may be wrong, but they can eventually be checked against the evidence:

  1. The Sun will rise tomorrow.
  2. Computers will pass the Turing Test by 2029.
  3. The Red Sox will win the next World Series.
  4. I will live to my 50th birthday.
  5. When I pick up the remote and press the on button, the TV will activate.

The following types of ‘beliefs’ are actually strategies. They may not work, but they may be useful in programming your brain to do the best job of controlling your bodies’ immune system, or in disciplining yourself to reach a goal.

  1. I’m going to be cured of this case of terminal cancer.
  2. I’m going to stay alive in this crevasse until I’m rescued.
  3. If I want, I can lose 20 lbs. by the end of the year.
  4. I can go out and find undervalued stocks or properties and sell them at a profit.
  5. I’m worth more than I’m being paid, and I’m going to make the money I deserve even if I have to quit my job and start my own business.

So now we’ve separated the different types of beliefs. Next time we will discuss the human hard-wiring for belief, and some of the consequences.

NOTE: This post has been updated. It was originally published on September 5, 2006

Comments (4 comments)

Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer / October 9th, 2007, 1:38 am / #1

Really good analysis of belief! Those two posts could easily be part of Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking The Spell”.
Stuff like that can effectively shut up people with the “It’s just another belief” argument(?), if only they would bother to read them.
Keep up the good work!

Mana / October 9th, 2007, 12:21 pm / #2

Great post. I would like to suggest something related to the “predictions” category. I agree with the categorization but I wonder if it begs for additional explanation. I would say that, “The sun will rise tomorrow” has a high probability of being factual in the sense that based on all scientific knowledge the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow is very high. So these may be probable predictions not prophecies :D. And as a Chicagoan I’ll leave baseball predictions to the gods.

Regarding “human hard-wiring for belief” here is an interesting SciAm article.

BlackSun / October 11th, 2007, 7:45 am / #3

@Shipwrecked, Thanks!

@Mana, yes I think you are right about this. I always cringe when people bring up the problem of induction and say you cannot “prove” that just because something has happened every other time you observed it, it will happen this time. While technically true, the odds are infinitesimally small. When you think about what would have to happen for the sun to not rise on a given day, it’s staggering. Like the stopping of the earth’s rotation or a supernova, or maybe a moon-sized object impact. As if anyone would be around to talk about it!

A friend of mine used the TV remote example. That’s another one. Put a set of fresh batteries in the remote, it works every time. What would have to happen for it not to work? Maybe a power failure. But you’d know that in advance. We could say: If batteries are good, and power is on, and TV and remote aren’t broken, the TV will turn on every time. It’s not a belief, it’s a fact. Point is, I think these people are grasping at straws to “prove” or simply just hang on to the idea that “everyone has beliefs.” In the end I can’t blame them, they don’t understand the implications because they’re pretty much philosophical novices. I guess it’s our job to explain it to them, painful though it may be.

Thanks for the article!

Smoke / October 20th, 2007, 11:30 am / #4

Hey–great posts. I have a suggestion. Have you heard the NPR “this I believe…” series? You should do one–“this I believe–that belief must be left behind, for objectivity….” You get the idea. Consider it–we’ll be cheering you on!

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