When I was a naive undergraduate, I laboured under a severe misapprehension. I thought that people believed things because they had heard the evidence and believed those things to be true. If somebody believed something that was (in my opinion) wrong, it must have been because they had bad information or had heard a mistaken argument. Therefore, all I had to do was simply furnish them with better information and a logical argument and we’d agree on the facts.
Needless to say, I had a lot of long and pointless conversations back then.
I’ve now come to realise that people believe things – I’m talking here factual propositions about how the world is, not opinions – for a host of reasons, and whether it’s true or not isn’t the sole arbiter of what to accept. Whether something is objectively true or not isn’t even in the top 5 reasons – it’s lucky to get a look-in at all.
Here are some reasons people really believe things.
Compared to the first six, number seven does seem so very puny.
My father believes he belongs to the one true religion, which just so happens to exalt our own race and culture (that of the British empire) to God’s favorite, and other races to failures or Johnny-come-lateleys. That ticks boxes 1-5 pretty nicely, so the utter lack of evidence for any of it is hardly an obstacle to devoting one’s life to it.
All of these are obvious apart from number 5. In my experience, people just love a story about some sort of creepy danger. The nastier it is, the faster the skeptical faculties go out the window. These are always the most popular urban legends – razor blades in the Halloween candy or playground equipment, gangs that kill helpful motorists as initiations, the idea that terrorists and child molesters are legion and out to get you. Try telling somebody that you heard junkies put HIV-infected needles under the sand down at the beach, and see how many people respond critically. I’ve often wondered why this is the case.
Note that, while harmony with pre-existing beliefs is a bonus, a conflict with other beliefs won’t stop a person from accepting something as fact if it ticks a few other boxes on the list. Believing two opposites at the same time is an easy feat for the average human brain.
The problem is, of course, that in general most people still work under the same wrongheaded belief I used to have and won’t admit that the list above reflects their own thought processes. Sometimes we have good systems that account for this – judges recuse themselves from certain cases, politicians disclose conflicts of interest. These are rare, yet somehow we muddle along. I can only assume that if we didn’t evolve this way, a week of life in the cold light of reality would demolish anyone’s sanity.