You! And you! He and she! You’re all wrong! Just like me.
In every single minute moment of your life you’re wrong about something. Your beliefs never reflect reality in 100% and they never will. Why then do you act as if you were not mistaken? Why do you have that allergic-like reaction to every hint that you’re wrong regarding this or that? And please don’t say you’re not like that. There are no such people. Or rather the number of such people is negligible. Nope – you’re not one of them.
The only important factor at play here is how important for you is the belief that’s being challenged. If someone corrects you that the street you mentioned a little while ago was called Helm Street, not Elm Street, and you’re probably mistaking one for the other, after lightning-fast reflection you’ll agree with that person and you’ll move on. Even if you’re not really able to verify it right away.
It is a whole another story if someone questions your claim that your wife is the prettiest, your football team is the best, your nationality is the awesomest, that only your god exists…
Quite obviously some of those claims are fundamentally subjective. Wives of two gentlemen/gentlewomen can be the prettiest to them (respectively) and both of them will be right. Why? Well – there’s no such thing as an objective definition of beauty. As for the fact claims – those we can verify. We can look up the score sheet of our team and compare it to others, we can check various indices of life quality in a given country, we can look for the evidence of our god existing…
It’s quite irrelevant though because beliefs differ from each other in the degree to which they are rooted in our conscience and (what’s worse) in our emotional sphere.
This is why you basically can forget about rational discourse on various emotion-based beliefs. They are not immovable, obviously, but usually people will go to great lengths to defend them and it might take a really long time for them to even begin to change. In my opinion it happens relatively rarely. Someone once said:
you can’t reason out of someone what hasn’t been reasoned into them
I think we can risk a claim that person’s ability to modify his/her own beliefs is inversely proportional to the degree, to which the belief is rooted in the emotional sphere.
Sadly, scientific research doesn’t give us any reason to be optimistic. It seems that, contrary to the common opinion, facts do not have the power to change one’s beliefs. ( link here, also here, and here). It happens quite often to be exactly the opposite – debunking myths that one believes in often strengthens their belief.
Browsing through the literature you can find various kinds of approach – from boghossianian, to bayesian, to suggestion to let the seed of the truth fall on the ground and wait till it sprouts. Unfortunately none of those methods is universal, and to top that it’s quite difficult to recognize which approach will work in a particular case.
The rational – sceptical approach, the one that says to follow the evidence no matter the pre-existing beliefs, is a troublesome one. It forces us to face the cognitive dissonance over and over again on a regular basis and it forces us to admit to what I began this post with – that we’re wrong. And we as humans really don’t like to think that way about ourselves – it’s a truly uncomfortable thing. In addition, our cultural background makes us believe that being wrong equals being bad. Words like “you’re right, it looks like I was wrong” are one of the hardest words to say and it is so also because somewhere around there’s a spectre of “I’m worse, if I’m wrong that means I should not be respected”. Contemporary education systems are the ones that are the most responsible for that state of the matter. How to fight it, though?
It’s a damn good question, and a hard one at that. I don’t know if there’s one panacea to this situation.
On the other hand we can see that people’s beliefs change over time. I am not sure whether that includes the die-hard conservatives, but broadly speaking people’s beliefs change. Even if they claim that they will never ever change their opinion on a given matter. As it happens, we’re really bad in predicting future. Here’s a simple thought experiment: try to recall what plans did you have ten years ago, what did you think you’d be doing in ten years, what were your beliefs and are they the same as today? In the great majority of cases there will be huge discrepancies between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Don’t claim then that in ten years you will think the same as you do now. There’s really a great chance you will not.
So how to catalyse the process of beliefs change, if it is even possible at all? I think that we need a comprehensive approach. That means we should not limit ourselves to just one method. For instance – there are people out there that actually do consider facts. To reach those we should then publish scientific research, popularize science and rationalistic approach to life. There are also other people out there – those, who are easier influenced by humour, caricature, stand-up – we should publish a lot of funny stuff, draw cartoons ridiculing religion, record stand-up specials on religion, etc. There are people who accept authority therefore we should “hire” people of great social trust so they present science to the masses. And so on and so forth. In practice this means that on the ‘rationalist market’ there is a place for everyone, for various kinds of approach and activism. And there’s no single best and correct one.
Obviously I couldn’t be farther away from claiming that it will solve all our problems and we’ll deal with ignorance once and for all, but I think this way can give us the broadest striking range, which in turn will bear fruit in the form of more people having beliefs that align with reality.
Beliefs are not us – once we realize that, and once we realize that in every single moment of our life we’re wrong about something, and there’s nothing wrong with that (provided that we’re willing to fix that) then maybe – just maybe – the world will become just a tad better place.