Sunday, July 12, 2015

Deciding What to Believe: A Speculative Infographic

Silly little chart made by author, using
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." - Carl Sagan
The little chart above probably should have been left to speak for itself, but I couldn't resist posting some commentary: When you hear someone say they believe something, it's natural to assume they mean they actually think it's true. But that's a risky assumption, because when many people decide what they're going to believe, truth seems to be, at best, a minor consideration. I've heard people say they believe things because they're fun to believe (ghosts, astrology, etc.); because they give them comfort (things happen for a  reason, heaven is for real*), and because they grew up believing them (usually ethical/religious beliefs--"I was raised to think..."). It's as though the word "believe" means something different to them than "To think something is true". 

That's always seemed odd to me. Of course, I'm sure I'm prone to the same sorts of biases, but when I say I "believe" in some fact or theory, I mean, "I think that's actually how reality is." I don't mean I enjoy believing it, or that it's comforting to me, or that I hope is true...I mean it's what I think actually is true, whether I like it or not. Ideally, I would also have evidence that it's true, but as I said, I'm sure I'm prone to my biases too, and I can't honestly say I can lay out the evidence for everything I believe.** But I at least try not to believe implausible things just because I want to.

When some people talk about what they believe, though, it's not just that they don't necessarily have evidence for their beliefs--in many cases; evidence is beside the point, because they're not even really talking about truth at all. They're talking more about what they want to be true than what is true. All the bigger slices in that pie chart above are reasons that people want things to be true, and they're all very questionable ways of deciding what really is.

The problem with believing what you want to be true, of course, is that reality isn't obliged to be what we want it to be. That means believing something just because you want it to be true really doesn't make any sense.*** It's just a way of fooling yourself, and when a lot people do it, it creates a hostile environment for truth, and fertile ground for falsehood. 

That's why I suspect that the world would be a better place if people took the idea of belief more seriously, and remember that's it's bound up with the idea of truth. If I just believe whatever's fun or comforting or familiar to me, then I don't have any real respect for the truth. To put it another way: I'm being dishonest. I'm telling myself what I want to hear, instead of telling myself the truth. And when I'm dishonest with myself, I'll be dishonest with others, without even realizing it. I'll be doing one of the easiest things in the world--spreading falsehood--instead of the hard, uncomfortable work of seeking the truth.


* Please don't misunderstand me. My point is not that that these things aren't true, even though I personally doubt them. My point is that people all too often believe them because they want them to be true, not because they have evidence for them.

**For example, I don't have data to back up my little chart above--but it's more to make a point than to make a precise claim, and I figure truth matters to most people quite a bit more than I'm suggesting there. 

*** There are exceptions, I think. Sometimes it makes sense to believe you can succeed even if you don't know for sure you can, because belief will actually help you do it. I also think it makes sense to have hope that life is worth living and humanity isn't a lost cause, for similar reasons.