Fixating Beliefs

in Deep Dives2 months ago

We operate on beliefs, individually and as a society. Everything we think we know, we actually have to believe first. In fact, knowledge is a subset of beliefs; knowledge originates from a set of justified beliefs. And those beliefs inform our actions and habits.


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source: YouTube

Therefore beliefs are essential, so it might be useful and informative to spend a little time examining how beliefs become fixated in our minds and society. Another reason why beliefs and knowledge are important is that we would live in perpetual doubt without them. While beliefs inform and guide action, doubt causes inaction, it paralyzes us, makes us feel uncertain and uneasy. Even if knowledge is just a set of justified beliefs, it's essential we are certain about some things, or at least feel that way. There's no telling what live would be like if every night we had to wonder if the Sun would come up the next morning.

Also, the transfer from belief to knowledge, from unjustified to justified belief, frees up mental capacity to new inquiries; as a species we constantly operate at the frontier of what's known, it's how science, technology and culture progress. Note that politicians and demagogues are masters at spreading doubt; that way they can elevate themselves as the ones providing the answers, and steer us in the direction that's beneficial to them and the class they represent. Democracy works only if the electorate is well informed, which is a large part of the reason why our current democracies don't function so well, and entire institutions, like politics and mass media, keep us misinformed or direct our attention to the trivial instead of the essential.

The transition from unjustified to justified beliefs can be roughly separated into three phases; vague, well supported and beyond reasonable doubt. This is expressed, for example, in legal cases where convictions for different crimes demand different evidences; the hardest crimes with the most severe penalties usually have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in the eyes of the judge or jury. For a live broadcast example of this, look up and watch the jury-instructions explained by the judge in the Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard lawsuit. Evidence is the best way to travel from unjustified to justified belief and knowledge, not just in lawsuits but in all aspects of live. Something becomes more certain with the accumulation of evidence to support the truth of the claim, accusation, assertion or hypothesis.

In this process the burden of proof always lies with the party that makes a positive claim. If I say God doesn't exist and you say He, She or It does, you have the burden of proof, because you're the one making that positive claim. When I ask you to provide evidence for God's existence, there's no weaker retort than to claim that I can't disprove His existence, because negatives can't be proven. I would say something like "well, I can't disprove the claim that there's a purple teapot orbiting Mars either; it's just highly unlikely there is, and the same can be said about your God or any of the other thousands of deities that have existed in the minds of men throughout countless years and cultures." So how does God become a justified belief, how come so many people in their minds promote the belief in God to certain knowledge? That's where the methods we use to fixate beliefs become relevant.

Charles Sanders Pierce, primarily known as "the father of pragmatism," described four methods for fixating beliefs. It's the subject of the below linked video, but I'll briefly explain them here as well. You'll notice that we all use a combination of all those methods; in my opinion almost all we believe we know, all truths we've internalized are acquired through the "method of authority." Just think about the things you know and ask yourself how they became knowledge in your mind; I think you'll see that most things are learned through the experts and authorities in your live, be it your parents, your teachers, media, books and so on. Very seldom have we ever really investigated the axioms or evidences on which our knowledge-base is built.

Thus we're faced with a choice: which authorities do we trust? Personally I put most trust in science and the scientific community; the scientific method used by scientists is the most reliable process to come to know about reality. Then there's the "method of tenacity," which is basically just attaching yourself to a belief, adhering to it unquestionably, then turning away from contrary beliefs with anger, disgust or even violence; believe it or not, there are individual advantages to this method that are explained in the video, even despite the crazy QAnon believing Trumpists who get their unwavering certainties through it. Lastly there's the "a priori method," which is described as "coming up with beliefs through rationality and conversing with others to check those beliefs." I recommend you watch the video; Charles Sanders Pierce had some interesting things to say about our beliefs.


How We Come to Our Beliefs: Charles Sanders Peirce on The Fixation of Belief


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