The Treacherous Nature of Beliefs

We are often amused by many beliefs held by our ancestors. We label them illogical, irrational, & unscientific. But, are we, in 2020, any different?

Consider the following.

1. The Covid-19 pandemic is throwing up huge amount of data, evidences, anectodes & experiences. But are we unanimous in our reactions, responses & policies? Politicians, scientists, & common men differ widely in what they believe. We just form our own beliefs and act accordingly. Will we eventually arrive at a global consensus…a common global belief on how to handle a future pandemic? Most probably not. We may work together, share ideas & develop a vaccine. But, given our history, we may not develop any common beliefs on pandemics, how it works & how to handle them. We will continue to hold many beliefs. Some may prove more beneficial than others, in certain circumstances. A multitude of beliefs will continue to confuse & confound us.

2. Overpopulation has been long been considered a major contributor to food shortages, diseases (including pandemics like Covid-19), climate change, pollution, and many other ills. Malthus, ever since he wrote his essay on population in the 18th century, has been buried, resurrected, buried again, revived, reviled, ignored, invoked again, re-buried….he is still not entirely dead. Ideas on this subject, from intellects & thinkers like Norman Borlaug, Herman Daly, Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich and many others, have been debated for decades. Copious data & evidences are available to support any belief one wants to hold & promote on overpopulation. Which belief is right?

But, we are quick to say, science progresses by hypotheses, theories, experiments, proofs, more theories, more experiments, disproofs, arguments, revival of old theories, new data, new evidences etc. Isn’t the net result positive, progressive, & beneficial to mankind? Possibly. But we are not talking about how science progresses. We are contemplating how we are swayed by beliefs, in the present.

And how such beliefs, the more significant & important ones, arising almost subconsiouly, influence our behaviour. Even so-called smart people, given identical sets of data & evidences, interpret them differently & hold contrary beliefs. They are often reluctant to change and even bend facts to suit their beliefs. In the face of ever-growing mountains of data, anecdotes & experiences to support many points of view, an understanding of the workings of our beliefs becomes more important.

Consider more.

3. Political & social beliefs. Authoritarian governments, suppressed press, income inequalities, gender bias, etc are frowned upon by many. But they still exist in various shades, forms & degress in all countries, including the so-called progressive ones. Before jumping to claim that it is social evolution in progress and that’s how humanity has developed over time, it is relevant to observe how we live in a simmering cauldron of many beliefs and how that shapes our actions in the present. In our day-to-day lives, our beliefs shape how we think, act & behave. And our beliefs often change, depending on the situation, without our knowledge, making us unwitting hypocrites, much to our chagrin when pointed out or realized. Where do these beliefs come from?

Don’t everyone have access to the same data & evidence in this modern interconnected world? Why do we fail to realize we use different lenses? Why do some fight income inquality, while others want it to persist, and still others remain neutral or shrug it off? Why do some people tolerate dictators & state over-reach, some vigorously vote for laizzez-faire, some prefer regulation of various kinds, etc.? Possibly such a myriad mix of beliefs shapes how we evolve over time. But how to understand the influence of beliefs in our present life?

4. Religious beliefs. Too numerous, confusing & inexplicable. These have vexed us for centuries. They have influenced cultures, traditions & daily habits. Men of science are believers. Believers practice science. Mathematicians & astro-physicists are awed by the workings of the mysterious. Philosophers, over the centuries, have denied, believed and confused. Men have shamed, abused, inflamed, mutilated, tortured, killed and saved. They still do. Why and how does someone become an atheist, agnostic, believer, or anything else? Many theories abound. But, the fact remains, we hold many beliefs. And they govern our behaviour.

We array impressive evidence & arguments to support our view. We make conclusions and hesitate to call them beliefs. Just as our opponents do. Just as the millions who arrived at different conclusions and hold different beliefs do.

A multitude of beliefs exist, within ourselves & outside, many contradictory. We cannot be sure how, when & where they arise, but they influence us.

How to think about beliefs?

1. Conclusions are often just beliefs
2. All beliefs are ambiguous
3. Learning to live amidst ambiguity is useful
4. No one can be absolutely certain about anything
5. Tolerating others’ beliefs is pragmatic
6. Questioning all beliefs is worthwhile
7. Abandoning strong beliefs now & then can be useful
8. Tinkering with new, strange, even atrocious & previously abandoned beliefs can be useful
9. Beliefs often influence us subconscioulsy. Playing with beliefs is like playing with fire.

Any belief about beliefs can be treacherous.

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