Why We Believe

Why do we believe what we believe? I suggest three factors.

Experience coherency. It is clear that our beliefs are founded upon our experiences. I am unlikely to accept a belief that does not cohere with my experiences, and I am less likely to reject a belief which strongly coheres with my experiences.

Just as our experiences shape our beliefs, our beliefs also shape our experiences. This is obvious with the case of spiritual intelligences. I believe in spiritual intelligences, and I seem to experience contact with spiritual intelligences. The more strongly I hold this belief, the more frequent and vivid these experiences are. In times when I do not hold this belief, I do not have these experiences.

There seems to be a kind of feedback loop: the more I see it, the more I believe it, the more I see it, the more I believe it… It works the other way as well: the less I see it, the less I believe it, the less I see it, the less I believe it…

I suggest that such a feedback loop between belief and experience is a common feature of beliefs in general, and not peculiar to this case. What we experience determines what we believe, and what we believe determines what we experience.

In the case of propositions about objects in physical world, beliefs seem to have less of an effect on experience. It is indeed possible to deny the evidence of one’s senses if this is strongly enough in conflict with a strongly held belief. But this rarely happens. On the other hand, with beliefs that are not propositions about physical or mathematical objects, it is easy to believe that it constantly happens that what we believe shapes how we see the world. It is easy to believe that to some extent “seeing is believing” with beliefs that are not propositions about physical or mathematical objects.

Belief coherency. One factor determining whether we accept or reject a belief is its coherency with our experience. Another factor is its coherency with the other things that we believe.

I am more likely to believe something if it coheres with what I already believe. I am less likely to believe something if it does not cohere with what I already believe.

It is possible to undergo a “paradigm shift,” in a which a whole set of interdependent beliefs are replaced with another set of interdependent beliefs which is inconsistent with the old set. Thomas Kuhn described this phenomenon in the history of science. One can also see it for instance when a person accepts or rejects a religion.

I suggest that paradigm shifts occur because it is very difficult to “sit between two stools” (as Gurdjieff put it). To have inconsistencies in one’s belief system is stressful, requires cognitive effort, and generates cognitive dissonance. Therefore, when one is torn between two belief systems, it is likely that eventually one will reject one of the systems wholesale and embrace the other one wholesale.

Social coherency. We believe things that other people believe. All of us have a many-tiered circle of trust. We have groups of people whom we trust and mistrust to greater and lesser degrees. If a belief is not held by people in our circle of trust, then we are less likely to believe it. If a belief is held by people in our circle of trust, then we are more likely to believe it. The size of the effect is in proportion to the closeness of the people in question to the center of our circle of trust.

I suggest that social coherency is an incorporation of others’ beliefs and experiences into our determination of our beliefs. In other words, we believe things that cohere with our experiences (experience coherency) and beliefs (belief coherency), and we also believe things that cohere with others’ experiences and beliefs.

Discussion

Let us analyze how these tools explain why we believe the things that we believe.

Arguments are a major factor in determining our beliefs. We are more likely to accept a belief if somebody can provide a convincing argument for it. I suggest that an argument is a means of revealing belief coherency. An argument proceeds from premises to conclusion. It has no effect if the listener does not believe the premises. If they do believe the premises, and the argument is internally strong, then they will believe the conclusion. They believe the conclusion because the argument has demonstrated to them that the conclusion coheres with things that they already believe (namely, the premises).

Arguments are the foundation for mathematics and philosophy. Evidence and arguments are the foundation for science. Evidence is, in essence, a process of sharing experience within a circle of trust (namely, scientists). A scientist says, “we experienced x as the outcome of our experiment,” and the rest of the scientific community takes it as a datum that this experience occurred.

Our available evidence and arguments together are not sufficient to account for our beliefs. Our beliefs are underdetermined by the available evidence and arguments. If we were all familiar with exactly the same body of evidence and arguments, it would still be possible (probably easy) to hold differing beliefs. The duality between physicalism and anoological non-physicalism is an example of a place where our beliefs are underdetermined.

What accounts for the portion of what we believe that is not fixed by the evidence and arguments? I suggest that belief coherency is an important factor. Since our beliefs are underdetermined, we simply adopt the belief system which is the simplest account of the data. The desire for coherency probably plays a significant role in forming our beliefs when these beliefs surpass the data, but I am not yet willing to state that it is the whole story.

What accounts for religious beliefs? After scientific and mathematical beliefs, these are the most prominent and highly developed belief systems in human society. Religious beliefs are not primarily based on arguments or evidence. Why do people believe them?

I suggest that social coherency is a factor: that people hold religious beliefs in part because the people around them hold religious beliefs. This alone can account fairly well for the people who are religious only in a casual manner, who are not passionate about religion but believe in it in a passive way without ascribing great importance to it.

This, however, does not explain how people originally came to hold religious beliefs. I suggest the following hypothesis, which however does not so much answer the question as narrow the domain of inquiry:

(H.1) One or more great individuals are the first cause of every religion’s existence.

(H.1) states that Christianity exists because Christ existed, Islam exists because Mohammed existed, Buddhism exists because the Buddha existed, Taoism exists because Lao Tzu existed, and Hinduism exists because the various Indian gurus (e.g. Gaudapada, Adi Shankara) existed. (H.1) need not mean that these figures were the only figures instrumental in bringing about any religion; it may be the case that there were many other important figures in each case.

Furthermore, I suggest the following:

(H.2) People who are passionately religious hold religious beliefs because they have religious experiences.

“People who are passionately religious” would include the great individuals of (H.1). If (H.2) is true then experience coherency plays an important role in deciding peoples’ religious beliefs.

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