Planet Grok

Where intuition reigns supreme

Beyond Belief

Posted by PlanetGrok on March 23, 2010

One of the relics from a more superstitious era that manages to poison the debate-wells in our (relatively) enlightened times is the word belief.

A religious person would say he believes in God, or he believes that the Earth was created 6000 years ago with Adam and Eve riding dinosaurs shortly thereafter. These beliefs are a psychological commitment to an assertion, however likely or unlikely that assertion may be.

A so-called “rational thinker” may scoff at the simplicity of a religious person’s beliefs, but they often make the very same fallacy that superstitious people do, resulting in all the same negative side-effects. Here is what happens:

1. Rationalist encounters a hotly contested argument – Argument AB.

2. Rationalist weighs the body of evidence on both sides.

3. Rationalist concludes that Side A has more evidence than Side B.

4. Rationalist decides he is a believer in side A.

This is where things go wrong. Rather than simply remembering that Side A simply had a more convincing case at the point in time whereupon our protagonist reviewed the evidence, Rationalist instead decided to stake belief in the Side he found more likely.

be·lief : 1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another: My belief in you is as strong as ever. 2. Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something: His explanation of what happened defies belief.3. Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.

// Synonyms: belief, credence, credit, faith

It often does not matter whether the Rationalist staked his belief in something only 55% more likely than the alternative . The word belief was born and raised  in a black and white world of Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, of intellectual Authority and Submission. Let’s watch what happens next to our Rationalist:

5.  Skeptic presents evidence that counters Rationalist’s new belief  – and may even tip the scales in favor of Side B!

6. Rationalist, now psychologically invested in Side A, has a non-rational, visceral reaction to Skeptic, and foams at the mouth like a Catholic priest encountering the work of Galileo. An unproductive flame war (Inquisition) ensues! (we’ll ignore the fact for now that our Skeptic may just be another kind of believer, and that more often than not, self-proclaimed Rationalists are merely parroting other members of their intellectual tribe instead of actually doing steps 2-3)

It’s my opinion that too many people still think in the old religious manner of belief and non-belief. If we expand our minds to think in a more probabilistic Bayesian fashion, then we can avoid the emotional shock of encountering evidence that shakes our deeply held beliefs – since any such beliefs will become almost non-existant.

I find thinking in such a way allows me to explore the arguments of various unorthodox (and ridiculed) possibilities. What I often find is that while unorthodox Position X is unlikely to be true, I subjectively assess the actual odds of X’s truthiness at much higher levels than someone would who thinks only in terms of 0% and 100%. The implications of this are significant: With 5 unorthodox Position X’s at 20% probability-of-truth, any one of them is still unlikely to be true, but chances are one of them is.

I think we need a new word to replace “belief”. Is there a word out there that conveys acceptance of something found more likely to be true, without all the dogmatic psychological baggage of belief?


14 Responses to “Beyond Belief”

  1. Tupac Chopra said

  2. Tupac Chopra said

  3. Tupac Chopra said

    “Convictions create convicts” -R.A.W.

  4. Tupac Chopra said

  5. Vincent Ignatius said

    You could say you hold a notion or accept a theory.

  6. Prime said

    You could say “infer” so at least you are signalling that you have weighed evidence or experience before arriving at your position. “Believe” is often used as a replacement for “assert” or “posit”; it sounds more pleasant and airy.

    The same person who scoffs at the Creationist’s ideas about the origins of the universe/earth, thinks of evolution as halting with the flowering of mankind from the “earth’s bosom”. Their reliance on the notion of human equality is every bit as important as the Creationist’s belief in souls and God’s dominion. Question either on the etiology of their beliefs and whether they have considered any alternatives, and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare, or worse, spittle from a blustering retort.

    • PlanetGrok said

      “Infer” is ok. It still doesn’t have the same ring to it.

      If I could, I would make up a new word – blase. (“blau-z”) meaning – “I accept the notion that this is the most probable explanation given the evidence I have considered so far.” Using this word not only divests you of the psychological baggage carried by believe/belief, it signals to your audience that you are approaching debate in good faith.

      Example: I blase HBD.

      How I just came up with that word, I don’t know. Maybe I just need some coffee.

  7. theobsidianfiles said

    Seems everyone is blogging about our beliefs and why we cling to them. I mentioned you by name in yesterday’s post:

    Lemme know what you think. I think we’re on the same page here.


    • PlanetGrok said

      I don’t know about us being on the same page, Obs. I’m not pretending to speak to any one individual with this post, I’m descibing pretty common behavior. If I were you I would have included some self-reflection in that post, since you were calling out others by name.

      OneSTDV also seems like a fairly open minded guy to me – he had a post up recently asking the audience what good ideas liberals might have, something not typical of your average conservative. Your problem with him stems from your abrasive attitude and repetitive questions.

  8. OM said

    What about this case?

  9. […] Grok: Beyond Belief, Nature vs. Nurture is […]

  10. namae nanka said

    Belief isn’t merely a religious notion, it’s the basis of scientific notion as well.

    “If we expand our minds to think in a more probabilistic Bayesian fashion, then we can avoid the emotional shock of encountering evidence that shakes our deeply held beliefs – since any such beliefs will become almost non-existant.”

    The problem with this approach is that it may save you emotionally but cripple you intellectually.Having probabilities at the base of your thinking will simply frustrate all of your further higher-level conclusions.
    Even if you think in probabilities, it again is based on your belief in that way of thinking.Unless of course you use some probabilities here as well, going down the lane of endless recursion. 😀

    Also people who change their beliefs every other day,no matter how rational it may be, are considered even worse than those with the most idiotic notions.Consistency is a virtue even in the lowest.Rationality not so much.

  11. mike said

    Something I’ve copied from certain intellectuals is to say I “lean toward” a certain view or theory, not to be confused with “leaning toward” one end or the other of a spectrum.

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