from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Reasons for Belief

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image credit: iStock/Scar1984

We often seem to assume that people say things, and come to believe them, because they are true.

It seems to me, though, that people take up beliefs for a whole host of reasons, and the likely truth or falsehood of these statements is often the least of the motivating factors at work.

Here then, are the multifarious reasons why people may choose to believe something.

1. For the Sake of a Good Story

We all participate in the “willing suspension of disbelief” that is necessary in order to appreciate a story that is being told.

2. To Please Oneself

Some beliefs are inherently pleasing to the believer: the belief that I am intelligent, talented and modest; a belief in a just, well-ordered universe; the belief that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

3. For Personal Gain

If a person or group will somehow benefit by having others believe in something (the efficacy of a product or service they are selling, for example), then they will tend to assert that position, and often to come to believe it themselves.

4. To Avoid Confusion, Uncertainty and Disorientation

Life is a confusing business, and it sometimes seems safer to hang on to any sort of opinion, rather than to admit one doesn’t know, and to have to open one’s mind to a dizzying array of possibilities.

As Dashiell Hammett said in The Dain Curse:

Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wrangle yourself out another to take its place.

5. To Promote Social Cohesion

If a group is defined in terms of a set of shared beliefs, then acceptance of these shared beliefs may be a prerequisite for membership, or may simply help to maintain and promote the continued existence and growth of the group.

As Bertrand Russell pointed out:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatics to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

6. To Avoid Conflict

Even if I don’t believe something to be true, I may accept a statement without challenge, if to do otherwise would cause division and strife, especially between two powerful groups. This is typical of religious beliefs, for example, when multiple religions co-exist in a shared cultural space.

As H. L. Mencken said:

We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.

7. As A Working Hypothesis

People sometimes adopt a position as a sort of working hypothesis, treating an assertion as if were true until it is proven otherwise.

8. Due to a Lack of Consequences

In other words, saying or believing something because “it can’t hurt”.

9. As a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

There are many situations in which the assertion of the likelihood of some future state of affairs may actually help to bring that state about. Politicians, generals and players of sports, as examples, are often quick to assert the certainty of their victories, irrespective of their actual chances of winning; to do less would not be likely to inspire themselves, their teams, or their supporters.

10. For the Sake of Accuracy

This is generally what we mean by “truth”: if something is true, then it should accurately state what has happened in the past, or help us predict what will happen in the future.

All of these reasons for belief emphasize the importance of the scientific method in human development. Without a reliable method to test the truth of a proposition, people will cling tightly to all sorts of opposing beliefs, for all of the reasons above.

Note that, for many people, all of these reasons except the last two tend to support a belief in God.

It is also worth noting that all of these reasons for belief tend to be operative in the case of corporate accounting scandals such as the one at Enron. Of course, these factors routinely come into play as part of everyday organizational life on smaller scales as well, such as belief in unrealistic project schedules.

February 21, 2012