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The Contradictory Role of Belief

Ville Kokko

Posted on November 18, 2018 11:55

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Our beliefs are supposed to tell us what the world is like. However, we also give them other purposes all the time. Since they are still telling us what the world is supposedly like, this can lead to problems.

What is the most basic function of belief? Considering myself right here right now, I see I am full of beliefs. To name just a few, I believe I am writing this, I believe I can write by pressing the keys on my keyboard, I believe I need to get this written by the end of the week. Clearly, these beliefs are telling me about what the world is like and how to function in it.

Beliefs can correspond to the world in various ways, depending on what kind of beliefs they are. The simplest ones, like "There's a computer right in front of me," speak of objects and their present properties in the external world. Other kinds of beliefs have more complicated and perhaps vague truth conditions.

The bottom line is that the basic function of beliefs is to be claims or models about the world in our minds. You can hardly have a belief that isn't that. Also, we could not function in the world without (more or less correct) beliefs about it.

If this is what beliefs are, you'd think everyone would form and change beliefs with the sole aim of getting them to match the world, so that they do not believe in falsehoods, and so that, when they use their beliefs to guide action, they could be successful. You'd also think people would express beliefs in order to give others information about the world – and only tell untruths if they specifically wanted to mislead.

Unfortunately, this is not how it works. People make beliefs part of their identity and refuse to change them because it makes them feel threatened. They choose beliefs based on what makes them feel good. They refuse to believe in something (such as in evolution) because of what else they associate it with (like negation of traditional religion). They express beliefs and spread claims to show who they're with and whom against.

This all without even going into religion, where, at least in Western cultures, belief is fetishized and confused with other aspects of faith and spirituality.

The big problem with all this is that beliefs are still representations of what the world is like and how it works. In particular, they still guide action. There are exceptions, many professed beliefs people don't take into account in practice, but this does not cover every belief arrived at in questionable ways.

If you're going to not worry about, say, climate change or environmental destruction because you believe the world will soon end anyway, you'd better have arrived at those conclusions by reliable methods so you don't doom us all because you wouldn't take responsibility for how you do form them. And what of the mob that believed false claims on social media and beat and burned two men to death as child abductors?

If you act on your beliefs in a way that affects others, you have a duty to make as sure as you can that those beliefs are true ones.

Ville Kokko

Posted on November 18, 2018 11:55

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Texas school district said assignment was to encourage critical thinking, not question religious beliefs.

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