Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die

The thoughts of Gregory W. Lester (as edited down by John W. Loftus) (okay, now I feel like calling myself Daniel W. Fincke):

Because senses and beliefs are both tools for survival and have evolved to augment one another, our brain considers them to be separate but equally important purveyors of survival information….This means that beliefs are designed to operate independent of sensory data. In fact, the whole survival value of beliefs is based on their ability to persist in the face of contradictory evidence. Beliefs are not supposed to change easily or simply in response to disconfirming evidence. If they did, they would be virtually useless as tools for survival….Skeptical thinkers must realize that because of the survival value of beliefs, disconfirming evidence will rarely, if ever, be sufficient to change beliefs, even in “otherwise intelligent” people….[S]keptics must always appreciate how hard it is for people to have their beliefs challenged. It is, quite literally, a threat to their brain’s sense of survival. It is entirely normal for people to be defensive in such situations. The brain feels it is fighting for its life….it should be comforting to all skeptics to remember that the truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that people can be so irrational, but that anyone’s beliefs ever change at all. Skeptics’ ability to alter their own beliefs in response to data is a true gift; a unique, powerful, and precious ability. It is genuinely a “higher brain function” in that it goes against some of the most natural and fundamental biological urges.

Your W. Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://garydhenderson.com Gary W. Henderson

    The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast has reported a couple of times on a lovely phenomenon where, some time after a disconfirming piece of evidence is presented, the hearer will remember it as confirming, instead, and it will strengthen their belief instead of changing or eroding it.

    Which just makes it all the harder to change a belief, even one of your own. It’s definitely an uphill battle.

  • http://thegreengeeks.wordpress.com/ greengeekgirl

    I personally don’t think it’s a battle we should be engaging in at all. I think there are more important, more concrete issues to address that don’t involve trying to sway theists ’round to our point of view. I would enumerate them here, but I just wrote about them earlier and I’m feeling a little.. enumerated-out :D

  • http://www.forrealityssake.weebly.com Iva

    If this message is boiled down to: “It’s difficult to do, so we’d better just not do it,” then I think it’s quite clearly wrong. Judging by what I’ve read of your blog, Daniel, you and I both know personally just how possible it is to have sensory data worm its way into our beliefs and vastly change them for the better. If someone had used this argument against Richard Dawkins before he wrote The God Delusion and convinced him that it was pointless to write it, I may not have had that bit of sensory data that knocked me firmly into another belief system. To say that sensory data and beliefs are separate is true only to a certain extent. I have to see it as being something of a duty for me to constantly show people how it is possible to objectively view my own beliefs in order to make sure they reflect “sensory data.” Just because we’ve evolved to hold such strong beliefs doesn’t mean we’re justififed in throwing in the towel and accepting that they won’t change. On the other hand, if this passage boils down to: “Beliefs are deeply ingrained, and therefore one must try very hard to change them,” then I think it’s a valid point. The fact that belief can (“can,” not “always”) exist apart from sensory data shows us merely how difficult it can be to change our beliefs, which tells us just how important it is to constantly put the challenge (or rather information about the alternative) out there to theists.

    I read the “discussion” between you on antoher post, so I’ll also add my 2 (or 20) cents here, as they’re related: HOW a person chooses their beliefs (i.e. gut feelings versus rational examination of evidence) greatly affects every aspect of how that person lives his or her life–at home, in public, and politically. We can leave people to their theist beliefs, but those beliefs ARE the problem behind specific political issues. It’s at the very root of a large part of American culture. It can’t be denied that those very beliefs (or rather, HOW those beliefs are formed) are the driving force to prevent universal civil rights and thetteaching of science in the classroom. We can certainly apply our efforts to more concrete arenas, too, but the issue is really that most Americans value blind faith as a means for justifying knowledge (or what is really belief) and use gut feeling to determine “truth.” Many theist Americans may not be extreme in their beliefs and may in fact be on the fence between atheism (or agnosticism) and theism. When asked whether to choose politically between someone who values blind faith as a means for knowledge and someone who values only rational inquiry, they are likely to side with blind faith if they haven’t been presented with the alternative by people like us (assuming we are all people who value rational inquiry). If we only attack concrete arenas in politics, we can expect it to be viewed as an attack on the culture that backs those political beliefs and to see a greater backlash politically. In fact, I’d guess, that’s what we’re seeing already.

    This is why, no matter how separate our beliefs may appear to be from sensory data, we have a duty to present to theists our alternative value system–or, more accurately, the alternative METHOD for determining values and truth.

    The fact that my children are regularly ridiculed for admitting that they don’t know if god exists is a prime example of why belief itself must be challenged (not legally, mind you, as it’s essential that everyone have the freedom to believe whatever it is they do). The culture itself is rife with irrational thought, bigotry, and a value for acquiring knowledge in spite of evidence to the contrary.


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