Must I Believe It? Can I Believe It?

I recently re-read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend that you do. In the book, the author spends a lot of time laying out his arguments in a certain way, so I won’t spoil a lot of them here. But one of his conclusions (backed by scientific studies described in the book) is that when people want to believe something they ask,” Can I believe this?” When they don’t want to believe something, they ask “Must I believe this?”

Since the human mind is expert at finding reasons and rationalizations, the answer to the first is almost always yes, while the answer to the second is almost always no. People have strong built in confirmatory biases. They are adept at finding “evidence” that agrees will their preformed conclusions.

How do we get around this in-built human trait? The author suggests something akin to a lite version of the scientific method, where arguments on both sides are presented to a neutral third party who evaluates the arguments. I’m not sure how well this will work in practice. After all, if the decision goes against one side, that side will almost assuredly conclude that the third-party was not neutral at all. They will be able to find some sort of reason or rationalization to support this view, because it will of course be necessary. After all, since they are obviously the correct side, then of course there is no way that a truly neutral observer would not agree with them, right.

How can we get to that place we wish we could all be? How do we decide not if we can or must believe something, but rather if we should believe something? If one of our beliefs is justified, and not just an unwarranted assumption? The author does not give us much hope, as he says that only very rarely does reasoning ever get someone to change their preconceived notions. When this is combined with social constructs such as religions and stereotypes that tell people that they should not even listen to the other side, because they are crazy, deceived by the devil, or for whatever other reason, our hope would even further diminish. We still have people who think that the earth is flat in the 21st century, so the author’s conclusion seems pretty safe.

How do we get around this? The author suggests first getting to know and like people before you hear their evidence or opinions. If you do this, your mind will want to listen to them and agree with them, and so you are more likely to think about their opinions instead of rejecting them from the start. Of course, our standard human desire to hang out and associate with people who share our opinions and values works against this, which means that this takes work and is not likely to happen naturally. But I for one will keep trying to get this to happen in my own life (though of course I will likely fail most of the tine), and challenge you to try to overcome your standard human instincts and do the same.


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