Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred TruthsMass Belief: Everyone Believes It So It Must Be True!Why Question Beliefs?The False and Conflicting Experiences of Mankind: How Other Peoples' Experience Contradict Our Own BeliefsScience: Its Character and History
Crazy beliefs are not harmless. Take the horrendous history of a theory which started out as amateur science, and proceeded to defy the general scientific community and win approval at a national level. The theory of a 'hierarchy' of delineated human races, with Nordics at the top and Negros at the bottom (with a special place reserved for the Christ-rejecting Jews), combined pseudoscientific anthropology with religious prejudice to create history's most horrific apparatus of prejudiced murder. The Nazi's ideology of race and euthanasia derived from erroneous beliefs based on faulty theory; and it blossomed into a wave of terror. It is no exaggeration to say that, in a world where nuclear weaponry is becoming more easily available, that beliefs need to be questioned and challenged continuously and vigorously. The danger of beliefs that go unquestioned is lamented by the skeptical thinker, Martin Gardner.
Beliefs can spread, and sometimes while they may start out as something merely odd, can cause atrocities when they become norms. This is taken up as a major theme of "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason" by Sam Harris (2006):
“Even apparently innocuous beliefs, when unjustified, can lead to intolerable consequences. Many Muslims, for instance, are convinced that God takes an active interest in women's clothing. While it may seem harmless enough, the amount of suffering that this incredible idea has caused is astonishing. The rioting in Nigeria over 2002 Miss World Pageant claimed over two hundred lives; innocent men and women were butchered with machetes or burned alive simply to keep that troubled place free of women in bikinis. Earlier in the year, the religious police in Mecca prevented paramedics and firefighters from rescuing scores of teenage girls trapped in a burning building. Why? Because the girls were not wearing the traditional head covering that Koranic law requires. Fourteen girls died in the fire; fifty were injured. Should Muslims really be free to believe that the Creator of the universe is concerned about hemlines?”
"The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason" by Sam Harris (2006)2
Although beliefs might start off as fads, rumours, stories and the like, they can balloon out of control. A certain critical mass is reached when the populace as a whole no longer question the belief and it is at this point that it becomes a dangerous piece of dogma: unquestioned. All beliefs should be questioned continually, for fear that they will become monsters, blinding people not only to greater truths, but to moral truths as well.
What dangerous cults, wayward doctrine and abusive leaders all have in common is that their followers have accepted that those in charge can discern God's Will - or the will of fate, the gods, the universe, whatever - and that they have the authority therefore to override normal rules of behaviour. So, leaders in cults are often sexually promiscuous because they have special permission from god, they can instruct followers who to kill, and what social and legal rules their adherents can ignore. For example Charles Manson's followers claimed that Manson was above the because he was divinely guided, Jim Jones' instructions caused the death of 800 of his followers in a suicide pact, and during assaults crusaders were told to kill everyone - Christian, Muslim and pagan, and "let God sort them out" once they were dead, rather than attempt to tell who were local Christians. In all cases, the main cause of the problem was that the ordinary followers did not have the skepticism to ask if those in charge were really capable of divining the will of God, or if religious beliefs should really override proper morality.
Atheists and scientists do not kill each other over their beliefs. The adherents of superstring theory have never killed opposing theorists, and Lamarckian Evolutionists never killed any Darwinian Evolutionists on account of their beliefs. Newton and Einstein may have disagreed, but they refrained from violently attacking each other's followers. Like them, Arius and Athanasius disagreed over theory in the 4th century, although in their case it wasn't physics, but about the nature of Christ. The Arians and the Nicene Christians, however, soon ended up damning each other to hell because of the other's "wrong" beliefs, and then resorted to murder, aggression and burning until the Arians had been wiped out. Well, that is one way to settle a theoretical dispute. But why is it the religious way? There is something about religious beliefs that leads to violent intolerance. I think it is this: the beliefs that you cherish, but which you think are maybe silly or untrue, are the beliefs that you will defend most irrationally and most aggressively. It's a defence mechanism. Rather than subject dodgy beliefs to the rigors of debate and questioning, it is easier to claim outrage and act aggressively when dodgy beliefs are challenged. This is why scientists, who want to learn which theories best describe the truth, actively engage in debate without ever, in history, killing each other over their differences with other strands of scientists.
Even standard sociological inquiries about beliefs and the history of beliefs can be found offensive simply because the attempt to rationally describe belief requires questions to be asked about how beliefs work.
“The sociologist of religion may also offend a person's religious sensibilities by subjecting his or her beliefs to rational scrutiny.”
When it comes to disputes about the world, political and cultural differences between groups can often be dealt with democratically, through argumentation and debate, with both parties trying to convince the others that they are right. It continues because each side thinks it is possible to conclude the dispute through discussion. Compromise keeps things from breaking down: you give a little in one area, but have to give up in another. But religionists can come to deny any chance of compromise. Those with stern religious beliefs often believe various issues have a universal, absolute and cosmic significance. They will not compromise on their position. Malise Ruthven in his book on fundamentalism warns that this is particularly dangerous4. It is the basis for fundamentalism. Religious differences often become violent, endless struggles, because both sides elevate their struggles to ones not between them and us, but between good and evil itself. By giving arguments a cosmic, absolute and universal significance, religious groups make violent solution the only recourse. The battles between Israel and its neighbours is a case in point.
A commentator said to me that it would do no good to eradicate religion. He said "then they'd just kill each other in the name of something else. Like which football team they support!". I still think we would be better off. Football teams do not claim to be divinely inspired. They do not force upon people any particular intellectual framework, nor link it to moral theory. Under footballism, people are still free to enquire about the world with a free mind. The fact that religions claim divinity, that they claim absolute truth and link morality, society, authority and philosophy all into one whole, makes people more likely to fight and die for them. What is so weak about religious truths that they require defending with such bloodshed? It is this: People would rather cling to wishful thinking and false hopes, rather than face the complex realities of life. Simple answers appeal to people more than complicated scientific ones.
Because religious people secretly doubt religious beliefs, they do not permit them to be calmly questioned. They fear that their beliefs will unravel. Instead, they declare that faith is greater than intellectualism (in other words: they want to continue believing even though the evidence is against them). They declare that it is offensive to question their beliefs. They declare that questions are wrong! And if you persist in your questioning as a person, they'll declare you an intolerant bigot. If two such groups of faithful people meet, the consequences are dangerous for all in their midst. The starting point of this slippery slope was when individuals ceased to allow their beliefs to be calmly debated and questioned.
“In 1978 over 900 people died when the People's Temple (frequently known as Jonestown) murdered their (276) own children with poison. The rest of the community then followed suit, killing themselves (and shooting some). They had previously practised the suicide routine. Their leader shot himself. He was American Rev. James (Jim) Warren Jones, an ordained priest in the mainstream Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).”
This is clearly a case of some 900 people having some very odd ideas about what actions are permissible and why. Their leader had followers who testified that he could cure cancers and disease with his hands. If members instinctively thought more critically, skeptically, and viewed reality through more scientific eyes (understanding the placebo effect, for example), such beliefs could not have been sustained. The People's Temple is by far not the only suicide cult to have some very odd beliefs.
“Another American group, the Branch Davidians, [...] started out with Biblical ideas about the cataclysms of judgement day, and ended up stockpiling weapons. It culminated with the Waco siege where over 80 of the religionists died during a shoot-out with authorities in 1993.
Irrationality and susceptibility to believe some unlikely things about the universe can lead to ideals and sectarianism that separate 'others' from their humanity, and allow despicable acts to be undertaken. Aum Shinrikyo was the religious movement responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway that killed a dozen people and injured thousands. The movement had also already murdered others in order to protect itself. The leader believed in karma, and preached that murder was justified because it stopped people accumulating bad karma. He had picked up Christian ideas, and preached that such actions were an act of mercy, and started preaching about Armageddon.”
It is a similar story with the Order of the Solar Temple, Heaven's Gate, and others. All groups start out with some beliefs that are acceptable to many, but, the system of beliefs becomes built up, with idea on idea, until the entire group are completely impossible to understand. It is always a slippery slope, and at each stage, there are not enough people to stand up and question the validity of the principles behind the beliefs, the source of the experiences/revelations, and the possibility of mass delusion. People invest so much in these beliefs, defending them from outsiders, that they become more important than life itself.
This is why questioning beliefs is not something that should be restricted to "other people's beliefs". We should question our own beliefs. Our entire community of friends could be making assumptions about reality that are unfounded. Entire groups of people can misinterpret phenomenon and experiences, simply because they are unacquainted with the ways in which our thoughts can deceive us, and of how to approach reality in a scientifically-minded way.
"The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason" by Sam Harris (2006)
It is easy to see how the acceptance of ideas and the interpretation of personal experiences without taking due heed for the way our brains can trick us, is a combination that can lead communities down paths away from normal society. Some groups such as the ones already discussed on this page become suicide cults, others remain as fundamentalist cells within mainstream religions, or sometimes become religious groups in their own right. It is dangerous when their beliefs become seen as unquestionable because they happen to be part of a religious worldview. Sam Harris in his book against religious fundamentalism and extremism (2006) warns that when we place someone's opinions beyond criticism because they are sacred to them, we place that person beyond rehabilitation to common sense.
Harris argues that the blame doesn't only lay with the fundamentalists themselves, but with the majority of non-extremists who sit in the middle ground, facilitating an environment where crazy beliefs can foster without question. In all communities that place large parts of their mythology into a "holy", "sacred", "unquestionable" or "god-given" category, a large space is created for more extreme beliefs to take hold in the same categories, and lead the community down some potentially dangerous paths. The way to end all this is to put an end to the idea that religious beliefs should not be routinely questioned.
From a journal entry in 2002:
“Much of my website is on subjects and topics that are provocative and taboo. For some reason, in life, I have been spared the chains that come with socially taboo thought. I find myself willing and capable of challenging taboos and ignorance. One main aim of my websites is to challenge and smash taboos, to make people think things they've not thought before just because it's a taboo subject.
It harms everyone. A social taboo isn't just something that isn't voiced, it nearly always becomes something that is unquestioned and unchallenged. It causes mental stagnation and confusion. Taboos and unchallenged dogmatic statements influence our actions in mostly negative ways.
I love and enjoy doing things that make people think, dressing in a countercultural manner, and delving into subjects that others shy away from. It challenges people's assumptions and barriers. Anything that causes someone to ponder and think about something they've never thought about before, is a prize and a victory.
The bolder and surer a person is with their beliefs the harder and harder I will try to make them admit doubt in their assumptions about the truth. I believe wholeheartedly that life is a never-ending search for truth and social taboos and ignorance are two of our hindrances. They are both fuelled by stupidity!”
Vexen Crabtree (2002 Sep 18)
Lee, London, UK.
Now some quotes from other pages that have touched on this issue. These pages are on Satanism, a religion that I adhere to. It upholds a figure called Satan as the agent of criticism and doubt, and as a symbol of a being who questions the status quo and the accepted truths:
“Lack of doubt can appear in people who become confident they're on the right track, etc. It breeds stupidity and complacency, leading to what amounts to counterproductive pride, where they end up defending an erroneous stance. [...] A strong emphasis on continual doubt and personal development will hopefully reduce stupidity.”
“In the name of making people think and smashing stereotypes and assumptions. In the name of fun and entertainment! In the name of Satan, you shall think!! And if you cannot break free from the superstitious and paranoid things that society tells you about religious symbols, you will hate Satanism!”
“Blasphemy is required to weed out people who would restrict our speech, not for fear of us insulting people, but for us questioning concepts. The point is not to be evil, but to make people realize how absurd the concept of blasphemy is.”
A University Professor sets the scene for us, by talking of student's distaste for 'questioning God'. This comes even though he only ever questions other people's beliefs about God. He talks of his fear that people will stop debating each other's beliefs, saying that failing to critically discuss and challenge ideas is the start of a slippery slope that can lead to wide conflicts.
“No man is an island, John Donne pointed out, yet we often act as if it were so, and this defense of faith, of the right of the individual to believe without question whatever he or she wants, seems to presuppose it. [...] But perhaps we ought to consider more than just that. For people of faith must still live in the world [...,] this is to say that their beliefs about God do not affect only them. Beliefs have consequences. A belief that has no impact on life, if such a belief exists, is probably not meaningfully held. What we believe about ourselves and the world and people around us influences how we feel and how we behave, how we treat and talk to others, how we judge things, how we vote. [...] We are less like islands and more like pieces in a puzzle, in which the shape of one piece determines the shape of the next. [...]
In America [...] it is the highest offence for you to suggest that you are somehow 'in with God' and that I am not. But what are we to do then? I fear the retreat into faith because of what it might lead to: holy war. If you will not try to justify your ways to me, nor I to you, what recourse do we have, in the end, but the use of power? How long will it be, I wonder, until frustration with the failure of politics to transform the world as you like leads to violence, to God telling your people to kill mine, to a crusade, an inquisition?”
Prof. Richard Reilly (2003)7
His progression shows us that we must question beliefs at the starting point - at the level of the individual believer. All beliefs should be questioned - all beliefs should be made subject to a demand that they are backed up with rational argumentation and evidence. Where these are not available or unsuitable, then, we should all fall back by default onto the premise that we're not sure. The surer we are, the more risk there is of ourselves descending unknowingly into a fundamentalist mindset, from which it can be hard to return because we come to defend our position with rigor, and invest in our position elements of our self-esteem. We should learn that our beliefs are not the defining feature of our personality, and that other's beliefs are not the basis of theirs. Our actions are what count.
Tony Blair (2007)5
The Chief of the General Staff, a man charged with the organisation of Britain's Defences at the highest military level with access to the best research on enemy recruitment methods, explains in a similar vein to Tony Blair that modern wars are as much about beliefs as about hardware. He states that the behaviour and morals of our troops is what can influence the perceptions of others. This is called leading by example and is one of the best ways to bring people to civility.
“In conflict and war, our soldiers must uphold the highest of values and standards. Failure to do so would not only in itself be wrong but would also play into the hands of our enemies. [...] Today's conflict is a contest of ideas and values. It is a battle for hearts and minds on a global scale; it is a battle for hearts and minds not just amongst the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, but amongst the people of London and Washington and elsewhere - amongst the decision-makers and the ordinary people. But as soldiers, the moral high ground is, and must be our vital ground - and only by holding it can we truly be a 'Force for Good', and not reduced to a contradiction in terms.”
Sir Richard Dannatt (2008)6
If we do not defeat the ideas that lay behind conflict, then physical power cannot win a war. Soldiers do the soldiering, a political action can end a war on paper, but to reconcile two hateful factions you need a lot of time, patience and understanding in order to let their ideas about each other change. Ideas that cause sectarianism and strife are always the ones that become above doubt. Once peoples come to hold beliefs that cannot be challenged, then not much can be done to resolve the conflict until those underlying beliefs are brought up and discussed in an open manner. That is why soldiers might win wars, but, peace can only be won through allowing a people's own ideals to be debated.
Cognitive errors are those types of systematic mistakes which our brains make when presenting ideas and correlations to our conscious selves. They result from us applying evolutionarily developed rules of thumb to the complexities of life without taking due heed of the need for critical and cautious evaluation of our own thought processes. Human errors in general thinking can lead individuals, or whole communities, to come to explain types of events and experiences in fantastical ways. Before we can comprehensively guard against such cumulative errors, we need to learn the ways in which our brains can misguide us. They are divided into three areas: the internal errors of thinking, errors with our actual perceptions, and social errors that result from the way we communicate ideas and the effects of traditions and dogmas.
We all suffer from systematic cognitive dysfunctions; they infuse the very way we notice and analyse data, and distort our forming of conclusions. Emotional and societal factors influence our thinking much more than we like to admit. Our expectations and recent experiences change the way we recall memories. Even our very perceptions are effected by pre-conscious cognitive factors; what we see, feel, taste and hear are all subject to interpretation before we are even aware of them. Our brains were never meant to be the cool, rational, mathematical-logical computers that we like to sometimes pretend them to be.
We can take preventative steps. Learning to think skeptically and carefully and to recognize that our very experiences and perceptions can be coloured by societal and subconscious factors should help us to maintain our cool. Beliefs should not be taken lightly, and evidence should be cross-checked. This especially applies to "common-sense" facts that we learn from others by word of mouth and traditional knowledge. Above all, however, our most important tool is knowing what types of cognitive errors we, as a species, are prone to making.
Human beings are not generally in touch with our own motivations and instincts. We often find that our analytical idea of who we are is at odds with our actions and thoughts. Cognitive dissonance is the strange feeling we experience when we behave in ways that do not mesh with our own sense of self; it is often our idea which changes to match our behaviour, and not the other way round. This state of affairs has long been investigated by sociologists and psychologists.
“Nisbett and Wilson (1977) claimed that people are generally unaware of the processes influencing their behaviour. According to them (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977, p.248), accurate introspective reports can be explained in terms of a priori theories:"When people are asked to report how a particular stimulus influenced a particular response, they do so not by consulting a memory of the mediating process, but by applying or generating causal theories about the effects of that type of stimulus on that type of response."This view was supported by discovering that an individual's introspections about what is determining his or her behaviour are often no more accurate than the guesses about those determinants made by other people. [...]
In one study, subjects were presented with five essentially identical pairs of stockings and were asked to decide which pair was the best. After they had made their choice, they were asked to indicate why they had chosen that particular pair. Most subjects chose the right-most pair, and so their decisions were actually affected by relative spatial position. [... But] they vehemently denied that [spatial position] had played any part in their decision, referring instead to slight differences in colour, texture, and so on among the pairs of stockings as having been important.”
We make a model of our own behaviour in our heads, and use it to theorize about our own behaviour in the same way that we theorize about other people's behaviour. Evolutionary biologists have theorized that our very consciousness is actually the result of the cognitive procedures we use to analyze other people - a valuable social skill. When this skill is applied to ourselves, the result consciousness itself. I discuss many of these issues on "Free Will and Determinism" by Vexen Crabtree (1999).
“Most people believe they know how they themselves think, how others think too, and even how institutions evolve. But they are wrong. Their understanding is based on folk psychology, the grasp of human nature by common sense - defined (by Einstein) as everything learned to the age of eighteen - shot through with misconceptions, and only slightly advanced over ideas employed by the Greek philosophers.”
There is a reason I mention all this. The fact is that we don't just misunderstand the causes of our own behaviour, but also of our own beliefs. The things we believe, see, and experience, are subject to our interpretative mechanisms, and if we understand these factors better than we can obtain greater control over our lives and opinions, and make them lay in sync with the evidence better. As long as we remain ignorant of the types of things that cause our own beliefs, we remain disabled. This is where we realize the importance of cognitive psychology and epistemology in our efforts to question superstitions and beliefs that are not based on truth.
There is a constant need for us to question our own beliefs, and the beliefs of those around us. It creates a healthy atmosphere of skepticism and intelligence, and prevents people from coming to unreasonable conclusions. The way our brains work mean that we frequently misinterpret events and data, and in particular, we always think there is more rationality and evidence for our beliefs than there is. This all matters because when beliefs become unquestioned, a community can become increasingly divorced from reality. This is especially true when individual leaders or belief-based authorities claim to be acting in accord with a divine principle, such as God's will. When it comes to disputes, religionists can come to deny any chance of compromise. In the adult world of democratic politics, compromise in disputes is what keeps things from breaking down: you give a little in one area, but have to give up in another. However arguments based on differences in religion or belief often contain parties that believe the issue has universal, absolute and cosmic significance. They will not compromise on their position. Malise Ruthven in his book on fundamentalism warns that this is particularly dangerous10. It is how religious cults are formed. In extreme cases this leads to complete social rejection and the possibility of suicide cults, as has been seen many times in history for example with Charles Manson's followers and the 900 who died when the People's Temple suicided. These groups always start out with borderline, but common, beliefs and slowly become more delusional over time. In all cases followers lacked an instinct to ask questions about the beliefs. It is religion that gains most when people cease asking deep questions about beliefs, and it is truth that suffers most. In the name of truth and common sense, do not let even trivial-seeming beliefs take hold without double-checking them, because once beliefs are trivialised, a slippery slope can take you down into madness!
Philosophy Now. Philosophy Now, 41a Jerningham Road, Telegraph Hill, London SE14 5NQ, UK. Published by Anja Publications Ltd. www.philosophynow.org
"Science: Its Character and History" (2006). Accessed 2013 Jul 17.
"Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths" (2008). Accessed 2013 Jul 17.
"Religion, Violence, Crime and Mass Suicide" (2009). Accessed 2013 Jul 17.
Dannatt, Sir Richard
Chief of the General Staff (UK)
Eysenck, Michael and Keane, Mark
Cognitive Psychology (1995). 3rd edition. Published by Psychology Press, Hove, UK.
Gardner, Martin. Died 2010 May 22 aged 95.
Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957). Published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, USA. Originally published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1952 as "In the Name of Science".
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2006). 2006 edition. Published in UK by The Great Free Press, 2005.
Kurtz, Lester R.
Gods in the Global Village (2007). 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.
Fundamentalism (2007). First edition 2005. New edition now published as part of the “Very Short Introduction” series. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Cults: Secret Sects and Radical Religions (2007). Hardback. Published by Carlton Books.
Wilson, E. O.
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). Hardback. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is one of the foremost sociobiologists.