Why Do We Believe What We Believe? (Part 1)

A lawyer friend pounces on witnesses who begin their testimony with, ‘I believe…’ because the words reveal that the witness is not certain. His doubts can be exposed, and his testimony undermined.

How much of our ‘reality’ is based on certain knowledge?  Mathematics and science are measurable, repeatable and predictable. No one debates that 1+1=2 or that objects fall according to the law of gravity. This is the empirical realm. I can be absolutely certain of my weight and height, at least at any given moment when they are measured. I have good reason to believe the information on my birth certificate, but I cannot be absolutely certain I was not born a little earlier or later, switched in error, and given to the wrong parents, unless science intervenes with a DNA analysis that proves I am the biological offspring of the people who claim to be parents.

The collective knowledge of the human race is available to us as an act of trust. I cannot personally  explain how a computer works, and I could certainly not build one from scratch, but I understand the principles of binary computation.  More importantly, I am confident that my computer functions in a rational manner and produces predictable results, in the same way that I feel relatively safe in a vehicle speeding down a highway or while flying in a steel ship defying the laws of gravity.

Belief becomes suspect when it clashes with widely held opinions, although truth is not determine by majority vote.

It is difficult to believe that the entire universe – innumerable stars, planets  and galaxies – exploded out of nothing. And yet the visible evidence of an expanding universe, filled with background radiation, is best explained by a Big Bang.  I have not personally verified that the universe is expanding or that background radiation exists, and I probably couldn’t decipher the mathematical equations pointing back to the Big Bang, yet I trust that scientists, whom I have never met, are presenting the evidence honestly and interpreting it to the best of their ability.  Most of my faith is based on consensus. I am not aware of any scientist who disagrees with the Big Bang theory.  If the knowledgeable people believe it, who am I to disagree?

I do not find it difficult to believe that I live on a sphere orbiting a star. The solar system model is easy to visualize and it makes sense of the observable motion of the other planets, the moon, stars and galaxies. True, it is hard to conceive that our planet revolves on its axis t 1,000 miles per hour and is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. But it is harder still to believe the tales of Flat-Earthers who claim that space travel and photos of a round, global earth seen from the moon are part of an elaborate conspiratorial hoax.  Who invented this hoax?  Why? 

Belief becomes suspect when it clashes with widely held opinions, although truth is not determine by majority vote.   Older generations accepted many things that we now consider ludicrous (spontaneous generation of vermin, that men were made to dominate women, and that superior races were destined to enslave the inferior). Belief becomes a problem when it disagrees with facts (earthquakes are caused by shifting tectonic plates, not angry gods). Belief becomes a form of insanity when the strongest proof is lack of evidence and widespread disagreement.  When almost everyone disagrees, and provides facts and figures to prove their point, conspiracy theorists are most certain that they have glimpsed a terrible secret that the world wants to conceal. Who wants to conceal it?  Why? 

All religions are belief systems. A strong case can be made that Abraham, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad were real people who lived in the times and places attributed to them.  But what is verifiably true about the stories that have been transmitted to us?  Did Abraham’s God order him to offer his only son Isaac as a blood sacrifice? Was Buddha an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu? Was Jesus born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead? Did Muhammad fly from Mecca to Jerusalem in a single night on a strange winged creature called Buraq, and from Jerusalem ascend to heaven where he met the earlier prophets, and eventually Allah?

What causes people to make a leap of faith and believe propositions that are impossible to prove, and that multitudes of other people disbelieve?  The belief system may be religious, but could just as easily be political. More importantly, what causes people to double down and insist, not only that they are right, but that dis-believers are enemies of the state or objects of divine wrath?

We will consider these questions in the next post.