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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.


The Individual That You Are (Not)


If you tell me your date of birth, where you were born, what your parents thought about politics and religion, and whether your relationship with them is sweet or bitter, I can predict a great deal about your values and beliefs.  This is because we humans are tribal creatures. Our foundational knowledge is transmitted from the tribal members who nurture and educate us. If we are happy and secure within our group, we share their worldview, reasoning, logically, that many generations of ancestors have considered the evidence to arrive at an optimal interpretation. It can be tweaked, but few individuals are motivated to contest the entire worldview they have inherited.

Some people switch social class, political allegiance, religious affiliation or national identity. A few are trailblazing free-thinkers. Most switchers are simply unhappy with the tribe they were born into and willing to embrace the worldview of a new tribe.

Switchers are often attracted by a charismatic leader and then encounter a group of like-minded friends. Once the new tribe has formed, intellectual justification for the new worldview follows.



The Hardwired Religious Impulse

The infinite number of religions and their sub-sects are difficult to understand. Most believers claim to practice a Gospel of Love. They seek peace and believe in the Golden Rule of love your neighbour. Yet religion has a long history of causing division between neighbours, and it can turn violent.  

Two of the most wrathful religions have been Christianity and Islam. The Christian Gospel of Wrath is wonderful for insiders, who are chosen, forgiven, loved and guaranteed eternal bliss. The Christian God of Wrath is a sweet deal for those who can convince themselves that they have won the salvational lottery without even buying a ticket. Wrath is reserved for outsiders who refuse to worship their true God and embrace their true religion.

The most disturbing form of religion is the Gospel of Death. We have all seen the damage wreaked by suicide bombers and religious terrorists. We have also seen zealots murder homosexuals and assassinate abortionists. Atheists blame primitive religious beliefs for violent religion. Believers agree that bad and false religions are dangerous, but they are reluctant to see their own religions as bad or false.


Freewill: Reality or Illusion?

Aristotle, Newton and Einstein gave us natural laws that generate predictable causes and effects. When every effect is produced by a precise cause, everything happens for a reason, in a predictably mechanical manner. Science calls this determinism. Religion calls it predestination. Belief in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, or a supernatural higher power, reduces human freewill to an illusion. 

Quantum physics rewrites reality in ways that are both frightening and liberating.  In any given moment you and I can decide to run away and join the circus, or change our name and start a brand new life on the other side of the world, or sell everything we own and give the money to charity. We could decide that this is the day we will quit our crappy job, or leave our unhappy marriage, start a dream business, confess a long concealed love, or assassinate a despicable villain.

All of these possibilities and many more are theoretically possible for each of us, and we can find evidence of people who have seized the present instant and made them happen, but the probability that you or I will make one of these uncommon choices in any given moment is remote. Infinite freedom is more of an illusion than reality. When we step out of the shower in the morning, the next thing we are most likely to do is grab a towel, not a suitcase and head for the airport.