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Why do people believe things?

This blog is going to cover several aspects of why and how we believe whatever we believe.

One important aspect not covered is our tendency to believe whatever our parents believed. The pace of new discoveries means that this is no longer completely possible. What is covered is how we decide what is true and what is false, with reference to business, marriage, science, and religion. Although the question may not be answered adequately two conclusions do arise at the end.

In the TV game “Would I lie to you?” the object of the game is to make the opposing team guess incorrectly. To achieve this the story has to be of doubtful likelihood. If it is made too completely impossible the opposing team will correctly guess it is true and if it is made too completely possible they will guess it is a lie. So the story needs to be unlikely but not impossible. The guessing team then has a more or less 50% chance of getting it right; their chances can be improved by asking probing questions that the story teller will find difficult to answer unless the story is true. In real life there are times when it doesn’t matter whether we are being told the truth or a lie, but sometimes it can be crucially important.

In such cases our decision whether to believe what we are being told is based on all available information, including our knowledge of the person speaking, specifically our previous experience of their lying or honesty, or their reputation for honesty or lying. Their manner of speaking also gives clues; if they cannot look into your eyes while speaking or appear shifty or nervous lying is indicated. Do they have any motivation for lying? Does the phrase “they would say that wouldn’t they” apply? A useful tactic is to ask them the same question in a different manner, looking for consistency or contradictions. Probing questions, as in the TV game, can be used. Careful consideration can be given to the likelihood or otherwise of what is being said, and often their information can be checked from other sources including online. They may not be lying, just mistaken. All the above will help in our crucial decision.

Even then there will be times when we just don’t know and we will have to live with that. In business, especially when dealing with other people’s money, we try to avoid situations where trust is required. We cannot afford the luxury of belief, we must have proof. Having said that, there do exist situations where advantage can be obtained by sealing the contract with a handshake. In marriage happiness is maximised where complete mutual trust exists between the partners.

In science, we find the requirement for any new scientific discovery to be subject to checking and replication by other scientists. History shows that it is not uncommon for new scientific discoveries to be greeted with scepticism, especially by those with a vested interest in having it rejected. Examples – Erastothenes, Galileo, Cigarettes, Global Warming. An additional problem is that some scientific discoveries show that previous scientific truths were not quite right, did not show the full story. E.g. Relativity, Quantum Physics, Heliocentric vs Geocentric, margarine vs butter, and so on - many more. When a new scientific discovery affects how we should behave, what action we should take, the dilemma of whether to believe and adopt it exists for us all. Most of us are too busy or too lazy to do the necessary research, to read the peer reviewed scientific papers, to study the matter in enough detail to form an accurate view based on the facts. The scientific truth always wins out long term, but it’s acceptance can be delayed by the opposition.

Religious belief is another huge area that has been with us in various forms since prehistoric times. Walking across the park one day talking about global warming, my friend Murray said Wilf, I’m not sure I believe in that. Murray, I said, you don’t have to believe anything, you just need to look at the thermometer. Now Murray is a born again Christian and consequently believes all sorts of unlikely things. Another day during a conversation over a post swim coffee with my friend Bobroc, I accused him of being intolerant of other people’s beliefs. He denied being intolerant but admitted he could not understand how some people’s brains allowed them to believe the things they believed. “I don’t have any beliefs, I am guided by the facts.” What about God? I asked, to which he replied “I know there is no God.” I suggested that it was more accurate to say that he believed there was no God; as a fact it was in the unprovable category.

In my view people who know there is or is not a God are extremists. Some things are unknowable and we have to live with that. What is knowable and what is not changes with time as more and more science progresses. Our brains are limited, they cannot grasp everything. For example if one goes back to the beginning, the only available explanations are that something came from nothing or that something always existed. (ref Sophie’s World). Both options are impossible. Therefore it is impossible for us to be here. But we are here. Consequently, aided by Douglas Adams, I conclude that nothing is impossible. Something that my brain tells me is impossible must be possible, otherwise I would not be here writing this. Incidentally, this makes tolerance of other people’s beliefs easier; one of them might be right.

The help from Douglas Adams comes from his scene where he positions Ford Prefect in a restaurant on a planet in another galaxy. Ford starts to tell his companions what it is like on earth then stops because he realises that none of them will believe him. Things here are just too weird to be true. People can choose what they believe. The choice may be rational or emotional or a bit of both. We usually try to rationalise whatever it is that we want to believe. Our beliefs may be influenced by others. For example, Murray’s doubts about global warming most likely came from the numerous politicians and business owners who were spreading doubt at the time for political and monetary reasons. Clearly he had not researched the matter himself. To do so would have eliminated his doubt. Often when we are short of time we fail to research the science or situation ourselves and adopt either the prevailing view or what we would prefer to be true. What we would prefer explains why most religions believe in life after death; it would be nice if we could all regroup in heaven singing hymns around the piano like we did most Sunday nights when we were young. But it is probably about as likely to happen as the young Arab martyrs are to find themselves with a surfeit of virgins.

Belief brings certainty and comfort. Bobroc likes to be certain there is no God. Perhaps he is uncomfortable with uncertainty, with having to live with things unknown. Those at the other extreme who know that there is a God and know that they will be going to heaven when they die, get comfort from this belief. Others, like Mother Teresa have doubts. My conclusion that nothing is impossible allows me to pray when I feel like it because while it is unlikely there is anybody listening it is not impossible. When my daughter Jenny died at age 21 in a car accident I was able to imagine her “up there” watching me and got a lot of help by saying to myself “What would Jenny like me to be doing now?” The only time I won my age group in my 50s I was doing the race “for her”. So this type of belief, a type my brain calls irrational, can be of benefit at certain times.

Miles’ experience with his neighbour comes to mind. Hearing a man coughing excessively in the street in front of his house he called from the balcony “are you alright”. The reply, “No, I am dying, I have cancer”. Miles replied do you have a bible, if not get one and read psalm 23. The man got much comfort from this where it says yeah though I walk through the valley of shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…..After he died his family came and said thank you and told Miles they found him a bible and he read that section over and over until he died and they used it at the funeral.

The question in the title, “Why do people believe things?”, may not have been answered adequately however writing down my thoughts on the subject leads to two conclusions. The first one is that there is an advantage to be gained personally

and world wide by adopting a position of tolerance for the beliefs of others. Historically a lack of tolerance has led to persecution and wars, and it is still doing so today in many places.

Secondly, allowing beliefs to be influenced by money or political power is reprehensible, especially in those with power. It is important for the rest of us to make the time to research new scientific positions so that we come to our own informed conclusion. The internet resources available today make this easier to do than it ever has been.

Please send comments to Wilf Deck at

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