How We Fool Ourselves: THE WILL TO BELIEVE - AND TO DISBELIEVE

introduction

Opening paragraphs of original talk

Instead of having this talk in the formal situation of this room, it would be much nicer for all of us to be outside at a very pleasant tropical restaurant overlooking a beautiful scene of mountains and beaches, with glasses of our favourite drinks on tables in front of us. But no matter how much I might want that to be the present situation, it would be quite impossible for me to will myself into believing we were really there and not here. And I would be very suspicious of any of you who claimed you had willed yourself into believing it..

So does that mean that I really donít believe that there is the possibility of willing ourselves into believing things, and getting you here was just a hoax?

Well I actually do believe in such a thing. My suggested scenario was patently absurd, but many people believe things that others regard as absurd, or even bizarre. What you think is absurd depends on your beliefs. Some Atheists think it is absurd to believe in the existence of God, and some believers in God think it is absurd to believe that there is no god. The will to believe has sneaky ways of inducing people to believe things that others would never accept.

Opening paragraphs for a printed article

It is very easy to imagine that you are somewhere dramatically different from where you are at the moment. But it is highly unlikely that you could make yourself believe that you were there merely by an act of will. And yet the following discussion will try to convince you that most people continually will themselves into believing things.

The idea of being able to will yourself to believe you are somewhere else seems absurd. But many people believe things that others regard as absurd, or even bizarre. What you think is absurd depends on your beliefs. Some Atheists think it is absurd to believe in the existence of God, and some believers in God think it is absurd to believe that there is no god. The will to believe has sneaky ways of inducing people to believe things that others would never accept.

Before discussing the will to believe, I want to put it into perspective among other ways in which people adopt their beliefs.

Gate-keeping

Think about what happens when we come across some new piece of information. Do we accept it, wonder about it, or discount it? There seems to be some gate-keeping process, ie, how we let in or keep out any prospective new beliefs. One way is that any new idea that we accept has to be supported, directly or indirectly, by one or more of our existing beliefs. Another way is that we will accept any new idea unless it is incompatible with existing beliefs. (And here I include among our beliefs the things we think we know.) These processes liken beliefs to membership of a club. In the first, no new member is admitted unless authorised by an existing member. In the second, anyone can join unless black-balled by any existing member. I think we try to use one or other of these whenever new information or a new idea comes up.

Four Sources of Beliefs

But this idea of gate-keeping presupposes the prior existence of some beliefs. So where do these come from? I suggest they come from four sources:

These usually act in combination with each other

It might be tempting to add intuition, reason and imagination to these four. But I think intuition and reason are part of the gate-keeping. I suggest that imagination (and many other sources) might provide ideas, but these become beliefs only by satisfying the acceptance criteria.

Letís look briefly at these sources of belief. Personal evidence, is the personal interpretation of any type of experience, ranging from the observation of every-day events, to mystic experiences, to dreams and visions. The interpretation of an experience will depend on past experiences, on beliefs and on innate personality characteristics. Personal experience leads to new beliefs and to changes in religion and culture.

Indoctrination, my second source of belief, might be regarded as part of personal evidence, but I think it has some special characteristics. It occurs continually from birth, as we are socialised into our culture and instructed in the teachings of our religion, profession or areas of interest. This is by no means a purely passive process, and includes all the answers to the interminable questions asked by children, and adults. Indoctrination is the main process in the persistence of religions and cultures.

Among the many beliefs that are acquired through indoctrination are those about what is enjoyable and unenjoyable. Examples are what is thought to be funny, aesthetically pleasing or in good taste. In each of these there are marked differences between cultures. Within cultures, continual changes occur in accordance with fashion. Citizens of other countries, even those who share our language, tend to have a poorer sense of humour then we do. And with music, what is favourite or traditional in one culture is often positively unpleasant to another.

The next source of belief is those arising from innate drives. For example, for example, we all have some innate sense of fairness, of attachment to other selected people to revenge, etc. Experience and indoctrination shape these into beliefs, in particular about what is proper behaviour.

Religion might be ascribed to the innate urge to make sense of things. Right from birth we all are trying to understand what is going on around us, and either unconsciously or consciously developing explanations of what we experience. When there is no obvious explanation it is comforting to invent one. Also, we have an innate tendency to be emotionally attached to ideas we develop or discover ourselves, which makes religious beliefs develop and to persist - and to become embroidered altered, hence the proliferation of different sects within all religions.

Another kind of innately motivated belief comprises those that depend on personality traits, for example, a love of the bizarre, the mysterious or the simple, or a predisposition towards either reason or emotion.

reasoning

As I said earlier, ideas that come up through the urges of innate nature, from experience, from indoctrination and from the imagination usually have to go through the process of gate-keeping before they are accepted. This is largely an intuitive process, and might not be very thorough. But often there are complex or unusual or controversial ideas that are not easily accepted or rejected. What are we to believe about strange scientific concepts, such as in Einsteinís theories of relativity, or quantum theory? What about tales of strange goings-on in other parts of the world, or sub-cultures of our own society? What should we believe about the morality of various biological and genetic technologies? In each case we should try to reason out what we believe about any new issue, and even reconsider any existing beliefs that are contrary to it.

But we may just let the matter hang, without coming to a belief . Or we may act on gut feeling. Or make an emotional decision without thinking the matter through. But later our belief may need support, when the matter is discussed with other people. And then, if there is no simple rational support, a rationalisation will be necessary.

Rationalisations

In effect, reason helps the gatekeeper. A related process, rationalisation, attempts to mislead the gatekeeper. It consists of working out how something could be true. It should be distinguished from using reasoning to test a possible new belief, although it appears to be a similar process. Rationalisation starts with the assumption that a belief is true, and then works back to try to derive an explanation to show why it must be. Once a plausible explanation is obtained, the belief appears to be proven - no matter how bizarre it may seem to other people. A contrary form of rationalisation is one that opposes belief in what, on the surface, seems plainly evident. We can rationalise to disbelieve as well as to believe.

Rationalisations are not necessarily unsound. They can turn out to be logically valid, and therefore be genuine justifications of the belief.

Similar to rationalizations are reconstructions. It is hard to make sense of some past incident if the remembered details are too vague or inconsistent. If it is important to make sense of it, the mind tries to "correct" the memory by working out what must have happened. Once a satisfactory story is arrived at it is accepted. Many psychologists think that this accounts, at least in part, for repressed memory syndrome and for belief in Alien abduction (ie, by beings from outer space). In such cases the psychologists take into account certain psychological and physiological conditions during interview, hypnosis and "waking-sleep" that would have affected the persons concerned, and conclude that the claimed incidents did not really occur as remembered. (Some people might argue that it is psychologists who are doing the reconstructing.)

The will to believe

The urge to invent rationalisations often arises from what is called a will to believe, whose function is to subvert the gatekeeper. Most, if not all, people feel a wish, or even a need, for certain types of things to be true. In such cases they often cannot help believing it is true. Typical cases are that:

Others are statements such as those beginning with "Thereís sure to be...".

Believing something just because you want to does not make the belief false: the car salesman may be scrupulously honest. (I wonít stretch your credibility about the politician.)

Wanting to believe something will seldom be enough if it is self-evidently untrue or impossible. Nonetheless, after being involved in a tragedy, people often go into denial - they canít accept the truth of what has happened. It is highly unlikely that anyone would believe that the car they have just crashed will somehow spring back to its original condition, no matter how much they would like that to happen. But there is still plenty of room for ready self-deception.

The reasons can be boiled down to three types:

Letís look at some examples, beginning with cases of selfish acts - or letís call them human weakness. One group of such weaknesses used to be known as the seven deadly sins.

The seven deadly sins

These are - or, perhaps, were - pride, envy, lust, greed, gluttony, anger, sloth. They werenít so terrible in themselves, but were said to lead to more serious sins, such as theft, murder, or even worse.

Various people nowadays apply these same "deadly" sins to such things as economics, where indulgence in the sin is likely to lead people into making unwise decisions. Such decisions arise from believing what any sane person who was not afflicted by the particular deadly sin) would immediately recognise as crazy wishful thinking - or, in other words, the will to believe. These are usually cases of the gatekeeper being distracted by the attractiveness of the particular sin. But I need to e more specific.

Taking greed as an example, a common case is where there are offers or opportunities that are almost too good to be true. In times of financial optimism it is tempting to put savings into the scheme offering the highest rate of return. Caution about returns being related to risks is overcome by wishful thinking and rationalisation about the other investors and the prosperous appearance of the prospectus or business headquarters. Business managers continually allow themselves to believe that it is safe to expose their companies in areas that in less buoyant times would clearly be regarded as risky, or even suicidal. Perhaps the sin of pride also helps people to will themselves into believing in their luck.

What do you believe about tax avoidance? It depends on who is doing the avoiding, you or someone else. Your belief here may depend on greed or envy.

What do you believe about taking a "sickie" to have a day off work? Does that attitude depend on your position in the organisation you work for?

Personality

Personality determines which of the seven deadly sins you are prone to indulge in. Personality, coupled with experience, affects what people want to believe in. Those who are attracted by romantic ideas will willingly embrace different things from those who prefer hard rationality. The New-Ager and the Sceptic typically have different personalities. For example, despite the many fascinating revelations of science, its rigorous and intricate explanations have little appeal, and hence little credibility, for many people. Of course, the smug or authoritarian attitudes of some practitioners of "orthodox" science or technology can incline someone to believe in some "alternative" system, almost as a pay-back reaction. But personality has more aspects than just the range between rationality and romanticism. Selfishness, attitudes to risk taking, or indeed everything that goes into personality, affect what we will ourselves into believing.

emotion

If an idea or theory is pleasing, it requires only the scantest evidence for its ready acceptance. Few ideas are more pleasing than those we invented ourselves. If you invent a new religion, or a new cure for one of the current plagues affecting humanity, it is easier to convince yourself that it is true than if someone else invented it. Hence the many cranks, who, may on other matters, be quite sane.

Presenting evidence that is contrary to a pleasing belief will not lead to discrediting the belief but to hostility to the messenger - particularly if the messenger is smugly irritating. A pleasing theory satisfies feelings such as wonder or poetic justice, or puts down people or groups who might be seen as intimidating or unpleasant. A pleasing theory is one that is easy to grasp and explain to others. People willingly believe simple and easy solutions to perceived problems - which partially explains mob action. A complicated explanation generates hostility, even though it may need to be complex to be true.

We are more ready to believe good things about people we like and bad things about people we don't like. "There must have been a good reason," explains the unaccountable "bad" act of a "nice" person , who continues to be good. And "there must have been an ulterior motive," accounts for the good deeds of someone "nasty".

Anger, hate and other strong emotions can make people passionately believe what is obviously or officially wrong, and refuse to believe what is obviously right. So hate, resentment and perhaps fear of Hell make some would-be suicide bombers believe the Koran says their act will give them immediate access to Heaven. And ego can make politicians refuse to accept the patently obvious consequences of bad decisions.

This means that negative beliefs can also result from acts of will - a will to disbelieve. It is hard to convince someone of something that they don't want to believe. If you hope that something is not true you are more likely to believe that it is not. If you hope that something is true you are more likely to believe it is. Also, the more you like the person telling you, the more you are likely to believe them. (Love may be a different matter.)

How do you choose which radio/TV/newspaper commentators to ignore and which to pay attention to? How many people give equal credence to the claims of both sides in the Israeli/Palestinian, the US/Iraq and similar issues?

Preserving existing beliefs

We usually have an emotional attachment to our beliefs. They are part of self-identification., so we try to preserve them. So, how do you react when you learn of scientific or other evidence for or against such things as the historical-type stories of the Old Testament, or Evolution, or abduction of people by Aliens who have arrived in UFOs?

The scientific world is renowned for disbelieving new findings. This goes far beyond the accepted need to have independent corroboration. It is common for such hostility to arise at new ideas or evidence that, far from conducting independent investigations, the establishment refused to consider any neutral discussion whatever. Well-known cases are continental drift and the effect of bacteria called helicobacter pylori on stomach ulcers. Scientific journals continually provide new cases.

Useful beliefs

Most people will believe new or unusual things if it serves their purpose. There is therefore a continuing process of adopting beliefs without testing how sound they are. But having settled on the belief, it is usually possible to develop a rationale to support it. If a few other people can be found who take the rationale seriously, the belief can appear to have some claim to truth, even though it might otherwise seem wildly imaginative. The beliefs of some neo-Nazis and followers of the obscure cult religions are examples. Thus, if the rest of your group profess to believe that the presence of a few "funny looking foreigners" is undermining the morals of your society or stopping you from getting a job, it is convenient to believe it. Such beliefs may also purport to be the legitimate reason for attitudes or actions that actually have some other basis. There will, of course, always be followers who naively but genuinely accept the arguments put forward in support of such beliefs, and join the particular movement, and who may well get benefits such as fellowship and a sense of identity that were not available to them from other areas of society.

Adopting a new religion provides another illustration. A religion might be adopted because of one particular aspect of its teaching, for example, as a result of a search for answers to questions about the true meaning of life, or the after-life, or wholesome ways of living and relating to other people, or personal self-fulfilment. Or a religion may be adopted for convenience, such as get a job, or to marry a believer. And then the intricacies of the doctrine are discovered and have to be swallowed. And very often they are swallowed passionately. There have been cases where whole countries have embraced, and believed in, a religion because the ruler has been persuaded. Certain practices or rules of life may then have to be accepted, irrespective of whether the accompanying rationalisation is understood.

Believing the worst

Another aspect is the inclination to believe. Sometimes a belief is adopted in order to confirm an anxiety. Someone who is very late must have had an accident, or is doing it deliberately.

A frequent cause of anxiety is having to deal with something unfamiliar. We donít want to believe that people with unusual appearance or behaviour, or with certain types of disability, for example, are like ourselves. So people of a different generation or culture, with their different styles of dress are automatically believed to be immoral, lazy or violent, and older people senile. People in wheel chairs are often spoken to as if they are mentally incompetent, or deaf, or both. We have no reason to believe such things. But for various reasons we often have a need to believe them. In fact, although I have been following the usual phrase "will to believe" throughout this discussion, I think it is mainly an unconscious process. So perhaps it should be called the need to believe.

conclusion

I have put the following motivations for "willing" ourselves into beliefs:

I have put the will to believe in context among other ways of adopting a belief. All of the other ways seem fairly rational, but the will to believe does not. So, do only irrational people succumb to this phenomenon?

I can only say "yes". But I must add that no one is rational all the time. If we think deeply, we can all dredge up something that we once believed - or disbelieved - purely because we wanted to. Some psychologists argue that our minds have a built-in irrational processing system in addition to and separate from our rational system. Perhaps it is instead of a rational system.

But I am not going to buy into that argument.

-o-

[Text of a talk to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 11 May, 2004.]

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