Systems of Belief

Over at slate.com, this interesting paragraph showed up:

Systems of belief such as religion and even scientific paradigms can lock their adherents into confirmation biases. And then tidbits of fact or gossip appear over the Internet to shore them up. There’s a point of no return beyond which it’s very hard to change one’s views about an important subject.

The writer, Arthur Allen, is discussing a scientific theory that he believes is patently false (the theory that childhood vaccinations have increased the incidents of autism), but that’s not what I’m most interested in.  Rather, I want to focus on the way he makes it sound as if only “adherents” view evidence through a biased lens. 

Here’s the thing: everyone has a system of belief.  It might be not be systematic, it might not be considered a “belief,” it might not even be consistent or agree with any traditional philosophy or religion.  But everyone has one.  It’s impossible not to.  Otherwise, how would you even begin to make sense of the world?   How would you know what to pay attention to, what to ignore, where to start considering a new idea or newly acquired fact? 

Rather than blaming what you perceive as someone’s mistake simply on the fact that they adhere to system of belief,  it’s better to examine that system of belief itself.  Is it consistent?  Does it align with known evidence?  Do you have trustworthy foundations for your system?  Is there a better system that explains what’s going on?

Then, rather than pretending that Person A is judging things based on a system, while Person B is looking at “just the facts,” we should mutually recognize each others’ biases and presuppositions, as well as our own.  If we are aware of our own assumptions – even if we have good reasons for them – then we can much more easily communicate with people whose assumptions differ from ours.   Futher, the other person might have very good reasons for the assumptions they make, even if their conclusions are ultimately wrong.  By understanding and sympathizing with those reasons, we can love our neighbors as ourselves, even if we disagree completely.

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