Belief Formation

Most of us haven’t given much thought to the way we acquire our beliefs, but this is a hot topic for philosophers like me, mainly because we’d like to know how to go about forming beliefs that are grounded and good for us. Essentially, the way people form beliefs is a lot like the way people buy cars. Seriously.

Let’s examine two main approaches.

The Careful Consumer

When buying a car, these people do their homework first. They compare makers and models, they look at reviews, they find reliability comparisons, they talk things over with people they trust. They ask what it will take to maintain it. When they make the deal, they are prepared. They prioritize to avoid getting stuck on inconsequential details. They lean into the deal to see how much it will give. They know that there’s always a better deal out there, but they don’t let that get in the way of making an acceptable deal. When they get it home and live with it a while, they are satisfied in knowing it’s not the last they will ever have, but it’s sufficient for today.

The Impulse Buyer

On the other hand, some buyers are prompted more by the presence of a car lot than by intention or need. They attach easily to a model that scratches an itch, and, while making the deal, they tend to picture themselves speeding along in comfort, admired and perhaps even envied by onlookers. There may be a better deal, but that image is what they see — this is the car and the moment, so why wait? The better they get to know its flaws, the more vigorously they defend its virtues, until at some point they can’t envision owning anything else.

Belief and the Quest for Truth

People sometimes say that Truth is overrated or passé, but generally you hear that from people who aren’t seeking treatment for a life-threatening illness. Think about it: Interest in what’s true tends to rise with what’s at stake in a decision. One reason it’s easy to fall into the impulse buyer school of belief formation is that we don’t experience many of our beliefs as being of enough consequence for us personally as to require the sort of investment a life-threatening illness merits.

But this obscures how beliefs work. Beliefs do have consequences, for two good reasons. First of all, we have no good reason to think that the World configures itself around what we believe about it, and we have very good reason to suspect that the World does its thing irrespective of our beliefs. You can test this by believing that you’re on vacation on Mars or that 2 + 3 = 6. You might succeed in fooling yourself, but the rest of us will be able to tell.

Second, because our beliefs guide our decisions, large and small, they directly affect our lives and the pursuit of excellence. That is, unless you’re willing to adopt the belief that all excellence is merely based on our beliefs — in which case, try that argument the next time you have a life-threatening illness.

Worse still, making a series of small decisions on the basis of a belief makes that sequence habitual, too — which means it feels ever more natural to operate on the basis of a belief. This alone should raise our concern about what we believe and how it affects our lives behind our own backs.

What’s a rational primate to do?

Like it or not, we’re primates, and as such, we are a blend of Careful Consumer and Impulse Buyer — and not just in different situations regarding different topics, though that is also accurate. (I’m frequently baffled at how people who are highly skilled at reasoning in one area somehow miss opportunities to apply those same reasoning skills in more mundane areas of life; but that’s an issue for another time.) No, we are actually a thorough mix of rational agent and primate impulses, even when we’re trying to be Careful Consumers. Remember that Impulse Buyers can be remarkably efficient at find the means to scratch an itch.

So, what are we to do with our primate selves? Most of us don’t form beliefs as a result of a careful process of deliberation — a point Bertrand Russell makes about the belief in God: Most of us believe (or not) because we were taught to believe (or not) by caretakers, and not because we’ve done the homework ourselves.

Even so, I can’t help but believe that investing some of the care in belief formation that we invest when the stakes are high would make the world a better place. That’s where a little philosophy can help.

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