This recent “Fast Draw” segment, The Truth about Lies (on CBS Sunday Morning) demonstrates why many things most people believe turn out not to be true. Also interesting are the two comments at the end. It is sobering and humbling to see how blind and deaf we can be. Oh how the power of belief walks all over clear and irrefutable evidence. What accounts for belief’s power(1)?
From a symptoms point of view, I would have to say we hold so tightly to belief because we need to. Well, duh, you say? Truth be told, drilling down into what appears obvious can be enlightening. So I ask, what hunger do we feel so deeply that belief helps satiate?
We are a social species with a need to belong. The question: How social and how needy? Examples of our deep social need are so pervasive that I failed to appreciate how all-encompassing this was most of my life. It is like sand on the beach, the grains easily go unnoticed. My last post, It’s Time We Changed Our Name, covers recent research that speaks to this under appreciated side of human nature. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if our social hunger proves out to surpass all others, including food and sex (both of which feed our social hunger, by the way). Surely it is the sense of social belonging that makes us feel most safe and secure. It is this that accounts for much of religion’s broader appeal!
A belief’s hold on us is directly related to how well it satisfies our social hunger. The process begins in infancy when a line of thought (usually cultural) is deeply and repeatedly experienced as we mature. When the line of thought becomes a ‘belief’, it delivers us a shot of emotional connection which feeds our social need to belong. Now you belong to the tribe’s belief, the belief belongs to you and your tribe. Thus, the tribal story becomes one powerful self perpetuating cycle.
Merely expressing a belief we hold becomes its own pseudo proof. The more passionately we hold it, the more ‘solid’ that pseudo proof feels. Having such ‘irrefutable evidence’ all contained and protected within the castle of one’s mind is irresistible. Empirical evidence in impartial and impersonal, and so lacks this feeling of proof that belief conveys. Add to this the sense of social connection shared beliefs impart and it is somewhat surprising that empirical science can exist at all in the face of such ‘group think’. Why does it anyway?
Actually empirical science has only recently become tolerated in the mainstream. It wasn’t too long ago that believers tried Galileo by the Inquisition, found him “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant, and kept him under house arrest for the rest of his life. Many (perhaps most) people are still woefully out-to-lunch when it comes to ‘science’ (from Latin: scientia meaning “knowledge”) and instead rely upon belief. This has worked all right up until recent centuries. Now, with technology and science serving as the backbone of modern civilization it is more problematic, even dangerous. Alas, I suspect ignorance will prevail; after all, biology calls the shots.
(1) As it happens, a recent post addressed this issue from a somewhat different angle. If you’re still curious about “Truth”, take a look a The Story Trumps Truth.