Components of Belief
None of us are omniscient. We can’t observe the world and arrive independently at the truth of all things.
Instead we depend on other minds. We trust others to delve deeply into questions of science, politics, and religion, about which we may know little, and then we add our own reason and experience to form our own opinions.
Thus our belief is influenced by:
1. Our own experience
2. Our own reason
3. Our perception of the beliefs of others
Our beliefs constantly evolve, as we process the beliefs of others, gleaned from conversation, social networks, and major media. The beliefs we hear the most tend to have greater influence. We think, consciously or subconsciously, that if a lot of people believe something, it is likely true.
Beliefs propagate through society, following the rules of networks: weakening with distance, self-reinforce with proximity.
The propagation of belief is checked by our individual experience and reason, but the effect of proximity is incredibly strong. This explains why, for example, there are so many religions in the world, why religions are so geographically concentrated, and why the members of each religion are so damn certain that they are right.
To influence a person’s beliefs, one can either influence:
1. Their experience
2. Their reason
3. What they think the people around them believe
We have little control of others’ experience. It takes painstaking dialog to influence another persons’s actual reasoning. But it’s easy to influence what people think the people around them believe.
In other words, it is much easier to convince people that something is popular than that something is reasonable.
This helps explain the power of propaganda, tribalism, and the modern information wars. It is not so much that hearing something over and over will cause our poor weak minds to simply crack and believe it. It is that we depend on the voices we hear around us to form our beliefs. We cannot arrive at all of the conclusions on our own. We are a hive mind, and we need to hear the the opinion of others in order to form our own.
But this susceptibility of a group to being manipulated into believing something, because they think it is what others believe, is one of the saddest facts about human society. It is why evil ideologies can sometimes override reason and spread like a fire, erupting in tyranny, civil war, and genocide.
But we can all still apply our own reason and experience when forming our beliefs. We can try to depend less on the beliefs of people around us, and look more deeply into things. We can independently verify a fact or article we just read. We can try to understand other points of view.
We can also influence others not just by being another voice repeating a popular opinion, but by helping them reason about things in a new way.
They say you should stand up and express your opinion, to help make a positive change in society. But I say, sit down and have a rational discussion, with somebody who sees things differently from you. Because you may actually be wrong.