Saturday, 23 May 2015

More Than a Feeling

That word belief. What does it mean? I've given it a lot of thought over the years, and I've had a lot of objection to my thoughts, but I am very comfortable in them

First, I contend that belief is an opinion. It may be an opinion picked up from somewhere, maybe from upbringing or early cultural experiences, or it may be arrived at after a lot of research and deliberation. Nevertheless, it remains an opinion. While many can share a belief, they are never universal. Beliefs can always be argued, but never proven. That's how you know they are not facts.

I also contend that they are not a choice. To choose a belief would be phony. People do try to do this, and some end up genuinely believing things, but choosing a belief is self-deception. I'll explain that a bit more in a while, but I want to make it quite clear. A belief is a sincere thing, which is why, I think, we sometimes give it more respect than it truly deserves. We see that sincerity, and we like sincerity.

We also use the word belief in different ways. This suggests perhaps that we are actually using one word to cover several different concepts, which are related but not quite the same.

The first of these then, is the simple opinion.


An opinion is an idea that is held dear on the basis that we think it is right. We all have these. We are also able to change these, and we do when it seems appropriate. "I've changed my mind". It can be as mundane a thing as what we want to order in a restaurant. That makes it no less sincere. At first, I really thought I wanted beef, but then I smelled the chicken, and discovered I wanted that. When I was opting for beef, it was a genuine feeling. A true desire. I really believed I wanted beef. If you had questioned that, I'd have insisted. "Are you sure?" "Yes, quite sure." But then along came this delicious waft, and everything changed. "Are you sure you want chicken now?" "Yes, quite sure." And both of these are true.

It can be much deeper.

"I, Fred Smith, take you, Mary Jones, for my lawful wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part."
But 7 years later, they are signing divorce papers. What happened? On the day they said those vows, they meant it. It wasn't on a whim. They were deeply in love and they truly believed what they were saying there. Then it changed.

If you had asked Fred, on his wedding day, if his unending love for Mary was "an opinion" he'd have been horrified. He'd have said it was a fact. But it wasn't - it was his belief, and beliefs can change. It was a sincere belief, nevertheless, it was only a belief. Beliefs can be wrong.


Sometimes the belief is evidence based. This is still an opinion, and it may also be a fact. But it may just as easily still be wrong.

"Scientists believe......."

Based on all available data, the latest findings, and the carefully checked and peer reviewed work of many, this is a belief that has some solidity to it. It can still change.

These beliefs are often taught as facts, but they are really expert opinions. My grandfather was taught in school that there were canals on Mars. It seems laughable now, but he believed it. Why wouldn't he? He couldn't exactly go to Mars and check for himself, and besides, when educated people all agree on something and it finds its way into the textbooks, there's no reason to doubt it.

After a detective has collected all the reports, statements, photos, DNA samples, and other evidence he needs to make a conviction, it is all presented and the defendant is tried. Certain parts of this are indeed facts (the bloodstain matched) others are opinions ("I saw") but it's put together as a case. It all looks good, the detective believes he is right, and yet, there is still a jury to decide on that. Because there may be wrong assumptions along the way. He reached a conclusion, very carefully. It's still only a belief. He may be wrong.


Quite often when we believe something will happen it is based on previous experience. We trust that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has. We trust the alarm clock to wake us, or the car to start, as it's always been reliable.

But most of all we trust people. We feel safe because we trust the police (no comments at the back there, different topic!). A child feels safe because he trusts his parents and teachers.  Some people even trust the government, to a certain degree. Sometimes trust gets broken, a spouse cheats, a colleague lies, but sometimes we manage to trust them again. Some are more trusting than others, of course.

We believe what they say. We even believe politicians, despite their track record. We can be very credulous sometimes. Foolishly perhaps, we seem to need to believe our fellow humans.

When it comes to what we believe that we hear or read, we are easily fooled. If it's a trusted source we may not even question it.


I saw this as a meme on Facebook on several people's walls this week.

Nobody questioned it. Why would they? It's what we suspect! We all know how this goes. Bloody oil companies.

Now, I'm not much for math but something didn't look right there. That is a LOT of money. So I made the effort and did some research too. Multiply $5737 by the number of US taxpayers and you get a figure of almost $700 billion. I found differing estimates for the subsidies, but an independent (and definitely not sympathetic) entity, Oil Change International, says "as of July 2014, U.S. fossil fuel subsidies were estimated at $37.5 billion annually". So that could even be on the high side.

Sure, it's still a lot, but it's 20x less. So where did the $700 billion figure come from?

The citation is a Guardian article, which in turn cites the IMF. Why is there such a huge difference? Not double, not even ten times, but 20 times greater than the other source?

Which is correct? Well, let's look at this:

This shows us that 3% of the $1.16 trillion budget goes on energy in total. Not over half of it. Somebody read something wrong somewhere.

As I said. I suck at math, but you don't need to be a mathematician to see something's not right there.

Yet how many people balked at that figure? I found a grand total of one. One comment said "That's more than the defence budget". And he was right.

I'm sorry for the sudden leap from philosophy to math there, but it's a perfect example of trusting a total stranger to give us information, and just accepting it as is. And that's my next observation.

When we believe something, whether it's an opinion, a conclusion, or trust, it remains an unproven fact, and yet we accept it. WHY?

Unless you are truly delusional (it came to me in a dream), you do have a reason for believing what you believe. Not what you want to believe, or pretend to believe, but what you actually believe. That reason is the centre of all of this. No reason? No belief.

Reason #1: It just makes sense. This is perfectly reasonable. When early astronomers believed the Sun went around the earth, they made a mistake but it's unfair to criticize them. That is exactly what it appears to do. If you spent you whole life watching it do that, you'd still never have any reason to doubt it. So how did Aristarchus of Samos (q.v) decide it was wrong? The easy answer is that he thought outside the box. Perhaps he was also a genius. We don't know much about him, but we do know Copernicus read him. Without people like these we wouldn't have got far, that's for sure.

Reason #2: I read it/ I was told. This is most of us, really. We are not genius scientists, but if we can read we can find the work done by others. We choose who we read of course, and that can sometimes be a problem. As you know, I am especially frustrated by those who reject the work of teams of qualified academics over a long time, and defer instead to a random self-published, self-proclaimed "expert". "Some guy on the internet" has replaced "some guy in a bar" as the source of all knowledge. Not only does he know more about it than all the PhDs, he has secrets that are hidden from everyone else. Except him. Impressive, huh.

Reason #3: I've spent years studying this, and this is the only logical answer. This is better. It doesn't guarantee anything, especially if you studied "some guy on the internet". But if you read respected writers, for example those widely accepted by accredited universities, and kept up to date on new discoveries, you should do quite well here.

Reason #4: I just do, leave me alone, I'm entitled to my beliefs. No. Not good enough. Don't expect to be taken seriously. And for pity's sake don't spread it around. There are credulous people out there who might believe you. Spare them! We'll leave you alone if you promise to shut up and keep your thoughts to yourself, because without something to back them up, they are meaningless. And.......potentially harmful.

And so, Monday we'll look at harm, shall we?

1 comment:

  1. Having been at least one of the people who shared the meme image, yes; I admit to not having fact-checked the amount. Truth be told, I cared less about the accuracy than the hope that it would generate more discussion on inequality when it comes to how we spend "taxpayer" (laughable) money (laughable, again).

    While we're on the subject of belief and harm, I hope we do also keep in mind the extent/extreme to which we go for these beliefs. Oh, I'm not talking about religion here; that's bad enough. The idea that "we" spend so much in 'defense' of a Western way of life (under whatever belief labels there are) to the real harm "afforded" to those of our own group, is just as illogical and 'unbelievable' as the meme implies. ~ Blessings! <3