Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why We Believe What We Believe

For many of us, what we believe is primarily the same thing as what our parents believed. We have just accepted what we were told and never questioned it. This applies to the religion we currently hold, the political party to which we belong, and even, sometimes, the make of car we drive. Our parents taught us what they believed to be true because it is what their parents taught them. They were not trying to deceive us. They were simply telling us what they believed to be true.

So, how do we know what is true? I’m of the opinion that we are incapable of knowing what is absolutely true. For each of us, truth is relative. Who is right? How can a Republican sincerely believe one thing and a Democrat believe something quite different or a Lutheran sincerely believe one thing and a Catholic something else, each convinced they are right and the other is wrong?

The reason we cannot know absolute truth is because each of us perceive the world differently, and we perceive things differently because of the memories we have associated with that belief. If we are brought up a Lutheran, we have Lutheran memories – memories we built as we were growing up. Those memories tell us what is true  – Lutherans are going to Heaven and Catholics are going to Hell (or vice versa). The danger is that what we accept as true is stored in our memories and future decisions become influenced by them.

About a year ago, we were trying to sell an extra Blackberry phone that we had acquired. My wife advertised it on CraigsList and a gentleman called and came to our house to see it. At the time we had a full-grown Samoyed dog, one of the friendliest dogs you could know. When I answered the door, I invited the gentlemen in to see the phone. He started in the doorway until he saw our dog. At that point he froze and would not come in; I had to bring the phone outside to him. Perhaps, sometime in the past, he had had a bad experience with dogs. Perhaps one had bitten or mauled him; he was clearly frightened by the sight of our dog. My wife and I and our neighbors know that our dog would never hurt anyone. That was the truth as we saw it. This gentleman, however, had a different truth and he believed our dog was dangerous. Clearly the truth that we had about the dog and the truth that the gentleman had were quite different.

It is for this same reason that Republicans and Democrats or Lutherans and Catholics can believe that they are right and the other is wrong. It is because of the way we perceive the truth, or what is right. Consequently, it can be very difficult to change your own or someone else’s mind. First, you have to change the memories, replace the old memories with new ones. And, giving up old memories is very difficult to do. Changing someone else’s mind can be a long slow process. The idea is to get them to think they changed their mind on their own rather than you having any part in changing it. It is called education.

We need to be careful with what we allow to become our memories, of what we accept as truth. I like to think of our mind like we think about our bodies; we are what we put into it. If you eat junk food you will not have a healthy body and will increase your chances of suffering medical problems. If you allow junk into your mind, you will make faulty decisions. By junk I’m talking about junk science or pseudoscience. For example, if you have accepted homeopathy as a valid means of treating illness you may suffer the consequences.  In this regard, I like to think of tested medicine as being the better cure and science as offering the best method of finding absolute truth.

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