Where does your belief come from?

I’ve posted a lot of stuff on this blog questioning the foundations of belief.

How our beliefs are the function of the people we surround ourself with or are built during our formative years and then ossify. How language and culture both inform and limit what we can take in. And that much appears to be stuck in formative states.

But twice this week I’ve come across arguments that our “beliefs” are actually so transitory and shallow that they are all but meaningless.

That we are so riven with contradictions and so lacking a coherent world view that our “beliefs” are little more than fleeting notions backed up by post hoc rationing.

First in an old New Yorker article that makes me seriously question ever again trying to change someone’s mind.

And now in my continued reading of The Hidden Half:

We asked our volunteers to choose their political priorities on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, what would you do if it came to a choice whether the country should spend more on state-provided healthcare, or spend less and cut taxes (where 1 was definitely spend more and 10 was definitely cut tax)?…A short while later, we went back to talk over with our volunteers what they’d written and why. But we cheated. We left their original answer sheet as it was–written in their own hand with their names at the top to help convince them nothing fishy was going on. But where their answers were anywhere from 3 to 7–so not a definite 1 or a definite, uncompromising 10–we flipped the question around.

These are quite long quotes, but bear with me.

The partially handwritten page in front of them was evidence of what they believed–or so they thought. And it was this (doctored) opinion that they now defended. I sat down with a man who originally said that tax cuts were more important than more spending on state healthcare–and listened as he now explained why the opposite was true. His explanation was earnest, intelligent, clear, without hesitation. He wasn’t confused. He accepted this new position as a legitimate summary of his beliefs and didn’t miss a beat in justifying them.

I’ve read of studies where people surrender their opinion in the face of a majority or authority figure.

But that we are so intellectually supplicant that an unrecorded belief is essentially meaningless has quite thrown me. And that we could be dictated to by a recorded belief – even a false one – even more so.

To a certain extent this merely lines up with previous arguments in the book about complexity and simplification. But the lack of stability in the “lens” we use to understand the world – that I can’t feed you similar information over and over and expect a somewhat predictable response – has huge implications for discourse and institutions.

Let me end with a concluding remark from this section of the book:

…the ideal of holding a complete picture in our heads damns our capabilities with an impossible aspiration. The world, quite simply, is too complicated, too big, too messy, to frame in one go. The fact that we observe it in often contradictory fragments is also a measure of the enormity of the perceptual ask.

As always my emphasis

Singles not home runs

Watching professional sports, you often see a team that is behind suddenly go into desperation mode. The clock is ticking, so a flailing three pointer is launched from ten feet behind the line. Or the batter suddenly tries to hit the skin off of every pitch.

In reality it’s often not so dire. And trying to catch up in one go will likely doom you to failure. Hence the refrain – heard in many sports, not just baseball – that the way to go is by hitting singles, not home runs.

Just get onto first base. The person behind you will try and get you to second, etc. Go for a two pointer and not a three.

Don’t try to win it in one go. You won’t be the big hero. But you’ve got a better chance of succeeding.

I’ve been thinking about the weight given to big leaps, and in turn the relegation of smaller, safer gains, as I continue to read The Hidden Half.

We need to face the possibility that big influences are not as orderly or consistent as we expect, that the way things turn out is bound less by observable laws, forces or common factors than by the mass of uncommon factors, the jumble of hidden, micro-influences. Our habit of thinking of this as ‘noise’–and then thinking of ‘noise’ in turn as an annoying residual–diminishes one of life’s most magical elements.

Because of course, just as on the playing field, the heroes of academia and intellect are the ones who make the big play, not the tinkerers and exception finders.

But so often these big leaps wind up in incongruencies or pale in significance to the influence of smaller ones.

It’s not as sexy, but perhaps we should be emphasising something else – singles, not home runs.

We dream of laws and general truths; the practicality is often a patchwork of unexpected anomalies. Run with these ideas, apply them more widely, and you begin to conceive a world bustling with powerful but enigmatic differences that we just don’t see.

As always my emphasis.