Yesterday my son came up to me and said, “Dad, the book I am reading talks about ghosts and so it assumes there is a life after death. And even if that afterlife is spooky and unattractive, it is still comforting to me to think that there could be life after death.”
I could tell he wanted to explore the apparent cognitive dissonance he was feeling: atheists aren’t suppose to believe in spirits and an afterlife. So I said, “Wow, I think I can understand what you are wondering about. You know, it is OK to believe things that contradict each other. Your brain can handle several contrary beliefs about the same thing — it is built to do that. One belief can help you at one time and another belief can help you at a different time. Maybe neither believe is perfectly right. If there is no pressing reason to decide which is most accurate, maybe it is better to just let them be.”
I gave him an example of how the brain believes two conflicting ethical views:
- we should do whatever act gives the most people the best outcome
- our family and those we love have priority over others
Usually these two beliefs do not clash. And when our minds are forced to use both beliefs at the same time, we will often be surprised at the solution it generates without our conscious intervention. If, prior to any conflict, we attempt to build a flawless, philosophical resolution of these two views, our rationalized solution will often suprisingly fail in the crucible of life. Our brains usually wins and our minds simply play catch up with post-hoc explanations.
All that was said in easier terms, with more examples, but I left my growing boy with the message that is OK to live with uncertainty and with contradictions — for these often offer us the greatest potential. And apparently, as my son tells me, one of the messages of the book is: “life is potential“.
Question to Readers: What do you feel this dad’s response to his son?
Other posts about contrary beliefs:
- Reincarnations, Heaven & the Bogeyman : both kids want an afterlife
- The Moral Mind : about our various contrary calculators modules
- Many Selves, No Self: how we can simultaneously be contrary things
- Traffic Light Epistemology: how beliefs are not just True or False