Beliefs: truth vs function

Don-Quixote-WindmillFaulty thinking feeds not only religious thinking, but also thinking on medicine, politics, linguistics and more. How should we approach faulty thinking?  Charging at the faulty logic of someone’s particular beliefs is one approach. But if this is one’s only approach, then ironically their understanding of the human mind and human behavior may be faulty. Rationality crusaders may have false beliefs about human behavior.

Yes, improving logic and knowledge (education) has been shown to decrease superstitious religion. Yet highly educated people still consume bad thinking. Well, I do, how about you?  Faulty thinking thrives even in educated, prosperous countries.  So it appears that faulty thinking may have benefits for which otherwise educated people are willing to sacrifice rationality.  So, to attack wrong beliefs as if they were mere stupidity is to misunderstand how people use beliefs.

truth_functionBesides frontal attacks on wrong beliefs, a better strategy can sometimes be created by understanding a faulty idea’s function: how an idea serves people rather than just the truth of the idea. Since all thoughts are tied to emotions, ideas and beliefs are far more than just cognitive truth maps. Ideas, even when they are false can still offer hope, comfort, inspiration and more. Watch people buy lottery tickets, suck up infomercials, sign up for pyramid schemes, run to healing services.

Today I read Steven Novella’s blog “Science-Based Medicine” which is devoted to fighting ineffective medicines pushed in the supplement and alternative medicine industries which he cleverly labels with the pejorative acronym: “SCAM” (supplements and complementary and alternative medicine). In today’s post Steven wondered if he needs to develop a new strategy for fighting SCAM.

“My perspective of most SCAM has been focused on the truth and reality of their claims, but truth and reality have little to do with advertising…”

“The tools of rational thought and science may not be the best approach for a industry, SCAM, that is based advertising. I need a different perspective to analyze SCAM, that of the psychology of desire. Not why people believe weird things, but why they buy weird things.”

Japanese newspaper clipping of Sabio doing acupuncture.

Japanese newspaper coverage of Sabio doing Acupuncture: “Look at the foreigner!”

Please remember that I am an ex-practitioner of both Oriental Medicine and Homeopathy. This post is not intended to discuss the merits or shortcomings of either alternative nor orthodox medicine.

Whether it is religion, medicine, politics or investments, in order to change people’s faulty behavior, rather than focusing on their illogical, irrational, inconsistent and faulty beliefs, it is sometimes more effective to understand how people actually think-feel-act.

Often, more effective than surgically isolating a person’s belief from their life and arguing against its irrationality, sometimes it is more important to understand how their faulty thinking serves them. Rather than relentlessly hammer on the thoughts you think people should have or should not have, it may be helpful to understand how their beliefs actually work in their lives.

This post is part of a series on the nature of belief.


Filed under Critical Thinking

12 responses to “Beliefs: truth vs function

  1. TWF

    Excellent post! I’ve had a few debates in the past where a sparring partner would make a statement like “it just can’t be this way” or “life would be meaningless if…” These were clues, to me, that we had left the field of objective evaluation. (Well, as “objective” as any of us are capable of!) It was, indeed, a matter of how their beliefs served them, not a matter of what was actually written or said. Since then, I’ve been pondering the right approach in those cases.

    I love dealing with the technicalities and hard “facts”, because there is a certain erudite quality in keeping the argument constrained to what is known or reasonably implied, or otherwise logically extracted.

    To me, to go for the function of the belief, instead of its factual basis, almost seems you are just trying to win people to your side by beating the other side at its own game, which just seems kind of… slimy.

    Or, at least it has seemed that way to me in the past. As I’ve started to recognize that the function, when that need, hinders critical thinking, I’ve realized that a “holistic” approach will be more effective. But I haven’t yet figured out the bast way to do that. So I’m looking forward to more of your thought provoking posts.

    P.S. Good rewrite on the last one.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is exactly how I feel when I see long strings of people either attacking or defending a particular belief in an online forum. Just reiterating the rational alternative to a believer or the rationality behind the belief itself gets us nowhere. Until or unless someone sees how the belief is either harmful or ineffective in his life, the ability or willingness to change will never be there.

  3. @ TWF & MichaelB:
    Glad you really enjoyed. David Chapman also tweeted this post, for which I am happy. I am always glad when I capture ideas/feeling/perceptions that many of us have. Being clear about such things can often help dialogue.
    You both made some excellent points — thanx!

  4. Wow! Okay then! I really liked this one. I especially liked:

    “Whether it is religion, medicine, politics or investments, in order to change people’s faulty behavior, rather than focusing on their illogical, irrational, inconsistent and faulty beliefs, it is sometimes more effective to understand how people actually think-feel-act.”
    -Absolutely! And if you want to change this, you must somehow make it personal and give them a better option. As Bono stated, “It’s not enough to rage against the lie, you must replace it with a better narrative.” I believe that directly relates to what you’re saying, does it not?

  5. @ Luke
    Glad you enjoyed.
    To answer question, you and I have to be very careful with the word “narrative” because it is a word you are highly invested in and I see it as a fuzzy word to get in all sorts of side agendas. I like the word, but use it without the same nuances you do. So it would probably be best to avoid it or come up with an agreed working-definition.

    In light of that, I still think I can answer some of your question (unless it was rhetorical — and it may have been):

    So we agree that looking at the functions of a belief-set can be a valuable tactic to understanding a person’s beliefs.

    When addressing the functions of someones beliefs, there are several options I can imagine off the top of my head.

    (1) Their function is good and no bad side effects even though their vehicle (narrative or otherwise) is factually incorrect. Solution: no hurry to change.

    (2) Their functions are generally good but there are some bad side effects of the incorrect beliefs. Solution: well now the solutions vary.

    (3) Their functions are bad and beliefs are wrong. Well, solutions here demand more radical approach, perhaps.

    But back to #2

    2b) I still think that addressing their inaccurate beliefs is helpful. Then as they recognize their incoherence, they can modify their narrative (even if still fictionally) to get less sideeffects. They may make changes the objector could not imagine. This can be more organic, more lasting.

    2c) Point out the bad possible consequences their beliefs may have and let the other person figure out what to do.

    2d) Generalize about the person’s beliefs and attack the pattern without paying attention to function — this may work for some but not for others. Bad habit with bad consequences, in my experience.

    As for supplying a “better narrative”, you will see with b & c, I can leave that burden to the believer. As you may see in my post on “Deep Connections” where the patient reader of that post or my blog can feel my different narrative, my narrative is not something for everyone, it is based on my temperatment and experiences. So, I’d rather let people develop their own while I feel free to point out inconsistent beliefs any time I feel they are interested OR if I feel the consequences of their beliefs and actions has effects I feel undesirable.

    Does that answer your question?

  6. Yes it does very much! Thanks for taking the time to walk me through this. I’ll get to the connections post tomorrow.

  7. Nige

    Your “beliefs” in science and your “non beliefs” in religion actually make you what you seek to destroy…….believers! So ipso facto you hate and are at turmoil with what you are!!! Until you can define the Truth, until you can give “The” definition of the Truth, until you can “know” what it is as a thing and how you can use it as a tool/weapon then you are forever doomed to be with your believer/non believer brethren! Beliefs are the opposing force of Truth. And sentient beings are the holders of beliefs and hence the opposing force of Truth. Until a “believer” desires to “know” the truth and can destroy his/her “belief system” from within then the Truth will always ellude you. Because the truth is ever changing……what is truth today is not necessarily truth tomorrow, then unless you can define it perfectly then your knowledge will quickly become a lie. Then it will become a be”lie”f……lol…..this is the cunundrum the you face. You would need to become or be born a “Truthist” to then “know” the Truth.

  8. @Nige,
    I find talking about some abstraction called “Truth” as boring a waste of time as arguing theology. They are both red herrings. Since we are being frank with each other. Do me a favor — try to interact more with what I write, otherwise, you seem like a cut-and-paste troll.

  9. Nige

    Lol….typical response from a “believer”!….lol….. Because you cannot understand something you label it “abstract”!…. Well, it’s your fault because you profess to “know” what the Truth is. Or did someone force you to use that heading for you chit chat page? So “professor” tell me how the Truth is abstract? And can i hire you as a lawyer if i get into trouble with the law someday? You can just tell the judge that “Truth” is just a abstract concept and as such should set me free!!!!!…..lmao. Just don’t “profess” professor and you can live a life of peace in cyber world. Thats why you created your little chit chat site isn’t it? So you could speak and not be spoken to? Grow up buddy! A wise man loves correction. A fool hates it!!!!!!

  10. @ Nige,
    Read my comment policy tab. You will be spammed if you continue to shamelessly break those rules — fair warning. As you said, it is my little my “little chit chat site”. Your decision.

  11. Nige

    No need to “spam” me as this is my final comment. I can see i am shaking your “belief system” a little to hard and it must be in peril of collapsing!… And the last thing i need on my conscience is a case of “Collapsed Belief System Syndrone”. You have my email address so if you want to help with deconstructing your belief system then please contact me. Just keep in mind tho that once the belief system is deconstructed a new system/way to think is required. The only other system/way to think as opposed to “believing” is “knowing”. And i promise i won’t spam you little fella when/if you email me……and that’s because i “know” what i am talking about!!!….lol

  12. Oh, I’m sure you do. I shan’t be e-mailing. Time for you to visit another blog. Glad I didn’t have to spam you. Be well, Nige.

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