"People care much more about how things look than how they are." ~Donna Lynn Hope
Do you remember the first time you saw a mirage on the road? You’re in a car that’s driving along the highway, and you see what appears to be water on the road. At first glance, you wonder how this water appeared on the road. Or, you worry that the car will skid or make a splash as you pass through. As you move closer though, the water begins to disappear and before you know it, it’s gone. The water never existed, because just like any other illusion, all it needed was a closer look.
An illusion can be defined as:
An instance of misinterpreted perception of sensory experience
A deceptive appearance or impression
A false idea or belief.
A belief is the acceptance or denial of a concept. It can also be considered as the relationship between our perception of, and the validity of an idea. Every thought that arises in our minds, and every action we take as a result, is a product of our experiences and the beliefs we’ve chosen to adopt. Beliefs, along with their subsequent ideas are what separate us from other species of life. Not all beliefs are created equal. Not all beliefs are real either, and some beliefs are mere illusions that capture our attention for so long that we begin to lose sight of what’s real.
It’s like looking at the mirage from a distance with no intention of moving closer, because accepting that the water doesn’t exist, isn’t all that fun to begin with.
Why Ideas and Beliefs Matter
Ideas and beliefs are arguably the most powerful forces to exist in our world. The ideas and beliefs we have created and carried for centuries have given rise to languages, cultures, and societies, which have ended up dictating how we function in our daily lives. Our species has flourished over centuries because of our ability to work collectively, share ideas and apply them through our actions. It’s evident that we, quite literally need each other, for anything and everything. The only possible exception to this is an individual who prefers to live a life of absolute solitude, with no interaction with any other living being whatsoever until they die. Think of someone venturing into a cave to relive the Neanderthal era for the rest of their lives. Of course, anyone who willingly chooses to spend eternity this way would most likely be on one end of the Nihilism spectrum.
You can guess which one.
For most of us, however, living in a society amongst other humans is the only way to thrive and survive. That said, we’re not psychic. We can’t read each other’s minds, so it’s important to establish certain communication dynamics that allow us to share ideas with each other. This is where ideas and beliefs matter, and to say that beliefs are intrinsic and personal, and thus should be left as they are, is an example of intellectual negligence. Beliefs matter, especially since our actions are driven by the core beliefs that separate us not only from animals but from other humans as well. Having the belief that Santa Claus is real, is not the same as having the belief that cannibalism should be legalised. As extreme as it may sound, it’s not hard to find believers in both camps.
What we believe in, ends up determining how we live our lives. Keeping individual circumstances aside, our core values, principles and ideas make up who we are and how we function in society. Beliefs have the power to shape our perception of reality, influencing our thoughts and emotions, and how we interact with others. Regardless of whether or not we’re conscious about it, every thought and action in our lives is a product of our underlying beliefs of ourselves, and the world around us.
If the goal is to live a more fulfilled life, we need to introspect and examine our beliefs to see if they’re worth having. A functional society is one that prioritises the well-being of conscious creatures, and a part of that is being able for its members to identify what beliefs are innocent and harmless, and what beliefs have the potential to disrupt relationships and invoke suffering. Being able to openly criticise bad ideas and beliefs is what has resulted in multiple revolutions that have changed the course of time.
For example, there was a time in human history when slavery was considered ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’. The Atlantic slave trade lasted for over 300 years, with nearly 13 million men, women and children being sold and shipped as slaves to different parts of the world. It wasn’t until the 19th century when slave revolts, abolition movements, religious arguments and events such as the American Civil War led to various countries abolishing the custom, finally realising that slavery wasn’t ‘good’ after all.
Similarly, advocacy for women’s rights, girls’ education, equality in the workplace, support for LGTBQ+ people, farmers’ protests, colonisation protests, equal opportunity for minority groups, and movements against racism are all examples of how ‘bad’ ideas and beliefs were identified and pushed to be removed from our societies. Some worked, and some are still a work in progress.
There are many examples of biases that we stumble across when we’re thinking about our beliefs and particularly, having a conversation with someone else about them. For example, argumentum ad populum, or the bandwagon fallacy, is the notion that a belief is considered true because a large number of people believe in it, or have always believed in it. This bias is often used to persuade someone based on emotion but should not be given credence since it’s possible for a large number of people to believe something based on misinformation. Just like any illusion, it only takes a closer look to notice the problems, with this.
Let’s take the example of an individual or group that believes modern medicine should not be trusted because, for centuries, they’ve relied on traditional remedies to treat people. The argument ignores that while traditional remedies may be effective in certain situations, they may not always be safe and appropriate and that scientific advancements in medicine have led to significant improvements in healthcare outcomes. The validity of a belief does not depend on how many people believe in it. The fact that something has been done a certain way for a long time does not necessarily mean it is the best or most effective way of doing things. Rather than leaning towards popular opinion, it’s important to rely on evidence and reason. We tend to fall under the trap of multiple biases such as the bandwagon fallacy when having a conversation, hindering our ability to have civil conversations with someone about topics that matter.
Appeal to authority is another such bias. Beliefs that are passed on to us by someone who holds a qualification, certification, experience or credential are automatically assumed to be true, regardless of the claim itself. For example, the human mind is incredibly complicated, and we can’t even begin to realise how little we know about it. If a Psychologist were to make the claim that playing violent video games causes aggression in children, it’s possible that the mass audience may take their word for it, without exploring the possibility of evaluating any other evidence or variables that can change the basis of the claim itself, such as social environment, family dynamics and pre-existing mental health conditions that are all potential contributors to aggression. Alternatively, someone may say that they’ve worked in a specific job or role, asserting the implication that based on that information, we must assume that they know what they’re talking about.
Similarly, any beliefs passed on by elders in the name of culture or religion, often escape scrutiny because we believe that they’re a figure of authority, and thus, must be correct. Any means of questioning is shunned and deemed ‘taboo’. It’s only when you look closely that you see the cracks within the walls. Another example is that of ‘ad hominem’, also known as a ‘personal attack’. For example, disregarding someone’s argument about climate change just because they drive a gas-guzzling car, instead of addressing their evidence or claims. I’m not proposing that we discount someone’s credentials or experience entirely or question every single claim that we come across. But rather, if someone is making an objective claim about the nature of reality, we need to be able to scrutinise the belief with reason and evidence, regardless of the circumstance.
No belief is above scrutiny. A tree is only as strong as its roots, beliefs are no different. Just like an illusion, a false belief dissipates the moment we zoom in and look closely. Beliefs about politics, religion, morality, money or finances, and mental health, are often considered ‘taboo’ in regular conversation, because of how sensitive people can be when talking about these subjects. The harder we hold on to ideas and beliefs about the world, the harder it is for us to realise whether our beliefs require re-evaluating or not. Social media algorithms show us content that aligns with our beliefs, reinforcing our alignment with those ideas and slowly pushing us away from the possibility that our beliefs may not be what they seem. Combine this with books, readings, podcasts and any other content we find to keep us within these digital echo chambers, and we have a recipe spiced with a generous dose of confirmation bias that keeps us oblivious to the possibility of an alternate reality.
Beliefs that are detrimental to the well-being of conscious creatures should not be left unattended simply because someone may be ‘sensitive’ to having a conversation about it. Beliefs lead to thoughts, which then lead to actions. Talking about what beliefs hold their ground against scrutiny helps us forge stronger roots, giving our thoughts and actions meaning.
An easy way to do this is to find any ways that a belief may be false, rather than finding ways it may be true. For example:
Person 1 holds a belief that all swans are white. This is because they’ve only ever seen white swans in their lives, so they never questioned its validity
Person 2 discovers a black swan and points it out to Person 1
Person 1 re-evaluates their belief, accepting that not all swans are white
This is a scientific principle known as Popper’s Falsification, developed by Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper in the early 20th century. The principle suggests that scientific theories can never be proven, but rather they can be disproven or falsified by empirical evidence. In essence, the theory must be testable and subject to potential refutation through observation or experimentation. Any theory is only meaningful if it makes predictions that can be tested through experiments or observations. If the results of these tests are not consistent with the predictions made by the theory, the theory is considered false and must be rejected or modified. Popper’s Falsification emphasised the importance of evidence and discouraged researchers from making conclusions solely based on intuition or deductive reasoning. His quote summarises this well:
“We don’t conclude that we’ve disproved well-established laws of physics. Rather, that our experiment was faulty.”
We can apply Popper’s Falsification to the case of beliefs as well, given how it highlights the importance of subjecting beliefs to scrutiny and criticism. The goal is not to prove a belief true, but instead, to determine if it’s worth holding on to. For example, a belief that a certain group of people is inferior to others, or that violence is an acceptable means to an end, can have serious consequences for the well-being of others. This can be applied to notions of racism, sexism or any other form of societal bigotry. Being open to the possibility of being wrong and willing to revise our beliefs accordingly, is critical for personal growth and societal progress.
Beliefs change over time. What we believe today may not be what we believe tomorrow. It all comes down to one thing. How long are we willing to spend living in an illusion? Next time you see a mirage on the road, take a closer look.
You might find something even more interesting than water.