Belief - What's important for ensuring a harmonious society

Belief - What's important for ensuring a harmonious society

16 min read
Published:
(2 months ago)
A willingness to modify our beliefs in the face of new evidence and reasoning is critical to ensuring a common world for us all. To get there, we must understand what beliefs are, how they influence us, and our responsibilities regarding them.

Foreword

Anyone taking a close look at the world around us should see a lot of issues. Pollution, climate change, corruption, war, violence, crime… Most people understand these are bad things, but many do not understand why they occur, and indeed in many cases people incorrectly assume that these things simply come with being human. They feel that to be human is to be flawed, and thus all human societies will have crime, all will have corruption, all will feature a need for some people to be exploited while others are more comfortable. The gap between the rich and poor is seen as an inevitability, an unavoidable byproduct of the way life is and always will be. This, however, is entirely false. Crime and corruption and pollution are not inherent features of human existence. We can create a world without these things, and especially without having to slave away our lives working just to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. This is clear to me because of what I've read and what I know about our world, so it seems to me that the sooner more people realize this as I do, the sooner we can start meaningfully working towards a brighter future.

So for the past several years, the question in my mind has always been: how do I convey what I know to others so they can understand my perspective and be inspired as I am to help fix the problems we face? For a long time, I've been trying to bridge that gap by writing and producing videos on various topics, starting with the overarching vision I have (covered by the introduction videos and my website), followed by a plan to cover fundamentals such as honesty, belief, ethics, causality/free will, effective communication, etc., and slowly move into more complex topics until I've shared enough of my perspective such that any reasonable person — presuming I made valid and persuasive arguments — should now also hold the same perspective as I do.

I still believe this a valid approach, but what I found over the last year or so was that it simply took me too long — about a month — to produce a new piece of content, and that's just too slow to make any real progress. There are potentially hundreds of important topics that need to be discussed and a month per video would take decades. What I had wanted to do was too perfectionist — I wanted to guide people along a rational train of thought that would lead to an inescapable conclusion based on carefully curated evidence and sound reasoning. But to do that optimally, one needs to essentially write a thesis for every topic, and that just takes too long. That's why recently I decided to do a looser format where we (members of Infinite Love) will just talk about and explain our ideas on the fly without having to spend ages carefully preparing a persuasive argument and mountains of evidence. The idea is that we know enough about each of the topics we want to speak about so we should be able to make reasonably persuasive arguments on the fly, and if people want to look up evidence we can reference other material or they can look up stuff in their own time.

And already, I think this new approach works much better. It's not perfect and far from ideal in many ways, but we can go back to rigorous investigations and thesis-writing once we have more people on board who can contribute to writing and research. Just by sharing our thoughts organically we should be able to get the majority of the important stuff we want to convey out there, and most importantly we can do a video every week, maybe two or three content pieces per week if we focus exclusively on podcasting (the difference being that when making videos we tend to want to engage with the viewers by looking into the camera so literally everything is coming from memory / a few notes on slides, whereas with a podcast we don't have to worry about where we are looking and it's much easier to narrate from notes right in front of us). However the one advantage of making videos is that it gets us better at speaking on the fly, and it's clear to us that such a skill is good to have so we'll probably continue with a bit of both approaches for now.

Anyways, that was all a long way of saying that this belief article I wrote and the video that goes with it was part of the last phase of content where I was taking a long time to prepare a persuasive written piece along with a video. I spent a fair amount of time researching the concept of belief and pulled out what I feel the important elements are, specifically, important when it comes to living harmoniously with others, which relates to our primary goal here (creating a world where we can all flourish). The video as well incorporates a great deal of stock footage I was trying to use to convey the message better, but at some point this was taking so much of my time to do, which is when I decided we should just try a less structured approach. Although I plan to continue writing longer persuasive pieces like this, it will only be for certain topics that are particularly interesting to me or that otherwise demand special attention.

So without further ado, here is my piece on belief.

Introduction

In a previous video I published I spoke about honesty and encouraged people to be honest in virtually everything they do because doing so confers so many advantages in life. However, being honest is only half the picture — it's important that you are not only truthful in what you say but also that you are factually correct, because otherwise you still are communicating false information to the person you are dealing with. In this essay, I will cover the fundamentals of belief and the aspects which I believe are most important to enable a harmonious society.

First of all, what is a belief? Generally speaking a belief refers to the attitude we have whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true. However, that doesn't necessarily mean you hold all your beliefs with equal conviction, which raises an important question: when is it appropriate to believe something and when it is not?

The dominant ethic of belief among early modern and contemporary philosophers is called evidentialism: the idea that you are only justified in believing in something if you have evidence that supports that belief, and many evidentialists will take that further and state that the extent to which you believe something — your conviction that it is true — ought to rest on how much evidence you have for that belief. Now this may seem obvious to some, but there's a lot of complexity that arises. For example, what if you formed a belief where you once had evidence but now you've forgotten it — are you still justified in holding that belief? Or what if there is evidence that justifies a belief, but you don't understand it? For example, is it reasonable for you to state that you believe in the theory of relativity, even if you can't understand exactly how or why it is true? These questions, while interesting, are outside the scope of this work and instead I will focus on the aspects of belief that are most crucial for ensuring a harmonious society — one we are unfortunately quite far from today but I'm confident we can arrive sooner than we realize if we can raise enough awareness to the reality of the situation we're in today and how to fix it. But to do that, everyone has to first accept a few important things about our beliefs:

  1. Beliefs determine our behavior
  2. Beliefs are a public concern
  3. While we can (and should) teach people how to better discern fact from fiction, we also ought to shape our technology and institutions so that they discourage lying and the spread of misinformation and encourage healthy and productive communication in the first place.
  4. What matters most when it comes to your beliefs is not specifically what you believe, but that you are willing to change your beliefs in the face of superior evidence and reasoning.

Beliefs determine behavior

The first critical thing to understand is that beliefs determine behavior. They are not some nebulous abstract idea floating in our brains that has no relation to anything. Rather, they underpin our every action, every motivation, and every decision we've ever made. They are why you do anything. Why are you buying a cake? Perhaps it is because you believe it is important to celebrate your child's birthday and cakes are a traditional treat given on birthdays. Why are you going to work? Perhaps it is because you feel it is important to earn money so that you can afford the things you need in life. Why do you brag to your friends and put others down? Perhaps it is because you believe that acting tough is the only way to avoid being the guy who is picked on. Why are you so vain? Perhaps it is because you have come to believe that beauty is the most important thing in life. Why are you so kind? Perhaps it is because you believe that selfishness and disrespect are far less effective in strengthening your relationships with others than compassion and empathy. There is literally no behavior, no decision, no action you've ever taken that wasn't due to a belief — or rather, a complex network of beliefs. Belief can lead a person to donate millions to charity, to sacrifice everything for the well-being of humanity... but it can also lead a person to systematically exterminate an entire ethnic group. Our beliefs form the foundation of every action both good and bad in this world, and it is for this reason that what you believe is of paramount importance to everyone, because it may not just affect you — but everyone else as well, which leads to my second point.

Beliefs are a public concern

Due to the simple fact that beliefs determine behavior and your behavior can affect other people, beliefs are not merely a private matter. In other words, we should all be concerned about what not only we believe, but what others believe as well. To give an example: let's say you believe the COVID-19 vaccine is actually just a way for governments to control us, and this belief leads you to decide to not get the vaccine at all. Here are the consequences of that belief: If you're correct, then you have spared yourself from being controlled by the government — that's great! But if you're wrong and the vaccine is actually just a vaccine, that decision could end up costing not only your life (because you're far more likely to die from the virus if you catch it) but also it may cost the lives of those around you if you infect your friends and family too (in addition to countless strangers you might interact with). So you see, because there is potential for harming not just ourselves but so many others too, it is of paramount importance that we understand our beliefs, how they shape our behavior, and how we can protect ourselves from believing in the wrong things, especially in this age of rampant misinformation.

Given the direct relationship between belief and behavior, it is no coincidence that broadcast and social media take such a central role in society today. Beliefs are shaped by information, and therefore control of information will allow one (to varying extents) to control beliefs, and ultimately — control behavior. In virtually every country today there is no less than a war of information being waged, with different groups of people who have banded together around a shared set of ideas ever vying to spread their beliefs to others in order to further their interests. This is why it is increasingly important to be able to recognize when we are being shown propaganda and when the truth is being dismissed as "fake news". Although I have written some tips below that can help you with this, I'll be talking about how to hone your ability to discern fact from fiction more in depth in a future article on Media Literacy.

The Myth of Scarcity

When it comes to the overall goals of Infinite Love, there is one commonly held belief in particular that we are trying to get people to recognize and shed, and that is the belief in economic scarcity, which has formed the basis of our world's economic systems since the beginnings of human civilization. This is not really an idea most people really think about, but it is something a lot of people implicitly accept as part of how our world works. In layman's terms, it's the idea that there are not enough resources in the world for everyone, which in turn justifies the competitive, selfish, individualistic mindset that is culturally ingrained in so many of us today. It provides fertile ground upon which our tribal tendencies grow and is the underlying reason for essentially all wars, as all wars are economic wars. Despite its persistence over thousands of years, the idea of scarcity is false — especially today with all our technology and manufacturing capabilities. We do live in a world with finite resources, but people do not have infinite needs and wants — everyone can have all their basic needs and virtually all of their desires met given the resources that exist on this planet and our ability to harness them. And believe it or not, we could do so virtually indefinitely for any amount of population that the Earth could carry.

And yet, because of the perpetuation of the scarcity mindset throughout history, countless lives have been lost to poverty, starvation, structural violence, war, and untold amounts of suffering have been caused. All of that could have been avoided — and all future starvation and poverty and war can be avoided — if everyone just took a moment to reflect on their beliefs and discard the ones they cannot honestly prove to be true. The more we can start getting people to be aware of what they are believing (and acting upon) and to take steps to verify the information they receive before simply accepting it as true, the better off we'll be.

How do we ensure our beliefs are valid?

It is no easy task teaching people how to arrive at the truth, and while there are heuristics people can use to help them make better judgments, the reality is that some people are more predisposed to doing it than others, just as some people are more predisposed to be mathematicians, or long-distance runners, or chess players. Not everyone is cut out for in-depth investigative research, logical analysis, dissecting arguments, etc. and that's okay — but what this means is that while we can (and should) teach people how to better discern fact from fiction, we also ought to shape our technology and institutions so that they discourage lying and the spread of misinformation and encourage healthy and productive communication in the first place. This wouldn't be difficult from a technical perspective; sadly, what holds us back from doing this now is the simple fact that most tech companies are privately owned and their focus is making money (clicks and ad views), as well as the fact that most governments function to serve the interests of business / wealthy people, rather than the interests of everyone else. Such is the world we live in today.

In the meantime, the best thing we can do is be mindful of what we are believing in. Although it would be ideal if everyone periodically took some time to sit down and verify their core beliefs — certainly at least the ones that stand to negatively affect other people the most — it's not realistic to expect people to be able to fairly and thoroughly address all their beliefs. Even if everyone possessed the discipline to do such a thing, many people lack the awareness and good judgment as to which beliefs ought to be revisited and which do not. Thus, what's going to be more helpful in the long run is getting in the habit of verifying information you encounter before you accept it as a new belief. In the best case scenario, you are sitting at your computer or have your phone handy, and then you can just directly look up information as it comes to you: For urban legends, myths, and rumors, use Snopes.com. For most academic information, you can check an Encyclopedia or Wikipedia, or if you can, dive directly into scholarly literature using Google Scholar. For most political and trending topics, use a reputable fact-checker website such as Politifact.com, FactCheck.org, or The Washington Post Fact-checker.

But of course, sometimes we don't always have our computers or phones handy and we must determine on the fly whether we can reasonably believe something or not. It's a good habit to start from a skeptical viewpoint: recognize that things must generally be proven true before they are held to be true. However, that doesn't mean you can't accept what someone says under any circumstances — just use your best judgment until you can dig deeper. Resist the urge to accept something that sounds plausible just because it fits within your existing narrative of the world, especially if it's coming from a person or group that may have an ulterior motive such as a politician or a major news network. You may be surprised to find how much people lie and twist the facts to support their own agenda — an agenda that is not necessarily in line with your own goals in life — and this is something you can find out when you take the time to uncover the truth through your own research using the tools I recommended above rather than relying primarily on your own intuition.

The challenge and risks of relying on our own often very poor and biased intuition is why it's a good idea to start with high quality sources for your information in the first place. I haven't read every news publication on the planet but of the ones I have that seem reliable, I recommend (sorry that this is mostly USA-centric) The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio (NPR), BBC, The New Yorker, AP News, or ProPublica. In the process of writing this essay I found a few others that look solid as well, such as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Avoid getting your news from social media like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok, and definitely avoid chain emails you get from people — those are rarely reliable sources of information. I would also recommend supplementing your traditional news sources with other kinds of sources, such as Reddit, which is more of a news aggregator where content is not posted or curated by a single organization, but rather by individuals. It definitely has its own quirks but it can be a valuable source of information if you know how to use it effectively (protip: unlike other online places, the comments on reddit can be just as helpful or more than the original content itself so don't necessarily ignore them).

Consider the real costs

In terms of ensuring our beliefs are valid, the last thing I want to address are cases when we aren't always in a position (even with the internet at our fingertips) to know whether a given piece of information is true or false because the science is not yet clear. For example, when COVID-19 first started there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty as to whether masks actually reduced the spread of the virus, and many people were divided on whether they wanted to wear them or not. In an uncertain situation like this, it can be helpful to consider the costs of going one way or another. The costs of getting a mask are a few dollars and maybe it's not super comfortable to wear going out, but if it works in reducing your chances of getting COVID, you could be spared from getting sick and possibly it could save your life (in addition to sparing those around you because you will be less likely to infect others too). On the other hand, if the masks don't make a difference, at worst you just spent a few extra dollars and were minorly inconvenienced when going out. The potential risks are much higher on one side vs. the other while the costs are relatively minimal, so in such cases it's probably better to err on the side of caution. Had everyone done this in the beginning and erred on the side of using masks just in case, we would have undoubtedly crushed COVID much sooner and saved hundreds of thousands of lives (now that we know masks do make a difference).

Obstacles to change

For a lot of people, their beliefs constitute a key part of their identity, and this presents a challenge because many of our relationships with others depend on that identity. Imagine if you grew up in a religious community where the belief in God is central to everything. Even if you are having doubts as to the existence of God, you may be afraid to challenge your belief because of what others around you will think of you, or worse, how they will treat you. Sadly, history has shown us that most groups are intolerant of those who don't share the same beliefs, and revealing yourself as a non-believer can lead to humiliation, shaming, or even being cast out from the group entirely.

I've encountered several such situations before, but one in particular sticks out to me. A man wrote anonymously on a forum about how he grew up in a very religious community, and was married to a very religious wife, and even his children were religious. He had been religious most his life, but had been reading other books and materials online and he slowly began to doubt the existence of God. He wrote on the forum because he didn't know what to do: on the one hand, he felt he should be honest to his family and those around him, but on the other hand, he knew that if he came out his wife would almost certainly divorce him and he would probably be fired from his job and perhaps even his kids wouldn't want to talk with him any more, as indoctrinated they already were. This is a tough situation and there are no easy answers here. You have to decide what's best for you. If it were me: I personally value honesty and openness very highly — I could not live with people who I could not be genuine and honest with, so I would tell my family the truth and hope they are understanding. If they shun me, that's their choice, and if they made me leave then so be it — I would have no choice but to move on. If I were to lie to them, that would be not only a lie that I'd have to live for essentially the rest of my life, but it would be taking away their choice to decide how they want to deal with that information. Perhaps they would be understanding eventually, who knows? But we'll never know unless we try.

Examples like that get at the heart of the most important aspect of belief, which is that what's more important than your actual beliefs is that you are willing to change them in the face of new facts. The greatness of humanity comes not from what we do as individuals, but from what we create together, and that requires open and honest communication and collaboration. Unwillingness to change one's beliefs leads to intolerance of the sort highlighted in the example above, it breaks down communication, and it stymies collaboration. It's not always easy to tell whether we are honestly open to changing our beliefs, but here are some tips:

Check your emotions

If you ever feel you are getting emotional when having a discussion with someone about your beliefs, that can indicate you have a cherished belief that is being challenged. Recognizing this is the first step to reigning in your emotions and addressing your beliefs rationally. Respectfully ask to take a break from the conversation, write down your feelings and thoughts, and come back to it a few hours later or even the next day when you are more composed — discussions that become too emotionally charged usually end up as conflicts.

Knowledge is not static; neither should you be

People often think that they need to be consistent with their beliefs, so much so that they'll refuse to accept newly acquired evidence or facts simply because they are afraid of being perceived as someone who is inconsistent. This always struck me as odd — we are not static individuals and we should not aim to be. The knowledge of the world is constantly being modified and added to as more people become scientists and more research is conducted. Sometimes old theories are replaced with new ones, and that's okay. That is the nature of learning and growth, and the same goes for us as individuals: it is entirely normal and healthy to change your beliefs — to modify your understanding of the world — as new information comes to light. Be mindful of the sunk cost fallacy and commitment bias that naturally drives us to be consistent with our past selves and instead adopt the more rational understanding that we should always be seeking to be learning and growing, and in fact we want to minimize the time when we are incorrect, rather than trying to maximize the time we hold the same beliefs. In the end, it is not only a willingness to engage in rational discussion but a receptiveness to new ideas that will ensure a common future for us all.

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