origin of beliefs

From: JoshCahoon@cs.com
Date: Mon Aug 06 2001 - 12:16:35 MDT

Why do you believe what you do? Why do I? We'd all like to believe that we
have arrived at the conclusions most tenable after dispassionate logical
analyses. I'm sure we all realize that there are other factors that play into
the formation of our beliefs, but most of us still feel that logic and reason
play a large role. What would we do with if we found out that reason is a
minor factor?
There are several lines of evidence that are pushing me toward considering
this possibility. One idea, not new to most on this list, I'm sure, is that
free will is an illusion, and that all our behavior/beliefs are simply the
outcomes of the laws of physics. On this view, I am an atheist, not because
it seems the most reasonable position on the issue to me, but for the same
reason that my car accelerates when I push the gas peddle. It simply must be
that way, given the dynamics of the system in question.
One way to look at the above is that one can view a particular brain
phenomenon at equally accurate though quite disparate levels of analysis:
reasoning in brains, on the one hand, and neurophysiology or simply physics
on the other, can all describe the same brain process. The physical and
neurophysiological descriptions don't invalidate the cognitive description. I
can say that, anyway. I'm not sure how much I believe it. It's discomfiting
to think that the causes of my beliefs can be described completely without
reference to reason.

The recent presidential election snafu also gave me pause in considering why
we believe what we do. I don't see any particular consonance between
conservative or Republican thought and not wanting recounts, on the one hand,
and liberal or Democratic thought and wanting recounts, on the other. Yet
it's my impression that a large majority of people who had opinions as to
whether recounts should be undertaken had the opinion that was most likely to
aid their favored candidate's election. I wanted Gore to win. I wanted
recounts. I thought I wanted recounts because that seemed the fairest way to
resolve such a close count. But maybe the fact that I wanted Gore to win was
a much more important factor in determining my position on recounts. Maybe
preference for Gore or Bush was the most important factor in determining why
all of us had the positions we did regarding recounts. That seems a rather
troubling prospect.

Another line of evidence that seems to minimize the importance of reasoning
comes from brain-damaged or hypnotized people. Many, with otherwise intact
faculties, display an impressive ability to believe rather silly things and
come up with any convenient rationalization that comes to mind to explain
their positions. We may know why they suddenly got up and went to the
bathroom (post-hypnotic suggestion) or why they deny their obvious paralysis
(stroke and concommitant brain damage), but that's not why they think they
did or believe these things. Perhaps we, as unhypnotized, unbrain-damaged
folks, are in the same boat.

Yes, the election snafu is long over. But how people reacted to the prospect
of recounts got my a little disconcerted.

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