Dancing with belief

All of us believe things that might be inconsistent, not based on how the real world actually works or not shared by others. That’s what makes us human.

There are some questions we can ask ourselves about our beliefs that might help us create the change we seek:

Is it working?

If your belief is working for you, if it’s helping you navigate a crazy world and find solace, and if it’s not hurting anyone else, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Often, beliefs are about finding human connection and a way to tell ourselves about our place in the world, not as an accurate predictive insight as to what’s actually happening. And beliefs are almost always about community, about being part of something.

Is it helpful?

Air traffic controllers and meteorologists rarely believe that the earth is flat. It’s a belief that would get in the way of being competent at their work. If your beliefs are getting in the way of your work, of your health or the health of those around you, or of your ability to be a contributing citizen, it might be worth examining why you have them and how they got there. Did you decide to have these beliefs or did someone with an agenda that doesn’t match yours promote them?

Is it true? 

True in the sense that it’s falsifiable, verifiable, testable and predictive. Falsifiable means that the belief is specific enough that something contrary to the belief could be discovered (“there are no orange swans” is a falsifiable belief, because all we need to do is find one orange swan). It’s not necessary for a belief to be scientifically true, in fact, it undermines the very nature of belief to require evidence. Once there’s evidence, then whatever is true is true, whether or not you believe it.

Do you need it to be true?

Which means that much of what we do to somehow prove our beliefs are true is wasted time and effort. If a belief is helping you make your way through the world, if it acts as a placebo and a balm and a rubric, then that’s sufficient. The problems occur when some people use our beliefs to manipulate us, when they prevent us from accomplishing our goals or contributing to the well being of those around us.

What would change your mind?

If we decide that our belief is actually true, we owe it to ourselves to be clear about what would have to happen for us to realize that it’s not. One of the frustrating things about conspiracies and modern memes is that as soon as they’re examined or contradicted, they’re simply replaced with a new variation. It’s one thing to change beliefs because the scientific method shows us a more clear view of what’s happening, it’s totally different to retreat to ever more unrelated stories in the face of reality. Sometimes, it’s easier for people to amend their belief with one more layer of insulation than it is to acknowledge how the world is likely to work.


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