Forget the facts about Reality
The upshot of all this is that our personal guidebook of beliefs is both built on sand and also highly resistant to change. “If you hear a new thing, you try to fit it in with your current beliefs,” says Halligan. That often means going to great lengths to reject something that contradicts your position or seeking out further information to confirm what you already believe.
That’s not to say that people’s beliefs cannot change. Presented with enough contradictory information, we can and do change our minds. Many atheists, for example, reason their way to irreligion. Often, though, rationality doesn’t even triumph here. Instead, we are more likely to change our beliefs in response to a compelling moral argument – and when we do, we reshape the facts to fit with our new belief. More often than not, though, we simply cling to our beliefs.
All told, the uncomfortable conclusion is that some if not all of our fundamental beliefs about the world are based not on facts and reason – or even misinformation – but on gut feelings that arise from our evolved psychology, basic biology and culture. The results of this are plain to see: political deadlock, religious strife, evidence-free policy-making and a bottomless pit of mumbo jumbo. Even worse, the deep roots of our troubles are largely invisible to us. “If you hold a belief, by definition you hold it to be true,” says Halligan. “Can you step outside your beliefs? I’m not sure you’d be capable.”
The world would be a boring place if we all believed the same things. But it would surely be a better one if we all stopped believing in our beliefs quite so strongly.