Thoughtful Beliefs

How stupid are we?

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How Stupid Are We?

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Barriers that make smart people stupid

The New Illiteracy

The Processionary Caterpillar has an interesting and dangerous instinct to blindly follow the silk line laid by the one in front of it. Of course, a devious entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre, did an experiment by lining-up these caterpillars along the circumference of a flower pot rim, and placed their favorite food in the middle of the circle. The caterpillars began their procession around the rim, each endlessly following the one ahead expecting it to lead to the food.

After seven days and nights of endless, mindless following, the poor caterpillars began dying off from exhaustion and starvation. Avoiding the suffering and death would simply require pulling away from the senseless circling and heading directly to the food only six inches away, which other instincts had to be pointing toward. Yet, becoming fixed into the routine, the caterpillars provided us with an excellent illustration of mindless behavior caused by comforting routine or habits.1 Humans, having free will, do have the ability to change direction in life, but in some areas become fixed into their routine, condemned to only walk around the outside of what is best for them.

Illiteracy has historically meant a person is unable to read, write, or use arithmetic, but as we have watched this type of illiteracy reduce through time, a new type of illiteracy has arisen. Now, one being unable to effectively take in and use new information. or unlearn or re-learn something, which they currently got wrong, is growing into the new illiteracy – and it is because of the barriers.

Believers in every belief system, fans of every sports team, participants in serious relationships, supporters on both sides of an election, etc., are people, and therefore, are susceptible to falling into seriously irrational, inappropriate, foolish thinking, and the examples are documented, understood, historic, endless, and always growing. Why? Because in areas where we are seriously invested, we allow our emotion and volition (our will or wants) to overwhelm clear, appropriate, beneficial, good thinking.

Our beliefs are one of those areas of life we use almost subconsciously to operate through daily activities, and we develop habits we are comfortable with (we have a long-time relationship with) and then fail to look and evaluate the accuracy of these foundational beliefs, even when we get tripped up, or have a red flag placed directly before us. Psychology and sociology have a host of documented defense mechanisms people can, to their own harm, become experts in applying, when their comfort or preferred path of travel is threatened.

Here is a question: How much time do you spend in different activities in life, like watching tv, exercising, doing a hobby, trying to get that special girl or guy, thinking about girls or guys, choosing your career, doing things to serve that career? And how much time do you spend thinking about or discussing your beliefs, possible purpose of life, and eternity? While the previous activities are all important and deserve your time, determining your beliefs is as serious as it gets, yet people avoid this issue. If you choose the wrong career, you may be stuck with it for some time and experience setbacks or be harmed in some ways. You make the wrong choice concerning your way of life and eternity, and the impact will be on a whole other level.

So why is such an essential issue not focused on with equally essential time and effort? The answer is barriers. There are many examples in life of obstacles that can divert you, such as an attractive student in your math class diverting your attention from the lesson; worrying about finances diverting your effort towards family relationships; black ice diverting your car from the correct path. There are also obstacles hindering you from facing and making the choice of beliefs best for you.

Some Common OBSTACLES:

Psychological patterns such as routine or being caught in the daily grind, focusing only on immediate gratification of needs, lack of humility, pride, feeling uncomfortable discussing beliefs, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, problems with change, comfort (or security, this is Linus’ issue), avoidance is a big one, allowing distractions to run life is another biggee, sad memories, upbringing, background, apathy, and possibly very significant costs, which would be faced if beliefs were changed, are all potential barriers.

Let’s just look at one from the list above, “comfort,” to see how barriers can operate as blinders, just as we use with horses putting limits on one’s awareness.

If what you currently believe about life were wrong, would you want to know? Many would try to appear unbiased, open, and reasonable about their beliefs. Yet, the reality is: we do not want to change the beliefs we have come to be comfortable with.

Comfort does not mean the beliefs are accurate or will bring the best results, but comfort does provide very strong emotional security. Equally strong is the avoidance of something that may threaten the security or comfort.

Our comfort can act as blinders.

This is displayed in abusive relationships, which often involve the abused staying with the abuser because they feel more security in the relationship, and fear the change. While comfort does provide benefits, on the negative side, it also causes a filtered view, which can lead a person to not see, or even willfully ignore the big picture of consequences and a much better outcome that could have been, if they would only be willing to leave their current comfortable position.

Think of a time you have observed someone, or yourself, make a choice, and then wonder how they could have possibly been so blind to such clear reasons to choose differently? Struggling with honestly and rationally taking in important information, which conflicts with our current beliefs, is something we all deal with, and is often displayed by some common responses and excuses shown below.

Some COMMON RESPONSES & EXCUSES:

  • Listen for politeness, but not really hear or actually consider new information.
  • Just “blow off” answers given by “the other side.”
  • Only focusing on negative reasons against what you don’t want, instead of positive evidence supporting your position.
  • Use distracting or inaccurate arguments.
  • Latch onto only points supporting your current beliefs.
  • Use of typical defense mechanisms: avoidance, humor, volume, distractions, indifference, excuses.

For example, if you find you fill your life with distractions, like sports, music, clubs, tv, looking to the next thing to eat, drink, do, talking/texting on the phone, checking Facebook, trying to fill every moment with something to keep yourself  busy, or any activity to keep from ever just stopping to reflect on the ultimate questions and basis of your life, then it is likely there are personal conflicts in need of resolving, and these distractions are used to avoid the more serious and significant issues in your life.

If you want to test yourself or others, the challenge is: find a totally secluded spot, and think for 1 hour about what it means to you if God exists, or if no god exists, what is the meaning/purpose of your life, and what evidence you have to verify those beliefs are accurate and worth following. No distractions. An hour is nothing, equivalent to two sitcoms or half a movie.

Indifference is another common one, usually punctuated by: “Whatever,” “Who cares,” “It doesn’t matter,” “It is not important.” Really? Whether you will face a God, whose specific purpose you rejected, or whether the universe just arose by chance and there is nothing after death, will have no impact on you!?

Others excuse themselves from the responsibility of finding truth by saying this issue is so disputed, no one can know. The illogic of that objection was covered earlier, but another way to answer is by asking, “So what?” Does that mean the right answer does not exist, and that it is safe to ignore the issue? Slavery was very disputed, there were two clear sides and others in the middle, so does that mean a right, true, best answer did not exist? Are you recognizing these as weak excuses?

Saying the issue is in dispute so we cannot know is just an attempt to escape responsibility. This is easily revealed by requiring the one making the claim to provide the evidence for each side, showing they searched enough to know. Everyone I have heard make the claim, always exposed their true position by providing only silence when asked for evidence of genuinely looking for answers.

There are questions you can reserve judgment on, but others are too vital, and impossible to ride the fence on, and whether there is a God and afterlife we are accountable to, or not, is one of those issues.

People seem almost born experts at making excuses. Many reasons can serve as seemingly valid excuses:

  • I am already very comfortable where I am at in life. Life is going good.
  • We just can’t know for sure about beliefs, and I need proof not faith.
  • Why is it any more likely that a God had always existed, then the universe had always existed and did not need a “Creator?”
  • I am good enough so if there is any good God, then that God must accept me. The idea of hell just does not make sense, so it is not a concern for me.
  • I believe in science, beliefs are just religions, and miracles and bad preachers and all that is not my thing.
  • I have too much going on right now and may think about it when things slow down. If not I will just rely on how I was brought up.

All of these reasons may sound good when you first hear them, and are good to ask about, however these excuses break apart when they run up against critical analysis, and just common sense in some cases (these will be covered in the frequently asked questions FAQs section, if interested in the six issues above, and it is funny, and amazing in some cases, how these excuses fall apart).

No need to feel bad about yourself if you fall into these traps. Everyone does in different areas of life, and it is not a matter of intelligence. I still catch myself at times using a variety of defense mechanisms whenever my athletic performance fails to reach the level of younger days. The humor and avoidance I use though can, at best, mask the reality of my current athletic condition. This can bring consequences if I do not seriously deal with that reality before skiing with my very well-conditioned brother-in-law.

So how does one avoid only circling around what is true regarding beliefs? 1, 2, 3, as shown below, just as you would do with any important choice you have to make.

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Believe what you want, or believe what is reality?

People often say, and like to think, they simply base their decisions on logical thinking and good reasons, but those are almost never the only factors involved in important choices.

Our wants, comfort, and emotions are also involved, and lead to sometimes funny, and sometimes tragic results . . .

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Problem-Solving Process

  • Define the Choice, Alternatives, Results
  • Make Your Hypothesis (your current belief)
  • Apply Tests of Truth and Gather Data
  • Reach Your Conclusion (covered in How Can We Know?)

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When I believe I can make it down a treacherous part of a mountain biking trail, reality brings home the consequences of the accuracy or inaccuracy of the belief right away, with either an exhilarating ride or a damaging halt.

Because worldview beliefs do not always bring such immediate results, people feel more at ease ignoring the consequences, which in the end, reality never fails to bring. In The Zax, Dr. Seuss illustrates well being stuck and unmoved, while reality moves on. Some will quickly declare they are not affected by barriers, and they would have no problem changing their belief if it did not fit new understandings and reality. Psychology and experience would disagree with that person. Do you recognize the barriers you face? On a piece of paper, list the costs and/or barriers you would face if your beliefs had to change, and also the benefits.

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Your Choice: Believe What You Want, or Believe What is True

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Costs / Barriers Benefits

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Next, you must make a choice concerning these barriers.

       (a) Would I rather deal with the consequences of possibly changing what I believe?

       (b) Or, would I rather deal with the consequences of living under the wrong belief?

Your answer _______

Finally, you must act.

Even when something is rationally best for you, when you are in your daily life, and immediate costs seem more significant than keeping with a choice that is best for you, it can be very challenging to do what you know is best overall. It is your choice to either: (a) make the commitment to make the choice that is right, or (b) give in to what is easier for now. Your choice _______

It is not comfortable looking at yourself, and especially challenging if a change is required in an area you are comfortable with. As I said before, there are more comfortable and fun things I could be putting my time into instead of writing and speaking to others about this uncomfortable topic, but I do because the return is phenomenally beyond the investment. The following story illustrates our situation, when standing upon unchecked and faulty beliefs.

Beautiful bluffs, strapped down in snow and ice, jutted out of the Antarctic landscape. A stark white picture, except for the bright-colored gear covering a moving group of hikers. The adventurers, on another one of their sightseeing treks, were enjoying the peaks, plateaus and endless white landscape weaving together to form the surroundings along their path.

Just as the small group was snaking between two stunning peaks, two of the hikers suddenly disappeared. The others quickly made their way over to where their companions had been. Knowing the snow could be quite deep, they acted quickly, preparing a line to send down to their fellow travelers. When they looked into the holes where their companions had vanished, to their horror they discovered both had fallen hundreds of feet, straight down. It was then clear their path had no foundation, and there was nothing underneath supporting the ice-ledge on which they currently stood.

Imagine how those remaining travelers felt, upon realizing that the support, which they had counted upon, was not there. The travelers all had a mental map of how they thought the landscape was, but whether their maps were based on experience in the area, what they could observe of the landscape, what others had told them, or actual terrain maps they saw earlier, the final result depends on the accuracy of what they were following, and the unreliability led to two falling through the holes in their maps.

When their story on the ledge of ice is told, many can only imagine how horrifying it would have been. Yet, so many of us make choices in our own lives using similarly invalid maps, and confidently stroll out onto a similar, unsupported ledge in life.

Maps are not just for geography and travel. In every area of our lives, we are heading towards something, and we need an accurate map of where we are, what situation surrounds us, and where we are going.

The accuracy of the worldview map you use is as important to your life as it gets because it will determine so much of what you, and others close to you, will experience. You may not experience immediate results as the travelers in Antarctica did, but you may. The impact on you is life-defining as what we will experience along the journey, and the end destination depend on what map we follow – and that map’s accuracy.

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References and Citations

1Haley, Anthony. Don’t Mistake Activity For Accomplishment, ERE Recruiting, November 23, 2007.

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More To Explore

Part 5. Creating Me & Graphing Me

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