What do we normally think of as reasons for believing things, and how can we be mistaken?
‘Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin – the longer the claws, and the larger the wings, the better; but that marvellous facility which we mistook for genius is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion. Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings - much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth.’
George Eliot, Adam Bede
We all have beliefs. To believe something is to believe it is true. If I believe that the Earth orbits the Sun, then I believe that the statement ‘The Earth orbits the Sun’ is true. Of course, my belief that something is true does not necessarily mean it is true. Our beliefs can be true or false, and it can often be difficult to know which beliefs are which.
All our beliefs are held with some, and often differing, degrees of confidence that they truly reflect the way the world really is. I believe it is raining. I believe that Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth. I believe that life exists on other planets. I might hold these beliefs with different degrees of conviction. But why do I believe these things at all?
Different reasons for believing things
People may claim they have personal experience of something, for example they have seen it, heard it, or felt it (eg ‘I believe that my friend’s car is blue because I saw it’).
They may believe something based on the authority of others. This could be something someone has told them or that they have read in a book or another source of information (eg ‘I believe that Henry VIII died in 1547 because I read it on the internet’).
Sometimes people claim they have tested their belief through investigation and experiment (eg ‘I believe that plants need water to grow because I did an experiment to test what happened to them when they were not watered’).
Some beliefs are held on the basis of logical reasoning (e.g. ‘all squares have four sides; the window is a square; so I conclude that the window must have four sides’).
Then there are those beliefs based on ‘faith’. The word ‘faith’ can be defined in different ways, but it is sometimes used to mean a belief without evidence, an inner conviction that something is true (eg ‘I believe that the missing person is still alive’).
‘We fool ourselves that something is right for all sorts of reasons – because it is comfortable to do so, because we’ve been conditioned to do so, because others think so, because it is fashionable to do so.’
Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices
It is important to recognise that whichever method we employ for believing something, our beliefs can still be mistaken. Our senses sometimes suffer illusions or hallucinations. We can be fooled into thinking that because we have seen something happen once (or even several times), that it always will. Other people can lie to us, or present us with biased information, or be mistaken in what they tell us. Even good scientific experiments sometimes get things wrong. A logical argument only guarantees the conclusion is true if the premises are true. If we have faith, we may feel things are true, but it gives us no guarantee that they are. Different people may have faith in opposing beliefs in cases when they can’t both be right.
The importance of doubt
This recognition and acknowledgement of the possibility that our beliefs may be mistaken is called scepticism. It is an approach to knowledge that accepts we are prone to error and so encourages us to be cautious about what we accept as true, particularly when it comes to the most important things. Humanists believe we should always be prepared to question authority. We should apply the filter of reason to our beliefs – we should subject beliefs to critical scrutiny, not just uncritically accept them. The filter may not be 100% reliable, but if you apply it then there is a good chance that many of your beliefs will be true. Turn the filter off, and there is a danger your head will quickly fill up with false beliefs.
Question: What examples from your own life can you think of when you realised you held a false belief? How were you mistaken?