Recalibrating our filters

February 18, 2011

I’m interested in the process by which we accept some claims and reject others. I don’t subscribe to Bertrand Russell’s views generally, but in this instance, I couldn’t agree more:

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.

For instance, it is no coincidence that “birthers” (conspiracy theorists who question whether Obama was born in America) tend to come from the Republican or libertarian ranks. Despite the production of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate, birthers remain unconvinced, insisting that it must be a forgery. Would they apply such fanatical skepticism to the credentials of the candidate of their choice? Of course not.

I am by no means a psychologist. But it strikes me that we all employ these mental filters because we need them. We simply don’t have the time to scrutinize carefully¬†the reliability of everything we hear. So we lend quick assent to that which accords with our preconceived ideas and we reserve most of our skepticism for claims that contradict those ideas.

But part of the process of intellectual maturity is realizing that our filters may require correction. It means learning to hold up to the light of skeptical inquiry even those claims we would like to be true. And it means learning not to reject out of hand (or demand unrealistic levels of proof for) those claims that, if true, would force us to recalibrate our filters.


One comment

  1. Haha, as promised, I am going through your blog to see if I can find the answers to the questions I have for you. This post directly addresses something I was discussing with my husband last night; I too am immensely interested in “the process by which we accept some claims and reject others.” The trouble is that the “process” I had in place no longer works for me, and my current commitment to what you refer to as “intellectual honesty” trumps my commitment to upholding a prescribed belief system.

    However, at the same time, I still find myself clinging (whether consciously or unconsciously) to my former way of deciding what I believe is true. I think that one reason I do that is because I have yet to choose new criteria by which to judge things. As I mentioned before, I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own discernment and wisdom, so I have a habit of relying on other people whom I perceive as “experts” to lead me straight. Another reason is that I have this vision in my head of God’s watchful eye on me, waiting for me to turn astray so that He can send down the proper (loving, edifying, proper, and just) “discipline”–“discipline” that, no matter how “good for me,” I honestly don’t want (especially because when I hear “discipline,” it pretty much translates as “punishment” in my mind).

    Finally, I have an earnest desire to prevent what I want to believe from dictating what I actually believe. For example, I’d love to believe in and worship a truly loving, good, and merciful God. However, I’ve been taught to believe that God created billions of people with the foreknowledge that they would eventually go to Hell. I really don’t care if He “sends” them there, or simply “allows” them to go there (in other words, I don’t care if God is passively or actively sending people to Hell). Either way, people are still suffering for eternity. This paints, in my mind, a picture of a very callous and unloving God–someone I am wary of, and don’t necessarily want to be all buddy-buddy with.

    Therefore, because I wish to believe in and have a relationship with a loving and good God, it is very tempting for me to subscribe to a universalist brand of faith. However, at the same time, I only want to believe what is TRUE. The problem is, I will never really KNOW if any of my beliefs are true or not, and will consequently always be suspicious of any belief that is in line with my desires. This suspicion has resulted in, at least on a subconscious level, a sort of masochistic disposition to believe that what is least desirable (i.e. a God that is callous, unloving, and sends people to Hell) is probably true.

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