Beliefs are complicated and sometimes strangely resistant to facts. I don’t mean religious beliefs in particular, but everyday beliefs about how the world works and how it is that we come to hold them. That’s what I took away from a recent reading of Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (W. W. Norton, 2006).
Here’s an example from the chapter on paranormal beliefs.
A stage magician performed fake psychic phenomena in front of two groups of university students. One group was told that he was a magician, while the other group was told he was a genuine psychic. When asked afterwards whether or not they believed he had genuine psychic powers, about two thirds of the students in both groups thought that he did. Even when the groups who were initially told that he was psychic were told that he was a fake, half still believed he had special psychic powers. (p. 157.)
What’s surprising is not just that two-thirds of these university students held or formed a belief in the supposed-psychic’s powers, but how few changed their position when “told that he was a fake.” Updating is hard.
Another example, from the chapter on health. Most people will habitually warn their kids against going outside in chilly air: “Put on a jacket or you’ll catch a cold!” Or this variation on what is believed about colds: “Another belief is that once a cold is acquired, it can migrate from the head to the nose and then down to the chest and bladder” (p. 176). We know that it is viruses that cause colds and that colds don’t really jump around the body, yet we can’t help repeating folk wisdom linking colds to exposure to cold air or other irrelevant things.
I won’t multiply examples — I’m sure you could add a few. The point is that when it comes to explaining things, the explanations we carry around in our heads or whip up on demand (“Why is the sky blue?” is the classic query demanding an immediate and convincing response) are often unreliable. The book covers several topics on that general theme, pointing out how counterintuitive and nonobvious most true explanations are. [The author makes that claim for "scientific explanations," but I think it applies to science, history, philosophy, theology, or any careful, peer-reviewed approach to explanation.]
The Religious Angle
I might be skating on thin ice here, but let’s take these ideas and see how they carry over to our religious beliefs (my discussion now, not the author’s). First, if we sometimes find ourselves or find others embracing folk doctrine which, on further examination, is not supported by logic, scripture, or reliable statements of present-day leaders, this is not some special weakness of religious thinking or even LDS thinking. The book makes it quite clear how susceptible all human thinking is to false belief or unreliable causal thinking. But if our religious beliefs are not uniquely questionable, they are also not uniquely reliable. They merit careful examination to sift the good from the bad.
Take earthquakes. Plate tectonics explains how chunks of continent and seafloor very slowly move, how stress builds at plate boundaries, then eventually releases in earthquakes at faults. We now have a good understanding of the natural processes involved, and seismographs show that for every earthquake felt by human observers there are thousands of tiny quakes and tremors that we would never notice but for these instruments. At the same time, many feel God must somehow be part of the process, at least for big earthquakes that make the news. But if you let your belief in God become mixed up with your sense of what causes earthquakes, you might end up sounding like this recent AP story. First line: “A senior Iranian cleric says women who wear immodest clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes.” Or this LA Times opinion piece, which notes, “The evangelical Christian Pat Robertson suggested that … that this year’s earthquake in Haiti was part of a curse on that island stemming from an 18th century pact with the devil that Haitians allegedly made in exchange for liberty from French slave owners.” [Mormons leaders are more circumspect -- we just send food and shelter.]
Take Sundays. Four months a year, I walk out my chapel doors after meetings and see skiers coming down the mountain. Yes, the natural thought crosses my mind, but I know that I would just never hear the end of it if I got injured skiing on Sunday. Because I would deserve it, wouldn’t I? Or is that just our view of morality bleeding over into our sense of causation? If I twisted a knee on Saturday, you wouldn’t say I deserved it. If someone has a great Sunday on the slopes (or even a whole season of great Sundays), you would likely not view that outcome as a reward for carving turns rather than singing hymns. I’m guessing that, given some time to reflect, most of us would deny that God or a properly assigned angel plays any role in Sunday skiing mishaps — that’s not really what we think is going on. Yet if someone we know gets injured on Sunday, the first thought that leaps to mind (though hopefully not our lips) might still be, “Well, that’s what you get for skiing on Sunday …”
I don’t have a cut and dried conclusion to this complex relationship between belief and causation. Scriptures can be cited at both ends of the spectrum. Matthew 10:29 says that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing and tacitly approving, suggesting a skier or an earthquake must certainly be noticed. But Matthew 5:45 says that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” suggesting God does not intervene in natural processes on moral grounds.
Getting back to the book, perhaps this statement rings truer now than it would have earlier: “How we arrive at beliefs is far from clear; it is a mixture of experience, cognition, intuition and emotion” (p. 84). Each of these — emotion, intuition, experience, reason — can lead us astray, so at the very least caution is in order when we use our beliefs as a springboard for making pronouncements about the world.