PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Saturday, May 26, 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why do people believe anything? (essay)

Dear friends,

Finally managed to get the essay done. Was too tired last night to do

Don't forget next week the 3^rd of June, we're going to Segovia. I will
CERTAINLY send an email about this by Wednesday. If you don't get an
email please let me know.

See you tomorrow

Take care


**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

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Why do people believe anything?

Right from day one, we are trained to be efficient in two important
activities. We are trained to live in a community and we are trained to
respect authority.

It might be argued that living in a community is something natural for
us to do and be interested in doing. Especially if we associate living
within a community as a good survival strategy. Learning how to live in
a community is a good thing to do and there are many ways we learn how
to live within a community: for example, we start by promoting the
family institution, with various degrees of success, community schools,
team membership at work, membership of and support for to political
parties, subscribe to a sports club or a department store loyalty scheme
and so on. Indeed, living within a community is an advantage and
cooperation with others is the best possible thing we can do if we want
to succeed and survive in life.

We have also developed complex systems to make sure that people do
cooperate and conform. For example, such linguistic labels as, shy,
loner, introvert, and quiet are used as conceptual disapproving cues for
people who do not "fit" within the community. Never mind other
expressions such as drop out, delinquent etc. "Science" has also been
sub contracted to deal with these issue by providing therapies and pills.

Later in life we reinforce this community spirit by introducing group
learning and group approval. We usually call these institutions schools,
universities, exams, local chamber of commerce, society clubs, sports
clubs and so on. We also speak of being a team member and we are
theoretically supposed to show this character trait by following the
latest fashion whether it is brown shoes with gray suites or master's
degrees, or simply be dexterous at the latest sports fad.

By respect for authority I do not mean, keeping within the speed limits
on the motorway or paying your local tax bill. We are first trained to
believe that those in authority have our interest at heart, or that they
know best; in British English we have the expression, nanny knows best,
which is not a heart warming expression. However, our parent's natural
and noble intentions are quickly high jacked by the rest of society for
their own end. For example, by religious groups (you must teach the holy
book to your children), corporations (this food is nutritious for baby),
learning centres (a degree from this university will open doors) and so
on. Of course, authority also helps keep law and order and individuals
from disrupting the life of others*.

But authority does not only manifest itself as an institution, but also
in individuals. A father has more authority than a mother, a priest or
preacher more authority than a church goer, a professor more authority
than an undergraduate, a director more authority than a delivery clerk,
an investment banker more authority than a teller and so on.

People who do not show the right respect to these authorities are
described as problem children, delinquents, anarchists, revolutionaries,
infidels, non conformists and even worse things. But these are not just
words and labels, but ideas and concepts that thrive and live in real
life with equally real life consequences. If an ex-employer describes
you as a team player, it might land you your next job opportunity.
However, behold if you are labelled a "lose cannon" or an "opinionated

I want to argue that the question, "why do people believe anything?" is
not only a question about beliefs, but a question on how we believe
things and what motivates us to believe what we believe. At face value,
this might be regarded as an issue for psychology or sociology rather
than philosophy. Whilst not excluding a psychological or sociological
import, there are a number of philosophical issues that concern us.

First of all, there are the value judgments that surround the question.
What do we mean by father being more authoritative than mother? Why
should a teacher have more authority than a pupil? Why should one be a
team player and why is an opinionated extrovert bad news?

Secondly, beliefs are inevitably based on information and how that
information is presented to us. Of course we all accept that information
maybe wrong, and that some information is by nature not a priori
certain, for example scientific information. However, while information
maybe questioned, it is very difficult for individuals, as individuals
and not as members of a professional community, to question that
information. Furthermore, there are communities that do not even allow
their information to be questioned, amongst which are religions, secret
societies, and extremist groups.

Thirdly, how can we balance the need to have beliefs and the information
we accept as relevant for those beliefs?

We can distinguish two types of beliefs which are very important for us;
there might be others but are not important for us here. There are those
beliefs which I will call beliefs about facts/states of affairs and
beliefs which we need to have before we perform an action (see
wikipedia:belief for alternative terminology).

An example of beliefs about facts is that the Roman Empire will still be
an influencing factor for the next thousand years. We might also
describe these beliefs as opinions and even prejudices. But these
opinions or beliefs do not necessarily lead to action. Of course I might
have to justify my claims about such things as the Roman Empire, but I
do not have to act in a certain way.

Now imagine that the elections are due and I decide to vote for the best
candidate. I also happen to belief that the best political policy is to
balance social investment with free market economy and Jane is a
candidate who holds similar ideas. It would be the most natural thing
for me to vote for Jane. We need to have certain beliefs in order to
take the next step. A simpler example would be: I believe that the baker
is open, so I go to get a loaf of bread. Beliefs lead to action,
otherwise we will just be automata.

Although the question (why do people believe anything?) does not tell us
which beliefs we are talking about, it is important for us to
distinguish. It is important for two reasons. Is a given belief required
for an action? And do I perceive that this beliefs to have a
consequence? I submit that this is the weak point about beliefs.

If we want people to do something then we should try to persuade them
that having certain beliefs and acting upon them might have desirable
consequences. If I believe that a certain type of car is safer, or
cleaner, or fashionable then I'd better go and buy that car if I value
any of these features. On the other hand, we might want someone to
believe that doing nothing is the best thing to do; for example, our
party supports national security so there is no need to change the

Although in the preceding few paragraphs I tried to show the type of
beliefs we have (at least those relevant for my argument) and their
function, these do not explain why we need to have beliefs in the first

Living systems (see Living Systems Theory) have to do two things if they
have to do anything. Interact with their environment and process
information (to enable them to interact with their environment). Beliefs
have always been second class epistemological citizens. We first
encounter knowledge (irrespective of whether a priori or inductive),
then beliefs, information and finally we encounter data (including sense

Unfortunately, knowledge is not easy to come by; it is a serious natural
scarce resource. And like all natural scarce resources, it is not
produced in abundance and it certainly carries a high price to obtain.
For example, just for the tuition on an MBA programme at Harvard (2009),
it will set you back $41,900 ($73,300 all included); The main reason why I say that knowledge is a
scarce natural resource is because, as far as we are concerned,
knowledge must be converted into a physical format (as in Shannon
information) before we can access it. And once we do that, the
principles of supply and demand apply. There is also the monopolistic
monetary value of knowledge, but this is just a theme on what I have
just said.

Knowledge has an element of certainty which beliefs do not have. The
degree of certainty of our knowledge is important because the future is
an uncertain place. It is not that knowledge is infallible (at least
inductive knowledge); but that knowledge is the best information we have
to help us interact with our environment. In the absence of knowledge ¡,
we tend to employ beliefs. Maybe not because beliefs have some
guaranteed epistemic predictive value, but that maybe because we need
the security of information, even if that security is false security.
Maybe false security is more valuable than no security at all.

Beliefs fill gaps in our knowledge base. This in not meant to diminish
the scope and role of beliefs, but to emphasise the importance of
information for living systems. However, beliefs are what they are,
second class citizens. And converting beliefs into knowledge (e.g.
hypothesis into verifiable inductive knowledge) takes energy, time and
in the modern world, money.

One advantage of living in a community is that we pool and share our
data, information, beliefs and knowledge. The community benefits from
this, because a good number of people benefit from this. Of course, we
don't only share knowledge and information freely, many times we share,
through exchange, for other things which we might want. Maybe I can
share a recipe for a Christmas pudding with our neighbour and thus more
people can benefit form my knowledge. But not every one wants to do
their own baking or can bake. There is no point for Airbus or Boeing
sharing the blueprint of their aeroplanes with passengers, since
passengers would be unable to build their own plane to go on holiday
this summer. But sharing information is offset by the fact that living
systems are also competitive systems. And if I'm really competitive, I
will charge a lot of money for my Christmas puddings.

And since there is nothing more to a community than individuals, living
in a community is the basis for authority especially personal authority.
Hence, we live in a community that trains us to accept certain beliefs
and practices as true without questioning their veracity or validity.
But we also have to pay a price (money, effort, energy etc) to convert
any information we have into knowledge. Sometimes we don't have that
luxury (maybe because of time) but most times it does not occur to us to
question anything unless we have been trained to do this. It is
therefore not surprising that some people believe anything.

However, "why do people believe anything?" really means, "why do people
believe falsehoods? In other words why are people gullible?"

I don't subscribe to the idea that people (at least the majority)
intentionally believe falsehoods, but rather that we are confronted with
such a wide epistemic arsenal that we can easily make the mistake of
believing a falsehood. Liars and cheats in reality are exploiting the
weaknesses in our belief system to their advantage. In any event, we
mustn't forget the possibility that in a community of collaborators, a
few might benefit by cheating the system. So let's have a look at some
of this arsenal.

This arsenal is usually found in philosophy under the headings of
"logical fallacies," "fallacies" or "philosophical fallacies." if you
google these terms you'll find a large number of web sites that discuss
these fallacies; for practical purposes I'm using: The Power of Words,

We use these fallacies to give the impression that something is true,
desirable or inevitable. These are also usually employed to communicate
falsehoods, or sometimes to avoid the intellectual rigours required to
prove something. However, the effects and consequences are the same, to
influence people's beliefs, to get them to act in a certain way and most
certainly, to benefit someone else.

A very common fallacy is to argue from authority. Something is true
because who says it has authority over others. we can easily identify
this fallacy with language expressions such as, "the teacher told
us.....,"according to Einstein.....," "I have a masters in
psychology...," the CEO believes......" The objective is to settle the
argument by appealing to who is saying what as opposed to what is being
said. The opposite of this fallacy is the fallacy Ad Hominem, argument
against the man. Thus we attack the speaker instead of the argument.

The argument, Ad Verecundiam (argument from authority), is a powerful
one not only because we have been brought up to respect authority but
because sometimes these authorities are right. Speaking from experience,
as someone who did question the teacher (not a very pleasant experience)
I can today say that I was right on the philosophy, but wrong on the
evolution of the historical facts. The problem is of course that being
right about future events or rather events that are not yet within our
event horizon can be a hit or miss affair. In any case, this is why we
see a lot of men and women in white coats advertising things, or sports
champions or medium rate film stars endorsing products. We are supposed
to regard these people as authorities and we are expected to do what
they say.

An other popular argument is that of fear (ad baculum). This argument
usually follows the pattern of proposing something and then concluding
that failure to do it will result in some serious unpleasant
consequence. "If you don't clean your room, you will be grounded for the
weekend." this argument is very common when cheats and thugs want to
defraud old people or vulnerable people from their savings or pension
payouts. (See the New York Times, May 20, 2007, on this multi billion
fraud industry that preys on the old and infirm: Bilking the Elderly,
With a Corporate Assist By Charles Duhigg).

Two arguments which are also used regularly are appeal to pity /sympathy
(ad misericordium) and special case pleading. Appeal to pity is the
mainstay of charities, religions and people who exploit the emotional
sensitivities of others. Of course there is nothing wrong with helping
others or offering charity. However, it is not the pity that makes a
case worthy or valid, but the facts of the case. But getting the facts
right might be hard work or may show that there is not case at all. Why
risk it? A special case argument might employ pity to mitigate the
possibility that to make an exception would mean doing something to

There are many more fallacies that have been identified by philosophers
and other thinkers. However, I want to mention two other fallacies
before I finish.

We are all familiar with statistics and opinion polls, especially in
advertising and politics. (The classic book on this subject is of
course, How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff; 1954). these
arguments usually include expressions such as, "statistics show...,"
"nine out of ten.....," "Polls suggest." we can also add the ad popolum
as a version of this argument (argument from the masses), "everyone who
is anyone....," "don't be left out....," "everyone wants to....,""have well?" In a way this fallacy reinforces that requirement of
living and cooperating within a community. An appeal to an instinct,
both natural and nurtured in us. An appeal that makes the group
desirable, right or wrong.

The last fallacy is what JHWhite, the author of The Power of Words web
site, calls Political Correctness (PC) and describes it as, "...a
manipulation that not only uses fear but every other fallacy as well..."
of course, something like PC is an attempt to redraw the boundaries of
community interaction. Some of the problems connected with this
initiative are that whilst clearly identifying an injustice, those
exercising this initiative might go about solving this problem with
ineffective and inefficient means. Not to mention that they might get
hold of the wrong end of the stick all together. Thus PC might correctly
identify bias against women, but then goes about making a fuss about the
language and terminology we use in our daily life. Thus saying
chairperson instead of chairman might make a few people good but will
this change the prospects and opportunities for women? On the other
hand, what might advance careers and increase opportunities, for both
men and women, is a work environment that balances family life and work

To sum up, people are prone to believe anything because of some basic
factors: we are trained to accept what our community tells us, in the
form of institutions and authorities, and secondly we have developed an
impressive array of epistemological tools that enable us to make people
believe anything. Maybe, we can condense all these arguments into one
single question: what incentive do we have to question received wisdom?

What remains to be established, is whether A Lincoln was right when he
is quoted as saying, "you can fool some of the people some of the time,
and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people
all the time." Are you being fooled?

Take care


*if you're interested in a way to disrupt your lecturer or boss have a
look at this:

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Why do people
believe anything? (essay)

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