The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 3: But I Just Believe!

Continuing our discussion of  Crimes Against Logic …

Prejudice Disguised As Logic – If you don’t have good reasons for your beliefs, you can give them up, or stick with them because you’re like them. You could also claim that your beliefs transcend thoughts and words, that you know they are true “in your gut.” But this is just prejudice dressed up, you still haven’t given any reason to support your beliefs. There are a number of “ploys by which the prejudiced attempt to substitute sanctimony or other grand irrelevancies for evidence.” (32) He considers each in turn.

Mystery – The fact that I find auto mechanics mysterious tells you nothing about auto mechanics and something about me. It tells you I’m ignorant of auto mechanics, not that auto mechanics is mysterious. Yet people often draw this conclusion about important matters. They believe outlandish things by saying that they are mysteries. For example, I might defend my belief that Santa Claus flies around on his sled by saying that it’s just a mystery how he does this. The idea of mystery allows you to believe whatever you want however silly.

Furthermore it’s dishonest to believe what is obviously false. There is nothing mysterious about saying the Green Bay Packers both won the first super bowl and the Packers lost the first super bowl—instead it’s something that can’t be true. Of course there are genuine mysteries. Some things are mysteries to me because I’m ignorant of them, and some things are mysterious to even the experts. Mystery, in large part, is a measure of the current state of our ignorance. To say something is a real mystery tells us nothing about it, only that we don’t understand it. The proper reaction to a mystery is to study the issue further or forget it, but not to say that we are justified in believing whatever we want.

Faith – “Rather than trying to obscure your prejudice, boldly declare it a virtue. You have no reason to believe what you do, no evidence, no argument. Of course not. This is a matter of faith!”(36) Faith doesn’t provide evidence, it merely shows that you have none. And if you say that faith is necessary when knowledge is lacking, you are claiming that all opinions are equally valid and mere prejudice. When one declares they have faith in some proposition, you can be sure they cannot defend the proposition any other way.

Odds – Pascal argued that believing in a god is a good bet. Bet for the proposition and you either win big or lose small; bet against the proposition and you can either lose big or win small. Hence it’s in your interest to bet that a god exist. There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning. First, the gods might see through your wager and not reward you for playing the odds. Second, even if this were a good bet, this says nothing about the truth of the proposition. Third, the bet doesn’t tell you which god to bet on. Should you bet on Jehovah or Allah or some other god? And, since there are an infinite number of gods to bet on, the chance you bet on the right one is small. In addition, reality might be set up different from Pascal imagines. Maybe the gods reward skeptics and non-believers for thinking for themselves and punish believers for accepting superstitions.

Weird Science – Maybe science is a conspiracy to destroy culture and impose its truths on us. But even if that’s true, which it isn’t, your non-scientific ideas are still probably false. Sometimes when people speculate, they like to appear scientific and discuss things like quantum mechanics to impress others. Many students over the years have told me that since quantum mechanics is weird, other weird things might be true. That may be trivially true, but most weird things we believe are false. “Anyone who thinks that her favorite weird ideas—about reincarnation, astral travel, or whatever—are intellectual bedfellows with quantum mechanics ought to read some of the latter.”(44)

But Still – You can appear reasonable by admitting evidence for a view you don’t hold and saying “but still…” For example, you might have said before the start of the American Civil War that “although the north has more people railroads, industry, ships, and artillery than the south, still I think the south will win. Or you could say: “I know what you’ve told me about the overwhelming evidence for evolutionary biology, but still it just doesn’t feel true.” In both cases, your “but still” is giving you good reasons to reject your current view.

It’s Obvious – If people says something goes without saying or is obvious, then it’s probably not. The big problem with sloppy thinking—thinking that doesn’t care what the reasons and evidence are—is that it can support anything. If I believe that little green dogs rule the world, then you won’t likely change my mind if I’m committed to that belief, even though you now know that I’m crazy.

Don’t Go There – Another clue that someone has little or no evidence on their side is when they engage in moral positioning when their beliefs are challenged. “My position is very important to me, don’t go there.” People with evidence rarely get so upset.

Bad People – It doesn’t refute someone’s argument to say they’re bad persons.  It doesn’t refute a position to say someone isn’t allowed to express it.  And it doesn’t refute an argument to say that you’ve never heard it before—truth is often boring and fiction often exciting. (Which is why people believe so many weird things.) The best refutations show how beliefs are inconsistent with well-known truths. That’s why one shouldn’t believe in telekinesis because, if true, it would mean that many well-known principles of physics are mistaken. Now consider the claim that truth is relative to culture. This is contradicted by the fact that cultures believe things which we know aren’t true.

In short, arguments stand and fall on the strength of the reasons and evidence offered for them. I may be a bad man, but my argument for the truth of relativity, quantum, atomic, or evolutionary theory may be irrefutable. Similarly, I may be a wonderful person, but that doesn’t mean my beliefs about physics, chemistry, biology or anything else are any good.

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5 thoughts on “The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 3: But I Just Believe!

  1. Scientific truths are evolving just as some religious opinions. Science is as good as the best microscope, biggest telescope or smartest mathematician of that time. One day science and religion will meet and you will see it, but not in your body. I base this on my life experience of 62 years. Try to explain the color red to a blind person. Does red still exist? Not for the blind person. Some people can make more sense of this life than others and then again some are delusional. It’s for you to decide.

  2. I appreciate the comments but everything you say is false. Would take too much time to explain. Just remember, if there is truth it’s not relative. Believing doesn’t make it so.

  3. Many of the concepts presented in this entry such as mysterious, faith, weird science, etc. cannot be used summarily as criterions to watch out for to alert us when we are not thinking critically. They can in general be used as such, but we need to also exercise wisdom in special circumstances. In the following I’ll try to elaborate on this point.

    There are things and phenomena that we consider to be ‘mysterious’ not because of our ignorance of their nature but because they do not make sense using our ordinary way of thinking or they do not fit our old paradigms such as in quantum physics where there is real sense in saying the same electron has passed through an opening A and through another opening B at the same time, or in relativity physics where phenomena of time slowing down, length decreasing and masses increasing due to relative speeds and empty space measurably bending close to massive objects such as the Sun!

    There are other things that begin as mysterious when we first encounter them but once we name them and become able to think about them in relations to other things that we understand they become familiar and lose their mystery. This is reflected in the traditional saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. Michael Faraday was reputed to have said; “when you don’t understand something give it a name.” This is what he did to dispel the mystery of action at a distance exerted by charged objects on each other; he created the name ‘the electric field’ and ‘the magnetic field’ for magnetic forces acting at a distance.

    There is also the mysterious realm of mind called Nirvana that is not accessible to ordinary ways of thinking but some people whom we trust and plus some corroborating neurological tests we, or some of us, believe that such a realm may exist without necessarily believing in any supernatural reality.

    Regarding ‘faith’, there are the cases where a belief without evidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which case it is good to have positive faiths in life, wouldn’t it? There are also cases, where evidence is lacking when we allow our gut feeling to carry the day and only, after the event, find out the rationale behind our behaviour or decision. I think faith should have its proper place in our life and should not always be dismissed because it is not based on evidence.

    As for ‘Weird Science’, it is true that quantum physics and the likes have managed to shock researchers in all fields of knowledge working in the hard and soft sciences. Before quantum and relativity physics physicist were very sure of their evidence based Newtonian universe until they began to tinker with the very small, the very big and the very fast. It was quite humbling that I sometimes find myself not quite sure when coming across a special piece of weird science, even though I am quick in dismissing reincarnation, astral travel, the reality of the visions of near death experiences and the like.

    ‘But Still’ could also be used to mean; “I will hold committing to this view until I have more evidence. Something in me feels uncomfortable about this conclusion!” I believe this is a valid stand.

    With the ‘Don’t Go There’ I try to use some wisdom. If a person is quite old and whose entire life fabric has been spun around some irrational beliefs, or a person who is not so educated and there is little possibility of acquiring enough education in the future, or I feel that my deliberation will not go further than just upsetting him/her here and now, in such cases I ‘don’t go there’. I think of it as trying to convince a bedouin to be vegan.

    Finally, under the heading ‘Bad People’ you spoke about truth being independent of culture. But even though truth may not depend on culture in general, yet the emphasis upon or the choice of certain aspects of truth in favour of other aspects does often depend on culture which may amount to effectively believing in falsehood.

  4. As always thanks for the careful reading. There is a lot to say about all this but I’d have to think about it more. I do think you would like William James’ famous essay “The Will To Believe” although I have some reservations about its main point. Thanks again. JGM

  5. “truth is often boring and fiction often exciting”.

    Very good insight. Not only boring, but even ugly or painful. No wonder most people will be weak and believe every piece of nonsense they can hold onto.

    Thanks for your article!

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