Contrary Evidence: A Brief on Belief

I want to describe faith as I see it. I’m sure many people will disagree with me, and that’s fine. Just try to understand my perspective before you dismiss it completely.

Let’s start at the beginning. What does it mean to believe something? I am going to reduce that complicated concept to a fairly simple system by taking out most of the subtlety. Bear with me.

First, let’s talk about claims. A claim is a statement that can be determined in some fashion to be true, false, or in some cases, unknown.

A true statement is one that is true in all cases. In other words, it doesn’t vary based on changing things. An asinine example would be “1 equals 1.” True statements are based on proofs (arguments) composed of other true statements. Basically, you start from axioms, simple statements that are just accepted as true, and work your way to more complex truths from there.

False statements are those that are not true in all cases. They may be true most of the time, but if there are exceptions, we say they are false. They may not ever be true. In the strictest sense, if we can’t prove a statement from arguments based on axioms, we say it is false. However, in the interest of open mindedness, statements that haven’t been proven to be true or false can be said to have unknown truth value.

If you didn’t get that or you don’t care, let me sum it up here: a claim is true or false. (It may also be unknown.) In essence, claims have truth value that is objective.

Beliefs, however, are subjective. Basically, for a given claim, your belief is the truth value you assign that claim, based on your perspective (knowledge, emotions, gut feelings, anything). I have to be very clear here: beliefs are based on your understanding.

Because people’s beliefs can and often do differ from the objective truth value of a claim, they don’t necessarily agree on what the objective truth value is. Getting past that is difficult and sometimes impossible.

Those are the basics. Now let’s explore.

What does it mean to believe something? This time, I don’t mean by definition, I mean in the real world. Beliefs should determine your decisions, your actions, and in many ways, your life. For practical purposes, I will call decisions and actions consistent with one’s beliefs “virtue” and decisions and actions against one’s beliefs “sin.”

Let’s look at some of the subtleties. First of all, some people say what you believe determines what happens to your immortal soul. That doesn’t make any sense. Here’s why: you don’t choose what you believe. If you don’t believe that, I’ll make an effort to change your mind.

Pick a simple belief you have, or even a complex one if you like. Say, “the sky is black at night.” Now, choose to believe otherwise. If you can, congratulations, you’ve proven me wrong. But be honest. Do you really, sincerely believe it isn’t true? Why not? If it’s because of another belief, no problem! Choose to not believe it! If that doesn’t solve the problem, I don’t know what to tell you.

If choice can’t change your beliefs, then what can? Evidence. Evidence is anything in the world that can change your beliefs. It takes a lot of forms: events, other people, thoughts, art. Sometimes it can come out of nowhere. There are two kinds of evidence: corroborating and contrary. Corroborating evidence is evidence that is consistent with your beliefs. Going outside at night and seeing a pitch black sky would be an example. Contrary evidence is evidence that is not consistent with your beliefs. For instance, going outside and seeing a white and purple striped pattern in the sky.

Anyway, where does all of that leave free will? I say that you always have a choice in a given situation: act virtuously or sin. In other words, follow your own rules or “act up.” I don’t know what to say about that, though. Does choosing to sin mean you are weak? Do virtuous choices improve you somehow? I don’t know.

I think it’s more important to look at evidence. Encountering contrary evidence is a very difficult situation. The basic decision is to change your belief or forget about the evidence. If you see an orange sky at midnight, you can always just go to bed. If you never see it again, the abundance of corroborating evidence might make up for it. Either way, what survives is doubt. If it sticks with you, you might have to change your belief. If the sky isn’t always black at night, why not? You can explore the reasons and all of the possibilities.

How about the opposite situation? Say you have a belief, yet you never see any corroborating evidence. What do you do? Should you continue to act as if that belief is true, or act otherwise, basically changing your mind? How do you keep a belief when you desperately want to hold on, yet can’t seem to find any support? How long can you continue to ignore contrary evidence, really?

Let me conclude by just saying that beliefs are not excuses. As simple as it would be, writing off a decision as okay because it was consistent with your beliefs is unacceptable. Doubt is a great burden, but it can also be the key to finding what is true. If you make a decision without any doubt, then it’s probably okay. But I believe that when you really make a choice or take an action with negative consequences, then your doubt will have been there. If not, I don’t know what to say.

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