I’ve always been intrigued by the way people come to believe things and the way that people hold onto or let go of those beliefs. What factors cause a person to spend a lifetime dedicated to a belief? What factors cause a person to let go of beliefs previously held? I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about what “a person” believes or disbelieves, since that to me seems a little presumptuous. Instead, I will talk about how I disbelieve things, since I am the only person who I feel I really have the right to speak for.
Opportunities to disbelieve things arise with obnoxious frequency. Each day I am met with statements that do not cohere with what I believe and I am faced with the decision of what I will do with these statements. Take, for example, the statement: “I just had a conversation with my deceased relative who inhabits this building in ghost form.”
To me, this was a very shocking statement indeed, coming from someone I had known for some time and, in my mind, seemed completely “normal.” Their statement was not normal, to me. Normal people didn’t say things like that, I thought. So, my initial reaction was surprise and doubt in the person’s sincerity. I asked over and over, “are you just fooling with me?” I wanted to be sure that this wasn’t just some elaborate prank to show how gullible I was, but it was sincere, as confirmed by a number of others who in the process of my curious questioning revealed experiences they’d had with deceased friends/relatives in ghost form. I became convinced that these people were at least sincere about what they thought they had experienced, but it still didn’t match in my mind. I looked back on my experience and to see if there was anything that I’d experience that related to what these people had described. I came up with nothing. I looked within my current beliefs (I was Christian at that point) to see how these alleged experiences of ghosts could fit into it. I saw no way of reconciling it without completely re-interpreting what they said themselves to have experienced and inserting my own Christian version of spiritual entities in place of the ones they described. I wasn’t quite prepared to do that.
I drew no real conclusion from this, other than that, without my own personal experience of this kind of ghost activity, I would never be able to include the existence of them in my belief system, no matter how trustworthy and sincere the people who relayed their experiences of them were. The whole thing just made me very curious about the things I haven’t experienced.
Based on this experience of disbelief and countless others throughout my lifetime, I’ve concluded some things about the nature of disbelief:
- Disbelieving a truth claim presented by a person invariably discredits that person’s reliability OR vice-versa (if a person making a truth claim is considered to be unreliable, his truth claim may well be ignored simply on that account). So, what happens when the person making the truth claim which you don’t believe happens to be a person you’ve previously come to trust and think highly of? What if you are not at all fond of considering your friend “unreliable?” Are you not more likely to try all the more to see how maybe somehow this truth claim could make sense, because you wish to defend the reliability of your friend?
- Whenever someone disbelieves a truth claim presented by someone else, they feel compelled to come up with an alternate explanation for that person’s belief in it. The question must be answered “if the truth claim isn’t true, why do they believe it?” The answer to this question, I believe, is heavily influenced by the impression someone has on the person they disagree with. If they are someone whom they have little to no respect for, the answer could quite easily be “oh they’re just ignorant and stupid.” When there is some respect and knowledge of the other person involved, it gets a little more complicated. Often they will be granted “victim” status: “It’s not their fault that they came to this wrong belief. They were deceived or they had an unfortunate set of circumstances leading to the “false” belief.” Or, if the “wrong” person is not respected quite so highly, they can be described as being “too committed to what they previously believed and too proud to change their mind.” Any number of explanations can be come up with. The point is, though, that some explanation must be found for their false belief, whether or not the explanation makes any sense at all. I do not know why we do this, but it seems humans find it necessary to come up with reasons for why people believe false things.
What I do know is that often, in this process of seeking for an “alternate explanation for someone’s false belief,” we often find ourselves stomping all over each other, creating alternative solutions for the other’s beliefs (in an innocent attempt to reconcile them with our own) which inadvertently discredit the other’s character and cause hurt, anger, and all kinds of unpleasantries. I wish that this would not be, but I don’t know what could be done to change it. It seems engrained in the way that humans think and believe.
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