Are some ideas too ridiculous to bother with?

Apr 22 JDN 2458231

Flat Earth. Young-Earth Creationism. Reptilians. 9/11 “Truth”. Rothschild conspiracies.

There are an astonishing number of ideas that satisfy two apparently-contrary conditions:

  1. They are so obviously ridiculous that even a few minutes of honest, rational consideration of evidence that is almost universally available will immediately refute them;
  2. They are believed by tens or hundreds of millions of otherwise-intelligent people.

Young-Earth Creationism is probably the most alarming, seeing as it grips the minds of some 38% of Americans.

What should we do when faced with such ideas? This is something I’ve struggled with before.

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to actively address and refute them—but I don’t think I’ve even once actually persuaded someone who believes these ideas to change their mind. This doesn’t mean my time and effort were entirely wasted; it’s possible that I managed to convince bystanders, or gained some useful understanding, or simply improved my argumentation skills. But it does seem likely that my time and effort were mostly wasted.

It’s tempting, therefore, to give up entirely, and just let people go on believing whatever nonsense they want to believe. But there’s a rather serious downside to that as well: Thirty-eight percent of Americans.

These people vote. They participate in community decisions. They make choices that affect the rest of our lives. Nearly all of those Creationists are Evangelical Christians—and White Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly in favor of Donald Trump. I can’t be sure that changing their minds about the age of the Earth would also change their minds about voting for Trump, but I can say this: If all the Creationists in the US had simply not voted, Hillary Clinton would have won the election.

And let’s not leave the left wing off the hook either. Jill Stein is a 9/11 “Truther”, and pulled a lot of fellow “Truthers” to her cause in the election as well. Had all of Jill Stein’s votes gone to Hillary Clinton instead, again Hillary would have won, even if all the votes for Trump had remained the same. (That said, there is reason to think that if Stein had dropped out, most of those folks wouldn’t have voted at all.)

Therefore, I don’t think it is safe to simply ignore these ridiculous beliefs. We need to do something; the question is what.

We could try to censor them, but first of all that violates basic human rights—which should be a sufficient reason not to do it—and second, it probably wouldn’t even work. Censorship typically leads to radicalization, not assimilation.

We could try to argue against them. Ideally this would be the best option, but it has not shown much effect so far. The kind of person who sincerely believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old (let alone that governments are secretly ruled by reptilian alien invaders) isn’t the kind of person who is highly responsive to evidence and rational argument.

In fact, there is reason to think that these people don’t actually believe what they say the same way that you and I believe things. I’m not saying they’re lying, exactly. They think they believe it; they want to believe it. They believe in believing it. But they don’t actually believe it—not the way that I believe that cyanide is poisonous or the way I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. It isn’t fully integrated into the way that they anticipate outcomes and choose behaviors. It’s more of a free-floating sort of belief, where professing a particular belief allows them to feel good about themselves, or represent their status in a community.

To be clear, it isn’t that these beliefs are unimportant to them; on the contrary, they are in some sense more important. Creationism isn’t really about the age of the Earth; it’s about who you are and where you belong. A conventional belief can be changed by evidence about the world because it is about the world; a belief-in-belief can’t be changed by evidence because it was never really about that.

But if someone’s ridiculous belief is really about their identity, how do we deal with that? I can’t refute an identity. If your identity is tied to a particular social group, maybe they could ostracize you and cause you to lose the identity; but an outsider has no power to do that. (Even then, I strongly suspect that, for instance, most excommunicated Catholics still see themselves as Catholic.) And if it’s a personal identity not tied to a particular group, even that option is unavailable.

Where, then, does that leave us? It would seem that we can’t change their minds—but we also can’t afford not to change their minds. We are caught in a terrible dilemma.

I think there might be a way out. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but I think what we need to do is stop taking them seriously as beliefs, and start treating them purely as announcements of identity.

So when someone says something like, “The Rothschilds run everything!”, instead of responding as though this were a coherent proposition being asserted, treat it as if someone had announced, “Boo! I hate the Red Sox!” Belief in the Rothschild conspiracies isn’t a well-defined set of propositions about the world; it’s an assertion of membership in a particular sort of political sect that is vaguely left-wing and anarchist. You don’t really think the Rothschilds rule everything. You just want to express your (quite justifiable) anger at how our current political system privileges the rich.

Likewise, when someone says they think the Earth is 6,000 years old, you could try to present the overwhelming scientific evidence that they are wrong—but it might be more productive, and it is certainly easier, to just think of this as a funny way of saying “I’m an Evangelical Christian”.

Will this eliminate the ridiculous beliefs? Not immediately. But it might ultimately do so, in the following way: By openly acknowledging the belief-in-belief as a signaling mechanism, we can open opportunities for people to develop new, less pathological methods of signaling. (Instead of saying you think the Earth is 6,000 years old, maybe you could wear a funny hat, like Orthodox Jews do. Funny hats don’t hurt anybody. Everyone loves funny hats.) People will always want to signal their identity, and there are fundamental reasons why such signals will typically be costly for those who use them; but we can try to make them not so costly for everyone else.

This also makes arguments a lot less frustrating, at least at your end. It might make them more frustrating at the other end, because people want their belief-in-belief to be treated like proper belief, and you’ll be refusing them that opportunity. But this is not such a bad thing; if we make it more frustrating to express ridiculous beliefs in public, we might manage to reduce the frequency of such expression.

Belief in belief, and why it’s important

Oct 30, JDN 2457692

In my previous post on ridiculous beliefs, I passed briefly over this sentence:

“People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.”

Today I’d like to talk about the fact that “to profess” is a very important phrase in that sentence. Part of understanding ridiculous beliefs, I think, is understanding that many, if not most, of them are not actually proper beliefs. They are what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”, and has elsewhere been referred to as “anomalous belief”. They are not beliefs in the ordinary sense that we would line up with the other beliefs in our worldview and use them to anticipate experiences and motivate actions. They are something else, lone islands of belief that are not weaved into our worldview. But all the same they are invested with importance, often moral or even ultimate importance; this one belief may not make any sense with everyone else, but you must believe it, because it is a vital part of your identity and your tribe. To abandon it would not simply be mistaken; it would be heresy, it would be treason.

How do I know this? Mainly because nobody has tried to stone me to death lately.

The Bible is quite explicit about at least a dozen reasons I am supposed to be executed forthwith; you likely share many of them: Heresy, apostasy, blasphemy, nonbelief, sodomy, fornication, covetousness, taking God’s name in vain, eating shellfish (though I don’t anymore!), wearing mixed fiber, shaving, working on the Sabbath, making images of things, and my personal favorite, not stoning other people for committing such crimes (as we call it in game theory, a second-order punishment).

Yet I have met many people who profess to be “Bible-believing Christians”, and even may oppose some of these activities (chiefly sodomy, blasphemy, and nonbelief) on the grounds that they are against what the Bible says—and yet not one has tried to arrange my execution, nor have I ever seriously feared that they might.

Is this because we live in a secular society? Well, yes—but not simply that. It isn’t just that these people are afraid of being punished by our secular government should they murder me for my sins; they believe that it is morally wrong to murder me, and would rarely even consider the option. Someone could point them to the passage in Leviticus (20:16, as it turns out) that explicitly says I should be executed, and it would not change their behavior toward me.

On first glance this is quite baffling. If I thought you were about to drink a glass of water that contained cyanide, I would stop you, by force if necessary. So if they truly believe that I am going to be sent to Hell—infinitely worse than cyanide—then shouldn’t they be willing to use any means necessary to stop that from happening? And wouldn’t this be all the more true if they believe that they themselves will go to Hell should they fail to punish me?

If these “Bible-believing Christians” truly believed in Hell the way that I believe in cyanide—that is, as proper beliefs which anticipate experience and motivate action—then they would in fact try to force my conversion or execute me, and in doing so would believe that they are doing right. This used to be quite common in many Christian societies (most infamously in the Salem Witch Trials), and still is disturbingly common in many Muslim societies—ISIS doesn’t just throw gay men off rooftops and stone them as a weird idiosyncrasy; it is written in the Hadith that they’re supposed to. Nor is this sort of thing confined to terrorist groups; the “legitimate” government of Saudi Arabia routinely beheads atheists or imprisons homosexuals (though has a very capricious enforcement system, likely so that the monarchy can trump up charges to justify executing whomever they choose). Beheading people because the book said so is what your behavior would look like if you honestly believed, as a proper belief, that the Qur’an or the Bible or whatever holy book actually contained the ultimate truth of the universe. The great irony of calling religion people’s “deeply-held belief” is that it is in almost all circumstances the exact opposite—it is their most weakly held belief, the one that they could most easily sacrifice without changing their behavior.

Yet perhaps we can’t even say that to people, because they will get equally defensive and insist that they really do hold this very important anomalous belief, and how dare you accuse them otherwise. Because one of the beliefs they really do hold, as a proper belief, and a rather deeply-held one, is that you must always profess to believe your religion and defend your belief in it, and if anyone catches you not believing it that’s a horrible, horrible thing. So even though it’s obvious to everyone—probably even to you—that your behavior looks nothing like what it would if you actually believed in this book, you must say that you do, scream that you do if necessary, for no one must ever, ever find out that it is not a proper belief.

Another common trick is to try to convince people that their beliefs do affect their behavior, even when they plainly don’t. We typically use the words “religious” and “moral” almost interchangeably, when they are at best orthogonal and arguably even opposed. Part of why so many people seem to hold so rigidly to their belief-in-belief is that they think that morality cannot be justified without recourse to religion; so even though on some level they know religion doesn’t make sense, they are afraid to admit it, because they think that means admitting that morality doesn’t make sense. If you are even tempted by this inference, I present to you the entire history of ethical philosophy. Divine Command theory has been a minority view among philosophers for centuries.

Indeed, it is precisely because your moral beliefs are not based on your religion that you feel a need to resort to that defense of your religion. If you simply believed religion as a proper belief, you would base your moral beliefs on your religion, sure enough; but you’d also defend your religion in a fundamentally different way, not as something you’re supposed to believe, not as a belief that makes you a good person, but as something that is just actually true. (And indeed, many fanatics actually do defend their beliefs in those terms.) No one ever uses the argument that if we stop believing in chairs we’ll all become murderers, because chairs are actually there. We don’t believe in belief in chairs; we believe in chairs.

And really, if such a belief were completely isolated, it would not be a problem; it would just be this weird thing you say you believe that everyone really knows you don’t and it doesn’t affect how you behave, but okay, whatever. The problem is that it’s never quite isolated from your proper beliefs; it does affect some things—and in particular it can offer a kind of “support” for other real, proper beliefs that you do have, support which is now immune to rational criticism.

For example, as I already mentioned: Most of these “Bible-believing Christians” do, in fact, morally oppose homosexuality, and say that their reason for doing so is based on the Bible. This cannot literally be true, because if they actually believed the Bible they wouldn’t want gay marriage taken off the books, they’d want a mass pogrom of 4-10% of the population (depending how you count), on a par with the Holocaust. Fortunately their proper belief that genocide is wrong is overriding. But they have no such overriding belief supporting the moral permissibility of homosexuality or the personal liberty of marriage rights, so the very tenuous link to their belief-in-belief in the Bible is sufficient to tilt their actual behavior.

Similarly, if the people I meet who say they think maybe 9/11 was an inside job by our government really believed that, they would most likely be trying to organize a violent revolution; any government willing to murder 3,000 of its own citizens in a false flag operation is one that must be overturned and can probably only be overturned by force. At the very least, they would flee the country. If they lived in a country where the government is actually like that, like Zimbabwe or North Korea, they wouldn’t fear being dismissed as conspiracy theorists, they’d fear being captured and executed. The very fact that you live within the United States and exercise your free speech rights here says pretty strongly that you don’t actually believe our government is that evil. But they wouldn’t be so outspoken about their conspiracy theories if they didn’t at least believe in believing them.

I also have to wonder how many of our politicians who lean on the Constitution as their source of authority have actually read the Constitution, as it says a number of rather explicit things against, oh, say, the establishment of religion (First Amendment) or searches and arrests without warrants (Fourth Amendment) that they don’t much seem to care about. Some are better about this than others; Rand Paul, for instance, actually takes the Constitution pretty seriously (and is frequently found arguing against things like warrantless searches as a result!), but Ted Cruz for example says he has spent decades “defending the Constitution”, despite saying things like “America is a Christian nation” that directly violate the First Amendment. Cruz doesn’t really seem to believe in the Constitution; but maybe he believes in believing the Constitution. (It’s also quite possible he’s just lying to manipulate voters.)