Belief: what trusted sources tell you.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QII’m not only talking about religion here I’m talking about everything.  The TV program QI (Quite Interesting) has a round called “General Ignorance” where they ask questions you think you know the answer to but virtually every “common knowledge” answer turns out to be either completely untrue, wildly inaccurate or superseded by the progress of human knowledge.

Philosophers have been debating the nature of “truth” for years with the best known protagonist being Martin Heidegger who called it by the Greek word for truth “aletheia”.  It’s heady stuff but my take is put in a simpler way:  we believe what trusted sources tell us and continue to believe it until evidence to the contrary changes our minds.

At school I was taught that glass is a viscous liquid and that the “sagging” you see in the glass of old buildings is caused by it imperceptibly “flowing” due to gravity.  Modern thinking is now that glass is an amorphous solid which doesn’t flow and that the sagging phenomenon was always present as a result of crude manufacturing processes in the early days of glass making.  Until the subject came up in the pub I was unaware of my flawed belief and defended it vigorously.  My opponents weren’t giving me scientific rebuttals – just a gut “that doesn’t sound right” and I hit Google feeling confident I could persuade them to my point of view.  Humble pie was consumed in some quantity.  This is a perfect example of the progress of knowledge leaving you behind.

A lighter example some data tables for the mineral content of vegetables briefly over stated the iron content of spinach by a factor of ten and Popeye was born…

My favourite example is the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum.  If you look on Wikipedia – Light you will find the history of understanding the nature of light has (at the time of writing) eleven different theories about light from particle and wave through to quantum theories.  Add to this the increasing knowledge of the spectrum of EM radiation.  Initially we could only detect radiation visible to the human eye and we were unaware of its component colours until the invention of the prism.  Later we could detect heat (infrared), ultraviolet (UV) and ultimately radio waves, microwaves, X-Rays and Gamma rays.  The history of EM radiation is littered with the certainties which always precede discovery…

Science then is a work in progress which means something we believe “true” today may not be “true” tomorrow.

Given most of us don’t have the time or inclination to apply a rigid scientific or philosophical framework to our every belief; how do we as individuals decide what’s true and what isn’t?  The answer, as far as I can see, is trust.  The most nebulous and fragile of mental constructs based on a combination of instinct and knowledge from different sources, averaged, weighed and analysed.

So, finally, to religion.  A set of never changing beliefs with no underlying evidence or proof.  Beliefs which often do not allow the possibility for change, development, expansion or adaptation.  Systems where the ultimate penalties are often reserved for those who question or choose not to believe the current “truth”.  I don’t understand that – but if you want to try to explain it, I will listen.

I can accept that some percentage of my beliefs are, or have become, objectively incorrect without my being aware of it.  I can also accept my trusted sources make mistakes and revise their views.  I’m comfortable with that, far more comfortable in fact than I am with dogma.

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