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Do We Care Whether Our Beliefs Are True?

It's easy for us to ridicule the foolishness of people in the past who believed things that turned out to be absurdly false. We are horrified that the Aztecs would make human sacrifices to appease a volcano god. We laugh that people were afraid Columbus would sail off the edge of the earth. We are amazed that the people of Salem, Massachusetts would hang people for being witches and we are shocked that religious authorities would burn Giordano Bruno at the stake for teaching that the earth went around the sun. And we are particularly appalled by the hatred of the Nazis that enabled Hitler to murder millions.

Most of us like to think we would have been on the side of truth and justice in all these cases. Would we have? What makes us think that we are so much smarter than those people who thought the witches were endangering their children or the world was flat or the Jews were a menace to society? It's easy for us to know these things were wrong now, with the benefit of hindsight and when the people around us all agree that they were wrong. But would we have known it back when the problem occurred, if we were subject to the same influences as those who supported the false positions?

My mother would sometimes say "There, but for the grace of God, go I," usually referring to somebody crippled or retarded or who had gotten into trouble with the law. It can apply as well to those whose political or religious or scientific beliefs were seriously misguided. If we had been raised with the same background, might we not have supported the same ideas? These wrong ideas were not supported by maniacs - they were supported by mainstream people and powerful leaders. It could very easily be that you and I would have been on the wrong side on these crucial issues. Perhaps we are on the wrong side of important issues today.

For myself, I strongly want to avoid being one of the people who makes such stupid and unjust mistakes. Perhaps we think that people today, particularly those we think of as authorities, no longer fall into such traps. Or maybe we think that it could happen in other parts of the world but not here (wherever that may be) where we are so enlightened! This is exactly the complacent attitude that the misguided people of the past must have taken, and that so many people still take today. We have to recognize that we can be wrong, that we, too, can be fooled.

How can we prevent it? I only know of one way. We must make a serious commitment to recognizing and understanding the ways that people and propaganda and events can lead us to false and possibly dangerous beliefs. We must learn what sort of information is most reliable, and lacking reliable information, we must be willing to face the fact that sometimes we do not know the answers.

Many of the most serious problems in the world today result directly from people believing things that aren't true - often because they are manipulated by leaders who give them false or misleading information or because they accept cultural stereotypes and assumptions. The results are nationalistic and religious wars, ethnic hatred, and governments that serve the interests of the powerful rather than the general good.

Sometimes I worry that people just don't care very much about whether they have beliefs that are false.  Well, we need to care, since the consequences of false beliefs can be disastrous.  I hope that many readers will agree and join with me in trying to understand and practice thinking as critically and carefully as possible, and will try to promote responsible thinking as a cultural value. While there is a great deal to be learned, the first step must be to have a culture that puts a high value on thinking and believing responsibly.