I was always wondering how people can be so blind. Turns out I was making the mistake of thinking there was something like rationality of a belief.
I could not understand how someone could arrive at a completely different conclusion than I did, even more so if they based their view on the same information I had. A strong believer in enlightened thinking and rationality, I was convinced that A and B must necessarily lead to C. Consequentially, disagreement and conflict must result from people that are not ‘rational’ enough or just blind to the truth. Of course, this is incredibly naive. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote:
“ There is no such thing as ‘rationality’ of a belief, there is rationality of action”
Rationality as a belief
We often hear about how our cognitive biases impair our decision-making and make us irrational. What we do not often hear about — at least outside of early 20th-century philosophy — is the fact that rationality is itself a system created by humans to arrive at the “objective truth”. With Immanuel Kant, “reason” and the scientific method took over the reins from belief and faith as a way of arriving at absolute knowledge. However, with the problem of induction, David Hume has already shown that the scientific method and reason are flawed tools for arriving at the absolute truth and just another (although better) way of coping with uncertainty.
‘Rationality’ as coined in the enlightenment is not the holy grail that leads us to the truth even though most of the accomplishments of modern civilization are based on it. We should recognize when it serves us and where its flaws lie instead of dogmatically believing in it.
We humans are curious creatures. We have the incredible ability to consciously influence our perception of the world and see it how we want to. This is essentially self-delusion. And we all do this to some extent. This is how two different people arrive at two separate conclusions with the same evidence even following the scientific method.
Yes, we do not all have the same information. Yes, there are still facts. But more often than not, our ‘facts’ are poorly researched beliefs that come from our trusted sources. Our biases condemn us to confirm our beliefs, disregard opposing evidence, and judge other people for their ‘blindness’. It is not the belief itself that counts but the consequences of its resulting actions.
I think certainty should not be the goal to begin with. Stephen Fry said it best during a recent Munk Debate on political correctness:
“One of the greatest human failings is to prefer to be right than to be effective.”
Effectiveness of belief
Recognize in yourself and others the power to distort reality so that it fits our own beliefs. Being aware of this makes you actually more empathetic, more humble, and less condescending to others and at the same time actually a more effective person. In the best case, you learn something useful for your life. Otherwise, you practiced your empathy, built some rapport, and potentially a relationship with another human being.
Our beliefs can be highly effective tools as well. They can give us marvelous abilities. I am talking about the mavericks, adventurers, and explorers of the world, archetypes of ‘irrationality’ that extend the limits of what seemed possible. These people harness the human ability to completely delude themselves into believing seemingly impossible things, underestimating certain risks, and overestimating one’s own ability. We have the skill to alter our perception in ways that empower us to achieve incredible feats. It is our ability to believe in something different than the majority that allows for leaps and disruptive changes in our world.
Choosing your perspective can be a powerful tool that brings with it incredible confidence and motivation as well as the ferocity to succeed. It is a turbocharger that jolts you forward and lets you overcome obstacles. You should choose your view of the world in a way that suits your goals best. As Ryan Holiday wrote in his book “The Obstacle is the Way”:
“(…) perception precedes action — right action follows the right perspective.”
Beliefs are, however, also a risk amplifier and can lead to blindly walking down a cliff. If you choose to follow a certain view down a path, you should stop once in a while to question where you are going. Make sure that you account for and insure against this side of yourself in places where it can hurt you. This is where rationality of action comes into play. Still, be aware of your biases and stop to recognize and update in case you are wrong. Insure against hidden risk. After all, what makes a belief effective is how well it lets you thrive and survive.