Opposing beliefs

Do you get annoyed when someone argues the exact opposite of what you believe? A politician, or a religious person, or some other kind of vocal, opinionated person? I certainly do. But here’s a useful thought experiment. Imagine that other person getting equally annoyed listening to you.

I’ve discussed the symmetry of opposing belief systems before. In fact belief is one of the things I tend to go on about in an annoying way. Anyway, here’s one of my core beliefs. It’s that belief is the absolute core of what makes us human.

I have strong beliefs, and other people do too. I believe that my beliefs are correct, and other people believe they are right. So what gives?

Opposing beliefs can’t both be true. There are three possible explanations for what’s going on.

The first is that one of the beliefs is founded on incorrect empirical evidence. Everyone knows about “lies, damned lies and statistics” and yet we still hurl them around glibly. Even things that seem to be true often aren’t.

The second explanation is that there’s an error in the logical argument used to support that belief. There’s a brilliant discussion of that here – it’s a real eye-opener. Listen to any politician being interviewed and see how many of these logical fallacies they introduce into their discussion. See how many political infographics are simple logical fallacies. Everyone should read this article. And re-read it regularly.

The third possibility is that the opposing beliefs aren’t really at odds at all and are capable of resolution. My belief is that many beliefs are this latter kind.

Consider religious belief. Atheists tend to criticise religion on the grounds that God doesn’t exist. This is generally of no interest whatsoever to the religious believer, who speaks with God daily. The discussion goes nowhere because the belief systems are not operating at the same level. Science and religion may even be compatible with each other, as long as they don’t intrude on each other’s territory.

Left-wing and right-wing politicians often do the same. One will argue the rights of the disadvantaged; the other will discuss the benefits of the free market. They aren’t even addressing the same problem.

Often what goes wrong is that one person is too narrow in their focus, ignoring the bigger picture, or conversely they are too broad, failing to engage with the specific issue. Often both sides have a valid point but refuse to acknowledge that.

These discussions tend to go nowhere, or worse they lead to violence.

Discussion is a good starting point for resolving disputes, but unless we learn to engage with each other maturely, discussion can just as easily lead to even more disputes.


3 responses to “Opposing beliefs

  1. I have a couple of thoughts on your post, Steve. One is a definition that passes through my thoughts occasionally – Humility: the state of mind where it is possible to learn something new. Dogmatic people are simply STUCK. All their experience is filtered through the dogma and the world is a really small place. The second reaction concerns respect. I’d like people in my life that care about ideas in general, not necessarily specific ideas. If we can discuss differences with respect and move on, I like that! If there is no mutual respect, if a person can’t move on, they I don’t really need to have them in my life because no one is going to benefit from the relationship.

    • You are right, Craig. Without the possibility of changing our minds, we trap ourselves in closed worlds. I think that with regard to general vs specific ideas, it is helpful to work out what we think about the general first. Then the solution to specific problems becomes obvious. If we apply ourselves just to specific problems without thinking bigger, we are always going to be blundering about in the dark. That is actually why I wrote this blog post, which may appear at first glance not to say much. I am setting out my general principles of operation before moving on to specifics.

  2. Pingback: Left, right, left, right (part one) | Blog Blogger Bloggest

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