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Since erroneous beliefs are often held just as strongly as true beliefs, it becomes a difficult question how they are to be distinguished from true beliefs. How are we to know, in a given case, that our belief is not erroneous? This is a question of the very greatest difficulty, to which no completely satisfactory answer is possible. --Bertrand Russell.
I must say that I found the discussion in the comments on a/k/a’s offering, The Mendacious Truth, fascinating and am overwhelmed with a compulsion to follow up in an admittedly tangential way.
There is something in the human psyche that causes us to mistake our own beliefs for facts, probably a trait that evolved over millennia for some salutary survival purpose. This trait causes all sorts of problems for us.
If I hit my own thumb with a hammer, I experience immediate pain. I consider this a safe fact. But if I propose this as a universal truth, I am already on slippery ground. If I hit someone else’s thumb with a hammer, I must rely upon his or her report to me that he or she does also experience immediate pain. The universality of that pain in the circumstances does seems to be true to me, however, because it coincides with my own experience. When we drift farther afield, however, more serious problems develop.
I happen to believe that our species is careering toward multiple catastrophes of unimaginable proportions as a result of man-made climate change. I believe that we have already blown past the much discussed “tipping point” and that the advent of the legendary Four Horsemen—War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death—will be sooner rather than later. This is in spite of the fact that I do not have an apocalyptic bent of mind. So strong is my belief in that regard that I have difficulty taking seriously discussions of consumer capitalist growth, tax incentives for growth, consumer confidence, consumer credit, etc., and Jobs! Those subjects seem quaintly comical to me in the context within which I view them as a result of my strong belief. (I in no way intend to demean the seriousness with which such subjects are regarded by those who are tasked with attempting to feed their babies right now in the present.)
Yet, if I were to be honest with myself, I would have to admit that my strong belief is based upon "facts" that are in no way comparable to the hammer on my own thumb. I am relying on others for purported facts that have caused me to believe as I do, others whom I myself have chosen to trust for reasons that sound superficial when I try to articulate them.
I regard the following statement as one of the most honest that any human being can make: “I strongly believe this [whatever] . . . but I could be wrong.” So brutally honest is that statement that few can make it. It is an impossible statement for those in the business of selling their own beliefs.