by Horace Alexander | 21 June 2023 |
Our childhood and early life experiences often shape what we will believe as adults. As we develop we acquire biases and make assumptions that influence how we view life and the world. Some later experiences may cause us to modify our beliefs, but for the most part we tend to think as adults the way we were taught to think as children. The Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). The Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Give me a child until he is seven years old, and I will show you the man.”
One of the results of this is a phenomenon called “belief preservation.” When we strongly believe something, or strongly desire it to be true, we shape our perceptions and arguments so as to preserve those beliefs.
Belief preservation may mean holding on to beliefs even when the evidence points in a different direction. Evidence becomes less important than what we choose to believe. Rather than letting evidence determine what we believe, we look for evidence that supports what we already believe, and we ignore or avoid evidence that goes against our belief. We regard evidence against our belief as bad evidence and let our belief determine what evidence we will accept.
If we find some evidence for our belief, even if that evidence is flimsy, we will let that flimsy bit of evidence outweigh a mountain of evidence that does not support our belief.
Of course, it would be far better if in the first place we use evidence to guide us in choosing beliefs rather than letting beliefs be the basis for accepting evidence.
A classic case illustrating this was the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego. They came to believe that the earth was doomed to destruction, and they would escape with the help of a UFO that would be visible behind the Hale-Bopp comet when it entered the western hemisphere. When the comet appeared they bought a high-powered telescope for $3,645 and used it to look behind the comet to see the UFO that they believed would rescue them.
What did they see? Nothing! Most people would think that in the absence of this key piece of evidence they should reexamine their belief. Instead, the cult said, “We bought this expensive telescope and it’s no darn good!” They proceeded with their plans to commit mass suicide to join the UFO that wasn’t there. They let their belief override their common-sense evaluation of the evidence.
This same pattern is repeated—not usually with such dreadful results—with many kinds of irrational beliefs. So strong is the desire to not have to change their beliefs that otherwise smart people will maintain loyalty to a political figure or a religious leader even in the face of strong, clear evidence against him—sometimes even in the face of the leader’s own admissions of his guilt!
In The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press, 2005) psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote,
Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore, and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.
An Adventist example
An example closer to home is the Adventist doctrine of the investigative judgment. Church pioneers were clearly wrong when they expected the return of Jesus Christ on October 22, 1844. They were reluctant, however, to admit the error. Hiram Edson (speaking many decades later) claimed to have had a vision right afterwards while walking through a field: Jesus, who apparently had been hanging around in the outer areas of the heavenly sanctuary since His ascension, had that night entered the Holy of Holies.
This was later modified to say that in that new apartment Jesus began an investigation into the lives of people based on the information stored in a heavenly database.
All of this is happening, quite conveniently, “up there” in heaven, far above the reach of human verification. It was soon accepted as fact in order to maintain what many had invested in. They could say that October 22, 1844 was not a total error after all, but a simple misunderstanding. So we can still believe in the imminent Second Coming.
This is belief preservation.
Monitoring your beliefs
A critical thinker is aware of the phenomenon of belief preservation and monitors his or her thinking to recognize its effect on how we think. The thinker is willing to consider those arguments that may go against their belief. The thinker even seeks out divergent opinions before settling on a position on an issue. He or she consciously exercises a willingness to change one’s mind when the evidence accumulates against the belief. These mental activities do not come easily but can help to protect us from self-deceptive, cultic thinking.
The cross section of a shell of the nautilus pompilious, or chambered nautilus, could be a metaphor for how to structure and manage our changing beliefs. It begins as a tiny organism barely visible to the naked eye. As it grows, it builds a larger chamber than the one it occupied, moves into it, and closes off the previous one. If it fails to do this, it will outgrow its current compartment and die from the restriction of its body. A beautiful spiral is created by building increasingly larger compartments.
Many humans refuse to expand their understanding or their perceptions of reality. They remain confined to the narrow chambers of their upbringing. In nature, as in human experience, stagnation is a precursor to death, and growth is a requirement for the maintenance of life. When the evidence warrants it, we should not continue to support beliefs that do not make sense in the modern world.
The chambered nautilus does not destroy the compartments that it no longer occupies. It carries them as a legacy to its growth and development. They become part of its personal infrastructure that give buoyancy and maneuverability. Likewise, let us build on our early beliefs, and use them as points of reference by which we can see how far we have come and mark the direction our beliefs are taking.
Horace B. Alexander M.A., Ed.S., Ed.D., is a Professor Emeritus of English with a specialty in The Literature of the Bible. The author of the novel Moon Over Port Royal, he has also served as a school principal, District Superintendent, Dean of Instruction, and College Vice President. He resides in Loma Linda CA.