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Why do you believe what you do? Run some diagnostics on it
Does what you believe in come from reason? Or just your community?
Religious parents tend to beget religious children, liberal educational institutions tend to produce liberal graduates, blue states stay mostly blue, and red ones stay mostly red. Of course, some people, through their own sheer intelligence, might be able to see through fallacious reasoning, detect biases and, as a result, resist the social influences that lead most of us to belief. But I'm not that special, and so learning how susceptible my beliefs are to these sorts of influences makes me a bit squirmy.
Let's work with a hypothetical example. Suppose I'm raised among atheists and firmly believe that God doesn't exist. I realise that, had I grown up in a religious community, I would almost certainly have believed in God. Furthermore, we can imagine that, had I grown up a theist, I would have been exposed to all the considerations that I take to be relevant to the question of whether God exists: I would have learned science and history, I would have heard all the same arguments for and against the existence of God. The difference is that I would interpret this evidence differently. Divergences in belief result from the fact that people weigh the evidence for and against theism in varying ways. It's not as if pooling resources and having a conversation would result in one side convincing the other – we wouldn't have had centuries of religious conflict if things were so simple. Rather, each side will insist that the balance of considerations supports its position – and this insistence will be a product of the social environments that people on that side were raised in.
The you-just-believe-that-because challenge is meant to make us suspicious of our beliefs, to motivate us to reduce our confidence, or even abandon them completely. But what exactly does this challenge amount to? The fact that I have my particular beliefs as a result of growing up in a certain community is just a boring psychological fact about me and is not, in itself, evidence for or against anything so grand as the existence of God. So, you might wonder, if these psychological facts about us are not themselves evidence for or against our worldview, why would learning them motivate any of us to reduce our confidence in such matters?
The method of believing whatever one's social surroundings tell one to believe is not reliable. So, when I learn about the social influences on my belief, I learn that I've formed my beliefs using an unreliable method. If it turns out that my thermometer produces its readings using an unreliable mechanism, I cease to trust the thermometer. Similarly, learning that my beliefs were produced by an unreliable process means that I should cease to trust them too.
But in the hypothetical example, do I really hold that my beliefs were formed by an unreliable mechanism? I might think as follows: 'I formed my atheistic beliefs as a result of growing up in my particular community, not as a result of growing up in some community or another. The fact that there are a bunch of communities out there that inculcate their members with false beliefs doesn't mean that my community does. So I deny that my beliefs were formed by an unreliable method. Luckily for me, they were formed by an extremely reliable method: they are the result of growing up among intelligent well-informed people with a sensible worldview.'
The thermometer analogy, then, is inapt. Learning that I would have believed differently if I'd been raised by a different community is not like learning that my thermometer is unreliable. It's more like learning that my thermometer came from a store that sells a large number of unreliable thermometers. But the fact that the store sells unreliable thermometers doesn't mean I shouldn't trust the readings of my particular thermometer. After all, I might have excellent reasons to think that I got lucky and bought one of the few reliable ones.
There's something fishy about the 'I got lucky' response because I would think the very same thing if I were raised in a community that I take to believe falsehoods. If I'm an atheist, I might think: 'Luckily, I was raised by people who are well-educated, take science seriously, and aren't in the grip of old-fashioned religious dogma.' But if I were a theist, I would think something along the lines of: 'If I'd been raised among arrogant people who believe that there is nothing greater than themselves, I might never have personally experienced God's grace, and would have ended up with a completely distorted view of reality.' The fact that the 'I got lucky' response is a response anyone could give seems to undermine its legitimacy.
Despite the apparent fishiness of the 'I got lucky' response in the case of religious belief, this response is perfectly sensible in other cases. Return to the thermometers. Suppose that, when I was looking for a thermometer, I knew very little about the different types and picked a random one off the shelf. After learning that the store sells many unreliable thermometers, I get worried and do some serious research. I discover that the particular thermometer I bought is produced by a reputable company whose thermometers are extraordinarily reliable. There's nothing wrong with thinking: 'How lucky I am to have ended up with this excellent thermometer!'
What's the difference? Why does it seem perfectly reasonable to think I got lucky about the thermometer I bought but not to think that I got lucky with the community I was raised in? Here's the answer: my belief that the community I was raised in is a reliable one is itself, plausibly, a result of growing up in that community. If I don't take for granted the beliefs that my community instilled in me, then I'll find that I have no particular reason to think that my community is more reliable than others. If we're evaluating the reliability of some belief-forming method, we can't use beliefs that are the result of that very method in support of that method's reliability.
So, if we ought to abandon our socially influenced beliefs, it is for the following reason: deliberation about whether to maintain or abandon a belief, or set of beliefs, due to the worries about how the beliefs were formed must be conducted from a perspective that doesn't rely on the beliefs in question. Here's another way of putting the point: when we're concerned about some belief we have, and are wondering whether to give it up, we're engaged in doubt. When we doubt, we set aside some belief or cluster of beliefs, and we wonder whether the beliefs in question can be recovered from a perspective that doesn't rely on those beliefs. Sometimes, we learn that they can be recovered once they've been subject to doubt, and other times we learn that they can't.
What's worrisome about the realisation that our moral, religious and political beliefs are heavily socially influenced is that many ways of recovering belief from doubt are not available to us in this case. We can't make use of ordinary arguments in support of these beliefs because, in the perspective of doubt, the legitimacy of those very arguments is being questioned: after all, we are imagining that we find the arguments for our view more compelling than the arguments for alternative views as a result of the very social influences with which we're concerned. In the perspective of doubt, we also can't take the fact that we believe what we do as evidence for the belief's truth, because we know that we believe what we do simply because we were raised in a certain environment, and the fact that we were raised here rather than there is no good reason to think that our beliefs are the correct ones.
It's important to realise that the concern about beliefs being socially influenced is worrisome only if we're deliberating about whether to maintain belief from the perspective of doubt. For recall that the facts about how my particular beliefs were caused are not, in themselves, evidence for or against any particular religious, moral or political outlook. So if you were thinking about whether to abandon your beliefs from a perspective in which you're willing to make use of all of the reasoning and arguments that you normally use, you would simply think that you got lucky – just as you might have got lucky buying a particular thermometer, or reaching the train moments before it shuts its doors, or striking up a conversation on an airplane with someone who ends up being the love of your life.
There's no general problem with thinking that we've been lucky – sometimes we are. The worry is just that, from the perspective of doubt, we don't have the resources to justify the claim that we've been lucky. What's needed to support such a belief is part of what's being questioned.
- We Know What You Do, But What Do You Believe? - Big Think ›
- 10 atheist quotes that will make you question religion ›
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.