I recently read The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman. The book’s central idea can be summarised through the quote:
“We typically don’t know enough individually to form knowledgeable, nuanced views about new technologies and scientific developments. We simply have no choice but to adopt the positions of those we trust. Our attitudes and those of the people around us thus become mutually reinforcing. And the fact that we have a strong opinion makes us think that there must be a firm basis for our opinion, so we think we know a lot, more than in fact we do.”
Human minds have a limited capacity for storing and processing complex information. We hold beliefs that we can’t fully explain or justify.
For example, if someone asked me why toilets work, I can explain myself using basic reasons such as “toilets use water to flush away waste”, but unless I understand the physics and engineering of how the toilet works, I cannot fully explain why the toilet works. But just because I don’t know how something works, it doesn’t mean I won’t trust it. I only need the agreement of the wider community to teach me that it does work.
In other words, people form beliefs based on what seems to work for them.
The same can be applied to our beliefs about politics and religion. I don’t need to know how something works, but if my wider community tells me it does work, I am highly likely to trust them.
If I live in a capitalist society that teaches I need to work eight hours each day to earn money to facilitate my lifestyle, and if everyone around me happily goes along with it, I am likely to do the same. Because it seems to work.
If I grow up with parents and friends who don’t believe in God, and they seem to live happy and fulfilling lives, I am likely to adopt their beliefs. Because it seems to work.
If I grow up with parents and friends who do believe in God, and they seem to live happy and fulfilling lives, I am likely to adopt their beliefs. Because it seems to work.
This is why people believed the Earth was flat. Not many people’s belief in the Earth’s flatness was based on their own observation. Most people simply trusted the community around them who claimed to know. Because it seemed to work.
For the same reason, people now believe the Earth is round. Not many people’s belief in the Earth’s roundness is based on an assessment of evidence. Most people simply trust the scientific community around them who claim to know. Because it seems to work.
Of course, I am not saying that God does or doesn’t exist, or that the Earth is flat.
Simply said, a lot of our beliefs are actually based on faith in other people, not facts which we have processed ourselves. We are often caught in an illusion of thinking we understand things more fully than we actually do. Evidently, this tendency to adopt the beliefs of the wider community can lead us to believe things which are actually false.