Out of respect, we tend to operate on the assumption that people want to believe what’s true. We give people (and especially ourselves) the benefit of the doubt through the assumption that we are realists. Of course, we recognize that people sometimes cling to unrealistic ideas and that what we want to believe and what is true are not always the same things. Still, there’s a prevailing assumption that not believing what’s true is irrational and abnormal. Normal people just want the facts.
In a dubious sense it’s true. I want facts to support my beliefs. Nothing would please me more than science proving conclusively that my cherished beliefs are 100% accurate. But what if it doesn’t?
If the evidence doesn’t prove me right and I cling to my beliefs, how likely am I to get away with it? The answer depends in part on how much time passes. If I believe that closing my eyes will keep cars from running me over, I might get by for a while, but not for long. The longer I believe something specious, the greater the chance that facts will set me straight.
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
If my life were going to end in a week, I could probably believe anything. A week isn’t much time for reality to contradict me. The longer I live the more practical my beliefs need to be. We don’t pursue the absolute truth, just life-sized truths. Most of us search for just a little meaning, not all the meaning possible. Our beliefs need only be as accurate as our lives are long.
. . . and as accurate as our culture’s life is long. A culture like ours that has been and intends to go on maintaining a continuous record of what it learns, tends to accumulate accuracies at an accelerating rate.
Aristotle thought rocks fell to the ground because they desired to be in their proper place. His belief was consistent with the appealing sense that the Gods had designated a place for everything and that each place followed its own rules. Indeed, he believed the heavens followed rules entirely different from the rules that governed the Earth. Aristotle’s story provided a comforting sense of order that Christians later found compatible with their own cherished beliefs in a God with a plan who set everything in motion from a realm apart from Earthly reality.
It was over 2000 years before Newton proved Aristotle wrong not just about rocks but about the locality of laws. Demonstrating that the laws of gravity applied on Earth as they did in heaven, he gave us a basis from which science continues to build toward an understanding of the universe’s symmetrical and uniform laws. And now look at us, stuck with a record of Newton’s facts, facts that ward off Aristotle’s notions for all eternity—or at least for as long as we maintain a record of it, and not only a record of new facts with new implications but also new methods and evidentiary standards—improved ways to acquire and record more reliable facts that we are also not likely to forget.
With our culture’s accumulating time, detailed record, and methods of inference, science has increased pressure on us to face facts. But the reasons to cherish our beliefs haven’t gone away. Like tectonic plates grinding into each other in the slow motion of geological time, our cherished beliefs and our increasingly accurate accounts have been on a collision course for a long time.
It’s the conflict between our pursuit of liked stories and of the likely stories. The liked stories are the ones that we embrace for their embraceable implications—the way they fill us with hope or relieve us from anxiety, answer our current questions or heal our wounds. The likely stories are ones we embrace for their perceived accuracy, whether we find them comforting or not.
When it comes to liked stories there’s some accounting for taste—but not by an assumption that people like the same stories. My life history makes me run toward some stories and away from others. I run away from stories I used to embrace because they ended up costing me too much. And I meet people running the opposite direction, people who were burnt by the very stories I now embrace and are embracing the stories that burnt me in my past.
Stories have implications, or else we would be indifferent to them. A universe set in motion by God’s good intentions implies that God endorses our good intentions, that he’ll make sure that in the end our good behavior will pay off. The God story implies the existence of someone who already knows where we belong, the availability of solutions to all our doubts, the presence of cheese worth finding in the mazes we navigate in our daily lives, and the assurance that if we quiet our minds enough to hear God’s plan we’ll get the cheese. No wonder some of us like stories like this.
The story of a universe that didn’t start with God’s good intentions can also be very likable to some of us. Think of the possibilities. If we’re not strapped down to God’s purposes then we can invent some of our own. We can get those pushy people off our backs—the folks who chide us because we’re not living up to God’s purpose as they see it.
Obviously, the stories we’re subjected to matter to us. In this respect, people should have a say in which stories they experience. Our culture grants people the right to believe what they want, but also to expose themselves to the stories they want. What is really “true”? You’re free to choose.
Freedom to choose because it matters reminds me of the legal concept of “standing”: the right to challenge a law or action. The right is earned by demonstrating a direct personal consequence from that law or action. You can’t sue an acquaintance’s ex-husband because you don’t like the way he is raising her kids. You don’t have legal standing because you can’t prove that his child-rearing practices have personal consequences for you.
Since stories have consequences, each of us has the equivalent of legal standing, the right to challenge what stories we’re subjected to. In our culture we honor this standing through the First Amendment. When it comes to picking liked stories, our society is, to a remarkable extent, committed to a “go ahead, knock yourself out” attitude.
But there’s a counterpart to standing that matters to the pursuit of the likely, or accurate story. You could call it “sitting”—who gets to sit in judgment, to interpret facts, to determine when the facts are sufficient to claim an accurate interpretation. How does one earn the right of sitting?
In the pursuit of the liked story everyone is entitled to sitting rights. You are entitled to sit in judgment, to make your own interpretation of the facts. I mean, if the story matters to you, who am I to tell you that you don’t know how to pick an accurate story? Pick any story you like; call it accurate if you want.
The pursuit of the likely story is a different game with a built-in conflict. Since the likely story has consequences for each of us, everyone has standing rights. But sitting rights are a different matter. As our culture accumulates knowledge and methods like Newton’s, that not only seem to yield us greater explanatory power, but are proven over and over to be more accurate by the technical feats they enable us to perform, the right to judge an idea’s accuracy is something earned by meeting our culture’s ever stricter evidentiary standards.