I Don’t Care What You Believe, I Am Interested In How You Think



In the U.S. today, the default mode of thinking is motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is an ineffective, dangerous way of approaching the world, as it leads to incorrect and unreliable conclusions. Motivated reasoning allows our emotions to guide our perception of the world, instead of reason. It is by this method that most people claim to have an informed opinion of the world, but without doing any work, and without having to confront any of their biases and pre-conceived notions.

The way reasoning works is as follows:

We start with the basic, objective facts. Data should be from a reliable source, and it should be as dry as possible. “Just the facts, ma’am.” Next we ask questions about the data, and through this process, we try to come to conclusions with some degree of certainty. Our degree of certainty in our conclusion should be conditional and have some approximate weight to it that is less than 100%. We call these conditional conclusions “beliefs.”

But a rational belief is different from a pre-conceived, irrational belief. Many beliefs are “given” to a person through their upbringing, tradition, social conditioning, and peer pressure. We all begin life with these kinds of beliefs. Typically, as we grow, we find occasions to question the beliefs we were taught as young people. And if we are lucky, this is when we learn to rely on reason to derive our beliefs from basic facts, rather than simply echoing the beliefs we were handed from others.

However, this is plainly not the case with the majority of people. If it were true that a majority of people reassess their beliefs upon reaching intellectual maturity, then we should not expect that there would be a “lineage” of beliefs, such that we can predict that someone whose parents are Republicans will also likely be a Republican, or someone whose parents are into New Age religion is also into New Age religion. In fact, it has been my impression that such predictions are very accurate in the U.S. From this observation, I conclude that actually almost nobody engages in rational reassessment of beliefs, and so most beliefs are preconceived beliefs with no rational basis at all.

When I attempt to engage in conversation about many topics with most people, it is incredibly obvious that their beliefs are not rational. Even the most basic questions lead them to become defensive, and to insinuate that I am a secret operative working for “the other side.” In other words, they are simply echoing received wisdom, often based on their tribal membership in some group — be it a religious group, or a political group — and so they assume that everyone else is also basing their beliefs on tribalism.

When it becomes apparent that you have not reached any of your beliefs through rational means, I quickly lose interest in further conversation with you on any “serious” topics. This is because I am only interested in using reason to understand the world, and irrational beliefs pose a major barrier to that understanding. For us to converse would be a waste of time for both parties, since we have different, and opposing, goals.

I am happy to discuss any topic with someone who holds a contrary opinion, but only insofar as doing so can help me learn something about how they think. If they have some different way of thinking that has led them to believe in a doctrine that I oppose, I would like to hear that reasoning, and the discussion can be a fruitful one. On rare occasion, I do encounter someone like this, and it is always a pleasant discussion, even if I still disagree with the person after hearing their arguments.

In short, I really don’t care what you believe. I am far more interested in how you think.

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