The impossibility of reasoning a believer

How to make a believer see reason? How can you make a believer accept a truth about the world that contradicts his belief system? You cannot.

I am not narrowing it down to religion here. I am talking about people that hold a (relatively) strong belief about an aspect of the world -the way they see it. It starts from religious views obviously, as these are the ultimate manifestations of irrationality, and it can extend to medication, cultural values, traditions, and more (many more!). And for one that holds such a belief, it is extremely difficult (if not impossible in most of the cases) to realize or even accept his error on his own. But even with “outside” help, this is an almost unfeasible task.

There is actually a very simple reason behind the impossibility of reasoning a believer. You cannot reason someone out of a belief he didn’t reason himself in in the first place! Being a matter of belief, one doesn’t think rationally before believing. One does not reason himself into an irrational belief. So how can you reason him out of it?

But how does one get himself into that irrational mess in the first place? A number of cases can be identified here:

  • First, we have the never-ending, all powerful, good and trusted, children indoctrination. This is good stuff. Really good stuff. An easy to bend and manipulate construct, the immature brain of a child, will accept anything an authority figure (such as his/her parents) will say at face value. And we all see this happening all the time, everywhere around the world, especially in fundamentalist-controlled countries.

    But here’s what puzzles me: a child will eventually grow up to reject Santa Claus, Tooth Fairies, “eat your food or a dragon will take you” threats etc. But for some weird reason, it seems impossible to reject the old white bearded guy in the sky that controls our lives and listens to all our prayers! How come? How can anyone find Santa Claus or Tooth Fairies irrational childish stories, but still accept the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God concept?!?

    But once again this is not only about religion. Parents that are convinced that their favorite kind of woo is true, will pass this down to their children without even noticing it some times! Simply by raising their children within the context of the brand of woo they subscribe to, is usually enough for the children to accept it and continue spreading it like a virus. Raise your children without vaccines but instead with, say, acupuncture, and you can bet that, if they are lucky enough to survive (!), they will have acupuncture embedded in their brains with a value of “true”. Or like those stupid parents that let their child die of pneumonia because instead of taking it to the hospital, they prayed for its health…

  • Moving on, we have the also common personal “defining” or “revealing” moment in one’s life. A personal experience that made one “realize” that something is actually true (despite the huge improbability or implausibility of it). The rational part of the brain (if one existed on the subject under question) is turned off for a period of time long enough to integrate this new irrational belief into his neurons.

    We have seen that happen so many times as well: from the all so ubiquitous post-hoc ergo propter-hoc, to miraculous revelations. The former is typically assigned to alternative medicine proponents that underestimate the absurdity and misdirectionality (my word :-)) of the human brain and confuse correlation with causation. The latter contributes to all sorts of stuff, from accepting God/Jesus/Buddha, to believing in UFOs, ghosts, haunted places etc.

    Typical examples: “I had a case of very bad cold and then I took this snake oil and whooooa, my cold disappeared within the next few days!”, “I was sleeping in the middle of the house and heard some strange noises from the attic. It could not have been natural noises because my attic is clean and tidy. Therefore, it was a ghost!” and many, many more…

  • Arguments from authority in conjunction with anecdotes originating from familiar persons also contribute significantly to the spreading of irrational beliefs. You can only trust so much an “expert” or a scientist. If he is spitting out bullshit then its time to confront him. Especially when “experts” in one field start making assumptions and promoting their ideas for other fields.

    As for anecdotes, they are fast becoming (actually they already are) a plague especially in the field of alternative medicine, supernatural phenomena, parapsychology, and conspiracy theories. A typical case would go like this: “a friend of my cousin’s husband, had terminal cancer, but was completely cured by [enter your favorite woo here]! I am telling you this thing really works!”

    We all know what anecdotes are good for: to help identify a trend or decide whether something demands further research or not. They are not good as evidence! They do not constitute evidence! And, a large collection of anecdotes is still not evidence! Hell, most of the anecdotes used for irrational medical treatments aren’t even well documented! They resemble more testimonials than anything else! And we all know what testimonials are good for: nothing! Well, not nothing: they are indeed good in selling enlargement pills and other supplements to gullible people…

What went wrong and irrationality is now such a potent force on this world? Why are we going back to the dark ages? Why this attack on science over the last years? Why the hell will people believe any stupid thing anyone tells them and then propagate it?!?

There is a reason why we are here today, and why we enjoy such a quality of life. And this reason is science. Science has helped promote humanity to today’s levels. Science is responsible for all the technological advances. Science is responsible for the huge advancements in medicine and the subsequent increase in life expectancy.

So where the hell did all these ungrateful irrational ignorants come from?