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March 10th, 2022


This post is dedicated to @xodvnnied

Recently, someone asked how to challenge one’s own beliefs. There’s two wonderful challenges here. First, coming up with a strategy that might challenge belief, and then of course carrying out that strategy on yourself. The medium of strategy seemed obvious. Or at least, one effective medium of strategy: Questions. The right question can cleave a person in half, metaphorically speaking.


Beliefs are quite strange things if you think about them. We generally hold that reality is a big collection of facts which are unalterable and unarguable. But, one, there are simply way too many facts, many of which we don’t even know how to find out, and two, the great number of facts we can uncover are still too numerous and complicated when taken together to make much sense of reality, and three, we also just forget things.  We just can’t entertain much objectivism because of so many limitations, so in spite of these limitations we develop cognitive heuristics, or beliefs that attempt to approximate a lot of the space occupied by unavailable facts.


A funny thing about being a human is that it can be a fact that you feel a certain way about something. The truly insidious part of this feeling business is that it’s very VERY convincing. It’s a rare skill that most people have to learn and practice - to be able to question one’s own feeling, and take it less seriously, and ultimately decide whether the feeling should be convincing or not. A tall order.


Now let’s take a fact like: someone’s feeling about the existence of God. The certain fact that there is a feeling becomes a proxy for facts that say anything about the nature of God. The two things are actually very separate, but often times we can’t see through our feelings on a given subject to see what actual facts may or may not exist about the topic. No, instead the feeling plays the role of the fact. Another way of putting it is: in the absence of facts, we go with feelings.


Trust your gut, right?


Well, unfortunately, pretty much all beliefs have to be somewhat inaccurate (or downright wrong) by default, because if we knew the facts of the situation, there would be no need for a belief. Belief is a heuristic for what to think and how to feel in the absence of some facts. Ideally, our beliefs are founded on the facts we do have, and belief smears over the holes left by unavailable facts. But for some beliefs there’s clearly quite a LOT of smearing. Which means, people are often flying blind in a life that could probably benefit from a collision or two with some hard and useful facts.


A rule of thumb about challenging beliefs: if you experience an emotional reaction, then you’re likely making progress. No one argues about if the sun will rise tomorrow - that’s just a fact, and because it’s such an obvious fact, no one gets emotional about it.


Here are some questions to help challenge beliefs:

Given a particular belief, why do you believe it?


What would your life be like if you didn’t believe it?


Does your sense of identity depend on this belief?


Would your sense of identity crumble or get damaged without this belief?


Do you fear a world where this belief is actually false?


Does the real world support or detract from the validity of your belief?


Does this belief make your life better or worse?


Does this belief make your personal relationships stronger or does it limit your potential for connecting with others?


Does this belief limit who you can understand and connect with?


If you were to have a conversation with each and every person on the planet, would this belief help or hinder your ability to relate with some portion of people? How big is that portion?


If you could have a conversation with a version of yourself that did not hold this belief, what would they say to you?

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