Untested Beliefs, Strongly Held

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A great but subtle danger to insight: Untested beliefs, strongly held.

In order to operate in the world, we need to have beliefs. Humans simply can’t reason in total uncertainty.

The key, I think, is to separate out “I this X is likely” from “X is true.” To remember that, even as you are working as though X were true, you’re not sure it is.

Beliefs earn confidence by predicting useful results, or helping you create useful techniques. Or by being part of many experiences — though if they only explain data after the fact, it’s possible they’re not really explaining the data, but not just telling a story about it.

Reserving confidence for beliefs that have earned it changes the way we talk. By couching your explanations in your experiences, you earn other peoples’ confidence.

On the other side: Ever talked to someone with a cool idea who was entirely too sure it was true? You stop focusing on the idea and start doubting everything the person says, because we (rightly) don’t trust the judgement of anyone who’s more certain about their beliefs than the evidence warrants.

Incorrect beliefs are part of life. You won’t get anywhere if you only work in 100% certainty. The key is to hold unproven beliefs lightly, speak about them fairly, and reduce your confidence in them when the evidence first suggests they might be wrong.

And this doesn’t just apply to a belief that something is true. It also applies to any strong belief that something is false.

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