, Salem, MA


October 27, 2012

Watson: How we decide what to believe


At almost any age, but increasingly as we get older, before you or I witness a new event, or receive a new piece of information, we already have ideas and preconceptions about how the world works and how it should work. We know how we have lived, we have observed how others have lived, and we’ve drawn conclusions about what is effective, fair, sane, dangerous, and healthy. In short, whether we are aware of it or not, we’ve got a big set of strong opinions and coping strategies with which we navigate the world.

To some extent, we are prisoners of our own experiences. We are all apt to generalize, assume, and project, based on our experiences. And we’re apt to push new information into narratives that we already hold. Or worse, ignore it.

This is all relative, of course. If we can accept that we’re always seeing only pieces of the full reality, and if we make a conscious effort to not be stunted and defined by the natural limitations of our own experiences, then we can find ways to grow, learn more, better comprehend the lives and viewpoints of others, and develop larger capacities to consider ideas and possibilities far outside of our experiences.

This brings us back to my first questions — what to believe, and how to sort through contradictory claims and competing analyses.

There is no short answer. Examining beliefs and events is a life-long process. The world is not static, and it will never stop challenging what we think we know. But like the best scientists, we can be aware of our biases, set them aside periodically, then pose hypotheses, gather and observe data and evidence, and then test and compare and process new information against the backdrop of our opinions and belief systems.

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