You’re Doing It Backward


By N.S. Palmer

You’re doing it backward.

Well, maybe not you, but a lot of people. They’re doing it backward, according to Saadia Gaon (882 – 942 CE), the Jewish philosopher who updated Aristotle for the 10th century.

Most people first decide what they want to believe, and then only afterward look for evidence to support it. They consider their belief so obviously true that evidence is a mere formality.

Because their belief is so obviously true, nobody could be mistaken about it. Those who deny the belief must simply be evil, so consumed by hatred that they intentionally reject the truth.

Pick almost any contested issue: Gay marriage, pro or con. Abortion. God’s existence. The truth of the Bible. The purpose of government. The male-female pay gap. Climate change. Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The BDS movement. People make up their minds first, then pick the evidence they like and ignore the rest (called “confirmation bias”).

Saadia knew better. In his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, he laid out the correct order. Start with the evidence: What you see, what you hear, and so forth. Add self-evident logical principles (from “the intuition of the intellect”), such as: If whatever is A is B, and X is A, then X is B. Use the principles to deduce your conclusions:

[These] are the bases of truth: Knowledge gained by direct observation, the intuition of the intellect, and knowledge which is inferred by logical necessity.*

The conclusions come at the end of the process, not at the beginning:

The data with which [we] start are concrete, whereas the objectives that they strive for are abstract.**

Saadia used different words, but reached the same conclusions as modern cognitive psychology. According to psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, people usually make moral judgments in two steps:

  1. “Seeing that:” What pattern does this situation match, and how do I feel about the people involved?
  2. “Reasoning why:” What reasons can I find to justify what I’ve already decided to believe?***

In contemporary America, the most popular pattern is victimization: “Someone’s being mean to someone.” And sometimes, people really are mean to each other.

But as Saadia would have advised, it’s good to look at the evidence before making up your mind.


* Rosenblatt, S., p. 16
** Rosenblatt, S., p. 87.
*** Haidt, J. p. 49.

Works Cited

Haidt, Jonathan (2012), The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon Books, New York.

Rosenblatt, Samuel, translator (1948), Saadia Gaon: The Book of Beliefs and Opinions. Yale University Press, New Haven.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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