They’re Not Lying

Do you have friends who say things that are obviously wrong?

Maybe it’s politics, religion, gender, or some other touchy subject.

This might help: Your friends aren’t lying.

And they’re not evil, either, unless you have very bad judgment about choosing friends.

That doesn’t make their beliefs correct. But it might help you to be more patient and tolerant — and even more open-minded, since you could be wrong just as easily as your friends.

Remember what it means to tell a lie: You say something that you know is false.

Whether true or not, harmful or not, most of people’s beliefs don’t rise to that level.

Our minds evolved for action. We’ve simply re-purposed them for more abstract kinds of thinking. Our evolutionary ancestors needed to find food, escape predators, and of course, procreate. They didn’t need to decide tricky questions about morals, science, economics, or about events that occurred far away, that they never saw first-hand.

Thus, our minds aren’t entirely reliable in those areas. We can use our minds that way, just like we can use a hammer to eat spaghetti, but sometimes it gets a little messy.

Because our minds evolved for action, they’re optimized for that purpose. As a result:

  • People assume that things they hear are true if they see no reason not to believe them.
  • Especially if the beliefs conform to what they already believe, or the beliefs appeal to them emotionally.
  • Or if the beliefs signal their status, virtue, or membership in a group.
  • And if they pass the “sniff test.” When people encounter beliefs that they’re already inclined to like, they don’t sniff very hard. They just believe.

Here’s an example from my own life. I hate to exercise, so I watch video courses to distract myself while I do it. I had been watching a course about astronomy.

The professor said something (just a verbal slip) that I would have known was false if I’d given it much thought. But the statement came from an authoritative source and there was no obvious reason for me to question it. Therefore, I just filed it in my memory as a fact. When I later mentioned it to one of my brothers, he pointed out that the statement was wrong. Only then did I think about it and realize my mistake. Our minds are full of stuff like that.

So be patient and charitable, both with others and with yourself.

We all believe things that are incorrect or unsupported by evidence. That doesn’t mean we’re lying. It just means we’re fallible.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Human Relations, Life, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.