The loss of sacred belief?

By Razib Khan | April 30, 2011 12:32 pm

Over at the Less Wrong blog there is a post, So You’ve Changed Your Mind. This portion caught my attention:

So you’ve changed your mind. Given up your sacred belief, the one that defined so much of who you are for so long.

You are probably feeling pretty scared right now.

I reflected and realized that the various issues where I’ve held relatively strong opinions and then changed my mind were generally cases where I relied on received wisdom, looked more closely, and felt that there was some misrepresentation among the orthodox gatekeepers of wisdom. But there’s one “big” issue that I guess I have changed my mind: I used to view all utility calculations on the scale of the individual, and accepted that all entities above or below the scale of the individual were useful only as a means toward individual well being. I probably wouldn’t defend this position anymore, though I think it has a logical coherency and may still be viable in some places and times. I’m not a “communitarian” or anything like that, rather, I have an impulse to just disavow these sorts of formal constructions of how best to attain and maintain human happiness in a time and space invariant sense.

Individual and social life are often best optimized by both forethought, and a simple process of trial and error through living. Those who accept the power of a priori in matters societal are often younger from what I have experienced.

MORE ABOUT: Philosophy
  • Christopher@BorderWars

    Here’s an interesting thought, have you ever considered the difference between your beliefs and the role of government? This is often one issue that I find people have yet to consider fully. Most are perfectly happy if the government enforces the things they believe in.

    I see this most clearly in the difference between one’s religion and the desire for the state to adopt and enforce that religion. Those who don’t possess faith in some organized structure might default this question to a “moral code.” Although we don’t have a state religion in the US, we do have a core moral code that overlaps greatly with several religions, mostly in the morals that are meant to control people and keep the peace, but certainly some over-reach.

    I think this ties in with your question of measuring utility on the level of the individual. Because when we measure it elsewhere, we have to ask why and what are the conflicts we’ve created.

    For example, how a Left-Libertarian and a Right-Libertarian would view unowned property, such as the environment and unappropriated natural resources. A R-L might say “first come, fist serve, I claimed it, it’s mine” whereas a L-L might respond in a more egalitarian/redistributionist manner.

  • Darkseid

    it’s a broad one but i guess being a SWPL used to completely define who i was until i got past my mid 20s and stopped being a cliche. it’s not really a specific belief but it’s an outlook that influences almost every part of who a person is but the problem was that i had no idea that that’s what i was. i can’t really say what made me change, it could be biology, finishing college….who knows. it’s really sad to look around, though, and see so many people floating around in a fog of their own bias and willful ignorance. it sounds pretentious but it takes one to know one and i can tell one when i see it. i think part of it was when Brian Green’s book “The Elegant Universe” came out it made me get interested in science and the other major part is obviously the internet. i’d be so much less knowledgeable if it didn’t exist. thanks, internet!

  • Diogenes

    ah, beliefs. “I know nothing” that’s all I know. Nothing. I am somethings, maybe more tomorrow, but to know, believe in whatever without being it to the very marrow of our bones? Nonsense. Self-delusion. Lies.

  • Zohar

    I’ve come to the conclusion that humans have evolved to rely on their physical senses and have universally developed religious beliefs that correspond to them. Science has contradicted this sensory information and the concomitant beliefs. But the human animal is not at all adapted to the scientific world view and evolving a superman who is would entail a lot of die-off and misery. So we are left to choose between illusion and insanity.

  • Caledonian

    The most dangerous ‘sacred beliefs’ aren’t the ones we consider to be defining, but the ones we can’t even question because we don’t realize we hold them.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that humans have evolved to rely on their physical senses and have universally developed religious beliefs that correspond to them.

    *raises eyebrow* No religion that I am aware of has dogma which corresponds to the output of our senses. Religions are founded on a set of cognitive shortcuts which science eschews – and by being very, very successful, has rendered obsolete.

  • Matt B.

    That scaredness comes from having put one’s self esteem into whatever one thought was right at a particular time, rather than in one’s ability to get closer and closer to what’s right. Then when you change beliefs, it’s like you’re leaving yourself behind too. Rookie mistake. 😉

  • ohwilleke

    “So you’ve changed your mind. Given up your sacred belief, the one that defined so much of who you are for so long.

    You are probably feeling pretty scared right now.”

    I’d say that emotionally, this isn’t really right. Once you actually change your mind about something that was a core belief, the emotion is frequently liberating and something of a “what was I ever scared of?” feeling. The terrifying, gut wrenching part is when you have discovered you have a serious doubt about what you have long believed and try to imagine the parade of horribles that could manifest if you take that doubt seriously.

    Afterwards, even when some of the feared possibilities in the parade of horribles arrive as feared, the emotional impact is often far more modest than anticipated.

    The same is true of a lot of the process of growing up, which is a change of worldview as much as it is a biological process. You know you are psychologically ready to have kids when you can tell your parents that “so and so and I are planning to have kids” without worrying if your parents will disapprove or feeling so shamed that you want to keep that fact a secret. The fear you’d felt for a decade or so about saying something like that to your parents has already dissolved by the time that you say it.

  • Zohar

    Caledonian perhaps you misinterpreted me:

    Religion explains natural phenomena in a manner which we are evolutionarily adapted to maintain.

    Science proves that these explanations are wrong and offers us objectively true explanations which we are not at all adapted to and drive us crazy.

    Example: Our senses tell us that the sun rises above us in the morning and sets in the evening.
    Religion may explain that a deity lifts the sun in the morning and drops in in the evening.
    Science explains that the sun does not rise or set, but rather that we are relolving around it, spinning, force of gravity.

    You can see clearly that the religious explanation corresponds to our sensory information, WYSIWYG, while the scientific explanation does not. Furthermore, the religious explanation places us in the center of the world, while acc to science we are insignificant.

    Who can deny the incredible cognitive stress that adopting the scientific position entails?

    Note that I am not arguing that the religious explanation is objectively true!

    I have found that the new atheists have not addressed this issue, but rather maintain a naive *religious* belief that “the truth shall set you free” (John 8, 32).

  • Caledonian

    Fair enough, Zohar. Most religions put a great deal of effort into getting people to believe things that their senses won’t confirm – or that their senses even deny – and it’s not obvious that having those beliefs is any less troublesome than science’s claims.

  • Onur

    and it’s not obvious that having those beliefs is any less troublesome than science’s claims

    For the pre-scientific world, supernatural religious beliefs were much more acceptable than they are today. Science demolished the framework supernatural religious beliefs were based upon. That framework was human ignorance and gullibility.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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