The Basis of Belief

By vp | Jun 2007 | Comments

Cross-posted from Neutral Observer.

Do we arrive at our beliefs in a systematic manner or through an intuitive process ? Are we predisposed towards some beliefs while being skeptical about others? Do life experiences play a strong role in what we believe ? Does scientific training enable us to develop a method for deciding what to believe ? Or is it that rationalists are born, not made? Is there a commonly accepted set of methods for deciding the truth value of claims?

A clutch of these questions occurred to me recently, when I got into an argument.

It all started innocently enough,  with my brother telling me about the healing powers of a newly prominent Indian guru known as Baba Ramdev. He told me of televised meetings where people would stand up from a crowd and report relief from crippling pain and/or debilitating disease, thanks to the  Baba's recommended regimen of breathing exercises known as Pranayam. Provoked by the description, I  said  that all this was a fraud. An argument ensued, in which the testimonies of reputed individuals (a neurosurgeon from the US, an army general's wife) were described to me. I was told that the Baba makes no money from these yoga camps and that I should not presume fraud. Additionally, it was pointed out that it was arrogant and presumptuous on my part to dismiss something without giving it due consideration. After considerable huffing and puffing, we finally settled it for the night by agreeing to check back in a couple of years on the Baba's progress.

I was only peripherally aware of Baba Ramdev's name, having been in India when there was a media sensation due to allegations  of ground animal remains in medicines made and sold by organizations affiliated with the Baba. The allegations came from Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India, but the government of Uttaranchal, the state where the Baba's organization is based, refuted them.  Since then, the Baba's fame seems to have grown. He is now featured on half a dozen TV channels and has quite a nifty website. He has also conducted a Pranayam  camp in the UK.

When I was thinking later about the whole argument, it occurred to me that I may have been hasty in proclaiming fraud. There may be several reasons to withhold judgment when we come across seemingly inexplicable curative powers:

  • Medicine has always involved a fair amount of uncertainty and consequently, faith in a healer or healing process. Many medical or quasi-medical practices do not have clear scientific explanations yet seem to provide significant relief to individuals - think of psychoanalysis, accupuncture, homeopathy etc.
  • Rigorous scientific foundations for medical practice are still being established. Anecdotal evidence of this comes from the recent trend called "evidence-based medicine" (I shudder to think how medicine was practiced before they actually started using evidence to justify it).
  • The placebo effect is well recognized in medicine, with a general rule of thumb that about a third of patients show improvements in their conditions when given a placebo. People are known to feel an alleviation of symptoms when they are psychologically well-disposed to a healing practice.

Medicine is by no means unique in presenting issues that are difficult to evaluate or reject offhand. One topical example is that of global warming. While the basic ideas of heat-trapping gases are easy enough to follow and accept, the actual evidence of temperature rises is in the form of detailed empirical data. The predictions are based on sophisticated computer-based models of climate change. Given that most of us have do not have the wherewithal or the desire to check the data and models for ourselves, we are left with no choice but to accept the wisdom of scientists working in the discipline.

Further, several scientific disciplines are sufficiently complex that immediate acceptance or refutation of claims is tough, even if you have advanced training in the discipline. Here are some (admittedly difficult) examples related to my academic background:

  • A  new material that is a superconductor at 300 K.
  • When a liquid is blasted with ultrasonic waves, the tiny bubbles of gas that are created  implode in a burst of heat and light. The core temperature of the bubbles can reach 15000 C, causing  nuclear fusion.
  • The production of element 118 from a bombardment of lead by krypton.

The first two claims in this list would evoke immediate skepticism, but the third one does not. It turns out however, that the third one is the only one clearly known to have resulted from a falsification of data. The first two (sets of) claims are unsupported by repeatable experiments. In these and many other cases, you as an individual have to depend on the testimony of those you consider reliable.

My point in going off on this tangent is that the world is complex and reliable testimony is a perfectly valid basis for belief. In that case, why does the testimony of reputedly upright people fail to convince me of the curative powers of Pranayam as taught by Baba Ramdev, whereas my brother tended to believe in them ?

To get back to the questions at the beginning of the post, I think that:

  • Skepticism arises from intuition.
  • We are predisposed to believing in certain things.
  • Life experiences do condition our attitudes, but unless they are particularly dramatic, rarely affect an attitude reversal.
  • Scientific training may suggest procedures (mathematical or logical consistency, experimental repeatability, double-blind test protocols) for verifying or discrediting belief, but generally does not make a rational skeptic out of a believer.
  • Unfortunately, there is no commonly accepted method for deciding the truth value of claims. Various systems of epistemology recognize the validity of perception, inference and testimony as bases of belief, but do not give you an algorithm for validating belief.

I know that each of these is a contentious assertion. Taking a cue from a 17th century French lawyer, I have to tell you that I have truly marvellous proofs of these propositions which this blog post is too narrow to contain.

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