Thursday, August 14, 2008

What I believe

Some well-meaning extended family member recently sent around a link to an article written by a well-known conservative, listing "what he believed." I found it very hard to read, because I disagreed so strongly with what he said, and it bothered me to think that my own family didn't know what I believed. I became scared that I would never be able to tell them about my beliefs without seeming to be spitting on their values (the same way I felt that the article spit on mine).

I decided to try. What I found is that it's very hard for me to come up with a clean bullet list like he did. And maybe that's for the best.

See, I believe very few things.

Belief is a scary word to me, because it denotes an attachment to something which isn't known for sure. I try to avoid that kind of attachment, as it can create an unnecessary resistance to change and growth.

If I tell you I believe something, I will usually be able to tell you why. There are some exceptions - statements of value which are very difficult to explain. But I can try. If you ask if I believe something, the answer will often be "I don't know," because up until I was asked it wasn't necessary for me to form a belief.

Most things I believe, I believe because I have seen sufficient evidence of their truth. For example, we know that usually introducing diversity into a system makes it hardier. This applies in a trivial way to food sources (a disease which targets a single strain of plant cannot wipe out your civilization's food supply if you eat a variety of foods) and financial investments (a single market's failure cannot ruin your portfolio), among other systems. You can extend this out into many areas. A team can solve a variety of problems if people on that team bring a variety of perspectives to that problem. So, an ideal workforce (of people who are trying to solve diverse problems) is made up of diverse backgrounds. So, I "believe in diversity." Any situation where you want me to believe diversity weakens a system, you must try very hard to convince me.

As such, I "believe" that societies should not restrict human diversity. The USA has benefited in the past from its diverse population, and will benefit more from a more diverse population. If you want to justify a limitation in diversity, you must be able to demonstrate the extraordinary benefit to justify the opportunity cost of eliminating that diversity. For example, it is easy to make a case for limiting the number of languages you print road signs in, once the percentage of people who speak a language drops below a certain number (based on unreasonable cost to create extra signage and a lack of readability). I do not believe the same argument can be made against gay marriage, bilingual education, or ballots printed in a language spoken by a sufficiently sizable minority of a local population.

We also have sufficient evidence for me to "believe" our current understandings of gravity, magnetism, relativity, and evolution. I like to think I have no emotional investment in these beliefs (you could say I believe I have no emotional investment in them!), but until that is tested, it's unclear if it's true.

Some statements I find attractive, perhaps due to their simplicity or some similarity to my own view of the world. I do my best not to hold any attachment to these, but it certainly is tempting to believe them. Mathematically, for example, it's tempting to believe that there are an infinite number of pairs of twin prime numbers. On a similar line, some statements I would like to be true, but that doesn't mean I believe they are true. I hope that societal progress on a grand scale is positive, and that society in five thousand years will be fundamentally "better" than society now, just as our society now is fundamentally "better" (for the average person) than it was five thousand years ago. I tend to say "I like to think," as opposed to "I believe," for things like this. I certainly wouldn't feel like my world had been crushed if we found there were a finite number of twin primes, but it does make me sad to see local regression in standards of living for society (such as the situation in much of Africa today).

I do believe a small number of statements because they align closely with my deeply held values. I believe that it is wrong to hurt someone just because you can, for example. I believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I believe that clarity in chosen words is important in avoiding misunderstandings. I hesitate to even call these beliefs, because I can't picture something which could change my mind on them. I have trouble understanding people who have that same level of clarity about beliefs like "eating meat is immoral" or "homosexuality causes societal collapse," and yet I know they exist.

When I read an article written by a man who has dozens of "beliefs" that he wants to share with me, I find it distasteful, even offensive. And when I realize that politicians are making policy and trying to change the world based on those same beliefs, I find it frightening.

So you'll have to excuse me as I delete your email. Maybe some day I will show you this post and you'll understand why.