I am a scientist. Perhaps because I am a scientist, I have always felt that changing a belief I hold is a cause for celebration. New information that causes a belief to become untenable is a reason for joy. I am now eighty years old. This means that of all the scientific, engineering, and medical knowledge we have today, about 90 percent has been established since I was in college. If I had not had occasion to change my beliefs about the world on many, many occasions throughout my working life, I would not have been much use as a scientist. Welcoming new knowledge and new understanding is part of being a scientist. In particular, it was always a pleasure to interact with the many scientists better informed and smarter than I was.
In my case, I have extended this embrace of changing belief to aspects of life outside science. I feel that a willingness to argue for my beliefs—but with a willingness to change them if so convinced—should apply not only to science but also to social interactions and political views, in short to all aspects of life. I remain open to persuasion that my views on, for example, what should be done with regard to climate change are misguided, and I would welcome the opportunity to have my beliefs on the subject changed by someone with better information or better ideas.
From my (perhaps biased) point of view, this willingness to change one’s mind is a vital part of human life. Without it, we would surely still be living as they did in the Stone Age.
Yet it seems that a great many people hold beliefs that they are quite unwilling to change. Some religions and some religious people are so committed to a specific set of beliefs that any suggestion of change is regarded as beyond the pale. Whether it be fundamentalist Christians in the Midwest or fundamentalist Muslims in the Middle East—not to mention extreme religious groups in South Asia and South-East Asia—there are many who will take extreme measures against those who express a view different from their own. Why are such views held so tenaciously, even when evidence in conflict with those beliefs is so strong? And is it a coincidence that such inflexible views are often held by people who are underprivileged and impoverished?
My inclination is to suppose that two factors lie behind the holding of rigid beliefs: power and self-respect. In a religion, those who act as authorities gain power from the monolithic system they control; those who follow them do not gain much power directly. They may get some sense of power from their membership in the group. Still, it must be galling to be both unappreciated and told that there are people—“experts”—who know more than you do. These experts can tell you what to do. They can tell you what to believe, unless … unless your beliefs are based on the wisdom of a book: the Bible, the Qur’an, or even the Constitution. If all wisdom is in the book, if the book contains all we need to know, then any person who reads the book knows as much as any so-called expert. Those who espouse a fundamentalist religion gain self-respect from knowing that they are as wise as anyone else; indeed, they are wiser than anyone who rejects their beliefs.
If I am right about all this, the corollary is that to make the world a better and more peaceful place, we must aim more than ever to provide material and social wellbeing for everyone—not just in our own country but throughout the world. More than that, we should surely be aiming for a major reduction in the disparity between the rich and the poor so that envy is no longer such a powerful driving force (consciously or unconsciously) for evil in the name of religion.
If we can make a world in which every person can feel self-respect and in which every person feels empowered to take control of his or her own life, then surely it will become normal for people to have confidence enough to change their minds—and, importantly, to accept that experts may actually have good things to say. After all, doing what experts suggest, rather than what others say, generally leads to better outcomes.