Why do you believe what you believe?

  • Monday, August 15, 2016 9:53am
  • Opinion

In 2005, Muslim leader Ahmed Akkari helped lead violent international protests against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had published a dozen editorial cartoons blasphemously depicting Muhammad.

By 2008, Akkari had begun to separate himself from the fundamentalism underlying his anger, and by 2013 the break was complete. “At that time (2005),” Akkari told the Guardian in August 2013, “I was so fascinated with this logical force in the Islamic mindset that I could not see the greater picture. I was convinced it was a fight for my faith, Islam.”

A couple of things contributed to Akkari’s change of heart. One, he moved from Denmark to Greenland, which allowed him time and space to think. And two, he found the intellectual courage to begin dismantling his core beliefs.

Picture a far-left progressive in America saying, “I’m going to spend the next two or three years attacking with honesty and precision everything I believe to be true and then see what is still standing in the end.” Picture a far-right conservative doing the same thing. It’s hard to imagine, but that’s just what Akkari did — and it changed everything for him.

Among those who most influenced Akkari during his time of transformation was Wes Cecil, a professor at Peninsula College in Washington who posts some of his lectures on YouTube. If you want insight into the lives and works of major philosophers such as Sartre, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, or “forgotten thinkers” such as Simone Weil, Max Stirner and Jacques Barzun, you would be hard-pressed to find a better, funnier, more accessible guide than Cecil. But it is a lecture from last summer titled “An Introduction to Thinking” that helped us understand how a little-known professor at a little-known community college could help deradicalize somebody.

Cecil begins the hour-long talk with a very brief evolutionary history of the human mind and how it became “the most complicated thing in the universe.” More complicated, he stresses to his listeners, than the universe itself. By far.

What Cecil wants people to understand is that the mind’s complexity makes the act of thinking incredibly resource intensive, biologically speaking. And so evolutionary programming has led humans to prefer automatic reactions over deep thought. In a certain sense, the political polarization of today is a product of evolution.

When political views are challenged, Cecil says, your visceral response “is your evolutionary training. It is your body saying: If you have to start thinking about this, you’re going to have to burn a whole lot of calories. And it will be painful and unpleasant. Don’t do that. Push off the dissonance. Reinforce the harmony. My logic of the world makes sense.”

Cecil uses the problem of highway congestion as an example of how this aversion to challenging long-held assumptions can manifest itself in significant ways. Until quite recently, traffic engineers firmly believed the best way to alleviate traffic jams was to add more lanes. It made perfect sense — that is until they figured out that people don’t care how far they drive but rather how long it takes to get there. The additional lanes allowed commuters to move farther away, and new commuters moved into those old houses and apartments, and so the congestion remained constant. Put simply, more road means more drivers.

So why didn’t the engineers get wise sooner? Because the mind filters out information that it thinks it doesn’t need, including contrary data, and it was perfectly clear to the engineers that adding lanes would ease congestion. It was common sense.

That’s why it’s important to ask yourself, with conviction and at the most fundamental level, why you believe what you believe. How was your worldview shaped? How have those beliefs been reinforced and by whom?

Here is Cecil’s challenge: “Write down three or four of your most fundamental beliefs . . . and then go at ‘em with an ax.”

It’s not easy, but it’s what Ahmed Akkari did.

It’s what everyone should do, evolutionary programming be damned.

— Concord Monitor (N.H.), Aug. 9, 2016

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