Monday, 17 June 2013

The Heretics - Will Storr

I became aware while reading 'the Heretics', of occasional irritation. Niggling discomfort with some of the ways that he portrayed people, or Storr's presentation of of an idea. I felt uncomfortable about the way that he was presenting groups of people that I identify with, or a nagging fear that people I respect would be shown to have feet of clay.

And that is important. Because it's how we handle ideas, particularly those that do not fit in with our world-view, that is central to this book.

Storr says that contrary to our deeply held beliefs about ourselves we do not make a balanced assessment of all of the evidence. When we find our thoughts in conflict (cognitive dissonance) we look for evidence that supports what we already believe. Once we find something that fits, that makes some sense, we stop investigating, we stop thinking, and we give ourselves a mental pat on the back that we have 'proved' our beliefs.

I've come across these ideas before, but Storr presents them well. He travels around the world interviewing various 'Heretics', whose ideas do not fit the mainstream, and considers why they can continue to believe things that quite simply do not fit in with reality. In doing so he exposes his own poorly thought out beliefs, which I found made me increasingly suspicious of my own.

We do not tend to change our beliefs very much, or very fast. When people have a major change of heart it is noteworthy. Pastors that become atheists, atheist philosophers who espouse the concept of god, politicians that switch sides of the house. These people are both lauded by the side that they have switched to, vilified by those they have 'deserted', and regarded suspiciously by many.

We have to have assumptions about the world, without them we would find making the simplest decision impossible, but once those assumptions have been made, we support them by any flimsy evidence that can be shoehorned into fitting with what we already believe to be 'the Truth'.

As an illustration do you know anyone who is as right about how things are as you are? I don't, I know I am right, although I have over the years drifted steadily in my beliefs, with no really big changes (one jump, but not a big one, when I came across new ideas and evidence that pushed me further in the way I was already going). I don't now believe what I did 20 years ago on a number of fronts. But I still think that I am more right about things than anyone else in the world.

Does that strike you as likely? We are all collections of prejudices and half thought through ideas.

Storr investigates how people come to believe what they do, and how they support their beliefs. The people that I felt uncomfortable about his portrayal of come out of it broadly OK in the end, or was that just me, desperately cobbling together a working concept that doesn't tear huge holes in my beliefs?

Overall: good, made me think - a lot: 8.5 out of 10  

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