What do you want?

Why do seemingly smart people believe silly things? More specifically, why do they disagree with you?

We all have our pet viewpoints that we regularly defend. Natural medicine. Scientific medicine. Vegetarianism. Gluten-free diets. Playing sport. Believing in God. Believing in my God. Drinking wine. Not drinking wine. Now let me ask you this: When you tell people about your reasonable reasons, why are some of them not convinced?

This question has intrigued me for years. Most people think that they are convinced by valid arguments, but I have observed that this is not the case. People are also convinced by invalid arguments that they find compelling.

A valid argument is one where the conclusion follows logically and inescapably from the premises. Most people would call these ‘true’ arguments. Compelling arguments, on the other hand, are arguments that find convincing. Most people call this ‘good’ arguments.

Notice that not all valid arguments are compelling, and not all compelling arguments are valid. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga observed that if someone doesn’t find an argument compelling,

You can reduce him from knowledge to ignorance by giving him an argument he sees to be valid, from premises he knows to be true.

So what makes an argument compelling? Hundreds of different things, but it comes down to what you want.

Most people are only convinced by arguments confirming what they think they already believe, or want to believe. There is an old adage that says that those convinced against their will, will hold the same opinions still.

It is quite rare to see someone who change their fundamental beliefs on the basis of an argument, regardless of how rational they would like to be. It doesn’t mean that reasons are unimportant, just that they are good servants of agendas. Consider global warming. Even if someone changes their opinion on this, it is usually because they want to believe in ‘science’ (their fundamental belief), and then see that the implications of this entail believing that global warming is real. But their fundamental belief hasn’t changed, and in many cases the facts they cited previously haven’t changed either.

So if you get down to it, what is the most fundamental belief you have? Your belief about ultimate reality: God. You can apply this to any other issue other than God, but this is the most telling example. It’s funny that after every debate between Christians/Muslims/Atheists/whatever I have been to, without fail, the Christian and all his supporters believe that he had won, and the opponent and all his supporters believe he had won. Why? “Because the other side didn’t present any good [compelling] arguments”.

These days, when someone asks me whether God exists, I ask them whether they want him to exist. The excuses usually start with “not if he…”, but they are mostly other people’s reasons. And they fit badly, like other people’s clothes. Another one is “I want to, I just can’t find good grounds”. Admittedly this is sincere sometimes. But most people say this because being a “seeker of truth” is very hipster, and we’re all vain and want to be that guy (or girl) who is really deep. I’m one of these people sometimes. But deeper down, they don’t want to live in a world with an all-knowing, all-mighty being making demands on their lives. And if you don’t want that, then you won’t find the arguments compelling, regardless of their validity.

The biggest reason people can’t find good grounds for certain beliefs is that the most of the important knowledge we have is volitional. Knowledge accessed by the will. Does she love you? You won’t find out if you don’t do something about it. Can I trust him? You can ask around, but you’re going to have to decide to trust him first. Is the party fun? You’re have to accept the invitation. And go to the party. And not stand in the corner grumbling. Knowledge of God is like that. The arguments may or may not be valid, but in the end it comes down to this: Do you want God to exist? And are you willing to do something about it? If not, then no one can present an argument compelling enough to convince you.