Attempts to Reconcile Contradictory Beliefs

Attempts to Reconcile Contradictory Beliefs

I studied Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and was always a little unnerved to hear about studies that demonstrated substantial ideological contradictions within a single individual. The studies showed even the smartest and most learned people to be almost hypocritical at worst or gullible and ignorant at best. Changing small contexts, adopting slightly different perspectives, and wording questions in different ways or orders  can seemingly produce very different answers and preferences from a single individual with little consistency between the answers. You can find instances where people who identify as conservative favor large scale state intervention in the lives and liberties of individuals. You can also find instances where people who identify as liberal prefer some form of cultural conservatism. People seem to have trouble being internally consistent with their stated values, and that was unnerving for a young college undergrad and grad student who was hoping to better understand how people reached their political and ideological beliefs.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shows how these internal contradictions and inconsistencies stretch back much further than our current political moment. He writes about Medieval knights struggling to reconcile Christianity with ideas of chivalry and he writes about the struggles of creating a system that incorporates both social equality and individual freedom today. On the latter he writes, “ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both social equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. … The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.”
Equality and individual freedom form the backbone of many WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies, and while many citizens don’t think about the contradiction of the two values, they are not easily merged together. An authoritarian regime could force some sort of equality onto all people, but it would require a loss of individual freedoms. At the other extreme, society could radically favor individual liberties to the extent where there was no law enforcement because individual freedoms were maximized. This of course would be extremely unequal as some people would literally die while others kept living due to personal choices that threatened the lives of some. These two examples are the extreme poles that few would argue in favor of, but it is worth noting that we are arguing for some sort of balance between two contradictory ideas.
Humans live with more internal inconsistencies than we realize, and we can even flourish within such inconsistencies. Democracies which struggle between liberty and equality have created middle classes, have pushed technological advances, and have generally been attractive places to live. But they are difficult and sometimes unwieldly as people fail to reach cohesive decisions on how much liberty and how much equality a society should strive toward. Much of our lives is spent trying to reconcile inconsistent and even contradictory beliefs within our own lives and within our larger societies. It is a distressing reality, but one that humans seem perfectly able to flourish within. 

Building Models and Examining the World and Our Thoughts

This morning listening to an episode of Conversations with Tyler, Russ Roberts, the guest on the show said something that really stood out to me, “I used to believe that…my models described the world, as opposed to gave me insight into the world.” We operate in a world where there is no way for us to ever have complete information. There is simply too much data, too much information, to much stuff going on all around us for our brains to perfectly absorb everything in a reasonable and coherent way.


You do not notice every blink, you could never possibly understand every chemical’s smell that makes up the complex aroma of your coffee, and you can’t hold every variable for that big business decision in your head at the same time. Instead, our brains filter out information that does not seem relevant and we key in on what appears to be the main factors that influence the world around us. We build models that sometimes seem like they describe the world with spectacular clarity, but are only a product of our brain and the limited space for information that we have. Our models do not reflect reality and they are not reality, but they can give us an insight into reality if we can build them well.


No matter what, we are going to operate on these models in our daily lives. We develop a sense of what works, what will bring us happiness, what will create well-being, and how we will find success. We pursue those things that fit in our model, toss those things that don’t fit in the model to the side, and somewhere along the line begin to believe that our model is reality and criticize everyone who has a model that doesn’t seem to jive with ours.


A more reasonable stance is to say that we have developed a model that gives us insight into some aspect of reality, but is open for adjustment, improvement, or could be scrapped altogether in favor of a new model if necessary. The only way to do this is to be an active participant in our lives and to work to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. The quote from Roberts on Cowen’s podcast aligns with the quote that I have from Colin Wright today. From Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be I have a quote reading, “It’s not enough to just smell the fragrances that drift our way every day. We have to take the time to pull those aromas apart, to figure out what components go into them, and compare and contrast them with others. We have to be awake and aware, not just alive. We have to be participatory in our own lives, and give our mental capacities a reason to keep operating and expanding, otherwise they will, quite understandably, if we’re using biological logic, begin to shut down to save energy.”


Deciphering the aromas is a metaphor for understanding how we are interacting with the world and how the world exists around us. If we retreat to safety and comfort by believing that our models are correct and perfect, then we fail to improve our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our mind atrophies, and the potential we have for making the world a better place is continually diminished. Simply believing something because it benefits us, makes us feel good, and is what people similar to us believe can drive us and the world into an inefficient place where we fail to do the most good for the most people. There is nothing wrong with that world, it is an option, but if we believe that human flourishing is worth striving for and if we believe that we can help improve the living standards for ourselves and the rest of humanity, then we must use and expand our cognitive capacity to better understand the universe to improve the world for ourselves and the rest of humanity. Your model is incomplete and gives you insight into one aspect of reality, but you must remember that it is not a perfect description of how the world should be, and you must work continuously to build a better model with better insight into the world.