In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker argues that tying our beliefs to empirical data and information makes us less violent. When our beliefs are verifiable or falsifiable by clear, measurable, and independent facts and information we can be more secure and better justified in holding our beliefs. When our beliefs are not tied to empirical data, they are tied to some aspect of our identity, and as Pinker writes, “a broad danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means.”
Whether it is religious beliefs, public policy beliefs, or even just beliefs tied to personal tastes, unsupported and unverifiable beliefs become dangerous. Pinker describes why by writing, “people become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power.”
When you challenge someone’s beliefs, you are challenging more than just the veracity of those beliefs. You challenge the individual’s identity, intelligence, and a whole set of factors that contribute to the individual’s overall social status. Challenging something core to their identity and their status puts them in a defensive position. If the thing you are challenging is not based on anything tangible, such as unverifiable beliefs that one holds based on faith or pure desire, then there is no way for the individual to back down. Violence is often the result of such challenges.
Moving to a point where fewer of our beliefs are unverifiable can therefore help make us less violent. If we make efforts to only stick to beliefs that can be demonstrated to be accurate empirically, then we change our identity and how people understand us. We no longer cling to unverifiable beliefs as part of our identity and can update our beliefs as facts and information change. We have an easier to access non-violent avenue to updating beliefs. It is hard to always know what is true and what is not, but basing our beliefs on evidence helps us hold better positions that we can defend without resorting to violence.