Building a belief system – Why do we believe what we believe?


Dharampal’s Beautiful Tree is a 457 page book. I have read it once before i did my last post. But for me to summarize the book accurately i need to read it at least 2 more times and i am in the middle of my 2nd pass. Meanwhile, i thought i will cover something that has been bothering me lately – my belief system. This is something i have been thinking about for atleast 20 years now. The kind of comments i have received on the history series have brought this thinking about belief systems to the fore. In other words, why should you believe what i write or more troublingly why should i believe what i believe? As i interact with so many people, i realize this is a problem that most thinking individuals grapple with. Therefore i decided to present you some of my thoughts. Given the complexity of this subject, i can only make an attempt in the hope that the highly intelligent community that congregates on this blog, will contribute and make it better. Please support me.

Barack Obama does not believe in the US National Anthem

Some of you may have seen this circulating in emails about Obama.

Obama Anthem

As an Obama supporter, this shocked me. I recalled Obama’s Rev.Wright Defense speech and this picture below in the Time magazine where Obama is seen without the hand on his heart as is the protocol.

Thankfully i have developed a habit these days – Whenever I see such emails, i make it a point to check Snopes which has been playing the exemplary role of digging up the truth. Okay, this Obama email above is false. Here is Snopes uncovering the truth for you.

Made to Stick

I chose to present an Urban Legend above because these are great examples of how easy it is to believe in the untruth. If you analyzed why I believe in it, it adhered to all the 6 principles the Heath brothers lay out in their brilliant book – Made to Stick. The email is simple covering one item, it is unexpected from a presidential candidate, it is concrete, it is credible because it ostensibly ties with Obama’s previously disclosed stances i point out above, it is emotional because the national anthem/flag are emotional issues, and it is a powerful short story.

As we have seen, there are sources like Snopes which you can use to puncture urban legends. But then not all belief issues are as simple. Before we get much further, what does the ultimate belief system look like and what does it entail?

Ability to detect Baloney

Given my general experience with myself and people that i have interacted with, there are very few people who i have come across, who have an extremely sound belief system. And rarer still seem to be people that embody the belief system in everything they do. In my view, that ultimate belief system is something Carl Sagan famously outlined in a popular book and it goes by the name –
Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit. It is a small set of principles that are easy to understand but hard to follow. In my experience, i can say that anything other than belief in God can be subjected to this kit and help test your beliefs.

Chain of Evidence

One of the key principles that Sagan outlines in the kit is – “If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work”. For instance, in the Obama example, while at the surface the email seems to be true, one can easily see that the source is not disclosed and it turns out to be a political satire someone wrote which is being passed off as authentic. Snopes also goes further and shows videos, photos of Obama respecting the flag, singing the anthem, pledge of allegiance thereby confirming the point that the photo i showed above is not the whole truth. Unfortunately, most people succumb to the seeming surface level truths because it has been presented in a made-to-stick fashion.

Sweeping Generalizations

This is another weak area for people. It seldom occurs to people that Sweeping Generalizations are the easiest to disprove. For instance, if i said <Substitute your hated ethnicity/followers of a religion> are terrorists. I only need to show one person of that ethnicity/religion that is not a terrorist as a counter example and that statement i made earlier becomes false. But it will be surprising how many people fall for these generalizations because the generalizations adhere to the Made-to-Stick code – they prey on your insecurities deep in your mind, maybe some negative experiences of yourself or near/dear, or popularly covered terrorist incidents etc.

What are your experiences with your belief system, what is hard to do for you?

I will cover next week, how our brain conspires against having the ultimate belief system. That is a critically important consideration because without understanding how belief systems work neuroscientifically, our ability to get closer to the ultimate belief system will be very hard.


  1. Quote
    Vijay Arumugam said April 27, 2008, 7:04 am:


    An interesting post about our belief system. Talking about sweeping generalizations, I don’t think it’s wrong to make one, as long as the person who makes it, has got the data and valid and impregnable arguments to back up their claims, when confronted by someone else, with the diametrically opposite views. But that’s where my beef lies: most of the folks, who make these sweeping statements, wouldn’t be able to back up their stance with data. If you push and nudge them, they’d resort to things like, “I’m telling you and why you won’t believe me,” and so forth. Ah, the vagaries of an insecure mind, cultivated and nurtured with half-baked truths! Does that sound a bell for any of the right-wing groups – from the neo-cons of the US to our own extremist groups?

    As someone has said (don’t know, who), common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18. I guess that’s where one would have the maximum penchant to make those sweeping generalizations or let’s call them, gems. As we grow older, and start to read a bit more, from a wide variety of sources, our preconceived notions about lots of things start to change a fair bit, for the better, in many ways, though some of those new-found revelations would be a bitter pill to swallow. When that happens, most people tend to react in two different ways: either they try to shut the door and say, “No, I don’t want to know these new, “corrupting” thoughts”, and try to stick on to their known positions, doesn’t matter how biased or prejudiced they might be in reality; or, they try to have an open mind and allow their repertoire to be filled up with new and enlightening information, and thus allowing the enrichment of their mind to the full. I guess it’d be better to take the latter stance than the former one, for obvious reasons.

    Talking about believing in generalizations, and then having a situation of them being proved wrong with further research, some of the unearthed facts, as I’ve stated earlier, are hard to accept. For starters, I grew up reading in our newspapers and hearing in our Doordarshan about how Jammu and Kashmir was / is / will be an integral and inseparable part of India, only to be told otherwise upon my further research. To quote another example, I was always an admirer of Kamal Hassan’s creativity and passion to invent things and aim for some of the highs that weren’t part of the wildest dreams of his Indian contemporaries. However, when one learns the bitter truth that most of, if not all of, Kamal’s inventions were plagiarized versions of Hollywood flicks, it leaves a very bad taste in the mouth indeed.

  2. Quote

    Good analysis sukumar.. For long, it was hard for me to distinguish b/w belief and truth..

    Is it what we believe is truth.. or are we believing only the truths?

    Beliefs is something that catches our mind and heart.. whereas truth is which stands above all..

    Naturally, when some one tells about what we believe, it appears as truth..

    So, where is the line of difference b/w both?

  3. Quote

    “Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality. “
    -Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

    If in our belief system, if we can incorporate a healthy element of doubt that “we may be wrong”, we will never be guilty of our belief systems that we held for so long. It is normal for our belief systems to reflect our level of maturity/inquisitiveness of our times.

    In my younger days, like many, I had the fear of dark places. It is a belief that was ingrained in me due to some incidents/visuals/people, which I can never know exactly. But it was as good as a fact for me at that time. So whenever I wanted to go into a room in our house, I call my mom or dad to switch on the lights before I enter into the room. They half-willingly do it, always murmuring that there are no monsters in the room. I naturally grew out of the fear. But whatever I believed at that point was real.

    “Everything you can imagine is real.”
    -Pablo Picasso (Spanish artist and painter. 1881-1973)

    We don’t have any absolute truths, other than in the field of mathematics. Even in mathematics, we have axioms, which cannot be proved but taken to be self-evident. The ‘truths’ one holds ‘true’ are only truths good enough for them. But we take these good-enough-truths as the absolute ones and use it in our arguments/propaganda.

    In this information overloaded world, one can’t practically verify all that is coming their way. It is the responsibility of the people to choose their sources for information they rely on.

    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
    Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
    Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
    Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
    Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
    But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
    -The Buddha

  4. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 27, 2008, 10:47 am:

    Thanks Vijay. You are right, if you have the data to back it up you can prove sweeping generalizations. But that misses my point. My point is that sweeping generalizations are the hardest to prove because even one counterexample can disprove the sweeping generalization. In other words proving any statement of the type All XYZ = ABC is extremely difficult because the single counter example scenario. Other than some basic truths like all oceans have salt water, sweeping generalizations typically are prejudices masquerading as the truth.

    You are very right about J&K and Kamal. I too had the same opinions as you did and was forced to change them.

  5. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 27, 2008, 10:49 am:

    Thanks. Truth passes the Carl Sagan Baloney Detection Kit i have linked to. Please read it. It is quite simple. Non-truth cannot pass those tests. In other words, what we believe is not what matters but what matters is the truth as verified by the Baloney Detection Kit.

  6. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 27, 2008, 11:01 am:

    Thanks Arun. That is a great comment. Even thiruvalluvar has said “epporul yaar yaar vaai ketpinum apporul mey porul kaanbadhu arivu”. In english it means “no matter who hear something from, understanding the truth is what is intelligence”.

    I loved this statement of yours – “The ‘truths’ one holds ‘true’ are only truths good enough for them. But we take these good-enough-truths as the absolute ones and use it in our arguments/propaganda.”

    Yes, this is precisely why i wrote this post. It is not what is good enough for me that i should use in arguments but what is the wholesome truth. If you use the baloney detection kit, you can get an understanding of whether something is the wholesome truth.

    Now applying the kit everytime maybe difficult, but overtime due to experiences like your fear of dark places which became untrue later or Vijay’s J&K/Kamal opinion which turned out to be false later, you tend to get a sense for which sources and which types of information from which sources are likely to pass the baloney detection kit. In other words, you learn to become a sceptic.

    For instance, one pattern i have learnt is the mail forwards are most likely untrue. Over the years i have formed this pattern.

  7. Quote
    Subba Muthurangan said April 27, 2008, 2:12 pm:

    Great post. Belief system usually kicks in when there is no proof. One great recent example is latest Harbhajan and Sreesanth controversy. Even though there is no solid proof of Harbhajan slapped Sreesanth, based on their previous history, we all think that something happened and Harbhajan really slapped Sreesanth. If this incident involved with other players we would have waited for solid proof before jump in to conclusion. So one’s creditability is really important to believe something for their action. It is true for this blog; we believe this blog because here all posts are written after substantial amount of analysis and quantify whenever possible (Baloney Detection Kit).

    Sweeping Generalizations is one area we really weak and jump into conclusion based on generalization very quickly, you written in previous post that Indians are very creative but lacking of team work from Visy’s life experience. I think that this is mainly because of generalization, we usually try to fit a person into some common traits based on his or her community or state or language.

    It is like “70% of Americans love orange juice, John is an American, and so he loves orange juice”, without even asking John, we used to offer orange juice, yes mathematically John’s acceptance probability is high but we are just skipping his choice and forced him to drink orange juice whether or not he liked it.

    For me ,it’s hard to believe god and ghost. Both of these are lacking of proof and scientific reasoning about its existence. But I decided not to challenge others who have real belief of god, because that is their faith and for them it doesn’t require any proof.


  8. Quote

    Wow…wonderful treat of post and comments. Thanks a lot Sukumar, Subba, Vijay and Arun. IMHO, belief is what keeps everyone moving with hope that there is something they believe is true. Also, rather than just instincts like most, humans form certain paths of execution of their life and move on.

    I liked Vijay’s observation on common sense. My political positions changed from Congress(I) to BJP to TDP to Lok Satta in the same way. As new truths come out our belief system will be challenged. If we change, it will be good. Or if we get convinced that we are already right, we move on.

  9. Quote


    I was going to comment on your Viswanathan Anand’s post. But then I read this and I think in a way they are related –

    As he says – be prepared to change and adapt yourself. This applies to our belief systems as well. As more data becomes available, either what you believe in morphs or becomes solidified or is erased. The point is to let these data come in and let the mind do the analysis to effect the changes as appropriate.

    While thinking about this, I needed to solidify the difference between faith and belief in my own mind. And I found this in a forum in yahoo. This comes closest to how I perceive the difference personally –

    Faith is the trust you have in something in the absence of proof or fact.
    Belief is the trust you have in something only when you DO have proof or fact of its existence.


  10. Quote

    Thought-provoking post, Sukumar. And excellent comments. I especially liked Arun K’s quote from the Buddha.

    Quiet a few ideas are neither completely true nor completely untrue. In such cases, we hold those ideas that have more supporting evidence & scientific basis than others to be true.

    At the same time, we agree that there are some unanswered questions about these ideas – which means, we implicitly agree to discard the idea, when evidence to the contrary is provided at a later date.

    Now on to your question. I just can’t deal with irrational beliefs. I have zero empathy for people who cling on to ridiculously antiquated notions. Notions that don’t pass the laugh test of the Baloney Detection Kit. I think this truly alienates me & other rationalists from the general population in a country like India.

    Which is probably an important reason for people clinging on to outdated beliefs: being social animals, human beings crave acceptance. Many times, it takes blatant disregard for social norms & mores to be rational. Perhaps people find it easier to mimic the thought processes of their ancestors, than to defy society & be different?

  11. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 28, 2008, 8:17 am:

    Thanks Vamsi and Ganesh. Yes our beliefs change as more data becomes available. That is a great insight.

    i really liked the distinction between faith and belief you have given. Faith is a tough one, which is why i said we should exclude it from the purview of the baloney detection kit.

  12. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 29, 2008, 12:21 am:

    Thanks Priya. I liked Arun K’s Buddha quote as well. You are right, when no one sure how true an idea is, the only thing we can do is to look at which side has better evidence and lean on that side.

    And yes, people holding irrational beliefs can be aggravating for rationalists. One way would be to avoid arguments over irrational beliefs.

  13. Quote
    Sridhar N.K said April 30, 2008, 1:53 pm:


    This is a very interesting post. It was thought provoking and I had to think about how my belief system works. The 3 main aspects of my personal belief system are

    a. My personality (skeptic)
    b. Information Source
    c. My pre-disposition to the information in question

    I am a skeptic by nature. I don’t generally believe in anything fully for a while (my drawback as well). Any given information has to be validated multiple times and mostly from different sources, before it becomes acceptable for me.

    Next, it’s the source of information. If the information is coming from a rational / logical source or a source that I previously trusted, then my skepticism guard goes down a little bit. The lowering of the guard is indirectly proportional to the number of times the source had been right. If the source is new or emotional / illogical, then my guard goes up higher.

    The third aspect is my pre-disposition to the information. That is, how much research, study and discussion I’ve had on the particular topic. If I have a pre-disposition on a particular subject, then my skeptic guard goes up higher when I hear completely contradictory information.

    There could be a few other factors, but there are the main ones.

    After reading your post, I looked at some of the examples from my own life to see how my belief system worked in these situations.
    I believed that drinking cold milk or having an ice cream doesn’t cause cold, but, it’s only caused by the cold virus. My mother-in-law used to tell me not to drink something too cold as I would catch a cold and I used to mock her. Until, one day, I read the research published by Finnish (Need to validate) doctors on the medical journal about body immune system being down when we eat / drink something cold. So, in essence, it doesn’t cause cold, but lets you catch cold faster.

    The point of this example was, I had the Pygmalion effect. I had my skeptic guard up, because information was coming from my MIL and I had ignored the information.

    Having read your post, it gives me a perspective on some of the errors in my approach as well.

    I’d love to hear what other factors I should include/consider to enrich my belief system.

  14. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said April 30, 2008, 10:57 pm:

    This is a superb comment. I think it is a great summary of what a belief system looks like at the surface. I have more or less similar practices and i am sceptic as well. The more outlandish the claim, the more sceptical i become. All of us have trusted information sources and as you have correctly said, a dose of scepticism is required even for the trusted sources. Overall, being a sceptic is important because the general tendency is to trust the written word. With the proliferation of the Internet/emails, we now have vastly more quantities of the written word, compounding the problem of identifying trusted sources.

    On the cold food + cold virus connection, your finnish research is interesting. i was not aware of that. On a related note, I have been researching into a very interesting property of cold water – it passes through the stomach quickly and onto the intestine and gets absorbed faster – this is why cold water quenches your thirst fater. I have not been able to figure out why this happens? If we find out why this happens, then cold ice cream must have a similar property and by extension, any germs which may be part of the food you ingest instead of getting killed by the stomach’s acids, may pass through over to the intestine and get absorbed into the blood stream. Maybe this is how we catch infections when we have cold food?

  15. Quote
    Saraswathi said May 1, 2008, 10:09 am:

    Good post Sukumar. I have to think more about my belief system. I have never given it serious thought. I feel, I believe everything and everyone. However I am slowly learning to form my own beliefs and judgments based on the information available instead of blindly believing. Let me read the post in leisure and take time to analyze my belief systems.

  16. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 1, 2008, 10:34 am:

    Thanks Saraswathi. It will be nice to hear back from you after you have had the time to analyze and think.

  17. Quote
    Meenaks said May 1, 2008, 11:28 pm:

    A good post Sukumar.!! I liked the Baloney detection kit very much 😉 Budhdha’s quote offered by Arun was very nice. Could you also share your thoughts about changing our belief systems when confronted with evidence to contrary? I think it takes a lot of courage to change our beliefs (basically accepting that you were mistaken and letting go of the ego.) I find many – including me at times – unable to do this.

  18. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 2, 2008, 4:53 am:

    Thanks Meenaks. As i said in my post, our brain seems to conspire against our having a good belief system. I will cover this in the next post and that will hopefully answer your question.

  19. Quote
    Saraswathi said May 2, 2008, 10:03 pm:

    I re-read your post now.

    /*What are your experiences with your belief system, what is hard to do for you?*/

    Well to begin with I was always influenced by my parent’s beliefs especially my dad. I never questioned his beliefs and whatever he said was “ultimate truth”(this was in school days). Later slowly I started interacting with a wider group of people and they shared beliefs which were “not” what my parents held. I started taking a middle route. I decided never to come to conclusion based on 1 single source. I would try to read up all the information on the related subject before forming an opinion/belief system. But it is “still” tough for a person like me(who gets carried away very easily) to form a solid belief system. Most of the times I am wrong. However the phase am in now, am slowly learning to separate the “relevant” parts from the “crap”(like the email you have mentioned).

    Sridhar’s comment made a lot of sense.

  20. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 3, 2008, 1:17 am:

    Thanks Saraswathi. You are right, all of us go through the phase where our near-and-dear, especially the elderly ones, influence our belief system disproportionately. That is a great insight. And i think it maybe due to our culture of unquestioning obedience? Whenever you ask a question, you are discouraged – this is what our ancestors did and hence there must be some meaning to it, don’t question it – this is the approach taken in general. I was also in a similar situation and once i started working with economic independence came my ability to start thinking about and questioning things more freely.

    Yes, Sreedhar’s comment is very insightful.

  21. Quote


    I would like to add my points on getting cold on eating icecream or cold water.. The enzymes are sensitive to temperature. Normally many of the enzymes doesnt react in lower temperatures. This may be one of the reason, why the viruses are not killed if we drink cold water.

  22. Quote


    I would like to add another point in addition to yours.. Priority of opinions/interests..

    Particularly, if we have pool of positive and negative news about a particular thing, how do we arrive at a belief? Here, the priority of pre-formed opinions, and interests..

    Suppose, a friend doesnt help us in time for the first time.. we dont lose trust/belief in him, because, we had already a good opinion, which takes priority..

    When he again does it for the second time, we are slowly forming another alternate opinion, but we still give priority to the former one.

    If it takes for the third time, the priority becomes either or, and temporarily suspended.

    If it happens for the fourth time, now the priority of the later negative opinion takes forward, and our belief system gets altered..

    Now, if we have multitude of such opinions, we strive to choose which one is best to our interest.

    For example, in the same friendship, if we get benefitted in other ways, or if we have an opinion that our friend wil be of value to us in other ways, our belief in him do not change that much easily..

  23. Quote

    Generally, i feel, there is difference b/w realisation and belief.. truth can be realised.. while persons can only be believed.. relationship can be realised… relations can only be believed..

    /** Even thiruvalluvar has said “epporul yaar yaar vaai ketpinum apporul mey porul kaanbadhu arivu”. **/

    In the above thirukkural, the word “meiporul” means realisation…

    So, in my opinion, it would not be appropriate to believe on truth..

    No body says “Unmaiyai Nambu” .. rather we say “Unmaiyai unarthal”

    Now, does realisation leads to belief? I would say “NO” .. because, realisation is dynamic, whereas belief is somewhat rigid..

    (Sorry, if i did not make any sense here 🙁 )

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