They’re all ideas
Does anyone have any examples of a belief which is not an idea?
I would venture to guess that no one will be able to come up with any.
So, what is the difference between an idea and a belief?
It’s simple. Beliefs are ideas which one assumes to be true.
Do you care if your beliefs are true? We actually do, regardless of what that might be.
But if you don’t, that’s fine too. I can imagine why one might want to hold a belief, regardless of the truth value of the idea. That is what we normally refer to as a belief based on faith. There are many. Some think that religion has a monopoly on faith-based beliefs. It’s not actually true at all.
If you assert that you believe something, based on nothing more than faith, we respect that, as long as it remains private and does not have behavioral consequences which harm others.
People have the right to believe whatever they want and hold any opinion
That should go without even saying at this point.
That is one of the bedrock principles of liberal democracies and civil society across the world. It is not only important that we support and respect that value, but that we also advocate for the same to be true in all countries and for all people.
But again, that does not mean either that your opinions or beliefs themselves deserve to be accepted or respected or that you have the right to impose through force or coercion those beliefs or opinions.
Ideas have consequences
People are driven to action based on them.
Words are the vehicles that transport and replicate those ideas.
They begin as so many neurons working in tandem and emerge mysteriously as physical manifestations in the form of human behavior.
Ideas, opinions and beliefs need to be defended.
One needs to demonstrate and argue that they are worthy of consideration and respect.
Besides, we were not aware that thought police existed, except in fiction, or that we even had the technology to prohibit what goes on in the privacy of a human brain.
So, here is the key and what makes Phelps Law relevant: once you make your beliefs and opinions public or you scream them from the rooftops, expect them to be scrutinized. Expect that others might challenge them.
Our responsibility to ourselves and others is to reflect on our own beliefs and opinions before making them known. We should be able to defend them with good reasons.
Reciprocally, those wishing to rebut or challenge the ideas of others also have a responsibility to check their own views first and defend any criticism in the same manner.
It might be helpful to try to show some empathy and consideration before lashing back at someone with whom you disagree, but there is no requirement for that. The initial burden remains squarely on the one who initiates and makes positive claims.
If you throw it out there and you do not like the response, rebut it again. Add to or clarify your arguments. At some point, two rational people who have acted in good faith and remain committed to a reasonable debate should be able to come to a peaceful conclusion on the quality of ideas and their worth.
It is possible to concede a point when presented with good reasons to do so. It is also possible to remain unconvinced by the arguments presented.
But in a good faith and reasonable debate of ideas and opinions, playing the victim card and appealing to emotion by saying that:
“people have a right to believe whatever they want” is actually an unfair and dishonest tactic and may be even an implicit concession.
Having the courage of your convictions, remaining undecided or changing your mind is far more honest.
Faith is an inadequate defence
We have focused on all sorts of unsubstantiated beliefs over the years from antiscience, superstition, religious and even political and economic claims. They all, more or less, follow the same patterns of confirmation bias, other cognitive biases, fallacious reasoning and a tendency to believe in things which are the most self serving. In fact, we are all prone to that, ourselves included. We accept that, without challenge.
Faith is a reason given to support a belief when other reasons like evidence or logic cannot be furnished. The reason that it seems fair to assert that definition is because you might find that people normally prefer to propose better reasons. They tend to provide other reasons whenever they feel justified in holding a belief.
So, the question is whether or not one needs to justify a belief and what constitutes justification.
Do you think it’s fair and ethical to try to persuade someone to adopt your belief, if you cannot defend it, without resorting to faith?
If you do, you need to justify that faith has value and is a legitimate justification.
We are open to good arguments as to the value of faith, we just have yet to see them well supported.
Ideas are not people and they don’t have rights
In civil society, there is a difference between the right to free speech; our commitment to open and non-violent and non-coercive dialogue, on the one hand, and overt discrimination, coercion, violence and bigotry against individuals, on the other.
It is important to further elaborate that bigotry, on its own, while potentially unethical, is not a crime. We have to respect the right of someone to be a bigot, even if we find that belief despicable, ignorant or even potentially dangerous. That is an example of the difference between holding a belief and acting on a belief. However, when a belief leads to harmful action, that individual can be potentially legally sanctioned.
The right to practice any belief system or to hold any belief does not provide protection against criticism of those beliefs. As mentioned, however, if those beliefs give rise to actual behavior which results in prohibiting the rights of others, that behavior is harmful and may give rise to a level which merits legal sanction.
We can both fight for the right of someone to believe things we disagree with and criticize those beliefs at the same time. If, however, those criticizing ideas resort to violence, threats of violence, coercion or attempt to legislate against their right to hold certain beliefs, we have a problem. See Voltaire!
Therefore the holder of an idea and a criticizer of an idea both have equal rights, but neither has the right to violence or coercion. They have to fight it out, peacefully and metaphorically, in a battle of ideas.
A growing problem seems to be that people conflate these two concepts and attempt to obfuscate and shut down conversation in a misguided attempt to err on the side of over tolerance toward beliefs at the expense of everyone’s civil liberties, especially free speech.
Free speech of individuals trumps any misplaced perception of the rights of ideas. There is a difference between the right to hold an idea and the act of trying to prevent someone else from that same right, regardless of whether any one person is capable of making the distinction. Criticism is not coercive or violent on its own and in no way prohibits someone else from holding or expressing the idea being criticized.
Some ideas are especially harmful
A thoroughly baffling point of contention these days concerns the rather simple and benign assertion of fact above: Ideas are not people.
It’s mind boggling that this is in any way controversial.
Let me give you a few examples of ideas, in case anyone thinks that ideas are either people or that any idea deserves respect, as if that even has meaning:
Slavery is an idea. Child sacrifice is an idea. Dancing to make it rain is an idea. Ghost is an idea. The Earth is flat is an idea. A witch is an idea.
Does anyone wish to defend the honor or rights of these ideas?
Does anyone wish to forward the argument that those who accept these ideas as cherished beliefs should not be challenged to defend them?
Should we have remained quiet and not criticized those ideas in the past? What of people who were killed for some of those ideas?
Does anyone know of a method to discredit an idea without challenging someone who supports it? I have an idea, if you don’t.
Despise the idea, not the person
We can combat ideas, even the most harmful of them, without resorting to the club, the fist or the missile. Think of all the now defunct ideas that lay in forgotten piles behind us. Somehow we beat them down into the dark and obscurity of our history. Somehow we rationally extricated them, bit by bit, from the minds of humans.
A human mind that is infested and infected with bad ideas can be cured, but it takes effort and our remedies are not nearly effective enough. Sometimes ideas remain in a human mind until the mind passes and the ideas perish with the cells that formed and hosted them.
Certain ideas are more resilient than others, but none is strong enough to withstand constant and long term bombardment.
Call those ideas out into the light of day, so that we can all inspect them together. Don’t allow them to hide or turn away in fear. That only allows them to propagate more effectively. Ideas alone cannot hurt us.
Speech is our best tool to identify, acknowledge, confront and combat them together.
Chomsky has it wrong in that the focus is misplaced.
It should be the ideas that we despise, not the brains that hold them. They are the victims to the disease that is bad ideas. It is true and unfortunate, however, that we have not yet found the perfect method for removing these metaphorical tumors, without some times removing the host with it.
We need to do our best to spare the host, while removing the pathology.
Now bang away people! Bang away!