Is It True “You Can’t Reason Someone Out of a Belief They Didn’t Reason Themselves Into?”

Sometimes I’ve found myself frustrated arguing with people about deep important beliefs.  I’ll come up with what I think is a good argument and they will remain unmoved.  For example I once forwarded to a scientologist the devastating New Yorker piece which showed that a major part of the founding belief of the Church of Scientology — that the founder, L.Ron Hubbard had been injured in a naval battle and cured himself through mind science — was based on a forgery.  His response was “Meh.”

It occurred to me that I was violating the old maxim — you can’t reason someone out of a belief that they didn’t reason themselves into.  People embrace big views — religions and political ones — for reasons having to do primarily with emotion, aesthetic response, and group identification.  If they embrace views like that you are not going to get them out of them with a rational argument.  Even in the case of a cognitive enterprise like science, scientists embrace a paradigm because it works for them, personally and sociologically.  The new paradigm doesn’t win new adherents, but new people are born for whom it doesn’t work. In the words of Max Planck theory advances, funeral by funeral.

This view strikes me as discouraging.  If there is no way for me to convince anybody else then there is no way for anybody else to convince me.  And that means I am barred from the truth, which I don’t want.

Here is an example of how I think it can work.

I once came close to embracing orthodox Judaism.  I didn’t think it was literally true, but I thought it was a valid way of understanding reality.  I came to it from an emotional reaction to the consumer-based nature of modern life.  I really pined for some way of putting things together that didn’t reduce everything to the maximization of subjective expected utility — in other words making money.   I thought Judaism might be an alternative for me.

I never accepted the homophobia and I never accepted the rejection of science, but I thought there was something serious at its core, and even tried to observe some of the ritual laws.  I found friends I emotionally connected with and communities I enjoyed belonging to.

Nevertheless I never could quite believe it.  I had increasing cognitive dissonance which came to a head when a read a book by an orthodox mentor of mine, who argued that the ancient civilizations of the near east had access to “Spiritual technology” which they lost when human beings acquired material technology.  He thought, for example, that Pharaoh’s sorcerors literally could change snakes to sticks.

I challenged him over the email and said “Look, I know we disagree.  But surely there is a way we can resolve this that is acceptable to us both.  Why don’t we look into, for example, the health of Egyptian mummies.  If the ancient Egyptians really had spiritual technology, as you believe, that should be reflected in the health of their rulers.”  He never wrote back.  I started to re-gestalt my cognitive views and also my re-evaluate my emotional connection with my mentor.   Everything that I had put on a back burner — the intellectual naivete of orthodox thought, the obscurantism of its prose, the authoritarian nature of its institutions, the personal failings of its representatives — came roaring back, and I took off my yarmulke.

What role did my seeing through the problems in my mentor’s book about “spiritual technology” play in my evolution out of this religious belief?   It crystallized a mounting disquiet.

My conclusion is that getting out of a religious belief for me was a question of changing my emotions and my cognitions.  Reasoning wasn’t a sufficient thing to change my belief, but it didn’t play zero role either.

I’m glad.  I’m sure there will be advances made as a result of my funeral, but I’d like there to be some advances that I am around to enjoy.



21 thoughts on “Is It True “You Can’t Reason Someone Out of a Belief They Didn’t Reason Themselves Into?”

  1. I try very hard to be open minded and find that i have my basic beliefs and that I am still learning. I also see others and try to understand their beliefs and why they believe. I realized I have a bit of a belief salad going on.
    However – when someone gives me unsolicited “advice” or discredits something I have invested in; my FIRST instinct is a defensive response. I am curious though, how long ago did you send the Scientologist the article? Have you checked in since?

    • However – when someone gives me unsolicited “advice” or discredits something I have invested in; my FIRST instinct is a defensive response.

      [unsolicited advice]Which, if it’s the first response and the only response, is probably not good in regard to the goal of being open minded.[/unsolicited advice, lol!] But maybe you we’re already saying that? 🙂

  2. I don’t think you’ve got scientists pegged right, have you? They literally attempt to look for ways in which they are wrong (not right!). That’s why they run the same test over and over, not to prove a theory is right, but in an attempt to prove it wrong! Going against the confirmation bias which is our natural predilection as humans. Or do I run into the same problem – it’s a belief committed to by heart, not reasoning? So I wont be able to reason you out of it? Granted though I’m merely asserting this is a scientists modus operandi. Maybe none of them do it? But in saying that, I’m considering how I could be wrong somehow…

    But by the same measure, snakes to sticks, why not? Well, really a ton of reasons (enough to make me want to laugh…and enough to make me filled with dread when I think of nano technology turning a snake to solid carbon). But the thing is a ton of reasons can sometimes just be the confabulations of confirmation bias – so maybe it’s possibly right somehow? More to the point, perhaps ones own intuition on the matter is wrong somehow?

    At the very least, considering one might be wrong about snakes to sticks gives fodder for writing nifty fantasy fiction! 🙂

  3. N.S. Palmer says:

    It depends on the person and the situation. If people have a heavy emotional investment in a belief, or their income depends on it, then no, you’re not going to argue them out of it. But if a person is basically rational and open to discussion, you can sometimes change their mind.

    When I was an undergraduate, I was a limited-government libertarian. A friend who was an anarchist libertarian proved that my support of a single monopolistic government contradicted my belief in freedom of contract. So I changed my mind and became an anarchist, at least until I’d matured enough to learn that abstract ideologies are poor guides to life and politics.

    I like an old saying of Dale Carnegie: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

    • The last thing I saw on anarchy was a quaint notion that, as I saw the presentation, life is like world of warcraft – ie, people just harvest resources and craft items for fun or something. It was presented by a well off looking woman who seemed to think people somehow want to provide her food/serve her for fun, like they were playing WOW, rather than just doing so so they don’t starve. Seemed a worse oppression than government – at least government is an acknowledged oppression.

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        Given certain untrue assumptions about human nature, anarchy makes sense in the abstract. However, I disagree with your suggestion that government is necessarily oppressive. Most probably are, but every once in a while, we get lucky and have a government that does more good than harm.

      • I think umpires in sports games are oppressive. Traffic lights as well. I’m not using the term in a purely derogatory way. Just acknowledging even when a government/system goes my way, there’s some ugly to it or at least potential ugly.

        Do you have any more on the specific untrue assumptions, like a link – I’m curious if I came to similar conclusions to other people? Thanks 🙂

  4. Ethical Egoist says:

    Would you have taken the orthodox plunge if someone had coerced you? If you were afraid not to? Out of peer pressure? It was your choice to jump and it would be your energy that was expended and whatever the outcome it would have been your accomplishment. So the water was too cold and you jumped right back out. You’re not a polar bear. You are used to the warmth given off by the consumption of energy required for scientific inquiry, in the realm of open minds.

    One can reason oneself out of a belief he didn’t reason himself into, which points, once again, to whose energy was expended in doing so. It’s the potential pleasure of having accomplished it oneself that made it desirable in the first place.

    I was brought up among white racists in the Deep South, not so much my immediate family, but there was peer pressure towards intolerance which I naturally emulated, or more appropriately, aped, as a youth. In my twenties learned to appreciate people as individuals regardless of differences in culture, ethnicity, etc. and I still revel in it – because it was my overcoming. No moral power had a hand in my transition. I mock external influences in mass culture who condescend to guide me to tolerance.

    I donned my cloak of solitude.
    I considered my options.
    I wondered if inclusion by individual would put me in a better place.
    I tried it.
    I liked it.
    I’m keeping it.
    Nobody can take it from me because it is me. I built it from myself.

  5. Reblogged this on The Home of Schlemiel Theory and commented:
    Here is a wonderful, personal reflection and argument on faith, cognition, and process by Eric Linus Kaplan who, besides being a writer for Big Bang Theory, is a wonderful philosophical wrier. I love this post’s intimate comical/philosophical moments.

  6. I think, reason and belief are two opponents in itself. Believing means accepting something as true without any proof whatsoever. All arguments in favour of any religion are construed. One has to embrace rationality, to see that religion is a question of believing the truly unbelievable and just ignore the rest. Once that happens, if one is lucky, one is able to stop being ignorant.

    • I disagree. A belief that p is the case is just a disposition to affirm p. A belief is rational if the believer is committed to defending it in public according to accepted standards of discourse. I don’t think that all beliefs can be rational or should be. What is your argument for this?

  7. Your definition as “disposition to affirm” is excellent. But a disposition to affirm is nothing factual at all. Sounds more like defending a theorie to me, that has not been proven, yet.
    What is the bible definition of belief again? “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1 KJV) Because of lack of evidence, or rationality, one has to believe.

  8. 🙏…to kind of come at this sideways Eric, in ‘nonviolent communication’ we hold the belief that if someone gets empathy for their intention, a request for a change of action (or a belief) can be heard without submission or rebellion (the options of someone who perceives criticism or demand).

    So if a child would like a parent to consider changing their behavior, they can start with why it makes sense or they can use NVC and start with empathy for the intent: “Dad, I’m guessing when you say & do certain things, that you really care about me?” (Theory being, once someone is understood for their POV they don’t need to fight for its oxygen). Any clarity around that? 😉

  9. Tim Colohan says:

    A thoughtful and beautifully written post. Thanks.
    I don’t know the answer to the question about reasoning with people.
    As far as I can see all aspects of my emotions, cognition, intuition and experience are involved when I change my ideas about beliefs.
    I am often unaware of the influences on me I suspect. I also seem to change without my being aware of it.
    My personal practice is zen meditation. This practice means dropping all beliefs, or holding them as loosely as possible, then act. ( Even “zen beliefs” if there are any.)
    This has worked for me for a while. When it stops working, I’ll try something else until funeral day. Another way of reading Max Planck’s remark: theory advances birth by birth.
    Thank you again.

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