ON CUMULATIVE ERROR, EVALUATION OF BELIEFS AND SOME PERSONAL INTROSPECTION
There’s something called Cumulative Error. It is an epistemic error that is built on prior knowledge, which is also an error. It becomes cumulative because instead of stopping to evaluate, we build conclusions on the premise that prior knowledge is right when actually it is not.
Cumulative Error applies to a lot of things in life, in this case, our beliefs. Beliefs are usually built on a prior belief which serves as the superstructure or the foundation on which some other beliefs are laid. Pardon the repetition, but an example is in order: the superstructure or foundational principle of democracy is that power lies in the hands of the people. Hence, no matter the variant of democracy you practice, this principle serves as the foundation upon which your variant of democracy is built.
Beliefs shape worldview and behaviour, they influence the decisions and choices we make. And where we are at every point in life is often a result of the choices we make, the behaviours that make up our habits and our worldview. If the foundational belief upon which all your other beliefs are built is wrong, the result is that it snowballs into cumulative error, resulting in a warped worldview, leaving you delusional and cognitively dissonant. And the consequences of a warped worldview are sometimes drastic.
One erroneous belief I’ve seen people display is the doctrine that God has a will for every minute detail of their life: who they marry, where they work…everything. And so, before they make any decision, they say they have to wait on God to know his will on the matter. These people neglect the use of their cognitive faculty to wait for a voice or sign from God. Some people have lost countless opportunities because of this belief. I know of a lady who is single and well into her 40s because she believes that God has to be the one to choose her husband for her.
We need to always critique and evaluate our beliefs and see if they are in harmony with sensibility and reality. Truth is, none of us, at least from what I’ve seen, is totally free from cognitive dissonance, but the key to living a life that is attuned, that allows for internal harmony and an agreement with reality, is the evaluation of what we believe.
But this is most times a difficult thing to do. A lot of us were socialised into a belief or ideology in our formative years, making it hard for us to recognize our dissonance and the errors in that belief. Then there is also our epistemic arrogance, which makes us believe that our ideology is the absolute truth and there is no iota of error in it.
Some people, on the other hand, cannot just be introspective, so they wallow in their dissonance without knowing why they are going through existential suffering. After all, it requires metacognitive skills to be aware of the lapses in your ideology. Being stupid makes one too stupid to understand how stupid they are.
How Do You Identify Dissonance in Your Belief?
The key to identifying dissonances in belief is to see if it agrees with sensibility and reality. When there is a dissonance between your belief and reality, between your belief and established facts and evidence, then you know there is an error in your belief. This requires us to let go of our epistemic arrogance, though.
But the struggle here is that we often hold our belief to be sacred and free of error. This is why evaluating it never occurs to us in the first place. We believe it and defend it from criticisms even when some evidence and facts disprove the factuality of our belief.
But I understand why this is so. For a lot of us, our belief is core to our existence and identity, so we can’t even phantom the possibility of it being wrong. I remember when I began to see evidence for evolution as against creationism, which I used to believe in, it took me a lot of time to adjust to the new truth because creationism is core to my Christian belief, and I don’t know how to reconcile the truth of evolution with my other beliefs that are built on the premise of creationism. For example, if evolution is true and the historicity of Adam and Eve is a doubt, it means that there was no fall, no original sin and I wasn’t born in sin.
But while two truths can coexist, sometimes, they can’t, because one is just not true. So, we then have to choose between submitting to a proven truth or continuing to live a lie and be caged in the delusion of our fiction.
In identifying dissonances, we mustn’t study to prove our bias, as this won’t allow one to arrive at an objective truth that will free us from existential suffering. What a lot of us do is that we study to reaffirm our belief because we are scared of losing it. But that is being insincere to one’s self and living in a state of internal disharmony. What we should do is to study against our pre-existing knowledge, which is how to arrive at objective truth. Study against your bias. Read, and be open to arguments that challenge your beliefs. In them may lie the truths that will free you from your dissonance.
The Confluence of Truth and Existential Crisis
From experience, there is always a stage of an existential crisis after the discovery of an argument that exposes the lapses in your belief. The reason for this is that your belief used to be your reality; you have built your personality and life from it, and now that you have discovered that it is wrong, there will be a struggle.
One reason is that it takes time for the mind to adjust to new realities. Remember that you’re probably socialized and indoctrinated into the belief right from your formative years, so it is hard to let go.
This stage of existential crisis is when most people get so miserable and lonely that they run back into the comfort of their fiction. There is an internal turmoil, the fear of being wrong or the consequences of their newfound truth.
But once you pass the stage of existential crisis, clarity will begin to set in little by little. This is not an end to existential crisis in itself, but now you have more accurate answers to life’s questions. The answer to some questions might even be the acceptance that you don’t have answers to them, and it is perfectly all right.
There is also the fear of what will follow if you come out with your new belief, knowing that you stand the risk of being outcast from your associations, losing relationships, and even opportunities. Many people keep their beliefs to themselves for fear of being an outcast. They maintain groupthink at the expense of their internal harmony.
The solution is not set in stone, but the best thing is to weigh the cost.
A Facebook friend recently shared that in Northern Nigeria, some atheists are killed by their families to preserve the ‘purity’ of their bloodline by removing the ‘infidel’. In this type of case, except if you’ve weighed the options and you are ready to be martyred, wouldn’t it be wise to keep your belief to yourself?
I paid my price. I lost romantic relationships, mentorships, and friendships. But the people that matter to me — my parents and sibling — accept this new me. But remember that if you lose certain associations, you’ll always find your kind and tribe. I am finding mine.
However, there are certain instances that you have to speak up. By now, almost everyone around me knows I am a Gay Rights activist.
Sometimes I have asked myself why I bother myself so much about matters such as this when I could direct that mental effort into more productive activities and just be normal like every other person. But this is my normal, or what should be the normal of every sound mind: the recognition of inconsistencies in beliefs and thoughts patterns. Being a curious person, I can’t find peace until I make sense of every inconsistency in my belief. For many, rationality might seem lower to faith, but I have chosen logic and rationality over blind belief.
The freedom from my prior belief in my innate sinfulness or the fulfilment of a higher purpose has given me a wider and more balanced perspective towards life. I have moments of doubts and dread, but I have accepted them as part of my human experience. I may not be completely free from dissonance, but I am no longer scared to embark on an epistemic journey upon awareness of any inconsistency in what I believe. This should be the position of all rational humans.