Your Beliefs as a Temple

Your beliefs form something like a temple. The temple has many columns, rooms, and towers. The columns are facts and reasons that support the rooms. The rooms of the temple represent your major beliefs. The towers correspond to beliefs that build on each other.

For example, you have rooms corresponding to aspects of your moral philosophy. On top of these rooms, supported by your moral philosophy, are rooms corresponding to your political philosophy. On top of these are still other rooms, corresponding to your beliefs about political parties. And on top of these, more rooms, containing your beliefs about political candidates. These stack in a tower of politics.

The various rooms and towers of your temple represent everything that you believe. Each room is supported by its columns, and supports the rooms above it. High up rooms rely on many rooms beneath them.

Suppose that you ask someone why he supports a certain political candidate. His brain runs a search algorithm of sorts, looking for an answer that rings true to him that you might also accept. A justification is identified, corresponding to one of the columns in a high up room that contains beliefs about that political candidate.

He tells you this reason. You then point out, rightly, that it is not logically sound. He realizes that you are right (respecting logic, as he does), and the column collapses. Does the whole room of his support for that candidate then collapse? No. There are still twenty other columns in that room, and the one that he showed you was barely supporting any weight. As soon as it was removed, the ceiling of the room merely shifted a centimeter, and the excess weight was redistributed across the remaining columns. You’ve won a fight with no significance, knocked over a non-weight-bearing column. If you ask him why he still supports this candidate, his brain searches again, and provides a different column now as the justification. You could spend hours kicking over columns, without ever putting the structural integrity of the room in jeopardy.

Now, suppose that you locate a critical column in his belief structure. One low in his temple, that carries a great deal of weight. If this column were removed, the nearby columns would not be strong enough to take over its burden. The ceiling of its room would collapse, and the rooms above that are supported by it would have to come crashing down as well. Knocking over this column could destroy an entire tower of his belief structure.

So what happens when you attack this critical column with logic? It doesn’t move. This column is carrying so much weight that it is almost impossible to budge. And while he is mostly unbothered by you kicking down non-weight-bearing columns, he hugs this column tightly as you try to knock it down, and won’t let go. He is not willing to see that tower fall. It took so much work and investment to build it. He doesn’t have any tower that can replace it. His social circle approves of that tower. He’s not sure what life would be like without it. He’s not sure he would be the same person without it. If he doesn’t have logic to use against your argument, he won’t hug the column any less tightly. He’ll resort to logical fallacies, rationalizations, claims that “truth is relative”, cached thoughts, insults, or plugging his ears.

Suppose, however, that before jeopardizing the structural integrity of that tower, you help him build a new one right next to it. This tower is in the same architectural style as the first, but new and clean and sleek. Each room in the old tower corresponds to one of the new tower’s rooms, but the content is different. This new tower has more solid foundations, built on beliefs about the importance of gathering evidence, thinking very carefully, verifying predictions, opening ideas up for criticism, and testing theories.

Now, suppose that when he sees that the construction of this new tower is going well, you point out that he’ll eventually need to clear away the old tower to make enough space to finish the new construction. Then, when he is ready, you help him as he pulls down the old tower’s critical column. Together, you pull, and watch the old tower fall to make way for the new. To help him teardown his tower, you helped him build a new one first.

So remember:

  • Sometimes the reasons why people claim they believe are not the reasons that actually matter.
  • People will often fight vigorously to prevent their belief structures from crumbling, even in the face of strong evidence against their beliefs.
  • Sometimes you need to give a person new beliefs before tearing down their old ones.



5 thoughts on “Your Beliefs as a Temple

  1. Ari J says:

    Poetically put, sir.

  2. George Crews says:

    But aren’t our assumptions the main load bearing columns of our beliefs? The rational ones anyway. The ones we can reason about. (Which probably excludes politics by the way.) And you can’t argue assumptions, you simply assume them or not. After all, they are assumptions. So you’ll never actually be able to knock down a person’s political belief system with logical reasoning. (And I think the empirical evidence would support this.)

    It’s not that these fundamental columns of the temple are under such great load that they can’t be changed out, it’s that they are so firm and unbreakable that they can be counted upon to bear great weight.

    I know your point is to provide a way to approach trying to facilitate/help people change their own mind. I agree that is a good thing to try. And building a new tower is like giving a person a new perspective from which to see things. I agree with that too. But I don’t think it’s an exercise in finding the logical flaws in our beliefs. Rather, it’s facilitating a person changing the way they think. A change in process rather than conclusions. Like how the scientific method gave us a new way to think about nature. A very much better way. A way that resulted in great change about what our beliefs about nature are. (And note that the scientific method has two logical flaws! The big one is abduction – reasoning from the particular experimental results to the general theory.)

  3. Alrenous says:

    I tried that first.
    I stopped because people’s intuitions can see implications at effectively infinite distance, and can tell the new temple contradicts the old one. They instantly see the tactical switch coming.

    I solved it personally by acknowledging what a small impact on my life any particular belief has. My life and my person will be pretty much the same, for almost all my beliefs. And if my social circle doesn’t like it…well, tough, I tell them I don’t care coming in the door.

    You can test the technique by un-adopting a random belief. Play-act to yourself, “If I didn’t believe X, what would I conclude?” If I didn’t believe in Einsteinian gravity…I’d still believe things fall. I wouldn’t suddenly stop knowing how to use stairs and ladders. GPS wouldn’t fail in my vicinity. I would just be more ignorant as to how.

  4. Great post, Spencer! I completely agree. A vast weakness in the art of convincing, I think, is the lack of demonstrating the attractiveness of the alternative one is presenting. This makes everything ‘hold up’ much better, and is in line with various studies showing the importance of strengthening an identity before attempting to remove a key portion.

  5. monkeywink says:

    Wow, I really relate to this post, particularly because I independently came up with a similar model of my own belief structures. I focused on the foundational assumptions that all other beliefs apparently derive from.
    In my own experience, I lost my religion fairly suddenly through reluctant introspection and honest enquiry, which meant that a large swathe of my beliefs suddenly became orphaned. In your model, one of my temple towers collapsed, and I had a distinct absence of opinion about a lot of things.
    I think your psychological model is very useful, and one that I relate to. Here is a link to mine, which is similar:

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