People love to weave complex narratives

In the section on Probability, I mentioned our excellent ability to detect patterns and identify relationships between concepts, and what happens when we lower our criteria so that we obtain more hits, which is beneficial, but also increase the number of false positives, which is undesirable.

Another skill that humans have honed to an art form is the ability to confabulate.

Confabulation is the act of weaving together explanations out of necessity, from fragments of information, to concoct a plausible narrative. It’s typically done with the intention to convince oneself, rather than to maliciously deceive others. Therefore, it’s not quite the same thing as lying.

It does involve an element of lying to oneself (and indirectly, in the process, to others), but usually the person spinning the story does not quite perceive this act of self-deception- it takes place at a subconscious level.

The act of confabulating is complex because our mental life is a mixture of conscious and subconscious processes. When someone makes up a story deliberately, that story can safely be considered a lie. But if this fabrication occurs at a level that flies under the radar of our awareness, then it lacks the intentionality of an outright lie.

To take an example- let’s say that two believers are discussing the various reasons behind their faith.

One of them is doing the questioning, while the other is doing his or her best to keep up with the questions. Each time the respondent gives a reason for faith, the questioner raises an issue that invalidates the respondent’s statement.

To cope with this rebuttal, the respondent tries a different approach, by rephrasing the statement, or introducing a different reason. The questioner identifies another flaw in the logic, then the respondent revises the statement again, and so on.

In this scenario, the respondent possesses a genuine, fervent passion for his or her religion, and is certain that a satisfactory, logical answer exists. This individual believes that in order to convince the questioner, it’s just a matter of gaining enough insight and clarity of mind to penetrate the fog and deliver the ultimate solution.

The erroneous statements that were previously issued were well-meaning attempts to get at the truth, and not by any means the final version. Or perhaps the questions being asked should be dealt with by a proper expert on the subject- which the ordinary, unassuming believer, is not. The role of the ordinary believer is to simply take the word of certified experts to heart, and humbly assimilate their received wisdom.

The earnest respondent has likely made statements that are misleading, inaccurate, or vague. He or she might have used less-than-perfect reasoning, tried to move the goal posts by redefining the argument, and made partial attempts to answer questions on the fly despite a lack of true understanding. (Click here for more on the topic of Question Evasion.)

It's hard, under such circumstances, to condemn such well-meaning individual. After all, this process of reasoning is one that we all participate in, as we conduct a dialogue with ourselves or others in order to tackle uncertainty. It doesn't change the fact, however, that listeners get misled.

Unfortunately, regardless of how well meaning the issuer of false statements may be, the fact that the statements are inaccurate remains. Others, hearing such claims, may be influenced despite the lack of substantiation and logic. Quite often, when it comes to our beliefs, our sense of confidence is misplaced, or is borrowed from our religious authorities, who deliver their missives with vigour and self-assurance.

When we listen to statements made by others, we need to be alert and critical. Instead of accepting claims unquestioningly, we need to detect confabulation when it occurs. Do not let yourself be swayed by the claim that someone is an authority on the subject, especially when the person presents no scientific evidence to support his or her arguments. (For more on the topic of how to ask pertinent questions, refer to the section on Critical Thinking.)

When we harbour false beliefs, we may one day act on them. An inclination to act on borrowed faith is dangerous- it fuels mob behaviour and an abdication of personal responsibility, and promotes a disregard for others’ opinions for the mere reason that they differ from those of one’s leaders. (For more on the harmful effects of false beliefs, refer to the section on Non-Believers.)
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