On belief and trust

by Neil Rickert

Over at the “Triangulations” blog, Sabio Lantz has a new post “Believing Mind vs. Religious Mind” on why he now thinks that “believing mind” is the better of the two terms.  In explaining his preference, Sabio writes:

Believing without evidence is our default mode. Well, I shouldn’t call it “without evidence” because believing something because someone in authority said it or because it intuitively makes sense to us, is indeed a sort of evidence — though it is a very low level of evidence.

Put that way, belief comes from trusting someone in authority.  But I think that’s too restrictive.  We also tend to trust friends, even when they have no authority over us.

Putting this into perspective, we evolved as a social species.  As such, our survival depends on some degree of mutual cooperation between people.  And here, by “survival” I mean not only our survival as a species or population, but our survival as individuals.  Most of us are far more skilled at getting our next meal from a local store than we are at getting it by hunting wild game.

Cooperation, in turn, requires trust.  So our tendency to trust others is part of who we are.  And we all engage in trusting behavior to some extent.  If the airport announcer says that our flight has been moved to gate 7, we walk over to gate 7 and thereby demonstrate our trust in that announcement.

We are not the rational agents that we are sometimes taken to be.  We depend far more on trust and cooperation than a strict rationality would permit.

The limits of trust

We don’t trust everything that we are told.  So what are the appropriate limits of trust?  In a way, that’s a decision that we must individually make.

I don’t think absolute trust is ever warranted.  And perhaps nobody ever goes quite that far.  Young children, however, do normally place a high degree of trust in their parents, and this is usually appropriate.  Parents usually warn children not to trust strangers.  So we already expect children to make distinctions between whom to trust and whom to not trust.  I take it as part of our personal responsibility to learn how trustworthy are our acquaintances.

It also seems to be part of human nature, that we trust our parents less as we grow up.  Hence the term “rebellious teenagers.”  It is part of growing up, that as we learn more we develop better skills at making our own judgments.  And, as we become more skilled at making our own judgments, we should become less willing to trust the judgments of others.  Or, as president Reagan put it, we should “trust but verify.”  That is say, where appropriate we should tentatively trust where appropriate, but seek evidence for ourselves so that we can later make our own decisions, perhaps contrary to that earlier tentative trust.  And this helps us judge the trustworthiness of others.

In deciding what to trust, we should be asking ourselves about the plausibility of what has been presented to us.  The less plausible, the more skeptical we should be.


Science does depend on some degree of trust.  But it is always a tentative trust, subject to a degree of skepticism and testing.  That tentativity and skepticism are part of what the peer review process is about, and are part of why repeatability of experimental results is so important.


Education depends on trust.  The child needs some degree of trust in what the teacher says.  But, again, that trust is not absolute.  The best teachers encourage questioning, and the best students are willing to question some of what they are taught.


Fundamentalist religion seems to depend on an excessively high degree of trust.  Fundamentalist Christians often say that they place their trust in the Bible, which they see as the word of God.  But this claim is implausible.  A great deal of fundamentalist theology is nowhere to be found in the Bible.  Instead, it depends on very particular interpretations of the Bible.  The trust seems to be in the authorities who have asserted those particular interpretations, and not in the Bible itself.

The Authoritians

I shouldn’t end this post without mentioning Bob Altermeyer’s web site, The Authoritarians.  Altermeyer mainly discusses the authoritarian personality, by which he means personalities which place too much trust in authorities and thereby perpetuate authoritarianism.  This is a topic in which Altermeyer  has done considerable research.  There is a lot of useful material, derived from that research, that can be downloaded from the site.


3 Comments to “On belief and trust”

  1. Just a shout-out and a thank-you for the Triangulations blog reference. That one is a gem and went into my reader. 🙂


  2. Hey Neil,
    thanks for the mention
    Have I seen you on my blog before? How did you find me, if I may ask?
    BTW, you said,

    But I think that’s too restrictive.

    Of course it is. I wasn’t trying to be careful there but simply to show that there are all levels of evidence. It is a matter of how we weigh it and how we evaluate it.

    I also have done a post on “Faith Defined” where I show that one of the usages of “faith” means “trust” and thus of course Atheists have that sort of faith.

    Words are tricky, eh?


    • How did you find me, if I may ask?

      I’m not quite sure. I added your blog to my RSS reader within the last month. I probably saw a thoughtful comment by you, on another blog that I was following.


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