The following is the first paragraph of an essay that can be read in full at “PEOPLE_ONLY_BELIEVE_WHAT_THEY_WANT_TO_BELIEVE”
I. Prologue / The Nature of the Problem and Questions Presented
The aphorism “people only believe what they want to believe” is a common description by proponents of an observation or argument of their opponents’ beliefs — proponents and opponents in a relative sense, this aphorism is often said simultaneously by all parties having opposing descriptions or beliefs regarding the same sense experience, theoretical dispute, or “fabric” made of both. What usually occurs, as exasperation sets in, is that proponents and opponents battling over the truth of their respective claims of knowledge often end their disputes by stating this aphorism of each other as a final means to dismiss the opponent’s beliefs as not justified in any epistemic, normative, nor even in a rational sense but as simply an irrational act of will immune to reason. In such arguments, though it is assumed that truth is the goal of belief, the method being used seems to reduce epistemology to a “search for methods that yield verdicts that one oneself would accept”. As a philosophical observation in Western Philosophy of how beliefs are sometimes justified, this aphorism goes as far back as the Ancient Greeks and is formalized in modern psychology as “confirmation bias”. Furthermore, as a matter of practical reality, in our modern Technological Society in which the average individual is flooded and bombarded by wanted and unwanted information almost every waking minute, it is a necessity to have a reflex or intuitive process of deciding between “junk beliefs” and beliefs with value in order to make it through the day. Except for those whose occupation it is to produce ideas, for most people, moments allowed for deductive or other logical contemplations of beliefs are few and far between. However, this aphorism historically is not a creation of modern technology sound-bite wordgames and polemics or relativism nor solely a trait of Clifford’s “den of thieves” but describes an epistemic voluntarism not limited to the uneducated or unenlightened. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy having spent his life among the ruling classes wrote:
I know that most men—not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever, and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic problems—can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty — conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives.