Archive for April, 2013

Crossroads – You Are What You Believe

Before it was challenged by Copernicus and Galileo nearly 400 years ago, Aristotle’s Geocentric notion that the sun revolved around the earth was the accepted truth of the Catholic Church. The Church’s understanding of the solar system was not Heliocentric, but rather “religio-centric”; it was a belief-dependent reality. Galileo was subsequently tried by the Inquisition and found to be “vehemently suspect of heresy”, and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. It should be noted that Galileo’s 1633 conviction for his crime against church doctrine was eventually reversed in 1992, he was forgiven. Such is the power of belief systems.

Beliefs need to be seen as much for what they are as what they are not. They are not “truths” except as they are provable in which instance they become facts. Beliefs do not rise to the level of truth, believing something does not make it true. As beliefs are not demonstrable and they are not provable they remain beliefs. A Belief System is a set of mutually supportive beliefs. Truth need not apply and “truth” itself is altogether another bucket of worms. Also, as philosopher Jonathan Glover points out, belief systems are difficult to completely revise, he argues that beliefs have to be considered holistically, and that no belief exists in isolation in the mind of the believer. We are a collection of our beliefs independent of facts and experience and most importantly, in the absence of knowledge.  We are walking-talking belief systems. Michael Schermer’s observation is that, “… the principle of belief-dependent realism dictates, once the belief is formed, reasons can be manufactured to support it.” Actually, they must and will be either found or created.

People believe because they need to believe and they need to believe because they cannot grasp the complexity of things that go on around them. The world as experienced is far too complex and random to be taken in and completely understood. The persecution of the “witches” of Salem in colonial times is a good example of a belief system built on fear and superstition in which many women and men were put to death over a period of years without factual basis. It was believed by the church-going residents of Salem that Satan was present on the earth along with demons and all misfortune was the work of the devil acting through witches.

The Calvinists of Salem lived in a religio-centric-belief-dependent reality which created a belief system that allowed them to rationalize hanging their fellow citizens. The Inquisition of the 12th through 15th centuries, which burned people alive, is another example of a religio-centric-belief-dependent system that cost many innocent lives. Beliefs feed on themselves in self-referential loops continually building on other beliefs and in this way creating systems of related beliefs and recreating them according to need and experience. Paradoxically, the deepest motive for belief is the need for certainty and as John Dewey pointed out, “.. the quest for certainty has always been an effort to transcend belief.”

Here follows a mundane example of the ubiquity and banality of belief in everyday life: Needing something or other someone believes a neighborhood store will have what he wants. On his way to the store this person will cross streets and do so believing drivers will obey traffic laws regarding cross-walks and traffic lights and will not run him down. Our shopper who lives in a “good” neighborhood also believes he will not be accosted or robbed enroute, he believes he is safe. At the store he finds what he wants and pays with a piece of paper that both he and the clerk believe has value equal to the purchase. It is one belief after another. Belief is necessary, it does not require knowing, it does not count as knowing but it is essential to living, it is an essential component of daily life and the social contract.

“The human brain is really a believing machine,” according to Neurologist Andrew Newberg, “and every experience we have affects the depth and quality of those beliefs. The beliefs may hold only a glimmer of truth, but they always guide us toward our ideals. Without them we cannot live, let alone change the world. They are our creed, they give us faith, and they make us who we are. Descartes said, Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am.” But viewed through the lens of neuroscience, it might be better stated as Credo ergo sum, “I believe, therefore I am.” Our beliefs lead us into the future, in fact, they make the future possible, they make life possible. Belief enables all endeavors as simple as getting out of bed in the morning or a willingness to vote or participate in communal life. It must also be noted that trust and mistrust are functions of belief and both are dependent on experience.

In spite of such horrible events as the shooting of children in Connecticut or the recent Boston Marathon bombing we have no choice but to proceed as believers. Certainty is not to be had. Our calculations of the future are underlain with beliefs and made stronger by an acknowledgement of uncertainty. We have fire extinguishers not because we believe there will be a fire but because there is no certainty there will be none; this is not neurosis but common sense. Tim Flannery said it well: “We have trod the face of the moon, touched the nether most pit of the sea, and can link minds instantaneously across vast distance …. But for all that, it’s not so much our technology but what we believe that will determine our fate.”

Aside from written laws, the social contract is tenuous, it is an illusion at best yet we must believe in it, we must protect and defend the most generous and humane definition of it if only to protect our conception of ourselves as civilized people. Beware the purveyors of certainty, beware of liars – it’s beliefs all the way down, folks – this I believe.

At The Crossroads: About The Social Contract

The social contract is generally understood to mean the arrangements people agree to, either explicitly or tacitly, to exchange absolute freedom for security. As part of the grand bargain, duties are levied along with the rights granted to individuals. In Western societies the social contract revolves about the writings of the 17th- and 18th-century philosophers Hume, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. In general, the writers cited centered their definitions of political authority around God, natural rights and a government constituted of either a monarchical or parliamentary nature. Hobbes thought men must consent to be governed, Rousseau believed in self-rule and Locke believed in “natural rights” granted by God. The Declaration of Independence of the United States owes much to Locke. While it is true that the structure of what is taken to be the contemporary social contract is generally derived from the writings of those philosophers, the historical discussion does not end there. Like everything else, there is much more to the matter than meets the eye or the standard definitions.

The origins of the social contract lie well beyond recorded history and long before hominids walking upright were a novelty. In fact eusociality, the “true social condition,” is found in insects such as ants and termites, whose origins can be traced to 100 million years ago. The term “eusociality,” as used in theories of social evolution, describes cooperative brood care, overlapping social generations and division of labor within groups. From the starting point of eusociality our human ancestors evolved physically and socially and enlarged upon the three basic requirements.

Cooperative child care and overlapping social generations yielded a continuity of shared experience; division of labor enabled males of the species to hunt and forage. This new phase was inaugurated likely by A. afarensis, the first hominid believed to have walked upright, three million years ago. The new posture meant looking for food and watching for predators became easier, and life on the planet was, in a manner of speaking, looking up. Primitive though it was, a social mechanism was being created and defined as, in the words of Robert Ardrey, “ … a group of unequal beings organized to meet common needs.” These simple arrangements continually evolved over millennia, becoming more and more complex to achieve the social structures we inhabit today; the social contract expanded beyond survival to global domination by the species Homo sapiens.

The social structures of bands, tribes, camps, villages, towns, cities and, eventually, nations followed those simple earlier footsteps in an evolutionary process known as complexification. One step at a time, human  consciousness evolved from immediate family to the planet in that continuing process, moving in relatively short order from simple kinship campsites to the complexity of the United Nations. As Edward O. Wilson put it, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and God-like technology.”

I will dare say that if asked today whether or not they are a part of a social contract most respondents would be perplexed, it never having occurred to them that such exists. Because we are continually immersed in our social contract we fail to notice or be aware of the fact that there is one and that we are bound to it. It is like fish not being aware of the water around them – it is simply there. In spite of its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, the social contract has been the focus of much writing and thought by biologists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and many others for a very long time.

Following his trial in 399 BC, Socrates’ taking of poison and the discourse leading to that exercise is an example of an early social contract (which act became a subject of discussion for philosophers ever after). Accused of corrupting youth with his teaching and questioning and impiety by failing to acknowledge established Gods and introducing a few of his own design, Socrates exchanged his life for his belief in a social contract in which he believed he was free to question established beliefs but ultimately wasn’t. It was the same grand bargain, the exchange we all make regarding absolute freedom, even if not at such a price, to live in society. It is important to recognize that it was his belief in that Athenian social contract that led Socrates to act as he did.

In China during the reign of Zu Jia (1177-1158 BCE) questions about successful harvests, successful military campaigns, and even about the weather were believed to be revealed by reading cracks in heated turtle shells. Such archaic beliefs have been abandoned only to be replaced by others and those varying from culture to culture. Modern societies have their own versions of baked turtle shells to believe in. Robert N. Bellah put it well: “In an important sense, all culture is one: human beings today owe something to every culture that has gone before us.” Ultimately, all social contracts rest on a centuries old foundation of belief and that is a matter to be pursued as this series of essays proceeds. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, “… it’s beliefs all the way down.”

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