Posts Tagged 'beliefs'

Herding Turtles

The phrase originates from a conversation that occurred directly after a scientist’s speech in which he described how the earth revolves around the sun.

At the end of the speech an elderly lady stood up and said,

“What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The scientist then asked, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

“You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

This anecdote was cited by Stephen Hawking, in his book “A Brief History of Time.”

A belief system is turtles all the way down. Why talk about “Belief Systems and the Social Contract”? Because, before we are anything else we are a species of believing social animals. Beliefs are demonstrably more powerful and durable than knowledge. History is a litany of beliefs triumphing over facts. It is a failing of intellect that has led to wars, depredation, and widespread social discontent throughout human history.  Once past survival, we are at root, meaning-seeking organisms and we go to great lengths to rationalize whatever beliefs we can adduce to reinforce those meanings.

It can be said that beliefs are the actual substance of the social contract; to not believe is to not participate. Beliefs inform the social contract – they saturate it with ideas, fantasies, and ideals that often do not necessarily reflect reality or, for that matter, possibility. There is hay to be made in this by politicians and others seeking to influence the least capable members of a society to achieve approval for policies that are not of ultimate benefit to them.

A belief system is a set of mutually supportive notions, a psychological state which holds the beliefs to be true even in the face of contradiction. The beliefs of such systems can be religious, philosophical, ideological. The philosopher Jonathan Glover says beliefs are always a combination of these and that such systems are difficult to revise. Glover suggests that beliefs have to be considered holistically in that no belief exists in isolation in the mind of the believer – beliefs are social and psychological in nature. It can also be said that beliefs are often an existential black hole into which go facts never to be heard from again. Facts quite often are regarded as irrelevant if they do not accord with beliefs – racial stereotypes being an example of this phenomenon. Truth becomes, at bottom, a belief system you either believe in or not.

Two of the most influential thinkers on the subject, Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, differed on what underlies belief systems. Adler’s social/psychological theories stood against Freud’s. Whereas Freud claimed sexuality lay at the base of personality, Adler said power was the real aphrodisiac. Actually they were both right. Power attracts sex as a magnet does iron but it does something else as well – it creates fear and, too often, submission. There is the belief system called Capitalism which would destroy any social contract standing in the way of accumulating wealth. Perhaps to the disappointment of Freud, the contemporary Oedipus fantasy is wealth beyond the dreams of avarice with requisite social control.

In the case of those seeking power and influence, such as politicians running for office, the more believable is going to prevail. It’s marketing exercise with a certain quantity of shuck and jive telling people what they want to hear. May the best man win comes down to making the best sounding case, plucking the right strings, addressing fears and aspirations with the best sounding rhetorical spiel. It comes down to who can create the most believable fantasy addressed to either end of the political spectrum. Who can best tell the public what they want to hear. It has little or nothing to do with truth.

An example of fantasy social contract “rights” are gun laws that permit people to carry loaded weapons into public places on the premise that gun owners have the right to do so, ignoring the right of other people to be safe. Anyone who has ever fired a sidearm even at a shooting range knows most people don’t have a clue as to where their bullets are headed. It is a certainty that innocent people are likely to be wounded fatally or otherwise if some paranoid would-be gunslinger decides to open fire in a crowded public space.  Another example involving public safety is where people speeding along on a crowded freeway believe that all the cars in front of them have functioning brake lights.

What is belief after all but a handy acceptance of what is presented, thought, experienced, or felt as real and true without the necessity of objective proof? In spite of the efforts we make as organized societies to make it possible for diverse people to coexist peacefully and productively, beliefs intervene at nearly every level – our socially destructive race relations being a perfect example infecting the American social contract for centuries. Ironically we must organize social contracts which, in spite of conflicting beliefs, which will allow us  to live together in some state of harmony. Thus we add yet another belief system to the stack – the notion that we can all get along which holds until other beliefs conflict. It’s a stack of beliefs inextricable one from the others. They are all too clever by half, those turtles.

Crossroads Series / There Be Demons Out There

It is well understood, I hope, that no social problem is just one problem all by its lonesome. If you focus on only one aspect of a problem you will not understand it much less “solve” it. All social problems are complex, made up of many issues, attitudes, interests, hidden agendas, and more influential than any thing else – the demons of belief.  In order to at least try to understand these dynamics it is necessary to separate beliefs from knowledge and experience.  Beliefs are often difficult to identify because they are, but not always, buried and ineffable .  Fear, by itself, is one of the most powerful demons of belief.

Beliefs are the true “ghost in the machine” and are manifest in everyday life. Building on the work of Gilbert Ryle, Arthur Koestler explains in, “The Ghost in the Machine” (1967), that humanity has, throughout history, as much tended towards self-destruction as elevation at one level or another. The “ghost” has been with us a long long time, it has inhabited the human mind from the beginning, layer upon successive layer, exerting its powerful influence – beliefs ranging from the arrangement of the heavens, the supernatural and philosophy to rocket science and racial and ethnic prejudice. The “ghost” can be said to be the author of the human narrative in all of its humanistic grandeur as well as its appalling destructiveness. From art, and medical science to nuclear weapons and suicide bombings these are all the product of interior dialog made manifest. Beliefs are consequential; just think how long it took the Catholic Church to acknowledge Galileo’s truth and even today there remain people who question it.

Beliefs serve to maintain what we agree, in general, to call our consensual reality – the shared and necessary tacit agreement we call our social contract. While not everyone does agree, of course, in general most settle on something we can all work with, something we can all share in a contractual sense as to define a consensual reality, a social contract, a society, a civilization. That, of course, is normal sane behavior but the snakes of doubt, the demons, especially of Fear, have often been set loose in service to destructive agendas, racial and ethnic prejudice, economic control, and territorial conquest. Of the demons and ghosts, Fear directed against minorities, either religious or ethnic, has been one of the most powerful making it the weapon of choice for demagogues throughout history.

Today, in the United States, the consensual reality is under assault, and bit by bit, being destroyed in the name of social conservatism by Tea Party activists and oligarch sponsored politicians who are pandering to the most rabid anti-social elements in the country, the social jihadis who want to tear down the entire edifice of the social contract. Programs like Social Security, public education, and medical care for military veterans are being challenged and threatened. Like 10th C Norse “berserkers” who would use their own severed limbs as weapons, the Tea Party jihadis are on a rampage to savage the foundations of American civilization at any cost including to themselves. What do they believe? Do they see demons in social security, food stamps, health care, in the aged, or in the hungry and homeless? If they prevail will a social nuclear winter visit itself on the country? Will it be everyone for themselves with guns everywhere? Is it going to be back to the trees and caves? What a vision! Sociopathic instincts and self-promotion at the national level by Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, Louie Gohmert, and others are driving the legislative agenda away from governance to chaos. Is that their dream, their fantasy world? What do they believe?

A polarized world has been created in the US mostly by pandering politicians supported by sociopathic billionaires funding an antithesis of community using phony “news” outlets and political commentators as propaganda machines addressing the willing gullible. Even the US Supreme Court has contributed to the destruction of the social contract through its Citizens United decision and the coronation of George W. Bush. Thanks to the Supreme Court political power can be bought with PAC funded political campaigns; corporations are now become people walking upon the earth – just like you and me except they have more money and no faces. Offices from governors and mayors on down to aldermen are ripe for the dystopian influence of plutocrats. We are in the midst of the most well financed, well organized attack on American democracy in history.

Throughout world history when belief in a social system was betrayed social collapse followed. It seems now belief in American democracy is being deliberately undermined. Beware, ladies and gentlemen of the Tea Party zealots, you are playing with fire. There be demons out there!


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.

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