Ideas: Part 1: Thinking About What We Think About

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.—Bertrand Russell

My wife thinks I’m weird. How do I know? She tells me. Sometimes when inspiration takes me I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, look deeply into her eyes and ask, “What’s it like being you?” She gives me this strange look and then says something facetious. The question is odd I admit; yet, I am genuinely curious how the world looks to others and I find the thinking of others, particularly the ideas they entertain, interesting for a number of reasons.

A person’s ideas provide glimpses into their inner-world; and ideas are a currency exchanged between people. Consider the importance of books. I can literally enter into the mind of any writer simply by reading their written work. If I hadn’t read either Thomas Paine or John Locke, I wouldn’t have the same appreciation for democracy or the rule of law. Without Plato popularizing the ideas of his teacher Socrates, it would’ve taken me decades longer to develop an appreciation for learned ignorance (if I had developed it at all). When I was six I received a biblical story pop-up book for Christmas. I loved turning the book’s tactile pages: what it lacked in terms of historicity, it more than made up for in terms of shaping my later ethical development.

Books are obviously influential. So, too, are the interactions we have with the people in our lives: while growing up if I had a different father, an intellectual in every sense of the word, I wouldn’t have had the same critical conversations influencing me to place so much value on the need for intellectual integrity, consistency and honesty. If I had a different mom, I wouldn’t have developed as a strong sense of empathy. I’ve spent more hours than I can count talking with the friends I’ve had throughout my life; and each friend has in their own way challenged and forced me to re-examine my thinking in some way. Everyone follows their own path while being shaped by such experiences.

The experiences we do not have are often just as pivotal to our development as the ones we do have. If I lack a knowledge of Islam, or an attendant desire to learn more about it, I’ll likely make the mistake of lumping all Muslims into a single, fictional whole. Add fear to ignorance and you get a powerful combination. The fact we are living in such tense times with droves of Syrian refugees, the challenge of ISIS, and domestic terror attacks, etc. makes it even less likely people will want to understand Islam’s complexities; it’s always easier to just generalize and say all Muslims are the same. The reality is Islam is affected by the same sectarianism as Christianity, and the same divergence of beliefs as any of the world’s other major religions; and by contrast if I’ve never lived in a Western society where human rights are protected by law, but instead I’ve only ever lived in an honor-based society dominated by clerics like one finds in Iran, I likely won’t understand or accept the need for protecting either religious freedom or women’s rights. In philosophical terms, human rights are not a living option to someone living in an honor-based system while unquestioning obedience to religious authority is a dead option to a person living in a rights-based Western society.

In his book The Will to Believe, William James (1842-1910) introduced the concept of living and dead options. To illustrate how this dichotomy worked, James observed how no Turkish Muslim ever participated in a Catholic mass because of its self-evident truth. Although at an abstract level non-Catholics can see why a Catholic might find a mass meaningful, the value or merit of it is only evident to people actually raised in the Church to believe it’s something worth doing; and by comparison the Muslim requirement to face Mecca and pray six times a day is intrinsically without merit to a non-Muslim. Again, the idea of obligatory masses or prayer is a taught, not self-evident, necessity. This compulsion or need speaks volumes about how rarely we give any real conscious thought to the origins behind our own thinking, beliefs or actions. We are just sort of born into a time, setting and worldview as it were and then proceed from there.

Ideas are paradoxical and potentially dangerous things, i.e. they can precipitate change and progress or act as a catalyst to justify continuation of the status-quo and repression. In terms of progress, the idea human beings have rights is certainly one of the most important innovations of the last thousand years. Human rights don’t actually exist (not in any concrete sense like a table or a cat); they exist only in mind as an abstract “thing”; they require a biological host (us); their existence also requires specific social, political and cultural conditions to be met—like the existence of capitalism, individualism, constitutionalism, and a separation of church and state, a Reformation and Scientific Revolution, and something akin to Lockean liberalism. Rights didn’t always exist, nor were they inevitable; they just so happened to evolve in the fertile soil known as Western thought. The paradox is ideas like fascism, intolerance, Social Darwinism also grew out of this same soil.

In terms of the co-mingling of ideas with repression, one-thousand women a year are murdered in Pakistan because of a concept known as family honor. Honor killings, where brothers and fathers kills their sisters, wives and mothers, take place because of the perceived violation of the natural order; a natural order where gender roles are prescribed and any challenge to that order, e.g. a female family member is raped, etc.and males are required to take appropriate action to restore the family’s honor. There is no natural order to things, not so far as I can tell. If such a thing existed, one would expect to see more similarities and agreement between cultures. The reality is the idea of a natural order—a belief that there’s but one correct way to live in, view, and interpret the world—was invented by those already in power who appealed to that order to legitimate their continued control of society, e.g. priests, kings, nobles, elites. We are surrounded by such fictions. Human rights are fictions. So, too, is the notion of a natural order. Yet, fiction notwithstanding and human psychology being what it is, it doesn’t really matter if something exists or not. All that matters is a person believes something is real and then they act accordingly. Faith in the Boogie Man, for example, translates into a believer taking real actions to secure themselves from perceived (not actual) danger like leaving the bathroom light on at night or being cautious while walking near closets in darkened rooms. Perception becomes the reality; the reality, though, is there’s no Boogie Man in the first place (but try telling that to someone absorbed by fear).

This is because none of us really are in a habit of first confirming something is true before believing. We don’t continually check to see if the chair we’re going to sit on is there. We just sort of trust prior experience and sit. When it comes to meeting new people we, more often than not, trust to first-impressions (which may or may not be wise). Growing up we, generally speaking, do not question what our parents teach us. We trust them because they love us, they’re older, and we just assume that what they’re telling us is true. The problem is fundamentally we do not learn early enough the need or value of testing claims or the value of possessing a questioning attitude. The reality is, as wonderful as our parents can be, they don’t know everything; they make mistakes and they make assumptions; and they themselves learned certain valuable things and certain errors from their parents and so on and so forth. Fortunately, human psychology being what it is we are never quite set in stone (even though we might find ourselves set in our ways): when we finally understand the Boogie Man doesn’t exist, the power of this phantom—to dictate our present and our future action—is broken. Yet, breaking the hold myths have on us—since human beings are hardwired to tell and believe in stories—this is no easy task.

We are natural storytellers who believe in the need for a beginning, a middle, and an end. The show of a good story is it moves you emotionally; and we’d rather be moved than reasoned with. Unlike emotions, reason doesn’t come naturally to most of us. I think most people consider themselves reasonable people but if we are being perfectly honest with ourselves, invoking Giambattista Vico’s maxim, we tend to believe in more than we understand. Current research in neuroscience has established we possess “believing brains” meaning we tend to force new information to conform to old understandings (as opposed to changing our thinking to reflect a new understanding). For this reason logic, or at least appealing to reason over emotion, presents something of an upward battle to most of us. We tend to close our ears (not open them) when someone challenges us on a point of belief.

If our particular story’s beginning or middle or end is challenged in some way we tend to dig our feet in. If you’re honest you’ll appreciate what I’m saying, in that, more often than not when you encounter an idea or opinion that is contrary to what you believe is true you tend to feel the idea or opinion is wrong as opposed to know something is amiss. We are, in a sense, our own worst enemies when it comes to being reasonable because we just are not built for it. We’re built to connect with family, community, and society; built to be part of a group and to challenge popular wisdom is to become an outlier within the group. We’re built with a need to belong and share ideas and values in common. These needs, reflecting the peculiar hardware and software one finds in the human brain, combined with our tendency to succumb to emotion instead of trust in objectivity wherever it might take us, encourages us to conform to groups instead of risk being pushed out for being skeptical.

Before leaving the idea of emotions ruling over us let’s consider the following example. For the record I mean no disrespect in what I’m about to say. I just think it’ll help bring what I’m trying to say into greater relief: Tom Cruise is assumedly a reasonable guy, I’m sure he thinks of himself as such. He belongs to an organization called Scientology. As a Scientologist he believes the following to be true: several trillion years ago the Galactic Overlord Xenu’s planet had problems with overpopulation. To prevent a collapse of his own society Xenu brought this excess population to the planet Earth…just to kill them. (If Xenu was just going to commit genocide, why go through the trouble of traveling interstellar distances to kill everyone? I digress.)

Xenu got rid of this excess population by dumping them into volcanoes on the Earth; and just to make sure everyone was dead he dropped hydrogen bombs on the volcanoes. These beings then became spirits (what Scientologists call Thetans). Thetans, according to Scientology, are the main cause of human psychological problems: these spirits occupy us and cause bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and so on. Fortunately, if you have the money, the Church of Scientology has the know-how to get rid of the Thetans. Lucky us. I didn’t make any of that up; these are actual beliefs only the highest level Scientologists were privy to until quite recently.

So as you read my account of Scientology’s core teachings I bet you thought to yourself: how can anyone believe any of this? Yet, odds are you might very well believe in something equally fantastic like someone named Jesus walked on water or rose from the dead. If you are a Christian, I bet I hit a nerve there. Which only proves the point I was trying to make: we are usually able to appreciate the problems with the view points or beliefs of people different than us; however, we respond emotionally instead of logically to new information or to challenges to our existing thinking. In all honesty, the Scientologist is as justified (in their own mind) to believe Xenu is responsible for creating Thetans as a Christian is in believing wine can be turned into blood. The main reason why Jesus walking on water, or any other miracle or improbability, sounds reasonable to you is because these stories have been around a lot longer than Scientology; and you are surrounded by people who accept the idea someone can walk on water is valid; you likely accepted this idea at quite a young age; and these ideas form part of the intellectual tradition and culture of the West. However, as Thomas Paine observed, the long habit of believing a thing true might give it the superficial appearance of being right…but belief in and of itself does not make an idea true. Not by a long shot. I want to end this line of reasoning by reminding you how I began it: I had to preface talking about Jesus by saying I meant no disrespect. If I had to ask your forgiveness in advance, again, doesn’t that suggest we’re not quite as reasonable as we thought and that maybe our emotions at some point need to take a back seat to reason?