The right-wing populist movements here and in the UK are driven by anger. They justify disruption of the present system because it is seen as not working for people. They do not respect law and tradition when they stand in the way of their goals. The end justifies the means.
I never thought I would find myself on the side of tradition, convention, law and order. I feel as if I am in a mirror world where the conservatives are the rebels in the streets and I am the defender of the status quo. Fifty years ago it was the opposite. The hippies, powered by acid and Vietnam, were on the streets and rejecting the stifling post-war suburban culture. Am I experiencing the prediction that as people get older, they become more conservative? No. Although there are many similarities in the two revolutions, the key difference is the emotional energy behind them.
The hippies believed that people were basically good and that love would set them free. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and once the evil capitalists, the false gods of consumption and the military-industrial complex were exposed and torn down, the new age would be here. That dream of the essential goodness of people evaporated during the 70s with Altamont, rampant drug use and the disintegration of communes.
We are now seeing a similar rage against the machine, except that the underlying energy is one of fear. The swing back to the worship of capitalism, free markets and consumerism in the Reagan era started a stagnation of the standard of living for workers and an increase in economic insecurity that has not abated.
But bigger than that is the fear of strangers that lies behind tribalism and has been whipped up into a frenzy by right-wing media. I’m looking at you, Murdoch, and now, like the brooms of the sorcerer’s apprentice, it has escaped into the world and is destroying trust, science and cooperation. The United Kingdom is united no more. Half of the United States wish that California would break off and drown.
The direction out of all this is to realize that we are neither all love nor all fear. We have the capacity for both within us, just as people have the capacities for good and evil that generate these emotions. The hippie movement disintegrated when it ran into the reality that we are not all pure love, and the present-day populist movements will decline when they come to the realization that we are not all fear and its manifestation, hate.
This cannot come about when hate is shown in return, because that only escalates the fear level. Instead, it must come about through love and sympathy for their cramped, fearful lives.
[This is a major rewrite of the original 5/19/19 post.]
Why do we believe what we believe, and how is it possible that we differ so much?
The simplest kind of belief is something that we experience directly: this flower is yellow; I have ten toes; there is a corner shop at the end of the street.
Over millions of years, life in its various forms started to draw inferences from the senses, firstly using emotions, and later, using the forebrain. For example, the crack of a dry twig might create an emotional inference that you’re being hunted. The varying angles of the sun might cause the forebrain to infer that the world is a sphere of a certain size.
These inferences are beliefs, and on top of them we construct further ones. They are like a geodesic dome of struts and joints where the joints on the ground are our direct experience, the struts are inferences, and the joints in the air are beliefs.
Just like a geodesic dome, a collection of beliefs can form a stable belief system that is resistant to change, but this framework may not be the only or the best one. Just like a dome, the same basic facts can support different belief systems.
These beliefs come from various sources:
Senses: We trust our direct experience
Our senses are fundamental, being the raw material for our understanding of the world, but their apparent obviousness may not be correct.
Plato offered an allegory of a cave where men mistook shadows for the real world. Descartes doubted the validity of all of his senses and concluded that only his thoughts were self-evident.
These days, we understand the limited nature of our senses. The light we see with our eyes is only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum; our skin detects a different portion as heat. We cannot detect the earth’s magnetic field that birds use for navigation.
Even the senses that we do have can be wrong, from optical illusions about the length of lines to the unreliability of eyewitnesses. Modern psychology is replete with experiments that demonstrate the inaccuracy of our perceptions.
Culture: We grew up with the belief
The culture that we grow up in can hold beliefs that are so widely taken for granted as to become invisible and hence unchallenged. For instance, the concept of property is one that is embedded deeply in the Western world, so much so that some people cannot imagine anything else:
“The concept of property — in any situation where scarcity exists — is self-evident…”
We used to believe that stress causes stomach ulcers, and we currently believe that matter consists of atoms. The concept of money; its representation by particular forms of paper and metal, notes and coins; the idea that it also exists as marks on paper or numbers within a computer; driving on the right (or left); which parts of the body must remain clothed and in what situations; all of these are accepted by most people without question.
In-group: We believe what others believe
A society only works because a large majority of people think and act in compatible ways. Someone who does not fit in threatens the social structure and is at risk of being ostracized. In the days of small tribes, they might have been cast out into the wilderness; these days, social misfits are excluded by being socially shunned or even imprisoned.
Behaviors vary tremendously across cultures. There is a wide range of laws and attitudes about alcohol; marijuana; covering the head, breasts or soles of feet; property; burping; public kissing; and sex. We act to match our social group in many ways so as to fit in. Fashion is an excellent example of this; it only exists because many people are prone to copy others. Most people are only comfortable wearing ripped jeans when they are in fashion.
Ideas are the same way. It is safer to accept the beliefs of our group than to choose different beliefs and be regarded as delusional. Politics, religion and economics are areas where many beliefs are held without question. Fitting in is so important that people hold fast to the beliefs of their group even when they are incorrect.
“Understanding the truth of a situation is important, but so is remaining part of a tribe. While these two desires often work well together, they occasionally come into conflict.
In many circumstances, social connection is actually more helpful to your daily life than understanding the truth of a particular fact or idea.”
To merge with the group in these ways is to weaken and even lose our identity, so there is a counterforce of individualism—I gotta be me. Fashion leaders dress differently, are copied, and the fashion spreads at large. Artists, revolutionaries, free thinkers explore outside the accepted bounds, and for this, they might be reviled, shunned or persecuted before possibly being praised and honored.
Experts: We trust someone else’s judgment
Human culture has expanded to include far more knowledge than any one person can understand. (To check on the extent of your mastery, go to a large reference library, choose one book from every shelf and rate your grasp of its contents.) We deal with this by leaning on the expertise of other people and trusting their judgment.
The extent to which we do this may not be obvious. How often do we go against a structural engineer’s recommendations? A nurse? A tax accountant? Most of us believe the earth goes around the sun without having taken the astronomical observations necessary to confirm it. We trust experts, people who have the expertise, to crunch the numbers and proclaim the time of sunrise and the phase of the moon and the height of the tides.
The reason for believing an expert is not their title. (This is the logical fallacy of Appeal to Authority.) Instead, their credibility rests on the data and reasoning behind their claims.
Experts are likely to reach conclusions that contradict common sense. To assess the conclusions of an expert, we need to have enough expertise in the field to make sound judgments about them. The more complex the field and the less we know of it, the less we are able to judge that skill. Unless we have an equivalent level of expertise, our judgment is not good enough to counter their conclusions. We should only be doubtful when:
they are not an expert in the subject under discussion, e.g. the famed physicist Fred Tenable says that we should return to the gold standard. Expertise in one field does not carry over to other areas.
they are a minority voice in their field, e.g. there are a very few scientists who are deniers of anthropogenic global warming. We should use reputation and the consensus conclusions of their peers in the field as a basis for trust.
there is no consensus in the field because the current facts point to a number of different conclusions, e.g. classical physics, quantum mechanics and string theory.
recently discovered facts are causing an existing theory to be revised, e.g. the discovery of radioactivity and its associated heating properties in 1895 prompted a re-examination of the apparent age of the Earth.
the opinions may have a reasonable variance, e.g. election predictions or best plumbing practices, as opposed to the accuracy of, say, lunar eclipses.
Feelings: We choose what feels right
The various other reasons for beliefs given here may produce more than one explanation. When choosing between them, it is tempting to choose one that feels right, rather than the one that is simplest or most probable.
Thinking: We use logic, pattern-matching and probability
The power of rational thought to discern something that is contrary to the senses is the magic ingredient that has created the whole of civilization. We have accumulated one unintuitive idea after another and put them to use in controlling the physical world in an innumerable number of ways.
For a belief to hold up, it must be based on reason, the human ability to apply logic as commonly understood since Aristotle. All other justifications falter in the face of this.
However, the society we have created is so complex that no single person can understand more than the smallest fraction. We rely on other people to understand and manage those other parts because those people have examined those areas extensively, and without studying deeply ourselves, we would probably not make the best choices.
Consequently, we need to extend the scope of our reasoning by using the conclusions of experts. (They are not infallible, however, so their reliability should be qualified according to the grounds given above.)
The other sources of beliefs—our senses, culture, in-group and feelings—are emotional claims, so although we may feel strongly about them, they are, at base, not rational and should be discounted. This is the primary source of disagreements about beliefs.
We like to think we have rational reasons for our conclusions, but it is often the other way round. It is extremely hard to go against our feelings, so it is tempting to adopt arguments that justify our emotionally-held position, even when they do not hold up. Recognizing when we are making a poor case can be difficult. Search the internet for Logical Fallacies to discover how many weak arguments there are.
To counter this tendency to pick a position that supports our emotions, we need to think of culture, the in-group and experts as a social shell through which thinking must peck its escape, removing assumptions piece by piece. Beliefs will never have the assuredness of a mathematical proof, but the best explanation is the one that is logically consistent, simplest and most probable. Sometimes it will contradict our senses or our feelings, and we should be prepared for the discomfort that arises from that dissonance.
The capacity for rational thought is the most distinguishing feature of our species, but it still competes with our emotions when making decisions. When that dichotomy arises, we should strive to choose that which makes us most human.
Years ago, I thought I was going to die. The streets were dark and slick with rain. I was getting a ride back from a weekend encounter group where all our emotions had been laid bare, and the driver and the other passenger entered into such a screaming match over politics I thought a car crash was inevitable.
Why are political discussions so intense? Something has to generate all that political energy and cause the two sides to differ on issue after issue. Read more ›
By an original thought, I mean putting together existing ideas and observations and coming up with a new thought or product or process that you’ve never met before.
All developments are constructed from the raw materials of our present knowledge, and new discoveries are often made independently by a number of people. There are many examples of such duplications such as the point-contact transistor, protein denaturation and calculus.
There is a huge range of creativity, from very little for some people all the way to thousands of ideas from someone like Richard Feynman; six is just a guesstimate for the average, taken from my personal experience.
It follows that nearly all of your beliefs, whether big or small, are those of other people:
What is consciousness?
Is there a God?
How should society be organized?
Does this hat look good on me?
Just because those beliefs didn’t originate with you doesn’t make your answers invalid, of course, but it does place on you an obligation to look into the basis for your beliefs.
I have long had the experience of being censored on conservative sites, despite making a point of being meticulously respectful. On reddit, I have been blocked from the subreddits conservative, askaconservative and The_Donald, but they are famous for being hyper-sensitive. I did not anticipate censorship from a prestigious publication like the National Review.
David French wrote an article with the tongue-in-cheek title Does the Left Lose because It’s Too Civil? and most of the comments were extremely uncivil about the left, thus refuting his point. I engaged with one of the commenters and found that some of my responses were being deleted. After the first one, I did screen captures:
I found it ironic that the article complained that civil discourse with liberals wasn’t possible, yet a polite dialogue was being disrupted.
I reached out to David French and the National Review about this, but heard nothing back.
The entire canon of Western thought, from Aristotelian logic to George Boole (he of boolean arithmetic) to the divide-and-conquer approach of science, invites us to view and categorize the world according to its differences, not its similarities. A table is a table and a chair is a chair.
Language is the tool we use for this dissection. It is the framework within which we place all experience. And yet this cannot be the only way to understand the world. Before language was invented, say 100,000 years ago, we managed to live and survive in the world; we understood the world, but in a very different way. Yet that way must still exist within us, although eclipsed by language.
To know it, we must set aside language – a very difficult task. Meditation is one way to do this. For instance, zazen involves watching and counting the breath. Whenever a thought arises, start counting from one again. This is extraordinarily difficult, yet it demonstrates that attention without thought is possible. Yet what we find there remains there. We cannot bring it back and speak about it: it is, by definition, unspeakable.
Arthur Koestler coined the word “holon” to mean something that is complete in itself, yet also part of a larger whole. A human is composed of organ systems like the respiratory and digestive systems; each is constructed of cells, and so on, down to the quarks and leptons of physics. But individuals are also part of larger groupings: a species, a phylum, and life.
This multiple existence is hard to acknowledge.
So we are indisputably these larger groups at the same time as being our individual self, in the same way that a cell is indisputably human as the same time as it lives its life as a cell.
This is the realm in which we find the greater self, and to find it we must transcend the ego, not in the sense of denying it, but of not remaining attached to it.
Do you remember when BLM was protesting in the streets and people said “I support their right to protest, but not at the expense of inconveniencing other people?” So players avoided inconvenience by kneeling during the National Anthem, and that still upsets people. It seems that protest is only allowed when it is completely invisible and can be ignored.