Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Choose Between Reality and Madness

Uncle Carlos (who is really my uncle, but isn't really Carlos) and I got into a bit of a dustup after I posted some intemperate thoughts in a previous thread about the Iraq war. I was getting ramped up to get good and pissed at him when he crossed me up with a thoughtful changeup of a comment, dealing with the problems inherent in the peculiarly human idea of belief.

There was one part I can't agree with in his post; that's his implication that things are worse in this regard than they were at some time in the past. It's not that I disagree, as such, but I can't agree. I plead Summer Highland Falls: They say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I've ever known.

Other than that, though, I have to accept his amendment by way of substitution to what I said about people liking war. It's not so much that there isn't some validity to the idea I was advancing - almost no idea is completely without value - but it was a crude way of looking at things. Whether that crudeness rises to the level of malarkey is a judgment call for the reader to make.

The question then arises, why, if I am capable of finer perceptions, do I choose, for emotional reasons, to use cruder ones instead? This is the question I probably should have been posing to the war supporters. Now I am forced to give them a pass and ask that question of myself.

But leaving the navel-gazing aside (it's an activity to be done on our own time, after all) this idea of belief, and the question of what it is, and of its proper role, if any, in human mentation, is a very important one. It may well be the seminal human question of my generation, whatever that is.

Belief, taking one perspective, is basically a set of opinions that have coalesced, hardened in an individual's mind to the point where the coalesced opinions crowd out other types of thought. It is well known among psychologists that people tend to be much more attached to their beliefs than they are to things that they know through experience and study to be true.

It is possible that this problem has advanced in recent years. At the very least, it remains a serious problem, despite the advanced state of what we know about the universe.

We all have beliefs. We cling to them. Do we need them?

I am in a peculiar position because, while I do have a "faith" in a sense, it is one to which belief and the inculcation of belief is not a central part of the doctrine, such as one exists.

Thus I lack the excuse that most non-atheists have for clinging to their beliefs, while at the same time accepting - believing - that there is a dimension to the universe beyond what can be detected with my ordinary perceptions.

What is the point of all this? None, I suppose. I've descended back into navel-gazing. Time for bed.


Uncle said...

"We all have beliefs. We cling to them. Do we need them?"

Yup. For most of us they are the fundamental foundation of what we call "principals". They are also what we tend to describe as "street smarts", "The Zone", or in science we call them "postulates". Jefferson called them truths to be held self evident. Euclid held that parallel lines never intersect and served the world quite well for several hundred years. However, we should always question our beliefs, if only to greater understand exactly what they are. And in a lead up to war we should assuredly question our beliefs. Questioning beliefs however amongst those selling them is rarely encouraged.

Furthermore, beliefs tend to be ours alone, and we should suffer the consequences alone. When involving in governance, we should not deal in belief, but in demonstrable, defendable, arguments. It's called "making your case" and this paricular administration has shown a particular tendency to not wanting to have to "make their case", in court or in public. Our faith can lead us to seek to make cases for their conclusions, but they should not BE the basis of our arguments. And in choosing leaders, it is a real mistake to choose them based upon "shared beliefs". For predominately what you will probably share is your own short comings. Picking folks who share your arguments is probably a better guide, for you AND them.

Adam P. Short said...

OK, well, this is interesting. I think now I can slice this a little finer than you have.

"Belief," that is, coalesced opinion, is not the same thing as intuitive knowledge, i.e. "street smarts" or "The Zone." The two are distinct. Also separate are the postulates that we accept as a basis for theoretical investigation. These are three distinct phenomena that we should not conflate.

Euclid's definition of parallel lines is still useful as a postulate, despite having been superseded in certain areas of investigation. Ditto Newton's principles, the ideal gas law, etc. When a postulate becomes a belief, that is, something that is assumed to be true rather than something that is simply assumed, it becomes a hindrance to understanding.

Though intuitive knowledge (and the "organs" of perception used to detect it) has been studied in great detail for many centuries, particularly in some of the countries which we are now gleefully destroying, it is only very recently in the West that this idea has become respectable. The idea was one that pursuers of "Artificial Intelligence" ran up against, and found occasion to write extensively about.

Western philosophers call intuitive knowledge "qualia," though humorously, their efforts to hammer the idea of intuitive knowledge into the existing framework of their beliefs about how the universe is perceived has rendered most of their expositions on the subject largely incoherent.

Certain highly respected thinkers of the East have explained the phenomenon much more clearly. One of them, an Aghan who died in 1996, even did so in English. His name was Idries Shah, for anyone who is interested in what he had to say about this and many other subjects.