Beliefs Gone Wild

14 May 2011

The human mind is a wondrous thing.  It has uncovered the innermost secrets of the natural world; it’s created art and democracy; and even explored the depths of its own operations.   But human minds can be filled to the brim with superstition, prejudice, and all kinds of falsehoods.  Which brings us to today’s topic:  Beliefs Gone Wild!    

Where do all these false beliefs come from?   Why are so many of our beliefs out of sync with reason, evidence, and argument?   And, what, if anything, can we do to guard against falsehood, while at the same time increasing the stock of the true things we believe?  This is an  age-old question -- one taken up by Socrates,  Plato, Descartes,  Hume,  James,  Dewey -- to name just a few.   With all that accumulated philosophical wisdom  -- not to mention the advances of science, the decline of superstition, the fall of tyrannical regimes that tried to bludgeon their citizens into believing lies -- with all that intellectual progress, you might think that nowadays we believe a lot more truth and a lot less falsehood than we used to.

And you might think that the election of  Barack Obama to the Presidency shows that.  I mean if  I think back to my own youth -- not all that long ago, in the great scheme of things -- I’m astounded at the false things your average white American used to believe about your average black American.   And now look where we are!  

But I wouldn’t get too carried away with the thought that  Obama’s presidency is proof that we’re slowly, but surely replacing old, worn-out false beliefs, with bright new shiny true beliefs.   False beliefs and true beliefs always seem to co-exist in the human mind.  Maybe we can shift the balance a little here and there, but I doubt we can totally eliminate falsehood.   That’s because the human mind has two sides – a light side that invented science, the arts, and democracy, and a dark side prone to prejudice, self-deception, and other forms of irrationality.     And that fact raises the question:  If our minds are so messed up, how is it we dominate the planet and know more than all the rest of the animal kingdom combined?

  “Dumb luck,” I can hear John responding.    But I think it has much more t do with the social structure of cognition.    By that I mean to point to the fact that once in a while some genius pulls off an amazing feat of cognition -- like inventing the calculus.  And thanks to our ability to learn from other people -- and the social structures that make that more and more possible -- the rest of us schmucks get to go along for the ride.

But of course, the very social structures that enable us to learn the truth from other people also enable us to learn false things from other people.  Think of the ways stereotypes or superstitions are handed down from generation to generation.   And to make matters even worse, the dirty little secret about our minds is out.  And that knowledge allows some people to be in the business of exploiting our mental foibles to make us believe all manner of crazy things.

You see, we’ve gotten ourselves into a fine philosophical mess here.  We’ve shown that the human mind is equal parts darkness and light.   And there isn’t any obvious way to ensure the light wins out over the dark.

To help us out, we invited  our guest, Michael Philips,  who calls himself the Undercover Philosopher, to share some insights.   He claims to have discovered the philosophical key to detecting shams, lies and delusions.  And he put them  in a book. 

Comments (10)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, May 14, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

INSURANCE Interesting: belief, n, rationality n

INSURANCE
Interesting: belief, n, rationality not an issue; believe, v, the tool is rationality.
Insurance is an excellent study in the workings of rationality and belief. Insurance is something that comforts our fears (beliefs and half-truths), until we actually use it (when all its disclaimers, exceptions and deductibles go into effect; plus the loss of all the premiums paid). Fears of loss cause the overemphasis of risks, and no actuarial table is used to calculate probabilities. Statistics are completely disregarded. Believe me, actual risk and actual loss amounts are more than paid for by premiums assessed.
Also never considered is the investing of the monthly premium to produce some return, and putting the fund aside, untouchable except in the event of a loss; and the compounding of the principal.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, May 14, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Superstition, prejudice and their negative off sho

Superstition, prejudice and their negative off shoots always seem to be with us in greater or lesser degree. Social evolution, like other forms, moves slowly and occasionally regresses when some crackpot or other asserts that he/she has discovered the next big thing: someone will buy into the scheme and someone else will follow. This is classic human behavior and has led us to some pretty wild beliefs. I won't mention any of those by name because libel/slander issues would be of no help.
Yes, we are pretty smart---getting smarter by most accounts. But there have always been those dark places in the human mind and crackpots to nuture them. For all of our progress and accumulation of knowledge, we still retain that reptilian brain which behavior science talks about. I suppose it is both blessing and curse.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, May 14, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

After the light comes the dark, And after the dar

After the light comes the dark,
And after the dark the light,
Surely One knows One from the other,
As truly as One knows One is Oneself.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, May 15, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

When One builds his castle out of beliefs It is m

When One builds his castle out of beliefs
It is make-believe;
And when built with truth
Absolute.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, May 16, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

The power of some beliefs can only stand if others

The power of some beliefs can only stand if others believe in them, like currency. Only if I believe that the paper in my hand is worth something will it have power for others. I wonder if and how this must be rooted somewhere else, like a gold standard. If we all used imaginary money instead of "real" money, where would the system break down and why?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, May 16, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

The reason why falsehood are rife is because we ha

The reason why falsehood are rife is because we have lost a sense of absoluteness. We have a culture of relativism. Anything and its opposite can be debated, justified and portrayed as 'true'. What I have noticed as I have gotten older, is that if the truth cannot be twisted. Then people with an agenda simply lie. Look at all the 9/11 conspiracy theories as a case in point.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Liked Mr. Savinar's analogy. I have always conside

Liked Mr. Savinar's analogy. I have always considered insurance to be a form of usury or perhaps more bluntly stated: legalized extortion. Society believes it must protect itself from the irresponsible among its participants. This is a government-sanctioned business that is worth billions and costs billions. Does the fact that we believe in insurance make it rational? No, not really. But don't try to live without insurance unless you plan to live alone and far away from all of those who have it. And good luck with that---you will need it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, May 19, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

There is some guy (or gal?) out there who is talki

There is some guy (or gal?) out there who is talking about something he/she calls the historionic effect. What the hell is that? And if it is different from anything accepted as philosophy, why hasn't anyone tried to contact him/her? I keep seeing this reference popping up on blogs I read and enjoy. Many philosophers have been laughed at, derided, and/or ultimately discredited. So, who is this, uh, maverick? What are established practitioners making of the inuendo, and if nothing, why? I have been reading other chatter on the www. It is getting interesting, so, what do YOU think?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, May 21, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

John (the) Suter nailed it, didn't he? Belief is a

John (the) Suter nailed it, didn't he? Belief is a powerful force because we invest it with power. Whether we are believing in God, political ideology or the Chicago Cubs (how about those Cubs, anyway?), our force of belief gives substance to even the insubstantial. We haven't solved the problems of the world with our comments on this post. But we have, I think, identified one of the chief reasons for those problems. Oh, and that historionic effect thing? I am not certain I have gotten it right, but the gist of what the 'mystery philosopher' seems to be claiming is that if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.
It might be a lot deeper than that simple nostrum---I don't know. But if we consider everything that we do and try to get to the 'why' of all that, simplicity might be the best immediate route. Sure, reptiles have brains. We know this. But what do they think about? Probably not much. Certainly not God. Or politics. Or the Chicago Cubs.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, May 23, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I think age-old beliefs are rooted in us as we gro

I think age-old beliefs are rooted in us as we grow up. Our parents and the society cast such big influences in us that sometimes it's hard to get away from such thinking.
The only way to get away from such "social structures" is to have an open mind, which isn't easy. But by educating our kids, I think we can head in a right direction.

 
 
 

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