You probably think that thinking and believing are two separate things. First, we consider a thought. Then, we deliberate on it. Finally, we either believe it as true, reject it as false, or abstain from judgement. Then we file it away for safe keeping.
Not even close! says Harvard professor Eric Mandelbaum. I just read an eye opening article from an interdisciplinary philosophy journal. The article, “Thinking is Believing,” by Eric Mandelbaum, argues that whenever you think, hear, consider, or read something (e.g. “unicorns are pink”), your brain has the default setting of automatically believing it (so I guess now you believe unicorns are pink, sorry about that). In other words, everything is true unless you consciously reject it, override it–which takes extra effort so rarely happens. What makes all this worse, he says, is that we are not even aware we are doing this–it all happens unconsciously, in the background processing of the brain (mostly perception and memory). In other words, this is an extreme thesis: we are not rational creatures–not by a long shot. Although he is arguing for a particular philosophy of mind, he is not just doing armchair philosophy here; he is drawing from a body of scientific studies (which all philosophers ought to do).
This big idea explains a number of things:
- evolutionary speaking, it makes sense. A tiger is coming! You will be much safer if your brain simply believes that statement without having to think it over. But does the same principle apply when someone tells you the universe is composed of invisible harmonic strings? He thinks so.
- this explains why we have so many conflicting, contradictory beliefs. As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.” Well, it’s really because we believe every damn thing we hear! And we just file it away, unaware of how many other beliefs it conflicts with (until we consciously pull out all the files, sort them, deliberate, reject some, strengthen others…something that is incredible hard to do because memory has it’s own problems…sometimes we can’t even remember what we believe! Hard to believe, huh.)
- several psychological experiments seems to confirm this. I don’t remember them exactly, but here’s the gist: you can have test subjects memorize a bunch of random statements like “Jim likes ice cream” “the car is purple” “the equator is 57,000 miles long”. Later, even if you tell them those statements were all false, they will remember them as being true.
- confirmation bias: this refers to the fact that we seek out things that support what we already believe. It goes deeper. Not only do we seek positive truth rather than debunking negative truth, but we have trouble processing negative information to begin with. For example, “Jill is not male” is very hard for us to process. “Jill is female” is extremely easy. Studies show that when we hear “Jill is not male,” we unconsciously switch is to “Jill is female”…and file it away. Or we could fuck it up entirely and believe that Jill is male. This is why it’s always a good idea to communicate in positive terms, so people will understand you better.
- everyone who watches Fox news believes it, even when it’s not “news” or “factual.” I added this one. Not to pick on conservatives, this really goes for all news. Why do most people think we live in a violent world, even though we don’t? Because the news only reports violent news. And what about those nasty political attack ads? We all know these ads are probably not true, but heck do they work! It’s like once an idea gets “mainstream,” it becomes true by virtue of existing.
- This explains why parents are so important in the development of childrens’ beliefs, and why kids are pretty much set on a particular path by the time they become adults. We are sponges, a blank slate as Locke said. This also makes you really think hard about what ideas you want to even expose your children too. Shit, forget children: yourself! If you flood the mind with tons of ideas, is that the best thing to do? Or does that make you the biggest hypocrite ever (according to this theory).
But is this idea true? Do we believe everything we think?
Well, what a question! Notice that by posing that question–is this article true?–I have, in a way, debunked the very conclusion of the article. I do not have to accept the conclusion, even if I don’t find evidence to the contrary. I read his ideas. I consider them. I accept, deny, or forget them. I was exposed to them but don’t believe them. I do find them very interesting and somewhat convincing. Later, perhaps in a year, I will mention this article to someone at a party: “I read this article once that argues we believe everything we read. I’m not so sure about it.” An agnostic approach, something he predicts can never happen.
Either way, I just don’t see how this could be correct for the more intellectual beliefs that matter in our lives, the ones we actually think about and care about. For all those other beliefs, however, which the mind passively accepts for survival/evolutionary reasons–sure I think he’s probably right. Psychology is good at telling us trivial truths about how our minds act when we are not looking. Perhaps this is another example. Perhaps the author is a victim of his own belief–perhaps his underlying belief in the irrationality of human nature is being fueled and puffed up by a couple of psychology experiments he read about. Which made him write this article.
God exists. That is my religion.
Jesus preached the truth about God. That is my Christianity. That is all for me, thank you.
Oh, and in case you forgot what Jesus preached: Love your enemies. That is enough.
I have read so much about religion and theology that, instead of expanding my religion into a full blown systematic theology, I go back to the basics. Simplicity! says Thoreau. The simple religion of God and love is all I need for my life. I prefer it. My mind is full yet empty. Everything else, all the doctrine and creeds; that’s all extra. Sure, I believe the soul lives on. Sure, I believe reincarnation is better than hell. I am not against beliefs or people having them. But these are all fancy additions to a firm foundation. God exists. God is good. God is love. Act accordingly. This alone lights up my world, always has. When you focus on what really matters, you begin to take it more seriously. For example, I believe in loving my enemies. Really? Really. And when Jesus teaches to turn the other cheek and not to resist evil, I believe it. Literally, he really meant that? Yes, of course he did! Having enough love and understanding to actually love your enemies–that’s the pinnacle of religion, the mountaintop, the goal.
Modern Western people tend to think of religion as a set of beliefs that you agree to, like filling out an application for church. No. Religion is life. Your religion is your life. As Karen Armstrong says in her books, the point of belief is action. Faith without action is dead. And, God forbid, you find yourself doing something stupid because of a belief, perhaps you should rethink it?
- Other Religions: I left for college a Christian and came back a “religious pluralist,” or enlightened Christian (sounding arrogant). Religious pluralism allows space for other religions. It means all religions are valid paths to the same transcendent Reality. If God is beyond our comprehension, it makes sense. We look at the night sky and say “did you see that?”…”See what?” Religion begins. We experience the spiritual world differently. It’s okay. Sure, some doctrines differ drastically among and within religions, but at the end of the day all religions share the same basic moral code (love and compassion). See John Hick.
- Prayer: sadly, I don’t pray anymore. But I do believe in prayer as meditation on God, on yourself, on other people, and on your life. I believe it can have many psychological benefits, as some studies show. It makes you slow down and think, which is really important. I am against petitionary prayer; that is, asking for stuff. It’s not that God doesn’t care about you, He just thinks your silly little requests are silly. God works through the beautiful laws of nature that he created–deal with it. The best way to pray for healing is to become healthy. I know this is hard when it comes to accidents, cancer, and when bad things happen to good people. For that, we rely on faith alone, not prayers for God to “fix it.” Again, religion is life. Live out your religion instead of relegating it to a sleepy Sunday night prayer session.
- Jesus: he was a mystic, a great man, a true spokesman for God, and my hero. In fact, the greatest hero in my life. He has opened my heart to love enemies more than anyone else, living or dead. That’s an incredible thing. I do not think he was God (judging by what he says in the Gospels), but I am open to the fact that his death might mean something greater. If you ask me “did Jesus die for my sins?” I must admit I don’t really understand the question. What really matters to me about Jesus is his teachings; diamonds in the ruff, life changing and world healing teachings.
- The Bible: experience is primary (you and God), scripture is secondary. Scripture, however, is special because it describes the original experiences that brought about the religion in the first place: Jesus preaching the gospel, Buddha sitting under the tree. It is crucial. Is the Bible the Word of God? Well, sure, the good parts are. But not the bad parts (and there are many). Even Jesus criticized or reinterpreted many of the bad parts of the Bible. St. Augustine and many great Christian thinkers have taught us to interpret the Bible through the lens of love. They also taught us not to interpret the Bible against scientific fact. The truth, like God, is much too big for one book. As for reading the Bible, I stick to the Gospels, Proverbs, and Psalms–all beautiful books that have a direct impact on my life.
As I look back on my religious life, I must be honest with myself. My passion has lessened. As a high school kid who would wake up at six in the morning to read the Bible, when Christianity was fresh and new and God was opening my mind, I was much more zealous, excited, passionate. I was much more willing to go out of my way to help a perfect stranger (that’s the sad part). I have tempered. In the Case for Faith, I remember reading that this is normal. We all become moderate with age I suppose. But my faith in the God of love has never been more rock solid. And the religious life never ends. I expect to have different views in 20 years.
A burglar falls through a skylight onto a knife and sues the owner. A woman sues McDonalds for hot coffee. A man has a heart attack starting a lawnmower and sues the lawnmower company. This is supposed to make us feel disgusted with the civil justice system, disgusted with those greedy poor people trying to win huge jackpot lawsuits from corporations. Those poor businesses!
After watching the fascinating documentary Hot Coffee, it seems that corporations themselves might be the reason we hear about these lawsuits to begin with. They are the voice in your head crying “poor businesses!” They are the ones promoting them!
Promoting, embellishing, exagerating, and distorting. Take the burglar case, made famous by a comment Ronald Reagan once made (and distorted). We picture an armed man in a mask trying to rob a lady in the suberbs. It was a young kid, along with some friends, on the roof of his former high school. He was in fact stealing a flood light, fell through a skylight, and became paralyzed for the rest of his life; not being able to care for himself for the rest of his life. The McDonalds “idiot” was an elderly woman who suffered 3rd degree burns all over her lap that required skin graphs. She was parked, in the passenger seat adding cream and sugar, and the coffee was indeed too hot (according to McDonalds standards). Now, don’t get me wrong, there is truth to all these stories–they are all slightly ridiculous, even when you hear all the facts.
Corporations, seeing an advantage, are making a big fuss about these extreme cases. That big fuss is called “tort reform” and, at the state level, they have managed to make several strides in limiting the amount of money that people can win over big business. Caps on damages, no matter what the jury or judge says, no matter how negligent, no matter what the damages are. On the other side, of course, are the lawyers and the consumers (us).
But–and here’s the point–these cases are exceptions to the rule. The civil justice system is not represented by these cases, they are outliers. In fact, working in a law library, it was almost impossible for me to find these cases (they happen at lower level courts, are unpublished, and are usually settled on). At the end of the day, the legal system is generally solid, generally promotes common sense justice, and compensates people who were wronged by other people.
You see this kind of thing happen all the time: first, something crazy happens; second, people make a big deal of it; third, sweeping solutions are proposes so that this crazy thing never happens again. And in hindsight, the solution is too sweeping and causes too many other problems but, hey, at least that one crazy thing won’t happen again.
If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? After you’re done laughing, let’s think about this. This is not a stupid question: it brings up fundamental questions that are still fundamental, even for scientifically minded people.
Before indulging in The Matrix hypothesis and talking about how the external world doesn’t exist, I’m going to start with what’s not controversial. First, animals perceive the world differently than humans (some drastically different). Second, among humans there is variation (due to various physical and psychological causes). Conclusion: the external world and the world we actually perceive are two different things. It is interpreted, processed, constructed, measured–by our sense organs and brain. In other words, the diagram above is a fiction; we do not see an exact copy of the tree “out there”; our eyes are not giant gaping windows that “let the tree in” so to speak. Naive Realism is false. Again, not controversial so far.
And if you’re still not convinced that your eyes are playing tricks on you and that your sense organs are all sacks of shit, consider two more facts: (1) sense organs evolved (like everything) and thus survival are their main concern–truthful representation of the external world is not necessary their concern at all. Whether you see the berry as white or red, all it cares about is what works. As Williams James would say, the truth is what works. For us believing folk, a nice way to put it would be: God made you so that you would survive rather than be an astrophysicist–be happy He did. (2) sense organs detect change more than anything. Vision is not like a video camera that is always recording everything like a faithful steward, not even close. Not to mention that memory, state of mind, personality, beliefs, language, societal norms–they can all affect the way we perceive things, literally. Let’s stop here.
So what is happening here? Most common sense people will say there is a physical tree “out there”, made of physical stuff (atoms) having certain fundamental properties: size, shape, texture, mass. Those properties are “really out there” and our sense organs pick up on them the best we can. Okay, cool. But notice color is not on that list. Green is nothing more than the way light reacts with our retina/brain. Color is not “out there,” light is. The tree has the potential to be perceived as green and brown when light bounces off it and hits our eyeballs, that’s all. This isn’t controversial either. Qualities like color, heat, loud, bitter, the smell of a fart–they are all quasi-real, in limbo, secondary, dependent. I hope you feel the world crumbling. Color seems pretty fucking real to me thank you very much!
Enter the Idealists
Some people just scrap the whole idea of an external world altogether. We don’t need it. When I’m dreaming, I see green trees, I move through space, I eat cake, I cry (hell, I even have sex and ejaculate sometimes). All in the mind, mental, not caused by physical objects. There is no external tree causing my perception of a tree in the dream. So why can’t reality be the same way? Well, it can. The Matrix, although improbable, is possible. We could all be “plugged in” right now. Descartes imagined a powerful Evil Demon that might be tricking us, pulling this fake reality over our eyes just for the hell of it. George Berkeley simply replaced the external world with God. God doesn’t need physical matter, a useless middle man, when He can just implant sense experiences directly to our mind. We are living in God’s dream, God’s mind; God holds up reality. As a believer, this is a very tempting position to take. There is a simplicity to it, sort of. Kant replaced the external world not with God, but with an unknowable world, a foundation, a world that causes our perceptions but one we can know nothing about–except that it must exist.
So does a tree make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? No. Or, sure, God hears it. Or, the question itself makes no sense. That’s really the point here. What do we mean by a tree, after all? Green, brown, particular shape, particular feel, particular smells, etc. A tree is nothing but a group of sense experiences or possible sense experiences, therefore to talk about an unperceived tree makes no sense at all. To be is to be perceived in some way. Yes a tree has size, shape, texture, and mass. All those qualities are real. But notice those qualities, just like color, are qualities we perceive the tree to have. They are real because we perceive them, simple as that. Yes we can say the tree is made of atoms, but that just means if we look in a microscope we see it’s made of smaller stuff, and smaller stuff, etc. We can speculate about what’s really “out there,” but all we really have is our perceptions, all we have access to is the end product (in my diagram above, it’s the thought bubble). We can only look at the world through eyes, smell the world through noses, and feel the world through touchers. We cannot float above our body and brain to see what the world really looks like when nobody is looking at it. Human reality is human reality. There is something out there, but who knows what that is? Perhaps it’s really a pink, squishy ball that’s causing my perception of a green, hard Sugar Maple. As long as we all perceive the tree, nobody cares.