Why Our Belief Systems Create Misperceptions- Published in The European, Nov 2014

Why Our Belief Systems Create Misperceptions- Published in The European, Nov 2014

Should we be shocked that people believe irrational things? Not really. We bombard children with information before we teach them how to think critically. It’s a daily mass murder of malleable mindsets.

Since I can remember, I’ve contemplated that perhaps I might just be an imposter, some sort of observer of a planet that never made much sense. My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who would dictate her world model to me every day. I would then go down the road to my all-girls school, where I was educated in the construct of another model. I realized after a few years that they were both as equally fallible.

I used to come home from school and complain to my mother that I felt unsatisfied by the education system and she would tell me I couldn’t do anything about it because her fantasy world-controller had totalitarian power over everything. In my early teens, when doctors told me my mother was unwell and that this wasn’t the case, I was even more confused. I thought to myself, well, if things actually aren’t being controlled – if we truly have this freedom – then why aren’t things better?

It actually made more sense when I imagined my mother’s invisible totalitarian dictator. We have these tiny little internal minds drowning in layers of external complexity, trying to make sense with the limited peripheral vision that we have. Surely it makes less sense intuitively if we do not have an omnipresent, omniscient overlord controlling everything, whether it be a God or simulation-master. I think the atheist movement sometimes falls guilty of trying to force clarity without solving the subliminal terror of complexity.

Cosmic insignificance

As I've grown older, I now believe that we can't handle the responsibility of the fact that we have the power to shape the world around us entirely. It’s a terrifying thought because it means all human happiness and flourishing – whether personal, familial or societal, present or future – is manifested and controlled by our hands.

There is a strange irony in how we don’t seem to consider our own individual power and yet somehow remain so egotistical. From our point of view, the whole world moves around us. Somehow there’s a missing link between a) feeling as if we are the center of the universe and b) believing that we can affect or control our surroundings.

Here I am, a human, biologically slowly falling to pieces. In the entire context of the cosmos, from this little planet within its universe, ~13.6 billion years old and potentially still expanding, my existence means nothing. If I were to die in this moment no stars would flicker, no black holes would collapse. My cells would simply lose the life they once had, returning the atoms back into the system from which they were only ever rented.

When I consider the notion of my own demise, an attempt to connect with the idea of a fortune of vast nothingness, I can’t help but be moved by the utter absurdity of it all- the overwhelming realization of the beautifully ironic insignificance of my own existence. It would make much more sense to believe that this didn’t happen by chance, that we don’t have the freedom to shape this web of complexities that surround us. It seems many of the systematic constructs of society have been developed to prevent us from acknowledging the fact that potentially we could change everything.

“If you can’t convince them, just confuse them”

As individuals, we each stand in a complex web from which we attempt to model the world into a comprehensible system. There’s your life, your biological system, the systematic developments of your brain. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, we then place you within the education system, the finance system, the social system, the healthcare system. Not to mention travel systems, energy systems, business systems, housing systems, political systems. It would be hard to find a single system in this whole world that is not in some way partially or totally broken. Few of them are optimized towards human flourishing. That’s actually not quite the right statement. Most systems do the complete opposite; they actually kill us. You don't need too much of an insight into the healthcare system to realize the incentives have become perverse. It blew my mind to learn that in China, 500 years ago, a doctor was paid on the basis of keeping his entire village healthy. But this shouldn’t be strange at all. And yet contemporary society would be very lucky if a doctor’s goals were so aligned.

As I’ve spent my adult life trying to construct a workable world-model, I remain confused on a daily basis. Sometimes I daydream of some sort of naughty simulation-master, cooking up complex systems with the idea that it’s probably in our best interest to keep everyone confused. It’s a weird rat race down here. What are we all actually working on? There’s such a high number of us that work in an industry of making sure people own as much stuff as possible. And we’re proud to claim how much we own, or how much we’ve sold, or how attractive we are, or how nice our house is, but don’t want to consider that all these things are meaningless if we are to consider the vastness of human potential, the rewards of actualizing human flourishing, or even simply what counts for an individual when they are approached by death. It made more sense with the ancient Egyptians who thought they would carry material items over into the afterlife. I see people cause an outcry when they hear someone might be religious, but seem unfazed gossiping about a celebrity’s breast implants.

Taking things to first principles

We are told that schizophrenic belief systems are definitely false. My mother’s belief system is fallible because she repetitively justified her beliefs through extremely poor reasoning over such a long period. In the end, the divergence between supposed reality and my mother’s beliefs became so vast that she was labelled 'schizophrenic'. The problem is, nearly every single person in the world also does this. If my mother is mentally ill, then most of us are too.

Philosophers have pointed out since the beginning of philosophical thought that a high percentage of the justification value of our beliefs comes from how widespread the individual beliefs are. It’s as if our shared beliefs are characteristic of a virus. The whole of history’s thoughts and all our present thoughts, layering on top of each other to be spread and repeated. We rarely get back to first principles. Therefore a high proportion of our arguments lie on faulty earlier assumptions. We attribute truth validity not to the quality of the argument, but to the quantity of people who believe it, and then we go on to build on top of those.

Should we be shocked that people believe irrational things? Not really. By understanding the variances in belief structures, I can understand my mother’s world-model much better now as an adult. It’s her defense-mechanism against fear. Unfortunately for her, not enough people share her views to allow her to be regarded as healthy. But I think to myself- how many people have actually built a model based on fundamental truths? It's impossible. Atheism is widespread enough now to cause people to irrationally believe in non-theism also. The problem is not inherent in the beliefs themselves, but the fact that we don’t attempt to improve our levels of justification.

How, then, do we induce and promote a positive fallibility reasoning skill in individuals? How do we give people the skills to meta-analyze their own beliefs? There is obviously a huge difference between “belief” and “degrees of belief”. By noticing these discrepancies, we are able to allocate levels of justification that cause us to test our own assumptions. There seem to only ever be varying degrees of knowledge rather than a binary 'know'/ 'don't know'. And yet we can’t even spot that we need to calibrate our beliefs/belief about beliefs/belief systems, let alone then go on to actually re-calibrate our beliefs. Re-calibration involves revising degrees of belief about properties of degrees of belief, and degrees of belief are in themselves probabilities. Can all humans really do that? Certainly more people than currently do so.

Cross-generational failures

One of the biggest global catastrophes we’ve ever manifested continues to happen on a daily basis. In every school around the world, we bombard children with information before we teach them how to think critically. It’s a daily mass murder of malleable mindsets.

We acknowledge that it’s hard to find a 'truth' that has existed since the dawn of man, or even survived over a century. This proves that we are not very good at working out fundamental truths, yet at the time of a belief we hubristically stand behind a supposed truth-value. It horrifies me that children, still malleable in their minds, are not being equipped with the right intellectual tools so that they can process data with rational skepticism. As a child I thought: “If this textbook boasts about being updated over time, I should apply some skepticism to it” We attempt to get kids to build a positive future from our faulty understanding of the past. Imagine if children were given information in terms of probabilities, and taught to think synchronically instead of diachronically.

We patronize children into thinking they are these silly semi-formed humans who don’t understand the world, and then we force our beliefs onto them. Then, as we get older and look back cynically, we wonder to ourselves why we didn’t see radical innovation. Yet our cross-generational belief-sharing through education will always be, by necessity, incremental. Of course some knowledge should be passed down through the generations – it would not be efficient for children to spend the first years of their lives trying to start a fire. But can we consider that we give them too much information, too much of a complete world-view? We should be looking to raise generations who grow up to consider the world as assumption-free as possible and to have the efficacy to call out when certain things no longer make sense. We drive children to their intellectual death by forcing the categorization of ideas into a binary “belief” and “non-belief” instead of acknowledging this huge gray fuzzy area between the two that would allow them to think outside the box.

The true horror

The idea that each of us holds the power to change everything is, quite honestly, horrifying, despite our anthropocentrism. It seems much more enjoyable to run around in ignorant bliss than to want to start a war at the thought of a single person in this world dying from disease, old age, or suffering. But if we don’t believe the world is good enough and also believe in free will, then all the faults of our earth are our own, even if our contribution to these faults is simply from taking a bystander approach to our human-constructed systems. Does anybody actually realize how terrifying a thought that is?

With every death in this world, every ounce of human suffering, taking a bystander approach to mimetic beliefs causes us to take a share in the responsibility. We literally let people die as a result of our shared beliefs. Why are only a small subset of people challenging the irrationalities of healthcare? Maybe we really are just totally unaware, or maybe we are mimetically agreeing with each other that the fault or call to action does not reside in ourselves. Maybe everything is simply too complicated to be able to judge if it’s even a fundamental issue. Then we raise children to agree with us, and we add extra layers of complexity to already complex systems to justify to ourselves (and them) that the whole thing is just so confusing that the responsibility for action surely can not be ours. Maybe it’s part of the human condition to keep ourselves as far as possible from acknowledging first principles, whilst at the same time maintaining our individual self-importance.

I can’t help but think how future generations will look back and laugh at how dumb we really were. It’s a sorry state of affairs that we can’t realize how much individual power we have, the vastness of the potential from collaborating that power and what the human race is capable of. We could, in all reality, do anything, if only we put our minds to it. The idea that we can’t, which is potentially the principle behind the biggest losses of our era, doesn’t stem from religion; it stems from our inability to see the perils of our own intellect.