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Thoughts

02/06/2012

Sigmund Freud once remarked that ‘no one can be forced into belief’. The statement is concise and self-explanatory; it seems to resonate with a universal truth and to highlight a fundamental principle of humanity. Despite this, I’m not at all convinced that the father of psycho-analysis was correct in his surmise. One need look no further that George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, to witness one human, literally force another to believe in something, namely the unquestionable greatness of Big Brother. Of course, it is a work of fiction and can only serve to illustrate one author’s outlook on the world, but one can easily look to a demographic map of the earth for a more evidential, if not vapid, repost to Freud’s claim.

The whole of human existence can be attributed to the accident of birth. In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb begs the reader to imagine one particularly profound and pulchritudinous metaphor. He brings to our imagination the image of a tiny speck of dust, orbiting a star, many times the size of the Sun and tells us, wistfully, that the ratio represents the minute probability of any one person ever having been given the opportunity to exist in the first place. Sentimentalism about our existence aside, a number of other factors are also dictated by the accident of birth. Trying in vain not to parrot on like a Dawkinite, it would seem exceedingly likely that if born in Ancient Greece, you would believe in Zeus and a horde of other possible deities. Born in aboriginal Australia, you probably would have grown up believing that the moon is continually shoved around the sky by the boomerang of a begrudged gecko, disgruntled that his friend had been attacked by the moon’s hunting dogs. The list goes on ad infinitum.

Gravitating, as always, back to Ancient Greece, I was particularly intrigued by one line in the play The Persian Wars, recently. Written by the soldier and playwright Aeschylus shortly after the Greek triumph in the Battle of Salamis, a messenger reporting the decimation to the Persian emperor Xerxes remarked, “Even the non-believers among us, bent down and prayed to God”. As a primary source, the line proves that fundamentally, people don’t incline away from faith just because of modern science or some new evidence, although, of course it is far easier to declare your lack of faith in a contemporary liberal society.

All this begs the question, why do we believe the things we do? Several interesting research studies have been done into the topic in recent years. A team in Harvard University showed that liberals and conservatives responded differently to psychological tests, implying some deep-rooted reason for our individual modes of thinking. A team in Dublin University* found that those to the far-right of the political spectrum tended to be less intelligent than others. Furthermore, we now know that we treat our opinions as personal property, anxious not to dispose of them. We also know that the more times we have to re-assess our thoughts on a matter, the more clouded our final conclusions are likely to be.

As imperfect beings, our opinions are always going to be the net product of the way we are raised, the society we inhabit, the people we socialise with, the books we happen to read and the unique nuances in the mechanics of our brains. Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientist and mathematician that ever lived believed in branches of astrology and pseudo-science that were considered laughable even in their own time. Other well educated people, thought and think that racism, antisemitism, homophobia, ageism, sexism and other animosities are not only acceptable, but correct. Any ‘evidence’ that was used to consolidate these prejudices and hatreds has long been disproven, yet people with supposedly functioning organs in their cranium persist to stand by them.

It is the human condition to see the world in a certain way, your own way, and when you do so, the views of other people often seem inane and ridiculous, and without walking anywhere in anyone’s shoes, it is worthwhile to step back and assess your own presuppositions. The prolific essayist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens explicated, ‘That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”. Others are more sympathetic to our gut feelings.

The question of what anyone can actually know, is among the oldest and most bitterly contested. Socrates famously declared, “The only thing I know, is that I know nothing”. Manjit Kumar’s masterpiece Quantum deals with the story of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and the great debate about the nature of reality that ensued in the wake of groundbreaking discoveries in physics. The discoveries of course, only leading to further rifts in philosophical thinking. The philosopher of science Karl Popper, while skeptical about the limits of ‘proof’, opts for evidential belief in his theory of empirical falsification. When asked if you could be skeptical about skepticism, Popper replied, “I’ve thrown students out of lecture theaters for asking more intelligent questions than that”.

Bertrand Russell, as ingratiating as erudite, hypothesised an all powerful, microscopic teapot in orbit around the sun, too small to be detected by mere human instruments. The far better known Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was spawned out of similar, satirical thinking. Even without accepting an absolutist view on the universe, like many practitioners of scientism, one can appreciate the musings of Stephen Fry when he pointed out the difference between “the Socratic acceptance of the limits of one’s own knowledge, and ignorance”. Douglas Adams wrote a scathingly witty episode about the Emperor of the Universe, who also happens to be a practicing solipsist, believing in nothing, not even his own existence.

In a universe where we do not choose to be born, maybe Freud was right, that no one can force us to believe anything, including ourselves. Or maybe Arthur Schopenhauer was right in saying, “A man can do what he wants, but not what he wants”. The question of Free Will versus Determinism has been around for a very long time, but then, not quite as long as beer, so why don’t you have one of them? Don’t you think?

~Colm

*Daily Mail

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