Beliefs or working assumptions?

St Paul defined faith or belief, rather poetically, as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Belief is a strange thing. It is an acceptance that something is true even though there is a lack of evidence to support it. 

Beliefs though are a normal part of our lives. We mostly have faith in our nearest and dearest that they will act in our best interests.  We believe that the food we buy will be fit to eat if we consume it before the use-by date. We (most of us) accept that going on a plane is highly likely to get us to our destination in safety, even if the same cannot be said about our luggage. 

Mainly we base our beliefs on past experience. Indeed, living our lives would be so much harder and time-consuming if we did not rely on our past experience. We would have, somehow, to check everything out from scratch to see if it was safe or advisable. Our reliance on past dealings in fact brings with it a continuity in our actions and thinking.

And the world-wide business model depends upon it. Why? Because we have a tendency repeatedly to buy the same products and services once we have found a satisfactory supplier. It is called goodwill and it is an important part of the value of every major company.

Although our acceptance that the future will be pretty much like the past is a form of belief, it is more properly thought of as a working assumption. It is something which can be overridden by subsequent bad experience. As a trade off between time and risk, we assume things until we are shown to be wrong. It is therefore a rational way of living.

There is though a higher version of belief which causes us many problems, not so much because it is unreliable, but because its unreliability cannot easily be challenged. In an essay entitled “the Hedgehog and the Fox”, the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin cited a Greek saying: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

He went on to say that ‘Foxes’ in human life take ideas from many different sources. They are relatively comfortable with some degree of confusion and ambiguity in the world. And of course, this is how the world should appear to us, granted that we don’t really know how it works. ‘Hedgehogs’ on the other hand see the world through a single all-embracing view of how it works. Which means that they have to fit events into their mental narrative and so distort their own perceptions. They have a belief system which controls how they perceive things and how they react to events.  It is not really subject to change in the light of experience, because
their understanding of their experience is distorted to suit how they think things are.  And so their world view becomes virtually an absolute truth.

Although we mostly associate absolute truth with religion it is equally rampant – and at least as dangerous - in various political movements which, even when theoretically atheistic in nature, are in fact quasi-religions.

One obvious example is the various types of communism. Not to continue to accept their various fundamental precepts is to be regarded as a traitor, and morally inferior to those holding firm to the party line. We see the same attitude even in the less obviously extreme environment of the UK - we have frequent references amongst socialists to “Tory Scum”, a political judgement which implies an absolute certainty of the moral high ground. 

Friends of the Earth has just been told by the Advertising Standards Authority to stop issuing misleading literature claiming that fracking causes everything from earthquakes, water pollution and house price falls to cancer.  And we have seen in the presidential elections in the USA in 2016 an incredible hatred for people holding different views.

It seems to me that the only explanation for this is that the respective sides believe themselves alone to be the holders of an absolute truth and that their opponents are somehow heretics, apostates or fools. There is no recognition that they might instead quite genuinely see that the world’s problems can be defined and/or solved differently. They cannot accept that those others might be right, at least in part, because believers have a lot invested in their beliefs and so it is very difficult to convince them that they are wrong.

The number of different religions in the world is immense and increased by the number of sects within each category from Catholics v Protestants to Sunni v Shia. Their very variety might, of course, give us a clue as to the veracity of the claim which any religion or sect has to possess an absolute truth. But at least religions have a theoretical basis on which to make their claim to possess the absolute truth. They have their supernatural god on their side – and who can argue with that?

But when it comes to political groupings, where does their justification for absolute truth come from? How does a
an apparent wish to promote the good of mankind become transformed into a quasi-religion? I sometimes think that this is more of a mystery than those enshrined in religions.

In the case of communism, a particular thinker, leader or activist seems to take the place of god, be he Marx, Engels, Castro or Hugo Chavez. His wisdom, spoken and written, is treated much as Christians treat the Bible or Muslims treat the Koran. It is authoritative, although clearly it can be ‘interpreted’ in many different ways.

Of course, many of these heroes have had the chance to try out their theories – and, as far as the rest of us are concerned, to be proved wrong. But this does not seem to matter to the true believers who will always blame someone or something-else for the failure of their theory to bring forth the expected Utopia.
Their actual undesirable outcomes, even when blatant, can be blamed on some aberration or exception which in the believer’s view will allow the theory not to be falsified

Something similar is true of extreme free-marketeers - those who believe that the economy should be based solely on a free market, and that business should not be controlled by government. Although they would say, like the Marxists, that they have evidence for their stance, in fact no-one has ever really put their theories into practice and so it necessarily remains a belief. Instead, therefore, they have to appeal to the ‘obvious truth’ of the theories of economists such as Milton Friedman and Adam Smith for justification, just like the Marxists appeal to their heroes for validation of their views.

When it comes to less extreme political movements, such as, in the UK, the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberals, there is an appeal to a greater variety of sources. The person in history whose authority is appealed to will depend on the flavour of the politics sought to be upheld and promoted. But it is still an appeal to authority – to the existence of an absolute truth.

So then, each group has its beliefs, whether in capitalism, power to the people or whatever currently the Liberal-democrats stand for. And there is a distrust of those with different beliefs, so that people in a different political grouping are ‘them’ and not ‘us’ and so not to be cooperated with. There is no desire to find a middle way.

Instead, the beliefs justify the various courses of action with which they are associated. If that will cause problems for some people – invariably seen by that political grouping as “undeserving”, whether capitalists or benefit claimants - then too bad. Alright, I exaggerate to some extent. There are some politicians who do not see the world in such a black and white way, but far too many seem to do so.

Would that we could all accept that there is no such thing as absolute moral or political truth and that beliefs based on such an idea are frankly ridiculous. In my view, we would all benefit if the concept of belief itself were abolished and replaced with openly acknowledged working assumptions. Belief has shown itself time and time again to be a danger to humanity.

Just having working assumptions, however, does not seem
to be nearly so attractive or to be capable of being a political rallying call. I somehow suspect therefore that my wish will not be granted – ever. So in the meantime we just have to get on with life, fighting irrational beliefs one by one.

Happy 2017.

Paul Buckingham

January 10th 2017

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