Originally published September 6th, 2015 of Nation of Change
Chapter One: Is Reality Nothing More Than What One Believes?
“All political campaigns use symbolism to inspire emotion. And, Swiss people…have some real anxieties about the nation’s future, in an era of declining fertility and economic fragility. Why, then, does [the campaign to ban minarets from the roofs of Swiss mosques] raise particular concerns about fear running amok? The first problem is that it distorts facts so flagrantly, trying to make people think that all Swiss Muslims are aiming at something like a military takeover, in which women will be brutally subjugated and the Swiss countryside will be a war zone…The symbolic significance of the minaret…is that [its] shape…can be made to signify a missile, thus reinforcing the idea that Muslims pose a security threat. But the minaret-as-missile metaphor is by itself a gross distortion of reality…”[i][Emphasis mine]
“…ideologies are often more influential than evidence.”[ii]
Joseph E. Stiglitz
There are an endless number of stories one could use to illustrate what many believe is true about Reality. The frontispiece quote about Swiss minarets is certainly one. In fact, many believe that Reality is nothing more than what someone chooses to believe. Consider the following.
Because his family thought he was being too nice to strangers, and, therefore, he needed to be taught a lesson he would never forget, a 6-year-old Missouri boy was subjected to a terrifying four-hour, staged kidnapping.[iii] As a result of the intense emotional pain and trauma that were inflicted on the helpless child, the boy’s mother, grandmother, aunt and the aunt’s co-worker who actually carried out the mock abduction were charged with kidnapping and other felonies.
If the actual abuse wasn’t horrific enough, then the reactions of the family after the fact only showed how demented their Reality was. Because their primary intent was merely to educate the child, the family felt that they had done nothing wrong.
The mock kidnapping started when child was lured into a pickup after getting off a school bus. He was then tied up, threatened with a gun, taken to a basement where his pants were removed, and told he could be sold into sex slavery. The boy was also told that he would never “see his mommy again,” and he would be “nailed to the wall of a shed.”
When he started to cry, the co-worker showed the child a gun and said he would be harmed if he didn’t stop bawling. Plastic bags were used to tie the child’s hands and feet.
Still unable to see, the boy was lead into the basement of his mother’s home, where his 38-year-old aunt took off the boy’s pants.
The child remained in the basement for several hours before he was unbound and told to go upstairs where the child’s family then lectured him about the dangers of talking to strangers.
The boy’s 25-year-old mother, Elizabeth Hupp, was charged with felony kidnapping, felony abuse, and child neglect. The 58-year-old grandmother, Rose Brewer; the aunt, Denise Kroutil, and the aunt’s co-worker were also charged with felony abuse.
Finally, after he told school officials what happened to him, the boy was placed into protective custody.
One can only imagine the trauma the child suffered, and will undoubtedly continue to suffer for years, after he was taught a “hard but apparently much-needed lesson by a loving family” that only wanted to protect him from the harsh realities of the world.
What Reality indeed was the family living in? It was certainly not “normal” in any sense of the term. It not only borders on, but firmly crosses over into the land of the Demented and Evil.
Because I identify so strongly with Liberal, Progressive causes, I am especially distressed when the Left engages in its own forms of denial and faulty reasoning. When this happens, I feel that the Left is no better than its Right-wing counterparts.
The rendition of the various versions of Reality and Truth that I examine are obviously influenced heavily by my strong political beliefs and sentiments. For this reason, I admit freely that I am governed by many of the same forces to which others are subject and for which I criticize them so roundly.
I admit that I feel nothing but disdain towards the Right when it denies the science that proves beyond all reasonable doubt that global warming is not only a scientific fact, but that primarily it’s due to humans. Naomi Klein’s excellent book, This Changes Everything documents masterfully why Conservatives are loath to accept the science behind global warming.[iv] The science challenges every aspect of their belief system, especially their economic self-interests.
For this and other reasons, I found The Ethicist Column in the Sunday, January 18, 2015, New York Times Magazine, equally disturbing. It contains a powerful example where the Left is often equally reluctant to acknowledge scientific evidence when it goes against their own narrow self-interests.
The unidentified person who wrote to The Ethicist noted that he lives and works in Hollywood where he has several friends who are screenwriters and politically Progressive. His friends lambast Conservatives for not accepting the science behind global warming. And yet, when it comes to accepting the effects of screen and TV violence on young children, they reject 35 years of social science research that shows unequivocally that screen and TV violence are harmful beyond any reasonable doubt.[v]
Having lived in LA for 26 years when I taught at USC, I repeatedly heard the rationalizations of the movie and TV industry. They never tired of pointing out that research does not establish direct causal relationships between the exposure of children to simulated violence and their heightened aggressiveness. The research only shows that there are correlations between the number of hours young children are exposed to movie and TV violence and their heightened aggressive behavior. That is, the greater the number of hours spent viewing violence, the greater the aggressive behavior.
True enough. The research does not establish strict causality. Nonetheless, the correlations are not only statistically significant, but persistent. Furthermore, since they watch TV more, young children from economically distressed households are even more susceptible to depictions of violence. While many factors are of course involved, there is no doubt that movie and TV violence are prime contributors to, but not the sole causes of, the heightened aggressive behavior of young children.
Except in highly idealized and strictly controlled settings, when are we ever able to say that a limited number of variables are the sole cause of something else? We can’t. If all we had was the concept of causality, then we couldn’t say that there was ever any relationship between two or more variables.
If the effects of violence weren’t so tragic, it would be utterly laughable to find Liberal Hollywood screenwriters and executives suddenly becoming so concerned about arcane matters of social science methodology when all they really care about is their freedom to do what they want. And, of course, the considerable monies involved. All of a sudden they are experts in research! Equally disturbing is that many of these same writers and executives are rightfully critical of the NRA when it comes to our out of control gun culture. And yet, they defend to the death their right to depict gun violence no matter what (pun intended!).
Of course, in the name of free speech, I defend the “rights” of artists to do what they feel is warranted dramatically. But because something is a right, is it always prudent to exercise it?
I found Chuck Klosterman’s, the Ethicist, responses to the young man who turned to him for ethical advice particularly feeble. Because Klosterman is right that one can’t predict precisely how all parties (stakeholders) will react to a work of “art,” this doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t even attempt to consider such reactions at all. The New York Times certainly did so in its recent decision not to publish Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Mohammed.
What especially rankled me was Klosterman’s justification for the depiction of violence. Apparently, if an artist’s motives are “pure,” then he or she shouldn’t be particularly disturbed how others will respond to one’s rendition of violence or anything else for that matter. The trouble with this, of course, is that it gives Hollywood a free ride to do anything it wants without any consideration of the public good.
No wonder why the Right often views Liberals as soft-headed and feeble-minded. If we see their hypocrisy, then they see ours just as well.
I’ve long ago given up expecting Conservatives to think about and act in the public good. I wonder about Liberals as well. Thus, even though I am a confirmed Liberal, Progressive, I am more than critical of Liberals and Progressives when they deserve it.
Warranted Scientific Belief
“The truth is [that] most of the individual mistakes [that led to the Great Recession] boil down to just one: a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of the government should be minimal…”[vi]
Joseph E. Stglitz
Since one’s version of Reality is a direct function of one’s beliefs, it behooves us to examine the general nature of belief systems.
Since scientific inquiry is the standard for warranted belief in Western societies, let me start with a description of how science generally reaches well-grounded beliefs, and in this very limited and special sense, science’s version of Truth. After doing this, we’ll be in a better position to see how ordinary, non-scientific belief systems work by comparison.
Virtually all scientific inquiry starts with a set, or sets, of well-established evidence (data, facts, observations, etc.) about the phenomenon of interest. Next, statistics, prior scientific theories, mathematical models, etc. are used to treat the evidence in order to reach a set of valid conclusions about the phenomenon under study.
An important contemporary example is the difference between what climate scientists and the general public feels about global warming. The evidence for ascertaining any differences between scientists and the general public are typically the data that are gained from questionnaires that are carefully designed to capture attitudes towards global warming, e.g., whether a respondent feels the Earth is warmer now than in the recent and ancient past and whether, if it exists, global warming is due primarily to humans, etc. Next, the data are then sorted and analyzed by various statistical tests to see if there are any significant differences between men and women (gender), older and younger respondents (age), levels of education, geographical location, whether one is a scientist or not (job classification), etc. If there are significant differences, then one is warranted—justified–in claiming that scientifically there are valid reasons for believing that, for instance, there is a significant gap between the views of climate scientists and the general public with regard to the effects of humans on global warming. Thus, about 97 per cent of climate scientists believe that humans are primarily responsible for global warming while about only half of the general public believes this to be the case.
Of course the views of scientists are not necessarily ascertained from surveys, but from their published work in peer-reviewed scientific journals and presentations at scientific conferences. Once again, with a very small exception, virtually all scientists are in agreement that global warming is due principally to humans.
Notice carefully that in this system what one believes about Reality and Reality Itself are intimately connected. First of all, not only is there a strong belief that evidence is needed to support our beliefs, but that evidence is characteristic feature of Reality itself. In other words, there is a strong prior belief in Empirical Reality. The philosophical school of thought that posits that Reality is not only reducible to facts, observations, etc. but fundamentally is facts, observations, etc. is known as Empiricism. According to this system of thought, if one can’t gather “hard facts” about something, then it isn’t a fitting topic for scientific investigation.
Next, there is also the strong prior belief that statistics and/or mathematics will reveal deeper “truths” about the nature of the evidence. That is, there is a strong prior belief in Conceptual Reality. Historically, the belief in the conceptual or logical nature of Reality is characteristic of the philosophical school known as Rationalism. Certain truths are known by pure logic or thinking. For instance, no one has never observed, nor ever will, an angle that is exactly 90 degrees, but according to Euclid’s geometry, there is no doubt whatsoever that such angles exist if only in pure thought. Real angles only approximate true angles.
The end results of scientific belief systems are warranted beliefs about Reality. Thus, according to this system, our beliefs about Reality cannot be separated from how we determine and justify our beliefs.
Of course, this is a highly idealized account of how scientists actually operate, let alone how they should. Being human, scientists don’t always act in accordance with the dictates of the ideal.[vii] While they don’t blatantly rig data to support their pet ideas, their favored ideas steer them consciously and unconsciously to collect the kind of data and to analyze it in ways that support their pet ideas. Nonetheless, as part of the long and arduous process of becoming a scientist, the ideal is drilled into them so much such that many scientists mistake the ideal for the real. But then, when one studies scientifically how science actually gets done–as I did in my four year investigation of the scientists who studied the rocks from the Apollo moon missions–one finds that many scientists are not only aware that they don’t always follow the ideal, but that they have strong reasons for not doing so.[viii] For instance, unless a scientist does everything to promote his or her ideas, then they are more likely than not to die prematurely. Science thus becomes a battle for the survival of the strongest ideas.
Non-scientific Belief Systems
In sharp contrast, the reasoning of most people doesn’t even begin to approach the ideal of science. And while scientists themselves may not always behave in accordance with the ideal, nonetheless, the ideal is kept constantly in mind as a kind of “gold standard” that one strives constantly to achieve even though there are often very good reasons for departing from it. In fact, scientists often depart from the ideal of scientific in order to achieve it!
The ideal of scientific inquiry provides a clear baseline for comparing and contrasting non-scientific systems of reasoning. Since we explore various examples in detail later, at this point, I only want to give a general outline of non-scientific belief systems.
Non-scientific belief systems are characterized by the fact that they generally start with sets of deeply held, core beliefs from which they thenwork backwards to find whatever evidence–if it’s even felt that any evidence is needed–to support the core beliefs. In many cases, the prime objective is not just to support but to protect one’s core beliefs from any and all enemies, real and imagined. Thus, supposedly unlike scientific belief systems, non-scientific systems are riddled through and through with all kinds of anxieties, fears, and worries. The core beliefs are not just taken as foundational, but often as the only protection one has against a world that is perceived to be hostile, uncertain, and exceedingly dangerous. The denial of unpleasant, disconfirming facts and ideas is thus prominent feature of ordinary belief systems.
If the description of scientific belief systems is an ideal, then that of non-scientific belief systems is of course a bit of an exaggeration as well. Nonetheless, exaggeration or not, it applies unfortunately to many belief systems that purport to explain Reality. Indeed, how else to explain the bogus claims that there are studies that prove rigorously that children who are not vaccinated are generally healthier than those who have been vaccinated? Of course such studies are only featured prominently on anti-vaccine web sites.
There is another important aspect of all belief systems—scientific and non-scientific–that needs mentioning. The various components do not exist independently of one another. Indeed, they are tied together by means of an overarching narrative or story that gives coherence and meaning to the entire system. Among many things, the stories feature clearly a set of heroes, mentors, victors, and/or villains, forces, etc. that must be overcome.
No wonder why it’s often so difficult to take in information that goes against the grain of one’s core beliefs. One has to revise and give up one’s fundamental stories about oneself, others, and the world.
Given that it’s an institution that is composed of people with their own basic hopes, dreams, and fears, I cannot overemphasize that science has its stories as well. The supreme story is that science is a rational enterprise through and through and that it’s best for all concerns and issues.
Finally, even though I give many more examples later that I examine in detail, I want to give a single example of an extreme belief system that is unfortunately far too common in today’s highly charged environment. I cannot stress enough that the example is not representative of all non-scientific belief systems. Far from it. It is however representative of the extreme, paranoid beliefs that circulate all too frequently in the vast conspiratorial dungeons of the Web:
“The opposition [to a proposed interfaith center near the site of the 9/11 bombings] can be traced above all to a right-wing blogger Pamela Geller, who runs an organization called ‘Stop the Islamicization [sic] of America’…Geller quickly took the line that the proposed center was a place for radical organizing and that it’s very existence would be a triumphalist statement by Muslims, insulting to the victims of 9/11 and their families. One typical headline was ‘Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction.’ No friend of evidence, Geller once suggested that in all seriousness that President Obama’s father was Malcolm X; she has also alleged, totally without evidence, that the president used to have a girlfriend who was a ‘crack whore.’ And she has consistently repeated the canard that the president is a Muslim…”[ix] [emphasis ours]
Returning to the two examples with which this chapter began, one can easily see the operation of non-scientific belief systems and the realities they purport to describe, if not justify.
In the first case where a six year-old child was subjected to unspeakable horrors and trauma, I suspect that the core beliefs read something like: (1) the world is a very dangerous place that is constantly seeking ways to attack young, naïve, and extremely vulnerable children, if not all persons; (2) therefore, one must constantly be prepared and on guard; (3) the only way to drive home the need for serious preparation to naïve minds is to stage an attack that as much as possible is like the “real thing;” (4) therefore, a realistic simulation is not only necessary, but entirely justifiable. Note that beliefs (1) and (2) border on out-and-out paranoia, whereas (3) and (4) act on it.
Given that they not only express one’s fundamental beliefs about Reality, but even more that they reinforce one another, what if anything could possibly convince the proponents that their beliefs are false, not to mention their irreparable harm? Unfortunately, the fact that the mother, grandmother, aunt, and accomplice were arrested and charged with child endangerment is only all the more likely to prove to them that the world istruly as dangerous as they believe. Consequently, I would expect that their arrests would only reaffirm their beliefs. After all, it really is “us against them.”
In the second case where Liberal Hollywood writers justify the use of violence by denying that it has any causal effects on young minds, in effect, the underlying argument is that the so-called scientific studies that purport to show the influence of movie and TV violence do not live up to the ideal of scientific method. In other words, Hollywood writers are actually living up to the True Ideals of scientific reasoning more than social scientists! Hollywood writers are thus more in touch with Reality!
This chapter has laid out the general nature of beliefs systems. They are the platforms upon which our descriptions of Reality are based. Even more, they are the “Bedrock Realities” that underlie our descriptions of and beliefs about Reality.
Throughout the rest of the book, the ideas in this and the next chapter provide the basis in terms of which we will evaluate and contrast various belief systems about the nature of Reality. The various systems are instrumental in determining how one feels about hot-button issues such as global warming, gun control, etc.
A strong caveat is in order. As not all instances of scientific thinking are the same, all non-scientific belief systems are not the same. For instance, religious belief systems differ considerably. Many accept science and are thus anything but hostile to it. Many incorporate the testing of their beliefs, although not necessarily in the same ways that science does. And, not all are burdened by excessive fears and worries, or at least not to the same extent.
Western philosophy generally makes a fundamental distinction between (1) Epistemology (what’s “true knowledge” and how can we best achieve it?), (2) Ethics (what is the nature of “The Good” and, what Ought we do to be “good and just?”), (3) Aesthetics (what is Beauty?), and (4) Ontology (what exists and what is the nature of Reality?). Nonetheless, in everyday life, the vast majority of belief systems do not make such distinctions. Thus, it is not a contradiction in the slightest to speak of Moral Epistemology. For most people, what’s Ethical and what’s True are not only hopelessly entangled, but fundamentally inseparable. Our basic Truths about others, the world, and ourselves are Moral Truths. They allow us to live and to act with Moral Certainty. They are also Pleasing and in this sense, they are also Aesthetic Truths as well. Given that they also speak to the nature of Reality, they are Moral, Aesthetic, and Ontological Truths all wrapped up into one. In a word, we don’t live, nor is it clear that we should, in the divided world of academic philosophy.
Finally, as the frontispiece quote to this chapter demonstrates, one of the most important aspects of all belief systems—scientific, political, religious, etc.–is that they not only exist, but are fundamentally experienced as narratives, as stories in the truest sense of the term.
Most people don’t walk around with “core principles” and disembodied “facts” in their heads. Instead, we live and experience our lives through a succession of narratives. Our lives literally are the stories we tell about others, the world, and ourselves. The stories have clear sets of helpers, heroes, victims, villains, etc.
To know and compare different Realities is to better understand different stories about Reality, and by doing so, to be better able to handle the enormous challenges and horrendous problems facing us.
Finally, some of the most interesting and important cases involve the direct clash between scientific and religious belief systems (“major stories” if you will), especially when they occur within the same individual. Thus, in Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, Dr. Paul A. Moffit cites the case of an Orthodox Jewish medical doctor who justified the religious practice of sucking blood out of babies who have just been circumcised even though it increases significantly the chances of transmitting herpes and thus causing permanent brain damage to a child. Although many ancient practices have long been abandoned for health and other reasons, “when faced with two conflicting ideologies—an Orthodox Jewish upbringing and a scientific and medical training—the doctor yielded to his religious beliefs, choosing a weak rationalization that ‘all medical procedures have side effects.’ Such is the power of religious belief.”[x]Especially when the practice under contention is not even a “valid medical procedure!”
[i] Martha Nussbaum, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming The Politics Of
Fear In An Anxious Age, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass. 2012, p. 47.
[ii] Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Great Divide: Unequal Societies And What We can Do About Them, Norton, New York, 2015, p.12.
[iii] Buzzell, op cit.
[iv] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Simon &
Schuster, New York, 2014.
[vi] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Opcit, p. 48.
[vii] See Ian I. Mitroff, The Subjective Side of Science: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Psychology of the Apollo Moon Scientists, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1974; reissued by Intersystems Publishers, Seaside, CA, 1984
[ix] Nussbaum, op cit, p. 195.
[x] Paul A. Offit, M.D., Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, Basic Books, New York, 2015, p. 73.