Belief is the opposite of thought

30 January, 2007

Christopher Hitchens has praised a fellow lefty’s mea culpa, prompting thoughts on the so-called culture wars. Left versus right. Statist versus individualist. Atheist versus true believer. Loony versus nutbar. Hitler versus Stalin.

Presumably these hate-filled slaggings off existed before the internet. Very probably, the same attitudes, insults and arguments circulated in Europe during the escalation to the Second World War (they certainly did in the isolationist USA). The new communication technology, however, has given us new ways to express opinion as fact and foment hatred as righteous cause.

The lack of self-consciousness of these protagonists is perhaps the most amazing thing. Do these people truly believe that they are the guardians of truth, against whose wisdom all assertions of fact must be judged? Do they really think they have never been wrong? – Because that is the kind of mentality shown on all sides of these arguments.

Well, based on my experience, most people don’t think they’re ever been wrong. Their egos couldn’t stand admitting it, whereas I seem to be the only person who is actually grateful to be disproved, because that means I am one step further to understanding the world. That’s the scientific attitude, as I understand it. No wonder ideologues of the right and left are alike in suspicion and repression of scientific opinion – if fact and reason were allowed into daylight, how then would the multitudes be swayed by slogans and lies?

But most people are swayed and want to be swayed, for two reasons: (1) they lack the knowledge to make their own judgements, or else the intellectual capacity to associate related facts and discard false assumptions; (2) humans have an innate urge to Believe. If it’s not God, then it’s libertarianism, or anti-Americanism, or racism, or patriotism, or something-ism.

These two properties are a blessing to those with power and the cunning to use it. Exploiting these weaknesses, people can be persuaded to support a war against a country on the other side of the world, to boycott a country for no practical reason, or to attack and kill their neighbours with machetes.

There’s a great line in the movie “Hannah and her Sisters”, where Frederick (played by Max Von Sydow) talks about the “puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions.”

He goes on to say, “The reason why they could never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?” Of course it does, in subtler forms.”

Is that really what people are? Are we unable to think without prejudice or emotion, but clearly and dispassionately, without ego, hatred, or love?

We all have these weaknesses, but some more than others. In Nazi Germany, with a continual storm of propaganda, there were still a few who only wanted a quiet life, without hurting or being hurt. Just a quiet life with friends, family, and a decent job.

Of course, ideologues hate people like that. For them, the “fence-sitters” are worse than the avowed dichotomous enemy, because their very existence suggests an alternative to the hate-filled happiness of True Faith. This is the reason Jesus said (or was made to say), “Because you are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:14) True Believers hate spoil-sports who refuse to play the game.

If I have any power of urging, I would advise all people to refuse final judgement, to never be satisfied with available evidence, or their usual pattern of thought. Refuse belief, because belief is the opposite of thought. Only a fool says, “I know the Truth.”

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