Caravaggio’s 1601 painting The Incredulity of St Thomas, based on the biblical story that gave rise to the expression “Doubting Thomas”. Image from wikipedia, in the public domain.
One of the downsides of keeping a blog is that it leaves a permanent record of all the dumb things the writer once believed. I’ve left all my posts up because sometimes it’s a useful reminder of how much I’ve learned in 18 years.
So here, in all false humility, is a list of things I once believed that I now think are preposterous. Some of them caused needless suffering, to others and to myself. Others were quite absurd, an indication of how carried away we idealists can get by the most precarious of information and well-honed arguments. Still others were just gullible. I wasn’t sure how to rank them so I’m just going to put them out there:
I once believed:
- That we have free will. That people are to blame for, in control of, and responsible for, their actions. That we are more than the product of our genetic and cultural conditioning.
- That we can do anything we set ourselves out to do. That entrepreneurship, practiced well, is a roadmap to joy, sustainability and self-fulfillment open to everyone.
- That through learning and “innovation”, and study of indigenous cultures, or if we all just [fill in the blank], we can yet “save the world”, by which I meant, ambiguously, both the natural, more-than-human world and the human civilization that has now largely destroyed it.
- That 9/11 was an “inside job”. (You know, that sixth tower…)
- That squalene in military vaccines during the Gulf War was a dangerous and unnecessary experimental “adjutant” that was added just to save manufacturers money. (Is there anything bad we couldn’t have believed about Dick Cheney?)
- That hierarchy, schooling, “free” markets, “work”, non-plant foods, monogamy, centralization and privatization have their useful place.
- That eating well and exercising are not that important to our health, and that we can actually choose to eat well and exercise, or not. That bodies are all (substantially) the same in terms of what makes them healthy or not.
- That a small number of people with wildly disproportionate knowledge and power could if they chose bring about major change in our world.
- That conversation, language, the Internet, and story-telling enable powerful communication and understanding. That there is a large appetite for thoughtful, investigative, well-researched, challenging and imaginative writing, by journalists, scientists, philosophers and creative minds.
- That the world (meaning either the randomness of events in the cosmos, or life in human society) is unfair.
- That indirect activism works.
- That by studying systems we can change them. That predicaments are just particularly-challenging “wicked” problems.
- That most people want to know the truth. That most people are fundamentally curious, and basically healthy.
- That we can actually imagine a world very different from the one(s) we have directly experienced (especially if we’ve read about it in cultural studies or sci-fi).
- That hope is essential to our continuation and health, and that depression (which I suffered from for a good part of my life) is a curable disease.
- That there is such a thing as “good” and “evil”.
- That we are the most conscious and intellectually advanced species in the history of the planet.
- That reason is more reliable as the basis for belief and action than intuition.
- That the human “self” is real and in control of the mind and body it believes it occupies.
- That anything is real or separate. That time and space and people and “things” actually exist and that things “happen” within and to them.
I added the last two somewhat reluctantly. I no longer believe they are true, but my behaviour, including my writing on this blog, clearly demonstrates that some well-entrenched “me” still accepts them, still presumes they are the case.
These are all things I wanted to believe, so it was not that hard for me to do so. Believing them made things easier, made everything that seemed to be happening make more sense, and relieved the cognitive dissonance that any conflicting views I might entertain brought up.
So what has changed so much in the past 18 years that I no longer believe any of these things that I would have once ardently argued for (and often did)?
My conditioning has changed. The people in my life now are very different, fewer in number and less certain about what they believe. The dogma of the educational prison and the corporate workplace with their QAnon-like “fear and obey” message no longer holds power over me like it once did.
I trust my instincts more than I used to, realizing that human intuition has evolved over a million years to integrate knowledge much better than reason and thinking alone can. I am much less swayed by arguments from people in my “progressive” social circles, no matter how articulate or impassioned they may be, when they are unsupported by dispassionate reason, evidence or science. I may still want to believe them, but I find I just can’t, when it entails blaming people for their outrageous actions, when that behaviour will never be fixed through enmity, indoctrination, incarceration, use of power, or argument (or, sadly, any other type of “fix”.) Things are the way they are for a reason, and it is no one’s “fault”.
I seem to have outgrown the severe depression that handicapped me for much of my life, and I think that has cleared my thinking and liberated energy for a reconsideration of beliefs that I clung to unreasonably for many years. And retirement has certainly helped.
My small circle of exceptionally intelligent and sensitive friends have modelled much healthier thinking, reactions, beliefs and behaviours than my own, and in the process have enormously helped me to become more self-aware and self-knowledgeable, more equanimous, more critical of unchallenged ideas, and both physically and emotionally healthier. I am blessed, and these radical changes in worldview are largely their astonishing gift to me.
Over the years I have made the arguments for all of these changes of belief, repeatedly, in this blog, and the purpose of this post is not to persuade anyone or to drag these issues back up for debate. The newest belief changes have not come through argument, but rather from just sitting with what seems to be, and what seems to be happening, and seeing what arises. The only one who can change anyone’s mind is themselves.
So I guess my purpose in writing this is to see how far I’ve come since I started using this blog to think out loud in public. You can draw your own conclusions about whether it’s a progression or a regression. I’m sure there’s more to come.
Thanks for reading and listening, and telling me what you think, all these long years.
(PS: Regarding #5, it is kind of interesting that 13 years after the suicide of squalene champion Bruce Ivins, who was accused of being the 2001 US anthrax mailer even though the evidence against him was dubious and the possibility of his creating the weaponized anthrax alone was absolutely zero, the mystery of the perpetrators of the anthrax mailings, which occurred just before and were used to justify the draconian Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq, has never been solved.)
Lots to both agree with and disagree with, but I’ll just comment on one of them, #18, “That reason is more reliable as the basis for belief and action than intuition”.
I think that reason is indeed more reliable as the basis for belief but that generally intuition is more reliable and functional as a basis for action. It is only the very rare (usually life-changing) action that can be taken on the basis of reason. Virtually all action occurs as a result of habit (intuition) because there is scarcely enough time to reason out every action. And a lot of action isn’t even consciously motivated, but driven by the autonomic nervous system and muscle memory.
Congratulations on overcoming depression. I have been depressed very rarely during my 72 years but I definitely prefer not being depressed. However, a modicum of stoic resignation helps me deal with the vicissitudes of life, which in my case have been delightfully infrequent.
The depression thing is a killer. I’m glad to be through mine too and a lot of beliefs crumbled at the way in my liberation from the black dog.
A bunch of these can be lumped together in one category: things we never had but thought we did (e.g., control, agency, resolve, adaptability). We (Dave and I) disagree as to the degree to which we lack such attributes, but no matter.
Like Joe’s comment above, #13 and #18 are of particular interest to me. While truth and reason are indispensable for some applications, they aren’t nearly as psychologically satisfying as simple belief and intuition. Human cognition is a heuristic machine, constantly making snap judgments and categorizations on the basis of surface characteristics and discarding nuance and sophisticated understanding. To behave otherwise is too costly (time, effort, skill) and most untrained folks lack patience enough to apply more rigorous processes to making sense of the world. Intuition and belief are defaults put aside only with difficulty.
For what it’s worth I am still of the belief that 9/11 was indeed an inside job. The impossibility of the physics that day leaves no other conclusion. However I have no idea what the 6th tower refers to. WTC1, 2 and 7 ‘fell’.
“That there is such a thing as “good” and “evil” ” Well first I would say good and bad. Evil is perhaps bad taken personally. Anyhow, so nothing good about drinking water? Or nothing bad about having your hand on a red hot burner? Hmmm,
From Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
“Any person of any philosophic persuasion who sits on a hot stove will verify without any intellectual argument whatsoever that he is in an undeniably low-quality situation, that the value of his predicament is negative. This low quality is not just a vague woolly-headed, crypto-religious metaphysical abstraction. It is an experience. It is not a judgement or description about experience.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, This value is more immediate, more directly sensed that any ‘self’ or ‘object’ to which it later might be assigned. It is more real than the stove. ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, It is the primary empirical reality from which such things as stoves and heat and self are later intellectually constructed.”
That is actually for his book “Lila”, maybe you’ve read it. Anyhow, seems about right to me. So if there is no Quality, with it’s ranges of good and bad, seems like than there really wouldn’t be anything, in the sense of intellectual constructions. And since these words are appearing on this screen, it seems obvious there is.