Updated: Mar 23
People throughout history worried that unless we put all our faith in some set of absolute answers, human society will crumble. In fact, modern history has demonstrated that a society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”
― Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Socrates claimed of himself “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” Having heard that the oracle of Delphi had revealed himself as the wisest man in Athens he set out to prove the oracle wrong having convinced himself that he knew nothing at all. He questioned the wisest only to find they only pretended to know about wisdom and that the Oracle was correct for only he was able to admit his own ignorance in the face of questioning and examination. For this, Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the minds of the youth.
In a separate tradition of the Semitic/roman world we see a similar dynamic in Jesus Christ who spoke of wisdom and truth as something separate from temporal authority. He criticized the teachings and ministrations of the Pharisees, spoke out against their hypocrisy and their outward virtue signaling while recognizing the duplicity of their inner selves. When these indignities and insults could no longer be suffered by the Pharisees, Jesus too was condemned and put to death.
“They professed a high regard for the dead prophets of old and claimed that they would never have persecuted and murdered prophets when, in fact, they were cut from the same cloth as the persecutors and murderers: they too had murderous blood in their veins.”
- From Matthew 23:14 - 36
Human societies have a long narrative of falling into the embrace of orthodoxy and dogma, particularly in periods of social unrest and environmental instability. The 13th through 16th century Europe saw both the rise of Christian reformists and the brutal dogmatic response of the Inquisition. In 17th century Japan, Sudoku laws sought to quarantine the nation from awareness of the emerging world beyond its borders. Today the Wahabi Islamists of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State attempt to spread their influence through the Middle East through the persecution of minorities and foreigners alike. The diversity of beliefs that these dogmatic ethos demonstrate is innumerable; however what is consistent among them is the rejection of disagreement not by incorporation into or adjustment of the dogma but by removal of the contradictory information itself. This is true regardless of the facts of the emerging reality or its incompatibility with the existing doctrine.
“One of the greatest fictions of all is to deny the complexity of the world and think in absolute terms:”
― Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
The individual, fearing to be swallowed by the fissures opening in our destabilized political, social and economic orders seeks refuge by battening down the hatches of their internal worldview. The intuitive information processing systems take precedence over the logical/critical information systems in which stimuli is judged according to its validity to one’s pre-existing worldview rather than on the merits of its truth. This is both as a safety mechanism as well as a method of conserving energy. The intuitive approach to knowledge is primarily a threat recognition mechanism developed over time in our animal brains on the savannas and forests of a world in which humankind was simply a guest and not yet a master. It is that whisper in the back of your mind that you are being watched. It is emotional, it is efficient and though it may be accurate it does not necessitate that its judgements are “True.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
For the individual, the intuitive method of processing information becomes one of our most valuable resources during periods of uncertainty and fear. When extrapolated to a group, it risks clothing itself in the trappings of dogma, orthodoxy and belief. Critical faculties and the logical techniques of processing information are the self regulating stopgap between our methods of perceiving the world. It allows us to deconstruct our beliefs and reconstruct our intuitive models flexibly integrating novel information and correcting inaccuracies. As we become closed to this form of processing information, whether by necessity or by habit, we lose the ability to validate our beliefs with new information or revelations of truth. As a group, our individual worldviews become calcified into dogma and the very system of informational validation becomes a cause for persecution to be replaced with self reinforcing values of loyalty, orthodoxy and appeals to (authorized) authority. A trend that has repeated itself countless times through history.
“Once, when a religionist denounced me in unmeasured terms, I sent him a card saying, "I am sure you believe that I will go to hell when I die, and that once there I will suffer all the pains and tortures the sadistic ingenuity of your deity can devise and that this torture will continue forever. Isn't that enough for you? Do you have to call me bad names in addition?”
― Isaac Asimov, I. Asimov
The evidence of this trend in contemporary American discourse is conspicuous on both the right and left wing. Though the conclusions of the far right and the far left differ substantially they are united in an approach to knowledge validated primarily upon orthodoxy of the world view rather than openness to truth. Whether it is Joe Biden saying “You ain’t Black” to undecided black voters or Fox News views abandoning the platform for lack of loyalty to their personal causes, the appeal to authority and doctrine over the diversity of perspective and facts of reality is evident. A cursory review of the headlines of the major news networks no longer reveals multiple perspectives of a single reality but distinctly separate realities of mental existence. How is one to communicate; or of further importance, to calibrate a set of assumptions from which to have a conversation in the first place. The gulf widens on a daily basis. In a world in which compromise and communication are impossible the most logical solution to resolve disputes is the exercise of power and violence, a central realization of zealots and autocrats throughout the ages.
The snowballing authority of dogmatic orthodoxy within a group can only exist with the implicit consent of the group’s members. The more powerful it gets the more difficult it becomes to unravel and dissent from however. As individuals it is our responsibility to question and challenge appeals to authority and dogma. It is up to us to prioritize seeking the truth of information over how well it conforms within our worldview. Though fear may prompt us to judge information and to argue a point in order to maintain conceptual stability, we must be willing to recognize when beliefs may be incorrect, incomplete and assumed. We must be capable of admitting when something is unknown or unproven while still potentially choosing to hold the belief in practical life. It is our responsibility to be intentional about our own psychological moorings.
“It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown.”
― Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
We must reject arguments based upon loyalty to a doctrine or a movement when it contradicts information that is evident as fact and or possible for consideration. One’s loyalty is owed first to the concept of truth before our own tribal affiliations and the rejection of information in adherence to dogma has no bearing on reality other than to divorce and insulate oneself from it. The opposite of loyalty is betrayal and the very fact that one can feel betrayed over something despite being factually in the wrong indicates the pre-eminence of truth over tribalism.
Practically there are a number of ways to develop this mental and emotional space which opens the pathways to greater flexibility of our internal worldview.
Actively seek alternative sources of information for the same topics. Attempt to read it as an observer and not a participant. Use alternative perspectives to both develop one’s own perspective but also to judge underlying agendas and implications.
Summarize what others are claiming in your own words.
Make conditional assumptions during discussion sometimes conceding a point for the sake of argument. Example: So if we assume X is true for the sake of argument then Z…
Allow yourself the creativity to imagine an argument you may not hold as a belief.
Listen to your internal monologue and emotional response. Be aware of internal monologues creating arguments, imagining conflict or inducing emotion particularly as it relates to defensiveness, aggravation or indignation. This is often a telling sign that mental processes are shifting out of Critical/Analytical modes and into Intuitive/Emotional modes.
Fill your own monologue with the question “How do I know this to be true?”
It is up to us to develop the intellectual space to question our own beliefs and consider the informational blind spots in our perception without pre-judgement or pre-conception. This is to not to say that having a set of beliefs is wrong. In order to operate in reality we must do so upon a bedrock of assumptions and beliefs. The difference is that we can be conscious of these foundational assumptions and through critical analysis, we transform that which appears as stone back into clay to be remodeled, re-formed and re-aligned with reality. To close the self off only serves to divorce one’s inner world from the developments of reality, to drift further across the yawning gap into a realm in which one’s beliefs superimpose reality as an external force. One learns that they are capable of creating their beliefs, lest their beliefs create them.
“Heresy is the eternal dawn, the morning star, the glittering herald of the day. Heresy is the last and best thought. It is the perpetual New World, the unknown sea, toward which the brave all sail. It is the eternal horizon of progress.
Heresy extends the hospitalities of the brain to a new thought.
Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy, a coffin.”
― Robert G. Ingersoll, Heretics and Heresies: From 'The Gods and Other Lectures'
Cover Image: The Inquisition Tribunal, Francisco de Goya, 1812