Thursday, 4 May 2017

Belief, disbelief and make-belief

      You can believe anything.
      You can disbelieve anything.
       — Consider, for example, the reaction of 'disbelief' when someone witnessis a murder or a terrorist bombing. Their first thought is, 'This can't be happening.'
      The true believer reacts in a similar way when incontrovertible evidence is presented to them that their belief is false. Flat earthers and moon-landing deniers belong to this group. Unlike the disbelieving witness, who more or less quickly acknowledges what they have seen with their own eyes, the true believer remains stuck in the attitude of denial.
      In analytic philosophy, the paradigm of belief (e.g. in Davidson's theory of action as the result of a belief-desire combination) is that of information, or 'laying oneself open to the world'. According to this paradigm, 'deciding to believe' is an anomaly, the exception.
      We assert the opposite: deciding to believe is the norm, not the exception. Human beings are make-believers, that is how we create, and colour our personal and interpersonal reality, our world.
      Of course, we are 'open' to information all of the time. It is only when a thought is identified specifically as a 'belief' that an additional element appears. A belief is something you hold, it is a possession, something you stand by and defend.
      Where does reason come in all this?
      In the world shared by true believers, the 'reasonable' thing (from the point of view of self-understanding and mutual understanding) is to follow the dogma. To reject the dogma is a mark of irrationality. What is rational or reasonable is 'what the others believe'.
      One can see how you can derive a practical advantage from 'make-believing'. For example, the mother who refuses to believe the telegram telling her that her son was killed in action. 'He's out there, somewhere,' she says. It's a comfort, a way of putting off indefinitely the grief of bereavement.
      What that doesn't explain is how human beings learned to make-believe.
      Non-human animals have learned from evolution how to mimic and deceive, but they don't 'invent' false facts, given that accurate information is vital to their survival. So how did human beings acquire the trick?
      This is the point where we would offer a partly-empirical theory about the strange phenomenon of dreaming. The theory is in principle open to refutation, although it is not clear what kind of experiment one would perform (hence 'partly-empirical' or 'quasi-empirical').
      Cats and dogs are known to dream, that is to say, they exhibit all the associated signs of dreaming such as rapid eye movement, limb twitching and the sounds associated with action in the physical world.
      What do they dream about?
      Here's a plausible hypothesis: For non-human animals, dreaming has evolved as a dress rehearsal of the kinds of actions they do in the physical world that are necessary for survival. An example would be a cat dreaming about catching a mouse. In the cat's dream, the mouse behaves the way mice normally do. That's the point.
      If you could interpret the cat's thoughts, in the dream, they might be something like, 'If the mouse is there, then I will stalk three steps then pounce.' The dream-action is repeated, over and over again, in every possible variation. Then, when the cat encounters a mouse in reality, it has already rehearsed the precise series of actions that it will do.
      For a cat, dreaming is a form of mental play, a self-training routine that doesn't require expending valuable energy that would be required for physical play.
      It is only with human beings, that dreams have acquired the additional function of wish fulfilment (Freud). The need for wish fulfilment arises from the dynamic of interpersonal relations (e.g. mother and child). Non-human animals are social, but not personal or inter-personal.
      Equally important, the inventiveness of human dreaming leads to creative endeavour in the physical world, which in turns influences our dreams, in a self-stoking cycle. We turn our 'wish fulfilment' fantasies into reality.
      As I argued in Philosophizer, our human capacity to dream explains the interest we take in fiction. Our interest in fiction in turn explains the phenomenon of religion, which is essentially a fiction which becomes our shared reality through the action of make-believe.
      Receiving Holy Communion, on this view, is essentially no different from children playing 'doctors and nurses'.
      We give our consent to a fiction, more or less knowingly or unknowingly. The 'true believer' is at one end of the spectrum of belief. At the other is the kind of person who enjoys going to church — or the mosque or synagogue — not just for the sense of warmth and fellowship, but also in a mood of conscious and deliberate consent to a story you have heard over and over again, a story that you choose to become part of your 'reality'.
      Am I against 'belief'? Not at all. I am against the imposition of belief.
      I am offended.
      The offence is not always the same, or to the same degree. Nevertheless, like John Stuart Mill, I deny your right to protection from 'conflicting opinions'. I deny your right to subject those under the age of consent to brain washing, even when — or especially when — they are children in your care.
      Let's get it all out in the open. Put on your costumes, parade your holy texts, give us a good show.

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