When encountering something for the first time, people reasonably ask, what word can we give this, how do we categorise it? Which label is most appropriate? In short, how can we frame it? This cutting off the interconnected extensions, is what the mind is good at and is also necessary, as without this framing and compartmentalising, we are lost in our understanding of the world.
If we can't categorize a phenomenon, it's difficult to create a value system for it. Take the trillions of neutrinos, we are told are flying through our bodies every second. If science can say something about these strange particles, then what else could be going on that we don't know about?
If something is unique or uncanny and doesn’t fit in with our experience, it can be put to one side, yet information like this appears all the time. How can we best make sense of it?
In most instances, we don’t really know what most things are, what is a snail for example? Do we know what a snail is? It is far more complex than just the ‘snail' word, which somehow conjures up the image of a snail in our minds, and this is true for most things we encounter.
From the big bang to black holes in an expanding universe, receding away from us, and so far removed, like our nearest stars measured in light years, too far out of reach and inaccessible for everyday experience. Although this information still fills us with a sense of awe and wonder at the size and scale of it all…we might well ask, what does it all mean? what are we supposed to do with it?
Especially when looking back at our own planet, the only one in the universe where we know for certain there is life, and realising we still have only a faint understanding of how it all works and is interconnected.
Why do we believe one thing and not something else?
What is our belief based on? Why, with all the scientific facts and information around, do people still believe in different things? Are our beliefs based on outdated modes of understanding? Are we allowed to hold contradictory and opposing views in our minds at the same time? Perhaps this is more fruitful than being constrained in our thinking at the expense of considering all other possibilities. When more accurate information comes along, are we like the geese in Konrad Lorenz's experiments, do we prefer to keep believing in what we encountered first and that our minds have formed around, no matter what can be demonstrated to us afterwards?
Are most people's belief systems, or set of values, based on any real information at all? Choosing to believe in the consensus opinions that allow us to function in society.
If something looks the same from lots of different angles, then it's likely to be true. If every possible angle of approach adds up to the same picture, then a single belief or set of beliefs can reasonably be justified, as was the case for thousands of years, more or less, of humans interacting with nature in isolated pockets around the globe.
As time passes, and the testing of reality becomes more advanced, someone comes along and demonstrates, that the world you experience, simply doesn’t exist the way you thought it did. Light is not what your mind supposes it to be, your brain is just a piece of meat after all, only able to pick up a few narrow bandwidths of information, we have examined what makes up reality, the atoms, the sun and the stars, every possible way, and your impression is false, your childish intuition cannot be justified or even trusted, your emotions are misleading and you must learn to accept these facts.
In short, this is the story of the last 500 years or so of scientific enquiry, so many angles to choose from forming an accurate model of the world, but less and less experience in dealing with real nature and 'reality' as our ancestors knew it. Today, our reality is formed mostly in dealing only with other humans and some useful machinery, also made by humans. In the past, there was a vast wilderness to contend with. If you set off into the wild with a spear and came back with an animal, this was the truth, this was reality. You can eat, and you can feed your family. If you missed, there was a different reality to contend with, when you return home empty-handed. Everything…mind, body and culture, your relationship with nature, were fine tuned around these endeavours to a greater or lesser degree and this helped with survival and bound society together.
This same tuning, made people effective warriors for thousands of years, killing other people who might want to steal your meat or the land it roamed, if you can throw a spear or use a sword, this was good, this has an effect in the world. (This is true up until about 500 years ago with the invention and widespread use of the arquebus and development of ballistics as lamented by Montaigne. Today no sensible army would use a sword or spear to fight a war, though this is not as antiquated as one might think, as there is an account of Winston Churchill drawing his sword from horseback in battle) Although this new technology quickly conquered the last of the American and Australian wilderness, most of the really big fauna had been killed thousands of years before by spear alone.
Today we don’t have to confront wild nature, we are surrounded by manufactured goods, systems that deal only with trade in domesticated animals and crops (and some illegal, almost extinct wild animals) We are told what the nature of reality is by science, even if it doesn't tie in at all with our everyday experience, we accept it, because of the good things the new discoveries bring us, like mobile phones, and reliable food production.
In our daily western lives at least, we don’t come up against wild nature anymore, roads have been laid that lead from ‘spring to spring’ all has been cleared and tamed by people who came before us. If we go out into the world and come back with money, this is good, this is reality, we can feed our family…..any picture of being in the world that doesn’t help us get money is false, from a survival point of view.
If you are a scientist looking to extend your grant or a graduate creating a CV to get a job or a politician seeking office. In today's society, the truth is not so important, not with all this confusing and conflicting information at hand, what you believe to be effective is important. What is the market value and the share price? What is the potential for growth? (fortunately people are starting to ask more serious questions in business, like how it feeds back to society and effects the planet, if only from a self preservation standpoint) If it helps you stay in the game and feeds your family, all action can be justified.
In biotech for example, growing a human heart inside a pig is justified, because there is a market for it, or will be, and people are so far removed, confused and emotionally cauterized that these advances are no longer as shocking or abhorrent as they used to be. If it creates jobs, we'll take it. Every belief system, action and thought has to maintain its position. When confronted with so much to choose from and not to knowing what to believe anymore with our antiquated, reality judging apparatus…how do we make sense of the world and make the right choices that will create a better world for all?
Money, utility, certainty, power, choice, language, control, belief, urge, survival, justification and wild nature are all interconnected and interwoven and it may not be so easy to untangle one thread without the whole cloth falling apart.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!