Structures of Belief Systems
Posted by Jerry on May 28, 2007
Sometimes I am just dumbfounded by the things I hear people say or write. I ask myself how people can actually believe in what they’re saying. Sometimes, for the sake of my own sanity, I assume that they just misspoke extemporaneously without thinking it through. However, at the back of my head, a little voice tells me that I am being too generous in extending them this benefit of a doubt.
I realize that once you have your fundamentals set, your entire edifices of thought rely on these fundamentals. You begin to function on higher levels of thought that are linked down to the very core of the premises you hold, and that every new bit of information is assessed against this edifice of your belief systems: does the new bit of information fit? Is it compatible? Does it make sense? And when you get used to functioning at the higher levels of your thought, you get weary and tiresome in having to dig down and explain all the chains of thought to someone else who does not share your fundamentals or who is not functioning at the level of thought that you are. Indeed, concepts and entire vocabularies can differ based on which fundamentals your intellectual edifice is structured upon.
For example, a recent commenter on my blog rambled on about various topics on Christianity, sexuality, altruism, etc. I’m certain that what he said made perfect sense to him; but to me, most of it was like static noise. And the little sense that I did glean from his comments required me to dive into fundamentals that I just did not have the inclination or the mental energy to do. It is why I write on my blog and hope that people read them and spare me the trouble of repeating myself. The point is, no matter what argument I put forward, unless he had the mental ability and willingness to follow the logical chain of thought underlying my arguments down to its philosophical roots, he would not be able to accept or even understand my point.
Similarly, once at work, a colleague got into a discussion with me about subjectivism vis-a-vis the external world. I challenged her to say—as a logical derivation of her subjectivism—that while crossing a bridge, one is never quite certain that the bridge exists. And to my utter shock, she quite self-righteously said that the bridge exists only because we believe it does! She went on to say that scientific laws are a matter of collective agreement, not objective fact! Woah!
But, really, I shouldn’t be surprised. Some time ago, I spoke to a PhD student—I blogged about our conversation here—who was adamant in denying his own existence, or more precisely, denying the certain knowledge of his existence.
Then there was this other colleague at my previous job who identified herself as a communist. She could never quite understand my use of concepts like “individualism” and “freedom” because for her those words connoted wholly different meanings; she was functioning on a totally different intellectual structure—one based on premises of the Communist philosophy. We could never have a meaningful discussion because I was constantly mired in having to explain and define concepts and explicitly expose the logical connections between conceptual hierarchies. For example, I was unsuccessful in explaining to her that an “individual” is the smallest unit of society, and that society is nothing more than many individuals.
My point is, once we establish a set of core premises—either through a conscious philosophy based on reason or through some other whimsical means—we keep building on them. Typically, intellectual laziness is the ready catalyst for most people by which they cement new beliefs onto fundamental premises. Many times, people are not even aware of the kind of intellectual structure they may have built, what their premises are, and what beliefs they hold. In most cases, these structures are not only built on false premises but also contain fatal contradictions along its connections—weak links in their edifices–the awareness of which is suppressed consciously or unconsciously. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term that comes close to describing this kind of behavior–the rationalization or suppression of contradictory premises.
Some people, however, build their edifices only to raze them fully to the ground the moment they realize that the premises were false. Such people solidify their conscious convictions not with whim, faith, hope, desires, or diktats, but with reason and honesty. Reason lets them know whether their structure is founded on rock or sand and honesty compels them to state the case as it may be.
This is just another reason why Rand is persistent in her exhortation to “check your premises.”