[Update: Powell didn’t really mean it. He was playing devil’s advocate and wanted to be refuted.]
Bill Powell sends me a pretty fair amount of traffic, and it’s not usually a great idea to bite the hand that feeds you. However, I think his latest post makes some grievous errors, so I’ve got to call him on it. After reading this, he may or may not consider me “an infinite degree of idiot”. I respect him and like his blog, but sometimes you gotta take a stand.
Powell is demonstrating a form skepticism which I call subjectivism (a term I coined). In short, because so many people believe so many contradictory things, how can we know for certain what’s right? Powell:
But I ask you a simple question: every belief purported was deemed to be the truth by those following it, and if everyone one holds this opinion, then obviously those beliefs which differ cannot possibly be the truth and inevitably must be in conflict with the concepts one holds as true and sacred, so what is the truth then? That’s the question that almost no one asks themselves and personally, I don’t think it can be answered.
It can’t be answered if one assumes that the existence of Truth is dependent on our ability to perceive it. If reality is just some concept about which we may or may not agree, then disagreement over what that reality is would be sufficient grounds for skepticism. If our opinions about what’s right determine Truth, if reality is subjective (dependent on the observer), then our conflicting interpretations regarding reality would be sufficient grounds to discount any beliefs regarding that reality. Unless, of course, everyone agrees.
However, there’s another possiblity. What if something is real whether or not we’re seeing it right. What if 2+2 equalled 4 as much in the days of the Neanderthal as it does today?
In such a case, the solution is simple: those who know that 2+2=4 are right, and those that think 2+2=5 were wrong. Some of our perceptions are correct, some aren’t.
Although Powell statement “that there is no way to really KNOW anything” [italics mine] could be construed as skepticism regarding the very nature of reality (what I call A), perhaps he’s actually referring more to attitudes, or opinions (what I call G). After all, he does list “Pro Choice vs. Anti-Abortion, Republican vs. Democrat, Liberal vs. Conservative, Fundamentalist Islam vs. the West, Religion vs. Atheism and on and on.”
Nevertheless, the same principle applies. If morality is subjective in the same sense as reality, then moral disagreements could serve as justification to reject moral belief systems en masse.
However, if there is a objective morality (I’m not yet asserting that there is), then perhaps we could no more dismiss both sides of a political debate than a caveman could reject the Law of Supply and Demand. Maybe there is a right answer out there somewhere, we just perceive things differently, we disagree. As we collect more evidence, we may find one or another side to be incorrect.
To an extent Powell recognizes this. He gives us a decent reason to reject incorrect belief systems:
Because of humanity’s gift (or curse) of an analytical evolved mind and the ability to think, rationalize and symbolize, we have gotten too wrapped up in the symbolizing and rationalizing that passes for truth these days and we indeed have lost sight of the reality itself.
But this fails to correctly refute correct belief systems. Indeed, if you’re “symbolizing and rationalizing” over Truth surpasses or contradicts Truth, then our “analytical evolved mind” is indeed a curse.
The problem with all belief systems is that they can condition us in how we think, what we say, how we act, what clothes we wear, foods we eat, how we vote, how we treat those who do not share our belief system, etc. and all are contradictory to the basic human freedom to be and partake of the openness of life itself.
I would argue that this is a problem with all incorrect belief systems, but “all” is a bit of a stretch. Most of us adhere to a belief system that frowns upon raping five year-olds (and I’m no no way even remotely hinting that Powell doesn’t). This “condition[s] us in how we think” in a good way. In fact, without such a belief system, we’d head straight to hell.
The “openness of life itself” can be a wonderful thing when you’re backpacking through South America, but being open to crack might not be. We can easily dismiss this as obvious, but the same principle applies to belief systems that are currently more controversial. For example, people haven’t always taken it for granted that child rape is bad. Perhaps someday societies will digest the Red Pill as readily as (most) Americans today support the Freedom of Speech.
Finally (before I give some much-deserved credit), Powell criticizes how belief systems can divide us:
Bottom line: if you and I believe differently, then we will be separate from each other in one way or another.
Indeed we will. There are times when such divisions aren’t worth it. However, what if there is a right and wrong answer? What if your “belief system” will allow for people to lead fruitful and prosperous lives but Jim’s will lead to slavery? I concede that Jim may think the same about you, but isn’t that grounds for separation? There have been some really awful belief systems out there, and if decent belief systems don’t stand up to them, then maybe the crappy ones will take over. Might that not be how the “Apocalypse Cometh”?
But Bill does ask a very important question:
What if your belief is WRONG and what happens causes harm? The reason I ask that question is that people DO what they believe and the horrible thing about belief systems is that people are even willing to kill and to die for what they believe.
This is very important to address and requires three simultaneous thought processes:
1. Genuinely seek to understand reality as it is. A is A. It will be A whether you get it or not. It’s outside of you and beyond you. There are things you know (that you can sit on your couch and it won’t explode), but there are things you don’t (how to score a date with Emma Stone when you can’t afford to leave Kansas). Don’t let your desire to be a know-it-all make you forget that you never will know it all. But if you don’t understand it, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
2. Understand that there is right and wrong, but that you might not correctly understand which is which. There are things of which you can be certain (don’t rob that old lady), but some things are more vague (I only spent one night in Belgium, so it it okay to make like I know Brussels really well?) Make your moral choices confidently but in the spirit of humility. There’s a world beyond you.
3. Know yourself, others, and your limitations. You exist as an entity and have the right to live your life the way you choose, but so does that other guy. Neither you nor he have access to infinite knowledge or wisdom. Even if you’ve correctly chosen your moral path, do you have the right to make that other guy follow it? You might (he’s about to rape your sister), you might not (that annoying laugh makes you want to shove a broken beer bottle in his mouth). You may be absolutely correct in your religious beliefs. You may also be correct that everybody else should agree with you. That doesn’t mean you can make them.
I understand how belief can cause conflict. I know we don’t know it all. I get that we’ll disagree.
However, without belief we’re putty. What we believe is an extension of who we are. It guides us and sometimes spurs us on to greatness, even when we’re wrong about something. Sometimes you’ll be completely correct, but other times you will be wrong.
But that’s no reason not to believe.