What Is Worth Believing?
When I set out to be systematic about answering the question, “What do you believe?” it seemed something grand might appear, something true and deep and lasting, certainly something more important than personal observation, preference, habit, wish, belief or opinion. Nearing the end of the time allotted for the task, no such document is in sight.
A humanist, materialist, rationalist, individualist consciousness secures me. I pay attention and pay attention to others who pay attention, in person and in media, for information and inspiration; but my choices of which ideas to accept and which to reject are entirely my own responsibility—no buck-passing, no authorities, no excuses. Every issue must be individually sorted by fact, logic and feeling within personal consciousness. Here are the several issues that seem most significant to me at this moment:
1) “The One Commandment: disadvantage nobody.” No casual, commercial or convenient exceptions permitted.
2) “The world is 100% natural.” After long and careful search, I have found no evidence to require a conclusion that there are supernatural or occult or paranormal or “spiritual” forces at work anywhere at any time.
3) “The truth is out there.” An objective reality exists which is totally independent of human thought, wish, will or perception. It can be known, never perfectly , but with increasing detail and accuracy through close, sensible observation. “True,” as a word applied to statements about the world is usually a matter of degree: the higher approaches to “The Truth” being essentially social and verifiable. More accurate observing, counting, and measuring lead to a “truer” truth. To improve confidence in one’s understanding of the truth of the elephant, one must take care to check with enough blind men who have had contact with the beast. The same applies when the beasts in question are human thought, wish, will and perception. The goal may never be so ambitious as to know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but rather to collect and draw and check maps of our life territory that are as accurate as our time and sense allow—in order to arrive, not at “The Truth,” but in Wittgenstein’s expression, notions that are “true enough.”
It is more from carelessness about truth, than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world. –Samuel Johnson
4. “Words do not mean anything.” Words considered as marks on the page or sounds in the air are utterly empty of meaning. The act of meaning is always an individual internal operation of the brain. If the meanings were in the words (on the page or in the air), there could be no “foreign” languages. Thus, the question that leads toward accurate understanding and agreement is never ‘what does that word mean?’ but always ‘what do you mean?
5) “We must never ‘respect the opinions of others’—nor our own.” Opinions and beliefs are categories of statements that are so labeled because it is known that they are not known for certain. They are explicitly known to be “iffy,” and unworthy of a kind of “respect” that implies unquestioning acceptance or quiet acquiescence. A silence that smiles hypocritically to be nice-nice, is only safe rather than principled, timid rather than saintly. It is no respect to another to keep quiet when a belief is nuts! A genuine respect questions: “how did you arrive at that conclusion?” What is the evidence? What is the experience? How can we verify? Thus do we respect people rather than their sometimes foolish, mistaken, or crazy opinions. And, of course, the same respect belongs to ourselves (and not to our own sometimes foolish, mistaken or crazy beliefs).
6. “Love more, demand less.” [Ken Keyes] After having resolved to be “in service” in an event, I have never had a bad time. I believe the altruism that energizes me is almost universal, and may be relied upon, when invoked, to conduct us to our best choices. Love does not lie in the mouth, it lives in the heart: it is how you are, what you do to empower or benefit another. It never seeks to dominate or control. It gives without expectation of reward. A quid pro quo may be richly, mutually satisfying, but it says “Let’s Make a Deal,” not let love prevail. LaRochfocault says, “Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall never be disappointed.” Ken Keyes reveals the wisdom behind the cynicism, observing that “emotion-backed demands” are the cause of all our negative emotions. The solution, he says is to uplevel demands to preferences.” A demand bets on bad cards and goes broke; a preference folds and stays in the game. A demand hangs on after the water skier has fallen and is being dragged: a preference lets go of the rope, swims and rides again. A demand says, “If you didn’t, it would be horrible!” A preference says, “If you did, it could be nice.”
7. “Earth is a space ship.” I am always oddly amused by the Quixotic ambitions of people who are excited about “going to space.” I always think but rarely say, “Hey we can not go “there.” It is where we already are—aboard a space ship with one recirculating air supply, one water system, one cargo of non-renewable resources, and one crew.” The day when we can trade it in on a new model can be (and had better be) imagined today, but it may be very far off. It follows that our survival depends upon learning to take far better care of Space Ship Earth and its crew.
8. “Strive.” Do some hard reading, some useful work. Create something useful and/or beautiful.
9. “Bliss out!” Have a nice day, of course…and give one too.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.