Disclaimer: I hold a regular Salon discussion group, with wide-ranging conversations on politics, philosophy, society, and life. The thoughts in this post came from a recent Salon, but are not meant to be an accurate reflection of the dialogue.
One topic we discussed was the possibility that the use of money to make money-- that is, usury-- may be the origin of many of capitalism’s problems. I have many thoughts on that one, so I'm going to leave it for it's own post. [Don't let me forget to write that one.]
We started by talking about Bush and his [then] newest foolishness: the rejection of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. When his public approval and political capital are at history-setting lows, and the situation in Iraq getting ever more disastrous, it seems inconceivable that he would hang on like a tick to his hard-line "victory against the infidels" stance. Unless he actually believes the drivel he spews.
At a protest two years ago, a speaker read from the autobiography of a cold war general whose name I forget. He spoke of the times he almost removed his stars so he could speak freely about his doubts of the reasonableness of the American actions he was helping to engineer-- but ultimately he didn't because everyone else seemed so solid in their beliefs. Much later, he found out that everyone had similar doubts, and kept them private just like him.
Jeff described a similar situation, but where parroting gave way to belief. People at his company spent so long excusing and using an effective advertising untruth that they forgot it wasn't accurate. If people propound a belief enough, they can forget that they never believed it. Just like in Don't Think of an Elephant, facts and beliefs have only the most tenuous connection. Beliefs are to facts what form is to content-- except that the human mind works far more with beliefs than with facts.
We carry around a model of the world in our heads, the composite of all our beliefs, which performs two basic functions. Every causal relationship we understand about the world is a consequence of this model, and as such it is the basis of all our decisions. Causality cannot come from observed facts alone, and must rely on a baseless belief (ask Lacan, "decisions are mad"). Second, it manages our perceptions. The senses take in a colossal amount of data, but it is only the details called out as interesting by our model that arrive at the consciousness. As such, the facts we absorb are inseparable from the belief system we hold.
In this sense, belief, model, paradigm, and Weltanschauung are essentially the same, and it follows that the majority of our intelligent knowledge and mental capabilities are functions of our models of the world. The same is true of our stupidities-- see Libertarianism Makes You Stupid, or NLP’s claims about the structure of neuroses.
To reword Chomsky's Plato's Problem, where do models come from? Artificial life programs have tried to provide a sufficient basis for arbitrarily complex models through competition-- with interesting but inconclusive results. Their approach is by random evolutionary changes, where the most effective models result in the most capable organisms. The analogy to human models claims that our heads are competitive environments where memes (the Dawkins kind) battle it out (I had been reading Edge just before the Salon).
Models don't just live in the mind. They pass from person to person, and have been honed by a million years to do so. Models live in the collective consciousness, and we are constantly passing them around like airborne viruses in the complex and unconscious ways we communicate with each other. As said in the bedroom scene in Waking Life, "When a member of a species is born, it has a billion years of memory to draw on."
Of course, serviceability isn't the only reason a particular model will predominate, because the collective consciousness can be variously hospitable to certain ideas. That's how parroting (and lying) can lead to whole-hearted belief.
Another ramification is that most of the guts of our intelligence are hidden from us. If civilization were to collapse, how much of our knowledge would we be able to draw on? Aside from the knowledge that's only applicable in a world built to support it, no knowledge is entirely separable from the frameworks that support it. Every container we have for knowledge-- our memories, the collective consciousness, the written language, mathematical systems-- is deeply structured, and almost none of the knowledge is can stand on its own, outside those containers. Whole areas of mathematical truths that we take to be necessary and obvious where a confounding struggle to the ancient Greeks-- and, similarly, some of their simplest truths we can only describe with difficulty.
The biggest piece I’m missing in these notes was our discussion of redistribution of wealth versus ideal libertarianism—the self-determination libertarianism allows and its problem with children. One solution to children in libertarian society is to consider them as extensions of their parents, but the potential for exploiting people that way is almost endless. With the above discussion, I wonder if it makes sense to consider anyone to be truly independent. We rely on each other and society not only for everything we do, but for everything we think.
Jeff had one suggestion which deserves more airtime: currently social security is taken as a percentage out of people’s paychecks, up to a certain amount—but that places the burden most on the wrong people. Why not flip it? We should be taking a percentage out from all paychecks only down to a certain amount, and leave the poorest unburdened.