Challenging Beliefs

Challenging Beliefs

In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker argues that tying our beliefs to empirical data and information makes us less violent. When our beliefs are verifiable or falsifiable by clear, measurable, and independent facts and information we can be more secure and better justified in holding our beliefs. When our beliefs are not tied to empirical data, they are tied to some aspect of our identity, and as Pinker writes, “a broad danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means.”
 
 
Whether it is religious beliefs, public policy beliefs, or even just beliefs tied to personal tastes, unsupported and unverifiable beliefs become dangerous. Pinker describes why by writing, “people become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power.”
 
 
When you challenge someone’s beliefs, you are challenging more than just the veracity of those beliefs. You challenge the individual’s identity, intelligence, and a whole set of factors that contribute to the individual’s overall social status. Challenging something core to their identity and their status puts them in a defensive position. If the thing you are challenging is not based on anything tangible, such as unverifiable beliefs that one holds based on faith or pure desire, then there is no way for the individual to back down. Violence is often the result of such challenges.
 
 
Moving to a point where fewer of our beliefs are unverifiable can therefore help make us less violent. If we make efforts to only stick to beliefs that can be demonstrated to be accurate empirically, then we change our identity and how people understand us. We no longer cling to unverifiable beliefs as part of our identity and can update our beliefs as facts and information change. We have an easier to access non-violent avenue to updating beliefs. It is hard to always know what is true and what is not, but basing our beliefs on evidence helps us hold better positions that we can defend without resorting to violence.
Liberal Humanism

Liberal Humanism

“Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
 
 
Consciousness is something we don’t actually understand all that well, but is central to ideas of humanism. I cannot actually prove that another person is conscious in the way that I am conscious. All I know is that there appear to be thoughts taking place within my head, and that those thoughts appear to be part of a single conscious entity (myself). I cannot confirm that my dog, my neighbor, or anyone else actually has the same conscious experience of the world taking place within their mind, but I can infer that they do.
 
 
Further, I cannot confirm that the way that I interpret and experience the world is the same as anyone else. Who is to say that the way that I perceive the wavelength of light that is the color red is the same as you perceive that wavelength? Who is to say that the quality of redness that we experience is the same. What if the quality that my mind places on the wavelength of light that we call green is the quality that your mind attributes to the wavelength of light that we call red? Again, since I am not inside your brain and can’t tell if you actually have thoughts and consciousness of your own or what your experience is like relative to mine.
 
 
Humanism assumes that all people are conscious and have qualitative experiences of the world that are effectively similar, but possibly different in an infinite number of ways. Liberal humanism assumes that all of these differences matter and should be thought of equally. Humans have a right, liberal humanism argues, to experience the world in their own unique way. Liberal humanism argues for human rights, that our consciousness is so special and individualized that we have unalienable rights to certain things in order to guarantee the continuation, protection, and exploration of our consciousness – our individual humanness.
 
 
Harari continues, “The inner core of individual humans gives meaning to the world, and is the source for all ethical and political authority. If we encounter an ethical or political dilemma, we should look inside and listen to our inner voice – the voice of humanity.” Humans should not be subjugated, dominated, or forced into a specific way of understanding their consciousness or their human experiences and existence. We are equal in terms of having a conscious mind that can experience joy, pain, pleasure, fear, and the full spectrum of human emotions. Having a ruler, a deity, or anyone and anything else force a specific view and interpretation of the world upon us is a violation of our unique humanness – it is a violation of human rights. Liberal humanism celebrates the unique individuality of human consciousness above all else, and seeks to protect it from states, gods, and other humans.
Syncretism - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens

Syncretism

Modern Christianity, along with other dominant religions (though I know very little about any world religion besides Christianity – and even then I don’t know that much), is a monotheistic religion. If you attend a church service in the United States then you are likely to hear about a single tripartite deity who controls the world. The deity is omnipotent and omniscient, yet allows humans a level of autonomy and free will, for reasons human mortals cannot understand. At the same time, however, modern Christianity, as you may hear it described on a typical Sunday in the United States, also has many dualist characteristics. The religion claims to be purely monotheistic, with frequent denouncements of false idols such as money, the Dallas Cowboys, or other spirit gods (like the gods of traffic lights who shine their green lights upon us – or punish us with red lights at every intersection when we are running five minutes late), yet still manages to violate it’s own monotheistic principals.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the incredible ability for humans to create religious organizations and institutions that simultaneously hold and violate ideas of monotheism, dualism, polytheism, and other structures. Harari writes,
 
 
“The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.”
 
 
Syncretism is an amalgamation of beliefs and belief structures formalized into a religious framework, as described in the passage above. But syncretism really isn’t that different from anything else we may come to believe. I consider myself a pretty rational person, but I have conflicting and contradictory beliefs in terms of personal responsibility. I have even gone so far as to believe in two different forms of personal responsibility based on reference points. I think we should view ourselves as responsible for our life outcomes, while viewing everyone else basically as a victim of circumstances and luck. This ensures that each of us individually works hard and does our best to reach our goals and be successful, while looking at others in a sympathetic light, giving them a pass for bad behavior and seeing them as deserving of a helping hand. These two beliefs contradict each other, but just as Christianity demonstrates, there is no reason opposing and contradictory beliefs cannot be tied together in an influential manner.
 
 
The truth is that humans and our societies are complex and we don’t understand society by thinking in terms of statistical chance and variation. When someone yells at a an employee of a company when being told to pull their mask up over their nose, we assume that there was a personal and individual reason for why the mask-averse individual yelled at the employee. We don’t see it as simple statistical chance that some amount of people are generally disagreeable, won’t have enough coffee on a given day, will have lost something important while running late, and will be short tempered when told to fix their mask. We don’t do a good job holding statistical chance in our minds and instead view causal explanations, even when chance and randomness may be the better perspective. In the end, we pull a lot pieces together in how we understand the world, and those pieces may narratively work together, but may not be the best rational fit together.
 
 
Syncretism is the result of an amalgamation of different narratives with individual perspectives and experiences as they relate to religious beliefs. We have different experiences and interactions with the world which manifests in different ways of explaining and interpreting the world. We fit all these contradictory and complimentary understandings into larger frameworks, fudging the edge when necessary and adopting beliefs that are convenient and consistent with the narratives that support our experiences.  The result is a worldview and belief system that seems jumbled together, like a monotheistic religion where an all powerful deity allows an antagonistic lesser deity to run amuck . This normally isn’t a problem of human existence, but rather a feature that allows us to come together with various shared beliefs for cooperation and trust among a diverse group of individuals and experiences.
Cognitive Dissonance is Vital

Cognitive Dissonance is Vital

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset.”
 
 
Cognitive dissonance refers to the inconsistencies within our beliefs. It doesn’t feel like it, but all of us have incompatible beliefs. The simple example that Harari uses in the book to demonstrate incompatible beliefs is the example of liberty merged with equality. At the extremes, these two values, which are central to effectively all functioning democracies, are entirely incompatible. On the margin, the two require constant trade-offs where one value is applicable in one situation but not as applicable in another. We argue whether one person’s liberty should be curtailed for another person’s equality, whose liberty and whose equality matters most, and what measures of liberty and equality should be the most important. There is no perfect rule for delineating between equality and liberty or finding the right balance and mixture between the two incompatible views. Cognitive dissonance is what enables us to manage.
 
 
“Consistency is the playground of dull minds,” writes Harari. Great stories involve conflict and challenges with what a character knows they should do versus what they want to do. Much of art is in some ways about conflict, overcoming limitations, and somehow trying to merge the incompatible. Cognitive dissonance is our ability to live with conflicting and contradicting views without recognizing it. It enables us to have complex societies and to pursue individual goals while simultaneously being dependent on others. Like in art, where conflict creates something more interesting and engaging, cognitive dissonance in our lives enables us to live richer and more interesting lives – even if those lives are based on incompatible beliefs, ideas, actions, and values.
Attempts to Reconcile Contradictory Beliefs

Attempts to Reconcile Contradictory Beliefs

I studied Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and was always a little unnerved to hear about studies that demonstrated substantial ideological contradictions within a single individual. The studies showed even the smartest and most learned people to be almost hypocritical at worst or gullible and ignorant at best. Changing small contexts, adopting slightly different perspectives, and wording questions in different ways or orders  can seemingly produce very different answers and preferences from a single individual with little consistency between the answers. You can find instances where people who identify as conservative favor large scale state intervention in the lives and liberties of individuals. You can also find instances where people who identify as liberal prefer some form of cultural conservatism. People seem to have trouble being internally consistent with their stated values, and that was unnerving for a young college undergrad and grad student who was hoping to better understand how people reached their political and ideological beliefs.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shows how these internal contradictions and inconsistencies stretch back much further than our current political moment. He writes about Medieval knights struggling to reconcile Christianity with ideas of chivalry and he writes about the struggles of creating a system that incorporates both social equality and individual freedom today. On the latter he writes, “ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both social equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. … The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.”
 
 
Equality and individual freedom form the backbone of many WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies, and while many citizens don’t think about the contradiction of the two values, they are not easily merged together. An authoritarian regime could force some sort of equality onto all people, but it would require a loss of individual freedoms. At the other extreme, society could radically favor individual liberties to the extent where there was no law enforcement because individual freedoms were maximized. This of course would be extremely unequal as some people would literally die while others kept living due to personal choices that threatened the lives of some. These two examples are the extreme poles that few would argue in favor of, but it is worth noting that we are arguing for some sort of balance between two contradictory ideas.
 
 
Humans live with more internal inconsistencies than we realize, and we can even flourish within such inconsistencies. Democracies which struggle between liberty and equality have created middle classes, have pushed technological advances, and have generally been attractive places to live. But they are difficult and sometimes unwieldly as people fail to reach cohesive decisions on how much liberty and how much equality a society should strive toward. Much of our lives is spent trying to reconcile inconsistent and even contradictory beliefs within our own lives and within our larger societies. It is a distressing reality, but one that humans seem perfectly able to flourish within. 
Accepting Imaginary Orders

Accepting Imaginary Orders

“Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a preexisting imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. There is an incredibly wide range of possibilities for how we could live our lives. Throughout history, humans have lived in many different ways – in small tribal bands on tropical islands, in kingdoms ruled by divinely anointed tyrants, and in large cities across representative democracies. Truly thinking about why people have lived in such different ways and how it would be best for people to live today is difficult. It is much easier to accept the imagined order that directs modern society than to constantly question every decision and every possible way of life.

However, none of us want to appear as though we simply accept the way things are and only marginally change the world around us for a better fit. We want to believe that we have agency, that we chose to live in the world the way it is, and that the society that our families exist within are not organized in a random way, but are organized by rational and reasonable principals. We want to believe that we are constantly striving for a better way of living and that we have carefully thought through what needs to be done to reach the best social and economic order possible for humans.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that Harari is correct, and that we accept the myths we are born into rather than reach conclusions about the nature of reality and society after careful consideration and investigation. Most people adopt the religious or political beliefs of their family. This isn’t to discount people as unthinking or uncritical, but instead it demonstrates that there are many pressures and advantages to maintaining beliefs that are consistent with ones family. Additionally, terms such as conservative or liberal really don’t have any meaning. People do not have a consistent answer for what those terms mean, and it is easy to take those terms and demonstrate that many items within the platforms of Republicans, Democrats, and random people from the street seem to contradict the ideas of conservatism or liberalism.

It is much more plausible that people are signaling to the dominant group of their time and trying to fit in than to assume people are carefully thinking about the order that guides their societies and lives. The evidence does not suggest people are actively choosing how to live or what order to support based on careful judgment. It does happen, however most of us accept the myths we are born into and are ultimately shaped by those myths. Our lives are organized and our actions our mobilized by myths such as religious ideas, political systems, human rights, and other institutions that we may not even be aware of.

Organized Violence

Organizing Violence

“Of all human collective activities,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, “the one most difficult to organize is violence.”
 
 
I generally think we have a lot of misunderstandings of violence. When it comes to violent crimes, catastrophic wars, or mass genocide, I think that most of us misunderstand what is at the heart of violence. I think we also misjudge how much violence and danger there is in the world and what is driving the actual trends that exist.
 
 
First, in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues the world is becoming less violent, even as most people believe the world to be more violent. In 2020 the trend reversed slightly, with violence picking up relative to the downward trend we had been seeing since the 1990s, but it is still to early to say if it is a small blip or the end of a downward trend in violence. We also don’t know exactly what caused the upward tick in violence in 2020 with great certainty yet. Nevertheless, Pinker’s argument that humans are becoming more civil, less impulsive, and less violent seems to violate our basic intuition on violence, and it hints at different causes of violence than what we typically believe.
 
 
Second, it is worth noting that when it comes to denouncing violence, we are often motivated by signaling more than by high minded ideas such as crime reduction, rehabilitation of dangerous individuals, or long-term reductions in recidivism. This perspective is in line with Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s view who suggest in The Elephant in the Brain that we are often doing things to make ourselves look better, to signal desirable traits about ourselves, and hiding our true intentions (even from ourselves) while we do so. Denouncing violence is a chance for us to demonstrate how much more moral, kind, and nice we are than dangerous, violent, and degenerate criminals. Heaping as much negativity and outrage on criminals as possible just shows how good we are in comparison. Moral outrage can be more about the outraged individual than the outrageous thing.
 
 
The end result is a misunderstanding of violence. We have trouble understanding crimes of convenience, even violent crimes of convenience. We fail to recognize that most crime and murder occurs between people who know each other, not complete strangers. We fail to consider the larger social and contextual factors which may drive people toward violent crime – such as age, levels of lead in the body, and other factors – and we tend to view bad guys as alternative, evil versions of ourselves. We are inundated with media reports and social media posts about random violent attacks, making us feel as though the violence is all around us.
 
 
But we don’t just misunderstand individual level violence. We also constantly fear that an evil regime (possibly an American regime led by the wrong political party) is going to drive a massive global war. But as Harari argues, large scale organized violence is difficult to maintain. “Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges, and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe?” writes Harari. To organize large scale violence takes a very compelling narrative and imagined order, one that few men or nations have been able to truly muster for long term wars – even though our history books like to focus on such wars. It is true that we can be incredibly violent and that violence can exist on massive scales, but it is harder to maintain and build than we like to believe, and it is also likely that violence of all forms is on a downward trend that we can work to understand and maintain into the future. Doing so will likely make it even less likely that large scale organized violence can occur.
Political Myths

Political Myths

Throughout the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari argues that modern humans are able to cooperate and live in large societies because we share common myths. There are certain institutions which we have developed based on little more than myths that smooth our interactions with others, allow us to follow basic norms, and create a shared understanding of the world. This allows us to buy food from people we have never met, to bestow authority on others, and to coordinate movements over vast distances. But at the heart of our system is myth.
 
 
Harari demonstrates this through the political thought of the United States, specifically looking at the founding texts of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence. Harari compares the founding principals of the United States to the principals of Hammurabi, an early human political leader thousands of years before the United States existed. Demonstrating political myths and their roles in unifying people and creating institutions within society, Harari writes:
 
 
“Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principals exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.”
 
 
Ideas of divine leadership, equality among all humans, human rights, or reciprocal punishment, are little more than myth. To be clear, these ideas are incredibly useful political myths, and when everyone agrees and accepts these myths a society can function well. But nevertheless, each of these ideas can be demonstrated to be an inadequate way of understanding the universe given various situations. They are not inherently and objectively accurate and correct ways to understand humans and the world we occupy, but they can be incredibly useful ways of organizing ourselves for cooperation and peaceful living within large societies. Harari continues, “It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into superiors and commoners is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth.”
 
 
Within the United States we have superiors and commoners, but we call them by different names. Business owners, managers, and landlords all fit into a category of superiors with authority over other people. We have specifically written down the ways in which they can and cannot exercise that authority, but they clearly exist within a hierarchy. We strive for a level of political equality among all people, where the law applies equally regardless of ones authority or status as a superior, but we all know that we don’t manage this process perfectly. We believe we are all equal and that one person is not more valuable or inherently better than another, but we can demonstrate that not all people are equal. For example, I don’t have a learning disability and I excelled in school, while others have dyslexia and struggled in school. I was born to a solidly middle class family which offered me a safe and enjoyable childhood, while others grew up in poverty stricken homes and others still grew up in incredibly luxurious homes that provided a great deal of opportunities for future economic success. Clearly there is no real equality either biologically or socially within our society.
 
 
What I am not trying to do with this post, and what I don’t believe Harari is trying to do in his book, is to argue that myths are bad. Instead, I am trying to demonstrate that many of the things we believe and hold as obviously or intuitively accurate, is little more than happenstance. Some ways of living and being are excellent for the current time and place, while others have been excellent in the past or will be more advantageous in the future. It is important that we recognize how much of our lives is driven by myth, so that we can adapt and be flexible where needed in how we understand and approach the world. It is easier to believe that our myths reflect an inherent reality about the universe so that we don’t have to question our beliefs, but that would be incorrect and could lead us to make essentially tyrannical decisions that belie the actual reality of the universe. We can use myths to cooperate and function in a society, but those same myths can be abused when believed too strongly or in the wrong scenarios.
Dual Realities - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Dual Realities

A little while back I had a post about personal responsibility where I ultimately suggested that we live in a sort of dual reality. On the one hand, I suggested that we believe that we are personally responsible for our own outcomes, and that we work hard to put ourselves in positions to succeed. But on the other hand, I suggested that when we view other people and where they are in life we reduce the role of personal responsibility and see people as victims of circumstance. For viewing other people, I suggested we weigh outside factors more than internal factors, the opposite of how I encourage us to think about our own lives. This dual reality that I suggested felt strange, but I argued that it should work because it is something we do all the time in life.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that viewing dual realities is central to our humanity. In fact, Harari would argue that being able to perceive dual (sometimes conflicting realities) helped drive our evolution to become modern Homo sapiens. He writes, “ever since the Cognitive Revolutions, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.” We are adept at seeing the objective reality, layering on narratives and myths, and then inhabiting a new reality that is shaped by both the objectivity underlying our narrative and the mystical nature of the narratives we create. The objective reality is incredibly complicated and our powerful brains are not enough to make sense of that objective reality independently. They need narratives and stories that can help simplify and bring order to the chaos of objective reality.
The question, as Harari ends up reaching – and as I hopelessly found out with my initial blog post on personal responsibility – is how to get people to all adopt the same myths in order to cooperate and bring about the best possible outcomes. “Much of history,” writes Harari, “revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies?” My blog post, which ended with a lukewarm suggestion of viewing personal responsibility differently based on whether you were viewing yourself or others, is certainly not going to influence millions of people to adopt a narrative that makes sense from one perspective but simultaneously requires a contradictory perspective. Yet nevertheless, humans throughout history have been able to get people to believe such stories.
In the history of human myths, deities have been all knowing and all powerful, yet humans still have free will and can make unpredictable choices that leave deities baffled and angered. In some myths, humans can influence the weather and climate, change the course of rivers and streams, but gods and spirits are the ones responsible for the productivity of such natural resources. And corporations can exist, dependent upon and comprised of individuals and material objects, yet those individuals are exempt from liability when things go wrong and the individuals don’t actually seem to own any of the material goods of the company. These contradictions exist and can make our brains hurt if we focus on them too much, but we accept them and move on despite the apparent fictions and contradictions. How this happens is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and really a bigger question that what Harari fully answers and explains in Sapiens.
Cooperation Through Beliefs in Common Myths

Cooperation Through Beliefs in Common Myths

“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Outside of insects, and I don’t know enough to write any thoughts on insects, it is rare to see any animals cooperating in large groups of more than a few dozen individuals. There is evidence that ancient human tribes used to consist of upwards of 150 to 250 individuals, and those large tribes were outliers within the animal world. Few animals cooperate in large groups, and outside humans (and those insects I don’t understand) no animals effectively cooperate across millions or billions of individuals. Many animals migrate together and schools of fish will swim together, but they seem to largely be moving and reacting to the world around them as a pack, and not deliberately coordinating their efforts and actions in a social manner.
As social beings, humans have figured out how to coordinate actions and lives together between huge numbers of individuals. As Harari’s quote suggests, we have done this largely through the invention of myths. The myths which hold us together come in a lot of varieties. We have had myths about deities, myths about certain family lineages, and myths about special objects that can be used as trade. Myths create stories that we can build upon to form trust between each other. They help us establish institutions that can be used as the foundation for modern societies. Myths allow us to invent something that didn’t exist before, doesn’t truly exist in the real world, and make it real across the minds of billions of people so that we can orient ourselves and our action accordingly.
The kinds of myths that Harari discusses, and that I reference above, are not just myths about gods and creators of the universe. Those myths exist and can clearly give humans the feeling that they have a reason for existing, but we also have more tangible myths that drive our society. Harari compares modern corporations, humans rights, and nations, and currencies to myths. The company you work for isn’t a real thing, it is just an organization that we agree exists because it has a name and because some employees come together to organize their efforts under that name. The organization pays you money that isn’t tangible. Even if you take physical money out of the bank, that money isn’t useful on its own. We rely on and believe in myths about corporations and currencies, and those myths consequentially help us live in a complex world. Going even further, Harari explains that even nations are little more than myths. There is no clear reason why the United States has to exist between what we call Canada and what we call Mexico. We all agree that it does exist, but only because history has decided it does. And if you take an American, who has human rights that the government and society has decided exist, and autopsy them, you won’t find human rights. They don’t exist the way a stomach or liver exist, they are myths that help us organize our society.
Humans have large brains and create myths. Because we do, we are able to live in huge numbers, coordinating the actions, movements, and behaviors of humans across the globe. Myths are in some ways a super power that has allowed humans to become the most powerful species on the planet.