Truth & Superstition
The only faculty we have been endowed with by God or nature, (which, for our purposes, is ultimately the same thing)1, for discovering and understanding the nature of the world, as well as our own, is our rationality, that is, our ability to reason and think. Like any other natural faculty, it can be used incorrectly as well as correctly. When used correctly, the ideas that we form to are called rational. When used incorrectly, the ideas that we form are called irrational.
Our beliefs are all those ideas we hold and think to be true.2 When our beliefs are derived by the correct use of reason, our beliefs will be both rational and true. When our beliefs are derived by an incorrect use of reason, our beliefs are irrational and untrue. The name for all beliefs derived irrationally is superstition.
History and world events often seem inexplicable, and all the explanations of the intellectuals, authorities, and experts seem almost as surreal as the events they are trying to explain.
In this age of the greatest technical and intellectual achievements in history, the most barbarous acts of cruelty and destruction are everyday occurrences. The world is not getting more civilized but less. In the "most civilized" of nations, rudeness, vulgarity, and savagery prevail. Not only do these acts do great harm to people and property, but they are always self-destructive as well. What can account for this incredible phenomenon? Can anything account for it?
All human behavior is chosen behavior, and every choice is determined by what an individual believes. Those whose beliefs are comprised of the truth, will make choices that conform to reality. Those whose beliefs are comprised of falsehood, will make choices that conflict with reality. All evil behavior is ultimately caused by ignorance of the truth, and ignorance of the truth is the result of incorrect reason. The source of all evil is ultimately superstition.
Superstition has so thoroughly pervaded our society at every level, that the very meaning of truth is no longer understood. How can we know if our beliefs are true or not, if we do not even know what truth is.
What is Truth?
We quote the The Autonomist's Notebook3.:
Philosophers have a terrible time with the truth. There are all kinds of truth, for them:|
- analytic vs. synthetic
- necessary vs. contingent
- logical vs. factual
- á priori vs. á posteriori
- non-empirical vs. empirical
In the world of the philosopher, truth is never absolute and reality is full of paradoxes. This is while the philosopher is being a philosopher. When he is a parent, it is a different story. While he proves to the world that truth, in an absolute sense, is impossible to fully comprehend or establish, he expects his youngest children to know exactly what it is and mercilessly punishes them for the slightest deviation from it.
What we mean by truth is what the philosopher means by truth when he is being a parent or dealing with his broker.
But what is truth, exactly? Again we quote the Basic Ideas4.:
By reality we mean all that is, the way it is.
Reality is what is so, whether anybody knows what is so or not. Reality includes everything that is and excludes everything that is not. It includes everything, not as a random collection of unrelated things but every entity, every event and every relationship between them. It includes fictional things as fictions, hallucinations as hallucinations, historical things as historical things, and material things as material things. Reality does not include fictions (such as Santa Claus) as material or historical facts. It does include the fact that Santa Claus is a common fiction used for the enjoyment of Children at the Christmas season.
By truth we mean that which correctly describes reality or any aspect of it.
The following illustration demonstrates both the meaning of reality and truth.
Suppose you are very thirsty and find a bottle containing a colorless, odorless liquid. The liquid in this bottle is either water or a deadly poison. If you choose to drink the liquid one of two things will occur, your thirst will be pleasantly quenched or you will suffer excruciating pain and die.
Reality is what the liquid in the bottle actually is. Truth is whatever correctly describes that liquid. If the liquid is poison, only a statement that says the liquid in the bottle is poison is true. If you believe the liquid is water and drink it, if it is poison you will die. If you take a vote of everyone who has an opinion about what is in the bottle and they all say it is water, if you drink it and it is poison, you will die. If you feel very strongly that the liquid is water and drink it, if it is poison you will die.
Truth is not determined by belief, consensus, or feelings. It is determined by reality. It is determined by what is so, no matter what anybody believes, feels, thinks, or knows. In this case, the truth is determined by what really is in the bottle and only a statement that correctly describes that is the truth.
Are the beliefs that most people embrace rational? Are they true?
If we consider those beliefs which people themselves consider the most important beliefs,5, the beliefs that most people have are incorrect and derived irrationally. In other words, most of the world is dominated by superstition.
Religious and political beliefs are the most important beliefs of most people. Religion and politics are the two things for which people are most willing to kill or die.6 Religion and politics, more than any others, are the things people "pin their hopes on," both for this present world (especially politics) and eternity (especially religion). They are the two things most people base their personal values and moral principles on, determining how they make their choices and even what they live for.
It is obvious to anyone who is awake, there is no single religious view accepted by anything like a majority of the world, and certainly no one political view or variant dominates world opinion. Whatever religion you pick, most of the world does not believe it, and whatever political view you pick, most of the world consider's it evil, unjust, tyrannical, or unworkable.
If any religion is correct, all of the others are incorrect; if any political view is right, all of the others are wrong. It is possible that all religious views are incorrect, but no more than one can be correct. It is possible all political views are wrong, but no more than one can be right. Either all the world is mistaken in those views they believe are most important, or some fraction is right, and the remainder of the world is wrong. In any case, most of population of the world is incorrect in both their political and religious views, the very beliefs they think are the most important.
"But just because one's views are incorrect does not mean their views are superstition," you say. That is true. However it would not be difficult to demonstrate the source of most religious and even most political views are derived, not by any clear process of reason, but a mixture of totally irrational influences, impressions, feelings, traditions, social influences, or "a sense" of duty, honor, pride, and patriotism. None of these things may be bad, evil, or in any way immoral, but they are not "rational;" they are not part of the rational process, but, on the contrary, things about which the most ruthless application of reason must be applied to understand and correctly integrate into ones field of knowledge.
While errors in reason, and "sincere" mistakes in thought might account for some variations in religious and political views, the wildly and widely different views of the world cannot be accounted for by mere mistakes and errors in reason. The vast majority of mankind lives, at least intellectually, in a fantasy world populated by chimeras and incomprehensible forces, and these fantasies are usually attributed to ignorance or an inability to reason. If the false things people believed were simple and naive, that could be the explanation. In fact, the false things people believe, and believe so thoroughly, that for the sake of those beliefs, they frequently are willing to die, kill others, or kill others in the process of dying, are extremely complex, require dedicated study and mental effort to understand and master. In fact, the simpleminded and naive would find the superstitions that dominate the adult world absurd.
Present any child, who has had no previous exposure to the ideas, with the details of Buddhism or even Christianity, and he will believe you are either kidding him, be indignant that you would try to deceive him, or simply laugh. He will certainly not believe what you are telling him, at least not on the first telling.
The majority of mankind prefers superstition to reason, which is not a mistake, but a choice, but why they make that choice seems almost inexplicable. There must be some explanation for this extraordinary and almost universal embracing of the patently untrue. Just what that underlying factor or explanation might be is the object of this discussion.
Superstition and Medicine
Whether or not those beliefs people consider the most important really are the most important can be questioned. On a practical level, there is one set of beliefs which are unquestionably important and, to the extent those beliefs are acted on, have profound consequences. Those beliefs are what we call "medicine" and are all those beliefs one has about the nature of the body, health, and disease. Depending on one's particular medical beliefs, for the same malady or symptoms one might secure the services of a witch-doctor to "drive out the evil spirits," with rituals and potions, or agree to allow the brain surgeon remove the small tumor that is causing the problem.
There is a certain vagueness about the nature of health which makes it susceptible to superstitious beliefs. For example, the relationship between medical procedures and the actual progress of disease is usually difficult, and sometime impossible, to determine precisely.7 If someone suffers from some disease and their doctor ("witch" or otherwise) prescribes a medicine and the disease is cured, the cure will undoubtedly be attributed to the wisdom of the doctor and the efficacy of the medicine. It has been observed before, in most cases where someone seeks medical assistance for a problem that is subsequently alleviated, the same result would have occurred if the patient had done nothing, so, in most cases, one's belief in medicine, both that which one, "takes," and that which is, "practiced," is not based on reason, but on anecdote and isolated experience, usually reinforced by a thoroughgoing faith in "authority."
In medicine, at least, there is a, "hard science" part, which anyone who has taken a highschool biology class is able to understand the general nature of, even if the details are beyond them. It is easy to see there is a great difference between the use of antibiotics to cure a strep infection and taking a concoction of roots and blood to cure elephantiasis. Both the nature of the disease, in the case of strep, (its cause by little bugs called streptococci) and the function of the antibiotic (it kills the little bugs) can be rationally understood. For those who take a witch-doctors concoction for elephantiasis, neither the cause of the disease or the function of the concoction are understood and the belief in them has other sources than reason (although, it is not entirely without reason, because even blind superstition must be rationalized).
Most people have never learned much, if anything, about biology, and even the explanation that a strep infection is caused by bacteria and antibiotics can kill some infectious bacteria is not really understood by them. Their faith in antibiotics is as superstitious as the faith of the witch-doctor's customers. For the general population, confidence in, "medical science," is no more rationally founded than their faith in religion or government.
If you tell your child that people can be cured of disease by sticking needles into them they will be incredulous, especially if you a proposing to stick the needles into them.. They are even less likely to believe that needles ought to be stuck into them when they aren't even sick, because "it will keep them from becoming sick." It should be obvious the way to make someone better is not to cause them more pain, at least, that would be obvious to most children. This view on the child's part is rational and reinforced with a degree of emotional reluctance to be stuck with needles, but is nevertheless mistaken, because they do not have all the facts. Within the scope of their limited knowledge, however, their conclusion is the best their reason can come up with, and is therefore a totally rational view.
Their opinions will change when they have all the facts, so long as their opinions continue to be shaped by reason. This is unlikely however. Though most children do learn that people can indeed be cured of things by sticking needles into them, and that diseases can even be prevented by the same process, the learning will not be strictly rational. Their belief in the efficacy of needles will not be based on a scientific understanding of how antibiotics and vaccines work, but on their experience (they or a loved one is cured by the injection of an antibiotic) which is rational, as far as it goes, but their conviction is also based on authority (the scientists, the doctors, the medical community), everyone believes it, the government endorses it, their church supports it, and there are countless anecdotes and "the testimony of others," none of which are rational reasons for believing anything.
It is not surprising that some many people are duped by things such as acupuncture. After all, they already know diseases can be both cured and prevented by sticking needles into people. Their confidence in injections of antibiotics, vaccines, insulin, steroids is not based on any understanding of how any of these things work, but only on the external evidence (they worked before), the testimony of others, and, of course, the Doctor's authority. They have the same kind of evidence for acupuncture, so why wouldn't they believe someone twiddling a needle in their thigh won't help them loose weight, or cure their fear of heights, or anything else for that matter. It will probably work for their pets, too.
The majority of mankind that believes in true medical facts, such as the effectiveness of antibiotics and vaccines, believes them, not rationally, but superstitiously. Nevertheless, what they believe is really true, and actually works, and they came to those beliefs without understanding the scientific reasons why they work, without a rational basis for their beliefs. This convinces most people they do not need to understand how something works, or how anything works, to be able to discover what really does and does not work. Because people believe so many things that turn out to be true (luckily for them), not through understanding why they are true, but because it is what they have been taught, what everyone believes, or what their authorities say, they become convinced they really do not need to understand how or why something is true (unluckily for them).8
We have seen the majority of mankind is dominated by superstition. We have observed these superstitious beliefs are not necessarily the result of ignorance or lack of intelligence, and that a certain level of sophistication is required before many of them can be believed. We have seen that some things lend themselves to superstitious acceptance, because of their complexity and difficulty. We understand that some beliefs, though actually correct, that is, what is believed is true, because they are not rationally based, are nevertheless superstition. Finally, we concluded that because people can, "get away with it," that is, apparently live successfully without rationally based beliefs, they become convinced they do not need to understand why a thing is true, so long as what they believe is true.
Is this the secret? Is this the underlying factor, the undiscovered principle of man's nature that explains why most of the world wallows in superstition? If it were, it would have to be put down to a single characteristic, laziness. We would have to conclude that men would rather hold superstitious beliefs that work, or at least work well enough that they cannot be bothered to develop truly rational beliefs.
But, we have already seen that many superstitious beliefs are not "easy." In fact, some superstitions are very difficult, more difficult to comprehend (rationalize), possibly, than to understand the truth. While it is no doubt true that many people hold beliefs without any rational basis because they are unwilling to expend the effort, and endure the discomfort, of reforming their views by the rigorous application of reason, there is a more insidious reason for the universality of superstition. It was hinted at earlier in the phrase, "get away with it."
A Secret Loathing
Reality is ruthless. Defy reality, and it will destroy you. Refuse to work, and you will starve. Refuse to learn, and the mistakes you make in your ignorance will kill you.
Reality is demanding. You must conform to the nature of reality all the time, because the moment you let up, it will strike you down. Stop paying attention, just for a few moments, while driving on the highway at 70 miles per hour. Don't bother paying your bills for a month. Forget you insulin injections for a day. Just forget where little Sarah is for a while at the Mall.
Reality is cruel. Disease, death, disaster strike without regard to anyone's position or opinions. The world is full of destruction and misery, though most of it is created by other men. But all of nature is cruel and the entire chain of life is one of death, killing, and being killed.
Reality is unforgiving. You've made a mistake, but the law forgives you, your parents and friends forgive you, you even manage to forgive yourself, but reality never forgives. It may be a forgivable mistake, but the dead animal cannot be made alive again, the pregnant girl cannot be made "unpregnant", (at least she can never have her virginity restored,) you cannot cancel what you have done, ever! Have you been unfaithful once, then you will always have been unfaithful once. Did you steal something once, then you can never claim always to have been honest. You do something stupid and loose an arm, aleg, or put out your own or someone else's eye. You may never do another thing so foolish, but you will never have the arm, leg, or eye, yours or another's, restored.
While it is true that reality is ruthless, demanding, and unforgiving, cruelty cannot really be attributed to reality, even though all the things listed as cruel are true in nature, the evaluation of them as cruel is a subjective judgement. This characterization of reality is only a partial view, the view of one whose knowledge is primarily irrational and superstitious.
It is this view, however, though seldom made explicit, that is the motivator for our mysterious factor, the cause of universal superstition. Mankind, generally hates reality, just because mankind does view reality as ruthless, demanding, cruel, and unforgiving.
What mankind wishes for is a reality that is pliable, easy-going, kind, and forgiving. At bottom, mankind hates reality, hates the necessity of having to work hard all the time, hates the necessity of having to learn so much, hates never being able to act on whim, or passion, or impulse without consequences, hates knowing they cannot do wrong and get away with it, hates knowing you cannot get something for nothing.
What mankind wants is exemption from consequences and a shortcut to success, wealth, happiness, or whatever else their current whims and fancies convince them they want. Reason does not show them how to have or achieve what they want the way they want it. Reason only enables them to understand the truth that describes reality as it is. They don't want truth, either. The truth just condemns them for their hatred of reality. They hate the truth, too.
Here, finally, is the secret, that unrevealed factor, the mystery of why almost all men prefer their superstitions to the truth.
At the heart of all superstitious beliefs, sometimes explicit, but always implicit, is the promise that there is something more than reality, something above reality, something which cancels the requirements of reality, a secret that enables those who know it to rise above mere reality, to defy it and get away with it. Superstition, which is never called superstition, is a magic wand that makes exist what in reality cannot exist, a metaphysical wild card that makes one automatically a winner, the universal "get-out-of-jail-free" card that allows one to escape the consequences of their choices and actions, the flying carpet that defies all of reality to give its owner a free ride to success and happiness.
Since reason is limited to discovering the truth of reality, the means to that, "knowledge," which the superstitious desire must be something other than reason, something like that "knowledge" itself, something "above" reason. The superstitious generally, readily admit their superstitious beliefs are not based on "mere" reason. They have knowledge which is, "above," that. Unless you are prepared to deal with someone very angry, it is never a good idea to press the superstitious to explain exactly how they came to their "knowledge which is above the truth."
Some people are skeptical about the extent to which humanity is infected with the deadly disease of superstition. If you are one of those who is skeptical, ask anyone you know, ask yourself, the following questions: Is there any other route to knowledge other then reason? Is it possible to have knowledge of anything without the use of reason? Is there any knowledge derived without the use of reason that is higher or superior in any way to knowledge derived exclusively by the process of reason.
"Yes," to any of the questions means they are at least partially superstitious. "Yes," to all three means they are essentially thoroughgoing mystics, that is, totally superstitious.
Now, if you dare, ask any of those who admit their superstitions, just exactly what faculty or ability they used to acquire this knowledge, since it was not their ability to reason.
The Price of a "Free Lunch"
The wonderful thing about truth is that choosing and acting according to it always results in success, because truth describes reality, that which is, the way it is. Even when one does not know the truth, if one's actions conform to the truth, the action will still succeed. The electrician understands exactly what happens when he throws the light switch, and the resulting light is because he acted according to that truth about the nature of electricity, wiring, switches, and light fixtures which he understands. Here is someone who understands nothing about electricity, wiring, or switches, yet, throwing the light switch produces just as much light for him as it did for the electrician.
But, does this not prove rational knowledge of the truth is not necessary for success? No! On the contrary, it proves one must know and act according to the truth for success. The ignorant man's success at turning on the light was not the result of ignorance of the truth, but knowledge of the truth, however limited, and acting according to the little truth he knew. If he did not know light switches turn on the lights, he might have turned the cold water faucet, the gas on the stove, or flushed the toilet before accidentally using the light switch.
He may only have learned that light switches turn on lights by observing someone else, but the conclusion from the observation was a perfectly rational one. Superstition does not require the abandonment of the rational process, which is impossible. Even the most thoroughgoing mystic remains somewhat rational so long as he continues to use language, for example, a totally rational process. Much as the superstitious might dislike admitting it, it is impossible for them to verbally describe or even think their superstitious beliefs without using the rational process of language. While the mystic and superstitious might believe they have gained some kind of knowledge without reason, what they have gained are ideas and beliefs through the incorrect use of the same faculty of reason by which truth is derived, when used correctly.
While those who spurn reason as inferior and believe they have the really superior knowledge that transcends the knowledge of those prosaic pedestrian prudes who demand a reason for all they know, they use the very same process, thinking, only they are really bad thinkers. Thinking or reason is the only means to knowledge, only correct thinking produces correct knowledge. The beliefs of the superstitious, which they suppose will provide them the things mundane reality will fail to provide, end up with neither the mundane rewards of those who simply expect no more than they can honestly earn, or the superior rewards of those who pursue intellectual achievement.
Their superstitious beliefs do not make them happy, they are not successful, they do not obtain the things they desire, and they do not escape responsibility for their choices. In fact, the superstitious are always unhappy, always failures, always without the things they desire, and always in trouble.
But, it does not occur to the superstitious that the cause of their failure, misery, and unhappiness might by their own ideas. They do not blame their own irrational choices for their problems, they blame those who are rational, those who do make right choices, who do conform to the demands of reality, those who do succeed, those who are happy, and those who produce all the things the superstitious want but do not know how to acquire.
Even if the superstitious is brought to the place where they suspect there is something wrong with their beliefs, that there is something missing in their knowledge, it is unlikely they will give up their superstitions, or even seriously question them. The reason is in the nature of superstition itself.
As surely as some drugs destroy one's health and overuse of alcohol destroys the liver, superstition destroys the faculty for reason, the mind. The body requires food to sustain it, but one cannot consume just anything. Some things are food, others are poisons. The mind needs knowledge to function, but not just anything is knowledge. Some things are false and some things are true. The body can get along with a certain amount of reduced nourishment and is able to deal with small amounts of some toxins, so also the mind can work around some ignorance and correct mistaken beliefs. But one cannot indiscriminately consume poison without eventually disabling the body, and one cannot mentally consume nonsense with abandon without eventually destroying the ability of the mind to think.
1. Our purpose is to determine what faculties we are born with, not their derivation. If you are a thoroughgoing materialist, nature is all there is, and will be the source of all human characteristics; if you believe in a God that is the creator and source of all things, then God is the author of all nature, including our own; if you are an animist and believe all of nature is God or God is in all of nature, than the distinction between God and nature is meaningless.
2. Correct reason is neither infallible or omniscient. We may intend to reason correctly, but may not have all the facts to reason from, may make mistakes in the reasoning process, may forget pertinent data, or be in error for any number other of reasons. The use of correct reason may sometimes end in mistakes (because the use of reason was used incorrectly) but if the truth is sought, only reason, used correctly, can discover or establish it. To not use reason, as best we can, must always fail to discover the truth.
Conversely, sometime correct ideas are held by those whose reason is faulty. When a correct idea is arrived at using faulty logic it is merely by accident and in spite of the logical mistakes. The accident might seem fortuitous, but is actually dangerous, because it tends to reinforce the use of incorrect reason.
3. Quote is from the Autonomist Notebook, under Truth.
4. Quote is from The Autonomist, "Introduction to Autonomy."
5. The most important beliefs may not be those that most people believe are the most important, in which case, the most important beliefs themselves have been misunderstood. This is, of course, an even bigger mistake than being wrong about the "content" of the most important beliefs themselves, and is, in fact the most likely case, which partly explains the universal superstition that dominates humanity.
6. Individuals might not consider either religion or politics the most important of all human interests, but if they are not the most important, they ought not to be dying and killing each other over them. If religion and politics are not the two things the most people are willing to kill or die for, they are at least the two things for which the most people have been killed.
7. The long "incubation" times for some infectious organisms, the almost infinitely complex interactions of physical processes and medical procedures, the great diversity in responses to medical procedures by individuals, are just some characteristics that make medical science especially difficult and leave it vulnerable to misunderstanding and intentional perversion.
8. The fact that most people's faith in medicine is actually superstition, and not rationally based is the reason that quackery is so successful. Quackery and medical superstition is one of the subjects covered in the, "If They Believe That," series, "If They Believe That - Medicine".