There are some broad implications that arise from the assertion of a material-historical (and thus non-essentialist) ontology. For one, humans are not necessary beings but are products of the unfolding of the history of matter, and for another, as a result, none of the qualities that describe humans are necessary either. Nothing about us is. Certainly nothing that we think or believe is a necessary part of the universe. At the very best we could say our knowledge is a productive approximation of how the universe works that is useful for us.
Somewhere in the past, at a time that remains uncertain to us, humans developed the ability to communicate via speech and/or gesture. We developed an ability to imagine our peers as beings like ourselves with their own internal consciousness that we could approximate. We developed an ability for abstraction and interpretation. We could recognize natural patterns–the tides, the seasons, etc. And we invented explanations for them and ourselves.
And we believed those explanations.
As this is a blog post rather than a philosophical treatise (in case you missed that), I’ll move forward with some insouciance. Fairly early on, we developed two kinds of believing, which live on in our use of this word (at least in English). Sometimes we use the word to suggest a provisional, uncertain statement that might be tested and disproved. E.g. “I believe it will rain tomorrow.” At other times we use the word to assert a Truth that cannot be tested. The obvious example is a belief in the divine (or a belief that the divine does not exist). But really all moral claims operate in this way. Morality must deny its own material history as a historical moralism is necessarily relative and arguably not applicable to yesterday or tomorrow. These matters tend to lead to unproductive destinations as, for the believer, any undermining of the authority of morality is as evil as any denial of God is to the faithful.
So here’s what I want to add to that familiar conversation. I don’t imagine it will be helpful in terms of the unproductive destination, but anyway… In the absence of technocultural means to produce different kinds of knowledge, belief was a fairly efficient brain hack for organizing and guiding social behavior. Humans were not made in some intentional way to be believers, but post hoc it is clear that something very deep in our evolution made us receptive to this cognitive behavior. As far as I know, there are no examples of societies without belief. While an individual can assert the tentative, weaker version of belief, the second stronger version requires a network. It’s an excellent example of the distributed/ networked/ ecological operation of cognition because one person who asserts a belief (of the second kind) is insane or outcast (unless they convince others, then they become a prophet or something). Belief is a collective activity, and undoubtedly part of believing is securing one’s place in the tribe. Belief became the basis of social identity and organization. For millennia it was an effective, if often brutal, mechanism for human civilization.
However, from the perspective of epistemological possibilities and cognitive capacities that have emerged more recently than the printing press, believing is a broken mind hack. In past, people believed that animal sacrifices, reading entrails, burning people at the stake, etc., etc. were good ways to understand the world and make things happen. They believed the universe circled the Earth and that everything they saw was made for them. Those ideas worked. But they don’t work anymore. More importantly the cognitive activity (of belief) which was their operating system doesn’t work either.
In short, it’s fair to say that many people believe hateful, ignorant, and stupid things. It’s also fair to say that many people have different beliefs about who those stupid people are. Politics are largely organized as tribes of believers. And while I certainly align with one tribe rather than others, the real problem is with belief itself.
As we see time and again on social media (and elsewhere) an assertion of a communal belief is unassailable. One can reply with an opposing belief. And maybe one can perform something for a third party, but that opposing believer is unlikely to be shifted. Beliefs might shift along with the institutions/assemblages that maintain them, but that’s a different material-historical process from that of belief itself. Indeed, politics and political rhetoric have largely shaped themselves around shifting those assemblages, but there’s plenty of historical evidence that doesn’t work well. In the end, politics just replace one set of beliefs with another. And the real problem we have is with belief itself. It’s a broken mind hack. It’s quite possible that it’s a material-historical-evolutionary deadline, that we’ll just end up going over the cliff with the rest of the proverbial lemmings (who don’t actually commit mass suicide, despite beliefs to the contrary).
One could say these are just things I believe, and that would be true, but they are beliefs of the tentative, provisional kind. They are subject to change. Neither my identity nor survival are caught up in them. Betting my life, let alone the future of civilization, on some belief is the kind of broken cognitive process I try to avoid.