My old friend Dan Ellsberg says the biggest lesson he learned from his long career (that included research that launched the field of Behavioral Economics, years working as one of Kennedy’s “whiz kids” at the Pentagon and blowing the Vietnam War wide open by leaking top secret documents--the Pentagon Papers--to the press) was this:
People can be as stupid as they need to be in order to keep their jobs.
I’d generalize it, saying that people believe whatever they need to believe in order to survive and thrive. We say whatever we and the people near and dear to us need to hear, whatever will help us get through the day.
There's an old saying: Where you stand depends on where you sit, in other words, your perspective is a function of your context.
Dan and I are saying that where you stand depends on what sits on you, the people you have to support and please, the people whose weight of opinion rests on you. If your boss, colleagues, partner, parents, children, friends, neighbors will give you a hard time if you disagree with them about something, you are very unlikely to disagree with them on it. If you’re after success, you’ll embrace the beliefs that will please the gatekeepers at whatever gates you're trying to pass through.
Of course that can’t always be true or we’d all just be each other’s yes-men and there would never be any conflict. Still, when you find people in a peaceful, stable situation, chances are they believe what they need to believe to keep that peace. They can’t afford to believe just anything, hence a kind of stupidity, a hardening of the smarteries, a rigidity in defense against challenging alternative beliefs, however rational they might be.
Our self-esteem rests on our shoulders too. If we’re in chronic pain or bear any burden of proof that our lives are worthwhile and well-lived, that’s a load we’re bearing too, and our beliefs, the stories we tell about how things work, will likely be crucial support for these personal loads too. When we say someone has a chip on his shoulder, we’re talking about a self-esteem chip that weighs on him heavily, supported by the beliefs he espouses to cope with them.
Our beliefs aren’t edifices built brick by rational brick. Rather, they are our load-bearing walls supporting whatever sits on us, which means, it’s not going to be just fine with us if people start tinkering rationally with our bricks. We’ll be more interested in reasons why their challenges are wrong than reasons why our bricks are.
We all know that beliefs are often load bearing, which is why in debate we have so many ways to accuse each other of having vested interests. Trouble is, we are most inclined to accuse people of just defending their load bearing walls, when they attack our load bearing walls. And so we end up with a lot of people accusing each other of wishful thinking and vested interests. And in such pot-calling-kettle-black debates how can we tell who’s right. How can we tell a rational belief from the kind that we believe because it supports what we want to keep supported?
We can’t exactly but Dan and my formulations do suggest an imperfect test, a way of guessing who is more likely to be rational. The test is this: Generally speaking, people with less loads to bear are going to be less biased. People with less invested will have less potential for vested interests.
Trouble is, an imperfect test is a dangerous thing to put out there. It’s a way to pull rank, a vehicle for a new elitism, whereby someone can claim greater authority because they’re divested, even though since the test is imperfect the claim might be unjustified.
We intuit and employ this test, defending ourselves when challenged, saying things like “Look, I don’t have a vested interest. Why would I care? I don’t need to believe what I do. I just believe it because it’s true.” Still, we don’t necessarily believe it when people say it, and rightfully so. We generally can’t see our own biases, the ways the loads we bear, bear on the opinions we bear. We all think we’re unbiased.
To see the potential benefits and risks of applying this test consider this potentially arrogant boast I’d make:
This morning I find myself thinking about the blessed life I get to live. I’m in debt to few people, with little remaining ambition to make a name for myself, no need to earn income and no one in particular to serve. Giving up on ambition and being a bit outside the mainstream can be lonely but it has its perks. One is the freedom to engage in rigorous play, playful exploration within the constraints of careful logic. Sometimes that looks like the absolute best game in town, the town being the universe.
The universe has been around 14 billion years. Life has been around 3.6 billion. Languaged life is 2.5m to 50k years old but language sophisticated enough to enable us to actively explore and tell stories about the nature of the universe is maybe 10k years old, or a 140 millionth of the universe's history.
Most of these ten thousand years have been dominated by locked stories, the stories we have to commit ourselves to given our encumbrances, our need to make ourselves and our people happy and conform to our culture’s standards. North Korea’s cultural control of its citizen’s beliefs is relatively rare these days, but for most of civilization’s history it’s been the norm.
And yet there have been these pockets where some of us get to wonder hard and less lockedly about the whole ball of wax--science, but more than bench science that drills down into details. Instead, it's careful theorizing about the big picture, accumulating along the way careful methodology for spotting our stories’ inconsistencies and addressing them, allowing challenges to our load bearing bricks and responding to those challenges rationally and responsibly rather than just deflecting them as is the tendency for us load-bearers.
Had I not been born into money and the happy appetite and aptitude for this kind work, had I not stumbled into a team of fellow wonderers steeped in the sciences, I'd be living like most people do, believing what they need to in order to keep their jobs and make themselves and people around them happy. I've done some of that, but for the past 20 years, less and less. I get to write what I wonder, to modest audience and income, but contentedly, mostly just trying to get the story righter and righter. If I had to guess how a life would best be spent it would be something like that. Like Borne Identity, waking into life, an amnesiac, looking around and trying to figure out what this thing is.
I've bought myself some unusual space. I don't have many bosses or people to please; I have little abiding or chronic pain or deficits that calls for chronic coping stories. My sexual/romantic appetite isn't what it used to be so, vestigial impulses aside, I'm less busy trying to win intimacy with lovers than with reality.
Am I therefore claiming to be unbiased? Certainly not. I’ve got plenty of chips on my shoulders, and people to please still, and always will. Though I’m not in chonic pain, like everyone, I face aging and death, a chip on my shoulders that would bias me toward thinking arrogant thoughts as a coping strategy, maybe even this one about being a unusually free thinking.
And anyway if there’s one thing I’ve learned by trying to be careful about thinking, it’s that there’s no path, rational, spiritual or scientific to infallibility and even if there were, as long as I’m alive, driven by emotions, I can never be “just curious” about reality. I’ve got skin in the game that will bias my beliefs.
Still, I had ten years of psychoanalysis, which whatever else it might be was a chance for me to inventory and inure myself to at least some of my biases and foibles, making me less shocked to claim them or disappointed to see them than I would otherwise be.
I’m becoming a certain kind of monk, a word that originally stemmed from mono- or alone. Monks traditionally are alone together, firmly supporting the same load-bearing beliefs. Some of us these days are more alone than that. Call us monostic, the “o” emphasizing our mono-ness, a more alone kind of aloneness.
Being this alone, so avowedly unhinged, can make a guy go nuts. Freedom of thought is freedom to think deeper more accurate thoughts or to fall off the deep end into crazy. That’s a risk we monostics take.
What I’m claiming here may still sound arrogant but in a way it breeds some compassion for beliefs I would otherwise criticize as incoherent. The more alone I am with my bets on what makes for careful thought, the more difficulty I tend to have tolerating beliefs that seem careless. Usually though the people who embrace such thoughts are not careless but careful not to ruffle important local feathers, or shift personal burdens. Rather they hold these beliefs in order to hold a life together in ways I’m spoiled in not having to keep mine together. I'd like to think I'm more innately reasonable than other people, but if I am more reasonable it's probably more a function of my load-freeing insignificance to others than any inate reasonableness.
Generally speaking the more monostic one is, the fewer worldly pressures one is under, and the more one uses the resulting freedom to bravely face one's internal consistency, receptive to challenges and studying to cultivate rational consistency, the more one might be able to gain intimacy with what is, which is not a bad thing to do with a life. If you've been sidelined as so many of us have and you're looking for how to spend the resulting emptiness, consider this an option.
How monostic do you get to be? Inventory as best you can the loads you bear and load-bearing beliefs you’ve formed to support them. Doing so can have several benefits. It can make you more compassionate with yourselves and others. It can make you decide that some of your loads are worth shrugging off, freeing you to think more freely, and it might loosen some of your counterproductive bricks, making you more receptive to challenges, which in a world increasingly populated with people who feel like they're talking to brick walls, even while they're defending their own, might not be a bad thing.