Of Boys, Jars, and Filberts

The current dysfunction in the United States government is a convenient backdrop for this post. The underlying issue, hidden beneath layers of blame and drama, is that opposing sides of all issues are so attached to their beliefs about fill-in-the-blank that compromise and discussion are impossible.

But giving up beliefs is awesome! Even giving up beliefs about your own identity is useful and empowering.

For example, I’m not a believer. I don’t believe in “God,” and I don’t believe in “Not God.” I don’t believe in “God can be known” and I don’t believe in “God can’t be known.” To the entire question, I answer “mu,” the negative. (I’d rather say “null” or “absent,” since negative in the mathematical sense means that adding it to a number moves it to the left on a number line.) I “un-ask” the question, or provide the emptiest set I possibly can in response to it. Adopting this… policy (what can you call a nothing that exists?) has brought me an increase in peace and comfort in life. Conversations about God and the supernatural are easier to “be with.” I am not resisting them anymore, so I am no longer at their affect.

Gender identity and sexuality can be hard to describe. For me, it’s easy: I am male and homosexual. But while I self-identify as male and as gay, I am not a gay man: these are just convenient adjectives that describe my reality. They’re not beliefs about my identity; they don’t define or constrain me. My actual identity, in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity, almost doesn’t exist. I just love who I love. Seeing things this way makes life so much more peaceful.

This approach is, unfortunately, quite rare.

We have studies now suggesting that human beings, presented with evidence that they are wrong, will become more convinced of their incorrect belief. (See When Facts Fail, with a link to the study. Sadly, the study itself is behind a paywall.) A more recent study shows that political beliefs actually inhibit your ability to do basic math. (See Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government. This study is available for free.) Strongly-held beliefs trump reason and logic, by default.

I wouldn’t blame you for reading this and concluding that human beings are hopelessly stuck on their own ideas, and that there’s no hope once someone has started believing something false. Beliefs are like black holes–nothing escapes them. I am not convinced this is true, and I have some suggestions about how these situations might be recovered.

You can get a toddler to give your glasses back if you offer them something they’d rather have–sometimes. The cure must be less painful than the disease. Read Aesop’s fable, The Boy And The Filberts. What can you offer someone in exchange for cherished beliefs? What will they find more valuable than the opportunity to claim some kind of intellectual high ground, and look down their nose at their opponent?

What do you suppose government would be like if no one had political beliefs? What would spirituality be like without religious beliefs? What would race relations be like if no one believed that different races are inherently different? (Don’t pretend for a moment that you don’t buy into the stereotypes. ;-)) What if no one labeled their sexual orientation or gender identity–they just were who they were and loved who they loved?

(I suspect these questions are so far outside the expected context of living that the mind of the reader will just hang open, dumbfounded, at even being asked.)

Really though, wouldn’t that be amazing? Total freedom to just be, to enjoy yourself as yourself, and each other as each other; wouldn’t that be worth it?

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