You Are Not Your Beliefs and Stop Acting Like You Know Things You Don’t

David Brin in 2006 wrote an article titled, “The Cato Hypocrisy” which began as below:

“I have long held that the greatest tragedy, among countless misfortunes that recur in the long and agonizing human story, is not when evil triumphs over good, or when oppression overcomes freedom, or even the wretched loss of ten billion potential might-have-beens. No, the most devastating defect in our character — a trait that held us down ever since the caves — is the very same twist in our natures that makes us such fine storytellers.

I am talking about our incredible penchant for — and creativity at — self delusion and rationalization. The lengths that we all go to, in order to convince ourselves that we are the smart ones, virtuous and right… often in complete denial of blatant evidence to the contrary. It is the one magical act that all of us can easily perform, at near genius level.

Elsewhere I talk about the organic mechanisms of reinforcement that make us addicts to this sort of blithe, self-righteous assurance, while dismissing all opponents as vile or stupid strawmen. Indeed, I can step outside myself and watch these very tendencies play out — the same smug assumption of privileged knowledge and superior perception — even as I type these words. Well, we are of the same clay. This ecumenical allure tugs at even the wise. Even the shy.

Can we escape the bewitchment of solipsism and seductive self-hypnosis? For millennia, the prescription in every culture was to accept, with utter fealty, whatever mythic system was taught by local authority figures. Parents. Lords. State and church. This method replaced (or overlaid) some individually vain ‘realities’ with shared/consensual ones. But while mantric uniformity helped to maintain peace within some communities, it absolutely guaranteed conflict against others.

Above all, the top aim was to make sure no one asked: ‘Isn’t it just a little suspiciously pat and convenient, that my bunch just happens to be 100% right, and my opponents are so completely deluded?’ One nation and culture after another imitated the same obstinacy that we see in countless individual neighbors. A steadfastness that is often portrayed as admirable, even — especially — in the face of contrary evidence.

Are we screwed, then? Betrayed by an utterly consistent human character flaw? Doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over, with only minor variations of cult and incantation?

Fortunately, a slim ray of light appeared. Gradually, over time, a completely different approach took shape. Instead of clutching a consensual delusion (to augment your private ones), this new method called upon human beings to adapt their subjective perceptions to evidence. By referring both to objective reality (experiment) and the cross-checking feedback of other people, we can catch a relatively high percentage of our mistakes and misperceptions.

It isn’t magical. The process requires deliberate effort, overcoming our own egos, as well as humanity’s greatest paradox.


If “criticism is the only known antidote to error” (CITOKATE), then suppression of criticism must be the greatest single cause of error, not only in daily life, but especially among the leaders who have been entrusted with statecraft. Name a nation or time when a society’s need for cleansing information and argument did not inherently conflict with the most driving need of leaders and oligarchs – to stifle dissent and maintain confidence in their rule.

Especially their own sense of confident superiority and right-to-rule, whether they were emperors, aristocrats or commissars. This conflict of interest runs so deep, it is very likely biological. Don’t all of us descend from the harems of kings, who gained reproductive advantage by seizing and holding unaccountable power?

Despite countless, contradictory definitions we’ve heard it seems to me that the core endeavor of the Enlightenment Experiment is quite simple — to find ways out of this trap. To escape the paradox of criticism. All of our great accountability arenas – science, markets, justice and democracy – have their roots in this realization… that no man is trustworthy to declare what’s true. As Richard Feynman said – ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.'”

I wrote a similar more philosophical piece here.

It really is a bummer that questioning beliefs is so threatening. Of course it isn’t rational to actually feel threatened because that would mean that you’re casting your net of identity over many things that often can’t rationally be known. If you feel threatened when people question your beliefs I contend that you don’t really know who or what you are. Everyone has been wrong. And until you find out otherwise it turns out being wrong feels exactly like being right. How we feel has nothing to do with whether we’re actually right or wrong.

I was irked at the way the Occupy Wall Street movement was so condescendingly, negatively portrayed by much of the “main stream media” as exemplified in this conversation a fellow blogger had with a colleague of hers. There is so much going on all over the country within the OWS movement, even news junkies like me can hardly keep up. OWS is obviously doing some things right if they can shut down the Port of Oakland. But I agree with the above mentioned blogger, Venessa Miemis, there is a tremendous amount of potential within this movement. One of the oft cited criticism of OWS, that it hasn’t issued a clear and concise set of demands, is one of its greatest strengths. Making bullet-pointed list of demands of the powers that be, and then going home defeats the whole purpose of OWS. The movement isn’t content to ask anything of the extant political power structures because the structures, the system itself, has become suspect (to put it mildly). No longer can people trust that our government at the highest levels operates with the interests of the general public at heart. It’s a facade that has finally cracked. What’s happening now, as that awareness spreads, is the recognition that if we want to have a livable world for our children we can’t wait anymore, we have to get together and start talking about what to do and how. More and more people are recognizing why. And everything follows from “why.”

2 thoughts on “You Are Not Your Beliefs and Stop Acting Like You Know Things You Don’t

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