Subjective Vision, Objective Evaluation

Go ahead – believe, dream, envision, get inspired, think big.

But then evaluate. Stop believing and take an objective look at what it’s actually going to take for your Big Idea to happen. Or if you already quit your day job, take the time for a good, hard, long, skeptical look at what’s actually happening. It might not be too late to grovel your way back.

I wish I’d done that. I never got out of the subjective phase – never achieved enough escape velocity to get free of belief. I was an elite believer – a professional’s professional. I know belief like a worthy foe — all its wily, fraudulent snares.

Beware the evaluation that never gets out of belief. Belief validates itself, admits no outside counsel. Belief doesn’t want data, doesn’t need to make a budget or do market research. Belief believes – that’s its only job, and it’s the best at it. If you want evaluation you’ll have to look elsewhere. Objective assessment –- rational thought, science — thrives on doubt. It begins with the assumption that whatever it has concluded is wrong and begs you to prove it. Not so with belief. Belief has a zero tolerance policy on doubt. To doubt is to not believe, by definition. Belief doesn’t want you to know, it wants you to… well, um, believe.

Belief has no ethics, subscribes to no code of conduct. It isn’t accountable, doesn’t answer to independent, unbiased assessment. It’s free to do what it likes.

Belief don’t need no stinking facts.

In the world of belief, there’s no such thing as “independent and unbiased.” Belief rewards its own, destroys its dissenters. The polarities of belief and knowledge repel each other — an attempted interaction between a rationalist and a believer never ends well. Belief has too much at stake – it must prevail or there’s no belief anymore – doubt will wipe it out. With belief there’s no recognizing the delegate from the opposite faction. Nobody but us, no case but ours. Fact-checkers? We’re not listening la la la la. Religious doctrine? Stay out of it, we know what’s true and you don’t. Clergy or politician misbehavior, moral lapses, illegalities? Boys will be boys — we’ll give ‘em a mulligan. Batshit conspiracy theories? Have at it – the more bizarre the better. Fake news? “Do your own research”? “Freedom”? Go for it – it’s your right.

I know these things because I’ve lived on both sides. I spent over two decades as an evangelical fundamentalist cultist Christian believer. When I first started drifting out, I became a self-helper, which turned out to be the exact same religion. Both were about belief. There was no reality other than what you believed. You took flight and never touched down. Nobody called you to account, they just cheered you on, chanted more, more, more, higher, higher, higher.

Nobody ever heard of Icarus.

Christianity claimed to be accountable to its source code the Bible, but that was a sham. I was a Protestant – the religion Martin Luther founded with his sola scriptura doctrine – everybody can and should and must read the Bible for what it says to them, and the religious authorities can keep their mitts off your personal revelation. That makes Protestantism unaccountable by definition. It’s up to you. Make it say what you want. No wonder there are so many fundie whack jobs out there.

I was one of them. I ought to know.

Fortunately, I haven’t ridden the pendulum to the other side, haven’t transferred the focus of my belief to rationalism or objectivity or any other legacy of the “Age of Enlightenment.” (Spare me! Aren’t we being a little pretentious with our title?) Rationalism’s most ardent advocates are just another kind of believer. Same with a lot of atheists, who are more obnoxiously evangelistic than we were back in the day. I’m an atheist myself, but I figured out early that I wasn’t going to make it a substitute religion.

Belief of any kind is a shut-down when it comes to evaluation. It’s incapable of objectivity. Evaluation is not its job. What’s it good for? Shooting our brains full of dopamine, which they love. Dopamine inspires us, gets us moving. Gives us dreams and visions. Makes us feel hopeful. Empowers us with a sense of meaning and purpose. Stuff like that. It’s hard to argue against a dopamine high. People love that shit. Okay, do it if you need to. Just don’t do what I did all those years – all those wasteful, addicted, self-sabotaging dopamine high years, all those years of following my believing dreams from one flameout to another.

When you ask, “How’s this going to work?” or “How’s this going?” don’t listen to belief’s opinion. If your friends share your beliefs, welcome and love them, but all of you need a shot of perspective. You won’t get it from somebody who’s super-critical and cynical either, because those are signals that you’re probably dealing with somebody who’s operating with the weakest and most deceptive form of thinking, which is belief masquerading as rationality.

No, instead, find people who don’t care — people who don’t need things to go one way or the other in order to convince themselves they are valid or alive. It’s okay if they think your ideas are cool, big, inspiring, whatever… but ultimately you don’t want them invested in whether your dreams and visions play out. Find people that if you crash and burn they might just turn and look away from the wreckage and leave you there to deal. If you’re going to listen to people, listen to people like that. They’re your friends – your real friends.

Same with facts and data and trends – they might be leaning in your direction, but they’re only numbers. Sit alone in a dark theater and repeat to yourself, “they’re only numbers, they’re only statistics” until you’re convinced, and then take another look at them. Beware your own perverse ability to make them speak your language, make them love you. If they fawn all over your idea, push them away. They’ll break your heart one day. It’s not worth the thrill in the meantime.

Detachment. That’s what you want. People who respect you (they have to respect you, or get out of there fast) but don’t need to like you or need you to like them. Inspect yourself, the people, and the data like you’re checking for tics, and if you find more than one, run screaming from the room. Scour speeches and articles and analyses for biases and assumptions and calculate how much they’re warping the results and conclusions. Calculate the naysayer’s score, then round it up – way up.

Go ahead and tell your friends and family. Be grateful for their support. They’re here for you. That counts. They’ll probably think you’re nuts – not a bad thing. They might be swayed by your belief. That’s nice. But unless they’re in it whatever it is — with you, not just for you, don’t ask for more. You’d be better off if you find out what your detractors think, and then shut them up. They won’t be convinced by your belief. They’ll want RealThink. They’ll give you a reality check. That’s what you want.

Especially don’t give any weight to idea people. Idea people go through life deflecting – a likeability habit which makes it seem like they’re engaging, but they’re not. Ideas are everywhere and always and inexhaustible – so plentiful and abundant that they’re worthless. What matters are ideas of substance and commitment — the ones where somebody backs them with action and money and whatever else they can, and only then do they say “I like your idea.”

Lastly, be cautious about the pivot. If you’re pivoting from one unsubstantiated belief to another, stop it.

Just stop it.

Now.

If you’re pivoting because you originally relied on data and research and information that maybe was good once but now things have changed and it’s a whole new world out there… then, yeah, go ahead and pivot. Just pivot into something with substance, not another inspirational belief dream wouldn’t-this-be-cool vision.

So follow your heart. Be a subjective visionary. Go for it. Make your dreams come true.

But then figure out how to deliver. Be an objective evaluator. What’s it going to take, what’s it going to cost? What’s it going to look like when you get there, and how will you know? What do you need to know that you don’t? How are you going to find out what you need to know that don’t know already – especially the stuff you don’t even know that you need to know it?

And when in doubt, sit down and wait until the dopamine high passes off. Better have the inspirational hangover first, before you embarrass and impoverish yourself again.

I ought to know. I made a life of it. Now I’m a recovered beliefaholic. I’m like a nonsmoker who used to do three packs a day – the most obnoxious kind of no-tolerance don’t-tempt-me skeptic. I’m for you, but I would spare you if I could.

But I probably can’t. You like the dope too much.

See you at our next meeting. Tuesday night. Methodist church basement.

Belief in Belief

ya gotta believe

New York Mets fans at the 1973 World Series
(they lost)

The quest to resolve the consciousness hard problem needs a boost from quantum mechanics to get any further. Either that, or there needs to be a better way to state the issue. As things stand, neuroscience’s inability to locate subjectivity in our brain matter gives pro-subjectivity the right to cite quantum mechanics as its go-to scientific justification.

The $12 Billion self-help industry and its coaches, speakers, and authors love quantum mechanics:  if subjectivity works on a sub-atomic level, the argument goes, then why not apply it on a macro, conscious level? Meanwhile, quantum scientists seem to have resigned themselves to the notion that, if their theories don’t have to be grounded in traditional objective standards like empirical testing and falsifiability, then why not hypothesize about multiverses and call that science?

Thus scientific rationalism continues to be on the wane — in science and as a way of life — especially in the USA, where belief in belief has been an ever-expanding feature of the American Way since we got started. To get the full perspective on America’s belief in belief, you need to read Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017), which I quoted at length last time. (Or for the short version, see this Atlantic article.)  The book provides a lot of history we never learned, but also reveals that the roots of our belief in belief go back even further than our own founding, and beyond our own shores. Although we weren’t founded as a Christian nation[1] (in the same way, for example, that Pakistan was expressly founded as a Muslim nation), Andersen traces this aspect of our ideological foundations to the Protestant Reformation:

“[Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.

“However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”

But even the Protestant Reformation isn’t back far enough. Luther’s insistence that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible is the Christian doctrine of sola scirptura, which holds that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. And the Bible is where we find the original endorsement of the primacy of belief, in the teachings of none other than Jesus himself:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart,  but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Thus, the Christian rationale for belief in belief goes something like this:

  • “We believe the Bible tells the truth;
  • “The Bible says Jesus was God incarnate;
  • “God knows what’s true;
  • “Jesus, as God, spoke truth;
  • “Therefore, what Jesus said about belief is true.”

The rationale begins and ends in belief. Belief is a closed loop — you either buy it by believing, or you don’t. And if you believe, you don’t doubt or question, because if you do, belief won’t work for you, and it will be your own fault — you’ll be guilty of doubting in your heart or some other kind of sabotage. For example,

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And if your doubts persist, there are consequences. When I expressed some of mine back in college, the same friend handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

But not here, not in this blog. Here, our mission is to challenge cherished beliefs and institutions. Here, we’ll to look more into what it means to believe in belief, and consider other options. In the meantime, we’ll set aside the hard problem of consciousness while we wait for further developments,

For more on today’s topic, you might take a look at Should We Believe In Belief? (The Guardian, July 17, 2009), and be sure to click the links at the end and read those pieces, too. All the articles are short and instructive.

[1] For a detailed consideration (and ultimate refutation) of the claim that American was founded as a Christian nation , see The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019).