Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Conventional Wisdom

The painting at the masthead of the blog, in case you're unfamiliar with it, is The Parable of the Blind, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which references the Bible. As the title of the blog also suggests, I am skeptical of the beliefs that many people hold. This may have originated with a slightly contrarian attitude that I've had ever since childhood, but it is also related to facts such as my parents' different ethnic backgrounds and nationalities and my history of living in the U.K. and culturally diverse parts of the U.S. Because of these experiences I did not develop an identity in conjunction with the norms of any one place, and I tend to be an outside observer wherever I go.

Seeing the world in this way has both disadvantages and advantages. On the negative side, I don't fit in well anywhere, people can be suspicious of me without cause, and it is difficult for locals to understand me. Internally, I often experience a certain cognitive dissonance because of differences in the ways other people process information in relation to the way I do. On the positive side, I am unimpeded by local prejudices and habits, and, with a broader range of experience than many, I am rarely surprised or upset by turns of events. Above all, I am free to theorize about the world without the constraints of received wisdom.

Living my life this way, and now retired and facing no obligation to please employers or anyone, I increasingly find what might be called "consensus reality" quite odd. As I mentioned in an earlier post, everyone is essentially winging it. I think the way human society is organized is somewhat arbitrary now and could be quite different if people only thought differently. Something like this occurred to me after I graduated from college. For about a year I lived with my dysfunctional family - all five of us under one roof for the last time. My father was then making little money and consuming vast quantities of alcohol, but everyone else was working and our household income was more than adequate. We lived in a large Victorian rental house in a tree-filled neighborhood in Connecticut overlooking a river and not far from Long Island Sound. Although there were several forces in play that caused this state of affairs to end, with a slightly different model the situation could have become stable and pleasant. As a family we could have saved money, made daily living more desirable, dried out my father, etc. Of course, that never happened, and before long I moved away and my father was dead.

I mention this because it is often the case that people are trapped by the paradigms under which they operate. This has been examined by Thomas Kuhn, the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he coined the now famous phrase "paradigm shift." The change from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system is a prime example. I find that paradigms are adopted by all people, and they are usually defended and clung to even when there is evidence that better paradigms exist.

It is possible that we are in the very early stages of a broad paradigm shift now. Whatever anyone thinks of Piketty's book, Capital, it has triggered a great deal of discussion. There was already a lot of rumbling and discontent before Piketty came along, but he seems to some extent to have become a lightning rod. The financial crisis of 2008, the weak U.S. recovery, America's failure in world leadership, etc., along with Piketty's book, have helped elevate inequality as a major issue at the U.S. policy level. Of course, I am delighted, because people, though currently only a minority, are also beginning to raise the question of whether capitalism and democracy are suitable models for mankind. I don't think they are, as will also be evident from previous posts.

Often, when people think of democracy, they conjure images of Thomas Jefferson, the visionary who freed Americans from British tyranny. In fact, Jefferson's vision is now obsolete. He sought to free America from commercial oppression by England and religious oppression by churches. But he also relished living the life of a country squire supported by slaves, who, along with women, had no voting rights. While for his time he may have accurately assessed the dangers of extended voting privileges, he apparently believed that equality pertained only to white male landowners. The Founding Fathers cannot have thought deeply about inequality. Contemporary Americans, other than bigoted conservatives with a pro-slavery mentality, are deluding themselves if they think of the Constitution as a document that reflects timeless wisdom.

I consider capitalism even more insidious than democracy, because it has a greater effect on how people think about their lives and how in fact they end up living their lives. Especially in the U.S., personal worth is closely tied to both the status level of one's job and the associated level of pay. This is a hard road to travel for hunter-gatherers, myself included. It channels people's behavior according to the requirements of commercial ventures, often making liars out of them. These days, even what passes for art has become a lie. As Mary McCarthy once said of Lillian Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the."


  1. You raised many interesting points in this post, thank you, I wanted to comment on 2. Nietzsche said to escape nihilism we must make ourselves our own project and to use our energies and creativity to be a continually changing, self reinventing self. Like your paradigm shift example it's hard to have the courage, ability or even energy to keep reinventing ourselves. In fact the older I get I feel a tendency to inertia. Doesn't it figure by the time you understand what you ought to do you have lost the energy for it. The 2nd item in your post was that I had an American friend who when I tried to pin down his political leanings he advised he was a Constitutionalist. I thought that was weird and basically another version of blind belief in the bible's writings.

  2. I wouldn't consider reinventing oneself a goal, but more a byproduct of being actively engaged in one's life. Passivity allows you to become stagnant and encourages delusions that leave you open to manipulation by others. Really all you have to do is incorporate new information that you accumulate over your life into a realistic worldview. At age 22 many people think they have everything figured out when in fact they've only just started. You owe it to yourself not to believe everything you're told and accept it hook, line and sinker. This is hard for Catholics, because they're usually more indoctrinated than others during their childhoods.

    As far as your friend is concerned, I'm not sure exactly what he means by "Constitutionalist" but he sounds conservative. The beliefs of American conservatives are often theology-based and in denial of science. I hate to say it, but it is true that delusional people can be happier than realists. You have to pick your delusions carefully though, because if they are proven wrong you may have nothing left. Frankly, I don't see how any educated adult in this age can take the Bible literally as the word of God.

  3. Thank you for your links. I prefer real-time commentary and discussion to the active study of other people's views. Articulating my own views is a task in itself.


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