Saturday, February 25, 2012
With a pinch of salt
Already in a few words I have placed the indulgence of “what pleases me” above the virtue of Truth. Sure, some people believe that Truth is a powerful god, to be sought out and slavishly obeyed. Perhaps that’s what they believe but it’s not how they actually behave. Does anyone, really?
When, shaken by shock or emotion, I stop believing in my beliefs (for a short spell), I’m naked and disconsolate, like King Lear on the blasted heath in a storm. When anyone has the temerity to attack my belief, I leap to its defence, or I may find it easier to counter-attack. Some enjoy the fight, but I don’t, or at any rate, I believe that I don’t. My actions often show otherwise, for example I make pre-emptive attacks on other people’s beliefs when they challenge my own. For I am Everyman, recognizing in others the smugness of their virtue, enraged at their “evidence”. If they are going to fight their war with evidence as the weapon of choice, then I am forced either to surrender immediately (huh! no way) or fight back with some weapon of my own. My belief pleases me. To me, that is evidence enough. It gives me strength to continue the fight. But if my belief fails to please me, if it’s a baleful heritage that makes my life wearisome, I’ll still defend it; merely because I have been attacked. If all else fails I’ll defend it with real weapons, the ones invented by my enemies, conventional or nuclear. Or failing that, my bare hands. For I am Everyman. My very identity is fashioned out of beliefs.
Someone may tell me that sea-salt is good, because it contains 75 minerals, whereas “refined” salt is bad, and raises your blood pressure. I don’t find this easy to believe. I thought ordinary salt is dug out of salt-mines. Until I saw the above photo from the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Cracow, where salt has been mined for 900 years, I assumed you just dug up salt, crushed it small and packed it ready for sale. I consulted Wikipedia. “Someone” was right. It does get refined, and seeing that photo, I’m glad it does. But is it likely that my body analyses the salt content in the food I eat, to see if it’s mixed with 74 other minerals, so that it knows whether or not to let my blood pressure rise? That I find hard to believe. When “someone” tells me it’s so, I shall shrug indifferently—unless he is my own child, in which case I shall put him right with the superior wisdom of my contrary belief, constructed on the spur of the moment. Now suppose he is indeed my child, but aged 45. (I refuse to confirm or deny the truth of this supposition.) We may assume he has attained the age of reason. But this does not mean I should reason with him. On the contrary, it is good that he buttresses his chosen dietary regimen with a set of corresponding beliefs, so he may appear virtuous in his own eyes. Who doesn’t want that?
I ought to give some examples of the kinds of things I believe, or would like to believe—I’m not sure there’s a difference between the two. Like you probably, I am stuffed with beliefs in practice, though I’ve said here more than once that I try to have no beliefs. Don’t believe me, dear reader. I just meant I’m an agnostic. Am I really? I’m not sure. Which proves I am an agnostic. . . ? All my favourite beliefs are like this: vague, neither provable nor disprovable.
Examples of unfalsifiable beliefs: I believe that all creatures are intelligent; that evolution itself is intelligent, not blind and mechanical. I believe a giraffe’s neck is long because its ancestors desired to reach the high branches. I believe that the conscious mind, the I that has to forge a path in this dangerous world, is less important than commonly acknowledged. True self-awareness and true safety owes more to unconscious, the autonomous processes of the body. Sometimes they show that they, not this clever mind, are truly in charge by making us ill, to stop us in our tracks, and send us messages: “Don't go this way!” Poor Nietzsche believed this too, he who had more than his share of illness. It was he who, in a certain context, said “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” That was his belief: that his illness was some kind of blessing. Scholars and medical scientists may surmise that his terrible health and ultimate breakdown was due to syphilis, contracted from a single visit to a brothel. Knowing nothing of that, Nietzsche sustained himself with belief, and left an immortal legacy.
It is perfectly rational to do whatever pleases us, justifying our chosen behaviour with belief. It props us up, especially when others are hostile. To attack someone else’s belief is metaphorically to vandalize his property: not a crime in most cases, but certainly not good form. May I learn to live and let live! Truth, whatever that is, can go look after its own haughty righteous self. It shall not be praised by me.
Posted by Vincent at 9:53 pm