So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
Blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?
–Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
Heaven and Hell
Everyone has a view of reality. Even if their view is warped, insane, or incoherent, they still believe it to be true; otherwise, they would not believe it. Some would assert that if we believe we have the truth, we don’t — either because there is no truth, or because truth is relative. This, however, is itself a view of reality that the individual asserts to be true (that is, the view that there is no truth) — thus, we can simply place it in the incoherent category.
Everything we believe is a belief about reality. These beliefs ultimately determine what we decide to value (pleasure, goodness, the Bugatti Veyron, etc.), and what we value determines our behavior. If our value is personal pleasure, then we will seek only to please ourselves in our actions; however, if we value goodness, we will try to be good. This is the linear process of belief, value, and behavior. Although, increasingly we approach these issues in a way that is backward: we adopt a form of behavior, then justify it with values, and express them as beliefs. However, it appears that those who do so, do not do it cognitively. (I will admit that sometimes we express beliefs that differ from our behavior, but the true beliefs are expressed in behavior.)
This is a tragedy. Not because such individuals are missing out on boring discussions and dry books, but because our beliefs have consequences. (Evidence for this is everywhere: North Korea promising to attack South Korea if leaflets are dropped; a Turkish pianist, Fazil Say, going on trial for insulting Islam; the French President, François Hollande, considering a ban on homework; the list goes on.) Thus, one might conclude hastily that those who do not think about beliefs are inconsequential. Rather, they would be inconsequential if the fact that they never thought about beliefs meant that they didn’t have any. Unfortunately, such individuals do have beliefs, they just never think about them. Ultimately, this means it is not their beliefs which they hold, but someone else’s — this also is a tragedy.
To avoid contributing to the void, we must recognize the significance of beliefs and determine to challenge them frequently. In addition, we should ask ourselveswhat beliefs we have truly thought about and adopted, and which beliefs society has imbued upon us that we take for granted. If we truly realized the power and consequences of beliefs, the books would not be dry and the discussions would not be boring.
Heroes and Ghosts
Dina Shoman, a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Values, wrote a piece on Friday for Business Insider on the issue of trust in this economic recession. Sounds boring, right? Actually, it wasn’t. Shoman writes:
Today, not only may economies around the world be declining, but our values are also in a recession. It is extremely rare to find anyone who does not put their own personal interests ahead of anything or anyone else. . . . What happened to what our parents and schools taught us, to thinking of others first, not doing unto others what we do not do unto ourselves, to putting our customers, employees and shareholders first? What happened to the trust we used to have in our leaders to protect our interests?
Our trust has been shattered by the incredible selfishness, self-centeredness and double standards that exist today; corruption, greed, lies and lack of empathy have all led to the Zero Trust Economy.
This is interesting because our economic situation is often a hotly debated political issue, yet sometimes when we treat it this way we miss the forest for the trees. Shoman, quite appropriately, brings the issue back to values.
This discussion became even more interesting when one commenter (“DM”), a 27-year-old, lists 7 things in which he no longer has trust. Most of these are things like the stock or housing market, but the first one on his list says that he has no trust that, “woman that I marry will stay loyal to me. An incredible incentive system is set up to initiate a divorce (and many women actively encourage their peers to do so), as she will get a large lump sum of money she never had to earn, and checks in the mail for the rest of her life (plus she is guaranteed to get the kids, and probably the house too).” He then concludes, “So whats the point in investing in the future? Why buy a house, get married, or start a family if our entire way of life is rigged to fail?”
Do you see what happened? The dishonesty and selfishness of some led to a recession, this broke trust, which translated into this young man despairing on his society’s entire way of life. Suddenly, the economic issue turned into a marital and relational one. Now, some might call him over-sensitive, and some might disagree with Shoman’s analysis in the first place; regardless, this illustrates the power of ideas and the consequences of beliefs.
Smiles and Veils
Not long ago the world was faced with the ethical and geopolitical problems generated by nuclear weapons. It was a development that put some of the most immense power known to man in an explosive and easily transportable form. However, Bill Joy (former cochair of the presidential commission on the future of IT research) in an article for Wired Magazine (disturbingly titled Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us), he says “the situation in 1945 was simpler than the one we now face.” The new problem Joy is referencing, is the one presented by developments in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.
“The 21st-century technologies — genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) — are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them,” said Joy.
Just think about it. What will happen to the identity of humanity when faced with the issues of cloning and robotics? What will come of the dangerous potential of nanotechnology to produce everything cheaply and in abundance? The developments may be amazing — and not completely destructive, like the atomic bomb — but the kind of questions they raise will change the way people see themselves, their societies, their nations, life, death, meaning, and morality. Bill Joy doesn’t help us feel any better about it, “I believe that we all wish our course could be determined by our collective values, ethics, and morals. If we had gained more collective wisdom over the past few thousand years, then a dialogue to this end would be more practical, and the incredible powers we are about to unleash would not be nearly so troubling.” (By no means is Joy a qualified philosopher, but the point is legitimate; we are not prepared for these questions.)
Another point made by Joy emphasizes how unstoppable ideas and knowledge are: “Ideas can’t be put back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don’t need to be mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. Once they are out, they are out.” Thus, the question is not how to stop these ideas, but what to do about them. The foundations we set today have enormous effects on the decisions of tomorrow. This is why what we believe is so vitally important; and this is why our beliefs about our origin, eternity, morality, and meaning have direct bearing on everything — our daily lives and the future of society itself.
Even if the developments Joy speaks of are not fully borne out in our generation, they most certainly will be in a future one. What do you believe, and why? What foundation are we leaving for the future?
Being critical about what we believe and committing to analyze the views on the growing number of issues may be difficult at times — and it may not always make us popular — but it is necessary. If we are going to be truth seekers and truth tellers — and if we want to make the world a better place — we must know what we believe and why.
So do the hard work: figure it out, talk to people, and (most of all) think.
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.” — 2 Timothy 3:1-5