Saturday, December 13, 2014

Belief versus Indoctrination

When beliefs are beaten into you, are they really beliefs, or just indoctrination?

Belief is a powerful thing, but it also can be a dangerous thing, as we see over and over again in this world, when people do stupid, destructive, and dangerous things, based on belief.   Actually, if you think about it, most of the bad things that happen in the world are based on belief and not logic.   No one sits down and thinks starting a riot is logical - or that strapping on a suicide vest "makes sense."   No one logically analyzes a situation and decides to buy a look-at-me mini-mansion on a "liar's loan" mortgage.

No, that doesn't happen - or happen very often.   Rather, it is people engaging in emotional thinking which is based on belief and not logic that induces them to do things that are pretty bone-headed and self-destructive.

And I say this based on personal experience.  Every stupid thing I have done in life (and the list is long and not completed yet) was based on emotional thinking and illogical belief.   As soon as I took my eye off the ball and thought more about indulging myself instead of using a calculator, things went bad.

For example, we owned a number of rental properties.  I did the math and figured out that the rents would cover expenses with a little left over, provide a nice tax break, and appreciate slowly in value.  These things added to my bottom line and I did well.  I used logic, and it worked.

We sold the rental properties at the height of the market and made a lot of money.  Then I decided I "deserved" to own a vacation home and put my calculator back in my pocket.  I told myself stupid things like, "Well, if I am going to own all this real estate, I might as well enjoy it!" - which is idiotic on its face.  The expenses and labor of owning two homes was staggering.  I could have rented out both when I wasn't using them - and made money.  But instead, I relied on more emotional thinking - that a renter might disturb "my things" and that was worth walking away from thousands of dollars a month in potential income.

Belief and Emotional Thinking are stupid.  Neither are really thinking.  You either believe things because they are convenient to you (e.g., blaming others for your personal woes) or because they were beaten into your head as a child.

This latter effect, I address in an earlier posting.   Most people don't think about it, and when I explain it, they still don't get it.   Most people in the world harbor profound and strong religious beliefs, which they believe are somehow "theirs" and are based on the "truth" of the religion in question.   But the reality is, more than 2/3rds of us adopt the religious beliefs of our parents.   Even among those who "switch" the likelihood is they will adopt a religious belief that is popular in the area they live in.

If you live in America, you are likely to be Christian, as you are not exposed to Islam.   If you live in Indonesia, you are going to be Islamic and not likely Christian. This is not because one religion is "better" than the other - or one is true and the other false.   Rather, one is predominant in your culture and family, so you are indoctrinated into it.

Now a lot of folks say, "Well, duh, Bob, of course you are going to believe in the religion which is dominant in your culture!"  - but that is missing the point.

These religious beliefs are supposed to be based on "truths" that cannot be proven true or false.  Belief, as the name implies, requires you suspend all disbelief and accept something - like Papal infallibility or the resurrection of Christ - as truisms, even though there is no direct "proof" of these concepts, other than what someone wrote down in a book somewhere.  Your belief should be based on something more spiritual than "well, it's what my parents bought into.... right?"

Granted, there are those who try to prove faith by finding the face of Jesus in a Taco, or claiming that the coma dreams of a small boy are a "miracle" or that some other phenomenon is "proof" that their beliefs are valid.  And sadly, many are trying to re-write textbooks, to teach their beliefs as truths, when in fact they are beliefs, and belief, by its definition, cannot be proven true or false - and should not be tested as such.   You take belief on faith and if you need "proof" of your belief system in the form of miracles or other events here on Earth, then perhaps your faith is not all that strong.

But beliefs go far beyond religion.  We tend to believe an awful lot of nonsense these days, most of it based on who are parents are, or who our friends are - or what we see on television.   The latter is why I don't watch television anymore.  Even the news shows sell belief over facts and logic - every day.   And politicians sell us belief and the news media is careful never to say they are outright liars but rather dissect political arguments in such an obtuse way as to make you wonder if they are saying anything at all.

But the point is - and I did have one - is that the sad statistic that our beliefs are based on what our parents taught us - and not some internal logic we deduced ourselves - and that tells us that belief is not likely to be the "correct" answer to anything, but rather just something we were indoctrinated into, years before we had critical thinking skills, and just accepted - if you will excuse the phrase - "on faith."

And even if we did tend to doubt, back in those early years, we would be shouted down by others, who would let us know in no uncertain terms, that belief was not up for discussion.  When I was a lad, for example, I realized around age 6 or 7 that the concepts of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were flawed.   Older kids told me that they didn't exist, and I realized that supernatural powers of an all-powerful Santa or an animated bunny were unlikely to say the least.

It then struck me that if these stories of unseen all-powerful mystical characters were false, were the stories about God and Jesus false as well?  Needless to say, questions like this scared the shit out of my parents.  And quite frankly, I can understand why many fundamentalist Christians are against the secularizing of these holidays. When you create false mythical characters that are later exposed as hoaxes, you raise questions in the minds of the faithful.  It is only logical to raise the question that if one set of characters is fictional, perhaps the other is as well?

So my parents explained to me, that yes, Santa and the Easter Bunny were frauds, but that the God-and-Jesus thing was real, even though they were as unverifiable.  Creating fake faiths which are later exposed as frauds can be a damaging thing to faith, I'm afraid.  But then again, maybe that is the point - leaving a leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the smarter people in the world, hinting that maybe belief isn't all its cracked up to be.   All I know is, when it comes to religion, these things are not up for discussion, as I would learn, time and time again.

But it strikes me as odd that people believe in such things - or more particularly that their faith is the true one and all the others are false.   If there was one true faith, then why would other people believe in the false ones?  And more importantly, why would people tend to adopt the faith of their home country or parents and family?  Wouldn't the real faith reveal itself as the truth to everyone?  Maybe faith has less to do with truth and more to do with indoctrination.

Indoctrination is the process of "inculcating ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or a professional methodology (see doctrine).  It is often distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned."   While we may think of indoctrination in terms of only religious attitudes or military training, we are, in fact indoctrinated in many areas of our lives, willingly or unwillingly.

I harp on television a lot in this blog, although the Internet is rapidly replacing it, as the primary tool of commercial indoctrination.  We are sold attitudes and ideas that fly under-the-radar and generally accept these ideas, even though they maybe contrary to our personal well-being and financial health.  A television show depicts a lowly-paid employee buying a new car or living in a fabulous house.  A movie shows the main character smoking - and makes it look glamorous.  We absorb these lessons uncritically.

Advertisements do the same thing, of course, but we expect them to sell us raw deals - after all, they are advertisements and thus commercial messages.  But it doesn't take long before the repetition of these messages also sell us on concepts contrary to our personal benefit.  And before long, your average middle-class person has decided to trade real wealth for the illusion of wealth, by purchasing luxury goods and financing them all on time.

So how do you avoid being indoctrinated?  Good Question.  As the definition cited above notes, indoctrination is often distinguished from education "by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned."   And therein lies the key.  You have to ask the questions - and listen carefully to the answers to make sure they are real answers, and not just a smokescreen.

My doubts about the holy ghost, for example, have never been assuaged by the answers given to me, even by biblical scholars.   I am not an atheist per se, but I begin to think that a lot of religious beliefs have been, well, embroidered to make them seem more mystical and interesting.  And Catholics are particularly good at this, having a host of angels and demons to catalog, as well as Saints and other holy folk who populate heaven.   It is an awful lot to learn, and maybe the sheer bulk of it is designed to get you to concentrate on the details, so you don't ask pointed questions about the whole thing.   It is a classic case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

This is not to say that Catholicism is evil or not the one true religion or whatever.   I believe that these answers will be known to all of us in good time and that no one person alive on the Earth has a better answer than you do, inside.  Whatever it is you believe, is the "right" answer for you, and no one can prove or disprove answers about the afterlife, or why we are here.   So I believe just don't sweat it.

On the other hand, there are so many other things in the world that are not really the proper place for belief - as they can be tested and proven (or at least dis-proven).   How many electrons there are in a Carbon atom, for example, is less than a matter of belief than a matter for empirical testing.   Relying on belief for such things, I think, is misplaced.

Similarly, relying on belief to determine the price of a stock, or where the price of gold is headed - or which heating plant is best for your home - is probably a bad idea as well.  These things can be quantified, quite readily, and dollar signs attached to the reasoning.  Sadly, many people rely instead on belief - and even raise belief-based arguments which they think are logical arguments, as they can no longer distinguish between the two.

And you would think that such empirical things would be largely judged based on some sort of "science" - reasoning and calculation, applied to these ideas.   And the funny thing is, you'd be wrong about that.   People argue that a strut reinforcing bar or a cone filter makes your car go faster, even though no measurement can prove this to be the case.  But then again, the people making these arguments are trying to sell you these products.

In 2007, the Real Estate market collapsed and many people could not figure out why.  To me, why the market collapsed is not the mystery - the mystery is why people thought homes were worth so much in the first place. When it is far cheaper to rent than to buy, why bother buying? When any commodity goes up in value dramatically, one has to wonder why - and whether such a rise is sustainable.   Because when prices rise, it is simple logic that people will consume less - or turn to alternatives or try to find more of the commodity in question.

So when people say things like,  My target price for WILLGROCO stock is $50 a share!  you have to ask "Why do you think this?" and if they hem and haw, well, you can pretty much figure you've caught them in a lie.  And we know this, because we have seen this in the past.  When someone says that they believe that gold will go to $5000 an ounce (and some are still saying this) you have to ask them for quantitative reasons why.  And tellingly, they don't have any.  They tell stories or give worse case scenarios about currencies melting down.  But they never say why this number of $5000 is quoted.   How do you come to that calculation?   And the answer is, they don't.  They pulled a number out of their ass.   And of course, they are selling gold so that should come as no surprise.

Now granted, some people will try to sheath belief with numbers and apparent logic (and terminology) and thus make it appear that what is actually a system of beliefs is actually science or mathematics.  Scientology, as its name implies, takes a system of belief and tries to make it into a "science."  But don't be fooled, there is no questioning of the belief system there - as ex-members will attest to.  And there is no way of "testing" it either, other than to die and see if there really are Outer Thetans.

Similarly, people (usually commercial interests) will try to sell you something and come up with arguments that sound scientific or mathematical, but are really just smoke-and-mirrors.  For example, a car salesman will say that leasing is a good deal because "it frees up your cash flow!" or that "you are only buying the part of the car you want!" or that "you are forgoing the opportunity cost of investing, if you tie up all your money in a car".

And to some folks, these arguments sound convincing - and sound scientific and financial.  But if you try to question these arguments, you'll get the same treatment your local Bishop would give you for questioning the validity of the Holy Ghost, or the Scientology folks would give you for questioning Outer Thetans.  You will get your ass handed to you on a platter, tout de suite.

The real answer, of course, can be found on a pad of paper, with a pencil, when you add up the costs of owning a car versus leasing - and including all the "hidden" fees at the front-end and back-end, and then see for yourself that leasing really doesn't make sense, unless you are running a business and can deduct these costs as a business expense.  And even then, that doesn't mean you can make money by leasing more cars.  You can't deduct your way to wealth.

By that requires reasoning.  And reasoning is not taught in school much anymore.  Kids are not trained to ask questions anymore, but to prepare for standardized tests - where there is one right answer and everything else is wrong.   Not a lot of room to question the premise of it all.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to figure out whether you are being indoctrinated or not.  If someone presents you with an argument, and you start to ask questions and they try to shut you down, chances are, they are just trying to indoctrinate you into a belief system.

And it is not hard to shut down discussion.  Using the leasing argument as an example, the salesman says something to you like, "If you lease this car, it will free up your cash flow!"   If you ask him "What does that mean, exactly?" he might say something like, "Well, your monthly payment will be less, so you'll have more money to spend on other things!"  And that might sound convincing, but if you ask, "But is the overall cost of leasing less than owning, or more?" and that's where he will hem and haw or just outright lie to you.   You have to get out a paper and pencil and do the math yourself and see how the real numbers add up.

Sadly, most of this falls on deaf ears.  We all want to believe what we want to believe.  We want to believe that this outfit makes me look slimmer.  We want to believe that our new smartphone plan is a "good deal".  We want to believe that we pulled one over on the car salesman, or that our reward miles will get us a "free flight" to Duluth. (UPDATE:  I drove to Duluth last year.  Nice place!)

Frankly, if we really want something, we are willing to believe anything.  So maybe the real answer is to want less, and then you will be less inclined to want to believe.   Maybe.