Enchanted beliefs, 11/30
Do you believe in magic?
Our ancestors trusted what they experienced directly and the testimony of a small group of dependable relatives and tribespeople who also valued their survival. But today, the world runs on trusting strangers: doctors, scientists, lawyers, politicians, administrators, bureaucrats, business executives, utilities suppliers, vehicle repairmen, engineers of all stripes, and on and on.
The problem is that trust in institutions is at an all-time low. Experts and politicians are increasingly seen as either incompetent, dishonest, or both. This grim view of society is not completely unfounded. In other words, our hypothetical person has at least some justification for refusing to accept what “elites” are telling him.
This strong desire for social cohesion, combined with our globalized environment and aggravated by social media and feelings of loneliness and isolation (an inability to fulfill the uppermost category in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), has led to belief formation and justification becoming a kind of fashion statement. Because we no longer need to make much effort to stay alive and safe, we formulate beliefs not because they correspond to reality, nor even because they confer survival fitness, but because they provide us with pleasure.
a positive feedback loop is created in which we adopt beliefs to construct an identity, then seek out others who share that identity, which then reinforces those beliefs through further justification by means of pleasure (echo chambers). Being agreed with feels good, and so having people agree with us becomes an end in itself. Conversely, any ideas that contradict our beliefs, thereby causing displeasure, are inflated to the level of a threat to safety and survival.
Let me indulge in some wildly speculative anthropology.
Our prehistoric ancestors believed in magic. Their world included so many phenomena that they did not understand that they invented spirits and superstitions as explanations.
When later ancestors discovered agriculture and began to collect into large societies, this propensity to believe in magic was channeled into major religions. People fashioned a shared identity out of religious customs and doctrines.
Then along came the Renaissance and the Reformation, which set off the Great Disenchantment, with science and reason replacing spirits and superstitions.
But in the 21st century, reason and truth-seeking seem optional. Our technology disguises reality. We want something, and it shows up on our doorstep. Magic! Back in April and May of 2000, I recall many friends expressing shock and anger that there were people who refused to lock down and instead went to work. How stupid and stubborn to not participate in the lockdown! I had to remind my friends that it was thanks to such misanthropes that food was being delivered to their doorsteps.
We’re producing less because of the virus? No need for consumers to tighten their belts. The government is sending us checks! Magic!
Stock prices go up faster than earnings, or for corporations with no earnings at all? Cryptocurrencies are valued in the trillions? Woohoo—look how wealthy we are. Magic!
Our screens are causing us to revert to our enchanted prehistoric selves. Those ancestors had only a limited understanding of reality. We have only a limited sense of reality. Instead, we have the option of tuning out reality. We do not have to understand where our food comes from, or how products get made, or how government spending gets paid for, or how stock market shares represent ownership in a company.
In our enchanted 21st-century environment, we have the luxury of carrying around unreasonable beliefs. In fact, people bond with each other over sets of unreasonable beliefs, just as they did when the great religions emerged.
Harper sees no way out. My hope is that we will soon experience another Renaissance, and new institutions will emerge that guide people away from magical thinking and back toward a focus on trying to align our beliefs with reality.