By Chic Hollis – Philosophical Musings
After numerous exercises in math class I came to believe in several ideas: 1.) that two plus two equaled four; 2.) that the practical rule of casting out nines was effective in checking the accuracy of your work; 3.) if two sides of an isosceles triangle were equal, the opposing angles were equal also; and 4.) when you added together the squares of both sides of a “right triangle” (not a left triangle), the sum equaled the square of the hypotenuse (if you can recall what that term means.) These are very useful ideas to know when you are taking exams to qualify for some form of higher education. However, outside of math class, I wondered about many things that I was taught.
Since most history is written by the victorious, most science by theoreticians looking for some prize-worthy explanation for what is going on in the universe, most laws by devious well-paid lawyers, and most English by authors from another generation who are no longer living, it occurred to me that the vision and perspective of these writers might be quite different from mine. Everyone preaching in pulpits was talking about ancient historical events or invisible realms of existence after death. The quantum physicists were trying to describe the infinitesimal, and the religious were promoting their vague concepts covering the infinite, the eternal, the divine, and the Almighty.
Being raised by a kindergarten teacher didn’t help much. Consequently, everything but math that I learned after kindergarten was suspect. To become a true believer meant never questioning what was heard and never having to say, “I’m sorry, I was just repeating what I was told.”
A believer sincerely believes what he or she learns from respected authority figures. To become an influential authority, a person has to be a guru about something with a Ph D degree. Home schooling doesn’t count, and what you learn “OJT” means that it applies “only just temporarily” to the menial tasks you are assigned to do on your job. At the lower rungs of the educational ladder, a climber must accept the description of the view offered by those above him.
Pontius Pilate never learned the truth; Einstein doubted that God played with dice, and many curious folks wonder if Osama bin Laden is still alive after the recent flood in the north of Pakistan. Humans are well paid for reporting the news, writing fiction, designing clever advertisements, and scribbling the laws for Congress to pass without reading them. The public is told only what the powerful editors want them to hear.
Freedom of speech is so vague that the judges don’t know what that is anymore. Can the seditious act of burning a helpless, motionless, speechless flag be covered by that human right? Freedom of the press is an expression used by the mendacious to convince naive voters that our present democracy is pure and unadulterated by lawmakers and lobbyists. Catch phrases like “death councils” are invented by clever politicians to divert the attention of those patients who might wonder how such committees function, but don’t have the time or interest to inquire. I don’t dare mention the ugly innuendoes, the sick humor, and the wild distortions circulated on the Internet!
The only thing an intelligent person can believe today is that it isn’t smart to trust anyone who is sure that he or she is an authority about something. Their ideas may have benefitted them yesterday under unique circumstances, but what are the chances that the advice they are offering is still valid and useful today? The truth is illusive, and the facts bearing on any questionable issue are hard to ascertain. Besides, pertinent data may be manipulated, and quoted statistics may be based on a shallow, biased sampling. Obtaining a second opinion is still conventional wisdom.
I sincerely want to believe, so help my unbelief, please! The time is growing short, the world has become six million times more complicated, and the number of authority figures has grown exponentially. Can you answer the following questions: Who am I to believe? Where can I check what I’m told? Should I contact Wikipedia? Read the Encyclopedia Britannica? Visit the Library of Congress? Tune into PBS for Jim Lehrer’s nightly report? Or wait for Jon Stewart’s sarcastic opinions?
How is it that some very intelligent people believe without asking one simple question? How can they be so sure of themselves? How can they trust their minds to validate what they hear when there are so many examples of lying, deception, manipulation, influence peddling, political hyperbole, and outrageous Ponzi schemes? And don’t forget the numerous confessions of the guilty among us who took advantage of our trust!
Yes, I can believe in the inevitable: death and being taxed until the day I die. I can believe the worst about tyrants, terrorists, and tobacco companies. But I would rather believe in something that is positive. People already reject my musings for being negative, cynical, distrustful, iconoclastic, and anti-authoritarian. They don’t want their sacred beliefs challenged, their political views questioned, and their pet projects criticized.
It is all the same to them that the truth may be hidden from humans, that the reason for existing is beyond human comprehension, and that the evil-doers who abuse and kill other humans must be forgiven and rehabilitated somehow. (Even those “too-big-to-fail” must be helped!) The indigent must be cared for even when they resist help, the poor must be fed, clothed and housed regardless of their lack of industriousness, and the most vicious criminals must not be executed. How do you convince yourself to accept such popular beliefs?
What belief system do you teach the next generation and the one being born today? Capitalism? Democracy? The Ten Commandments? Love your neighbor and your enemies? Bless them that curse you? Save your money for a rainy day? Arm yourself against potential tyrants and terrorists? Abide by the law, including all the laws you never read? Study, work hard, pay your bills, and keep your nose clean? Be unselfish, meek, merciful, friendly, and subservient?
What are your family values? What do you expect from a virtuous citizen? Are you convinced 100% in your belief system? If so, vote with your heart, volunteer to serve your country in some military capacity or join the Peace Corps, and give generously to your favorite charities.
Meanwhile, I’ll be watching how all that pans out hoping to succeed in becoming a true believer myself some day before I croak.