BELIEF SYSTEMS GENERALLY
Beliefs generally can be categorized into three groups:
1) Those that are based on solid and uncontradicted evidence to the point they are universally accepted, which includes virtually all the beliefs of mathematics and the generally accepted theories in physics and the other hard sciences. Such beliefs usually become more popular and accepted over time unless opposed by a unified power elite.
2) Those that are based on some evidence, but for which different interpretations of the evidence exist or contradictory evidence is also accepted widely, which includes virtually all the beliefs of the social sciences and much of political and social philosophy, as well as virtually all business and governmental practices. Such beliefs usually only grow in popularity and acceptance if supported by the majority of the powerful.
3) Those that are based on pure speculation, which includes virtually all religious ideas and some of political and social philosophy. These beliefs generally become common only because of power relationships, when they suit the interests of the powerful who impose them on others, though note that sometimes the powerful may support such beliefs because they think the beliefs will lead to the greater good, which can be in the interests of the powerful.
A system of beliefs that some group uses as the foundation for their model of the world and the narrative they choose to communicate that model is at some particular level of sophistication. Each model is a function of a certain level of sophistication and is only communicated well with others who possess that level of sophistication.
Note that there are an infinite number of possible levels of sophistication, with each level including that preceding it, so that they can be thought of as an infinite number of concentric circles, with each circle having its own model or set of models. So as each human grows in sophistication, they often experience epiphanies where they increase their levels of sophistication and associated models by a step to the next concentric circle, and they may enter a new social group with others who have similar levels of sophistication and similar models, often assuming that they and their fellow group members have achieved a true understanding of the world and not recognizing that there are an infinite number of levels of understanding above their model.
Also, note that the level of sophistication of a model that one chooses to communicate depends on the circumstances, as in the political arena if votes are required, consent of the governed is necessary, then a low level of sophistication is required because the group of people needed to adopt the model must be so large that it encompasses a majority of the population, meaning that it cannot be much more sophisticated than the average person’s model.
Humans evolved in small groups, and these small groups grew, by various means, to become larger and larger groups over the evolution of human civilization. The path to the development of a large society with sufficient social harmony to be healthy and sustainable has been long and torturous and only was achieved after much experimentation with different rules of social behavior. Of course the social rules were often crafted primarily for the benefit of elites, but often enough the elites crafting the rules recognized that they would benefit from improving the general welfare of the society, particularly in the societies that survived long term. Sometimes the rules were found to be inconsistent with general welfare by later generations, or by those leading rebellions in the same generation, and were overturned or modified, but this was always best treated as a delicate process as over time human rules become entangled with the values, belief systems, expectations, and patterns of behavior that are common in the society and which members depend on as they build and maintain the web of human life.
Also, note that moral systems developed in large cooperative groups as a means for regulating the behavior of members of the group for the benefit of the group. It appears that moral systems developed before writing and before any rules were formally written or enforced as humans evolved the propensity to develop rules, based on feelings towards members of the group, to give the group an advantage. That implies that the emotional components that often accompany moral rules may have evolved long ago as a means to regulate the behavior. And that implies that any system of moral rules will increase its efficacy if its development takes into consideration the emotional components of the rules and the extent to which the rules were originally determined solely or mostly by those emotional forces. And so any system of moral rules which claims to stand merely on “enlightened self-interest” of members of the group is fundamentally lacking.
Related to that, note that in the development of civilization to allow members of a large group to live together in harmony, moral rules were formalized into laws and enforced by a central authority. These laws were designed to regulate social interactions by making explicit what the limits of acceptable behavior were, and in that sense the laws would dictate morality. Virtually every law sets limits for legal or acceptable behavior and so virtually every law dictates morality, which makes preposterous the claim that we should not enact laws to dictate morality.
Obviously prohibitions against stealing, murder, slavery, rape, assault, child molestation, drug use, fraud, etc… are based on shared beliefs about acceptable behavior and so one can make a strong claim that they have a moral basis. Now, one might argue that there are economically based laws that can be distinguished from morally based laws but that is a false distinction. Any economic goals must be based on some value system, prioritizing what is more valued in the society over what is less valued, which constitutes a system of morality.
It is not that governments cannot legislate morality, but that sometimes the totality of forces contributing to what is perceived as a social ill that should be addressed is simply too great for the legislative remedy that is prescribed, particularly when those implementing the remedy are not sincere enough, determined enough, or committed enough to devote the necessary resources, which could turn out to be substantial.
One further point that could be made is that those who undergo a certain amount of intellectual development may be able to make moral calculations with regard to contemplated actions, based on the strength of their connections to various groups, such as concentric circles of intimacy (e.g., to self, nuclear family, extended family and friends, nation, human race), that consider degree of connection to affected individuals, probability of success and risk of the action, and benefit or loss to result from the action in order to determine the expected net benefit or cost of the action. A functioning and healthy society could be composed of such calculating individuals, but only if the great majority of them are able to make such calculations competently. However, no human society in the past or present has met that criteria as such individuals always appear to comprise only a small percentage of any given population. So to create a functioning and healthy society it is necessary for the great majority to not try to make such moral calculations and instead to internalize some moral system, ideally created more to serve the general welfare than the interests of elites, that convinces the members of the society to act in most situations in a manner consistent with that moral system.
RELIGIOUS BELIEFS GENERALLY
Many believe that religion’s most useful purpose is in answering fundamental questions about human behavior and society and about the nature of reality and existence itself, particularly questions that there are no easy or simple answers to but which people feel compelled to ask. Religious doctrine, particularly when supported by the authoritative figures in a society, can answer such questions quickly and allow people to feel confident and secure in the certitude of the answers. Ideally, the great majority of people will accept the same answers to these questions which they can use to develop similar values and beliefs and build the foundation of their ethical and legal systems so that they can live in harmony. Individuals inevitably have different interests which will lead to inevitable conflict, and minimizing the difference in values and beliefs can minimize these conflicts. Note that problems arise when scientific investigation indicates that some of the answers of a particular religious doctrine are suspect. The doctrines that are more likely to survive such an assault are those which do not depend too heavily on the veracity of any of their claims about the physical reality or which are adaptable to new information about that physical reality.
However, there is another vital need that religion can fill. Throughout human evolution, humans lived in small groups, often with an alpha male or female (usually male) at the head of the group. The alpha made many of the decisions of the group and it was best for group harmony and survival that the other members not resist those decisions too often or too forcefully. This created a tendency for the non-alpha members to shut off their analytical and creative abilities in order to become better followers and avoid conflict.
This trend of non-alpha members of the group shutting off their analytical and creative faculties can reduce conflict, but a group that can limit conflict while allowing most of its members to develop and use their own analytical and creative abilities can be more productive, wealthy, and secure. Religious beliefs, particularly those allowing for some omnipotent and omniscient entity to watch over the members of the group as they go about their daily lives, evolved in some societies to serve the function of convincing those members to submit to an authority and accept its moral rules without that authority being in the form of a dominant and domineering individual or small number of individuals that could have the emotional effect of stifling the group members’ creative and analytical processes.
The invisible, omnipotent, non-human entity could be the source of values and moral rules and instill fear to restrict various types of harmful behavior while not depressing the productive behavior. In an environment where such a religious doctrine is accepted, emotional rewards may result from the increased motivation with the removal of the alpha individual or individuals in control. Some have labeled such emotional rewards as “a feeling of freedom.”
Another approach to shape human values and behavior is that of Marxism. The simplest and most popular form of Marxism, Egalitarianism, not only drastically reduces the incentive for constructive and productive behavior (meaning positive feedback loops for such positive behavior are never created), but is unnatural and forced, like a man-made element that can only exist for a moment before inexorable pressures push the balance back to something stable and sustainable. While more extreme inequality can cause certain pressures that create an unsustainable society, and a balance must be found, one that allows for social bonds to be maintained, efforts to enforce egalitarian goals will ultimately strip all the restraints put in place and likely lead to societal collapse.
Also, note that Marxist Egalitarianism assumes that people can be molded into conscientious creatures who will be so emotionally connected to the welfare of the whole that they will conscientiously follow the rule of “from each according to one’s ability and to each according to one’s need.” But experience has shown that sexual motivations have a powerful impact on one’s behavior and sexual behavior is selfish, not community-oriented. That creates a great deal of pressure to deviate from community-oriented behavior. So it seems that the more people think about sex, the less their behavior will conform to Marxist ideals, which is why it is so odd that the New Left is obsessed with sex while pushing Marxist values and ideals.
Probably the most sophisticated and defensible system to arise out of Marxism, Marxist-inspired scientific socialism, assumes that scientific methods could be implemented to design a complete set of acceptable patterns of behavior to not only ensure long-term survival but to optimize human welfare, and, as a corollary, it assumes that virtually all old patterns could be discarded with little to no cost. But the unbounded complexity of human society makes this a fool’s errand. There is no scientific way to determine optimal behavior patterns with regard to any set goal. There are too many unanswered questions which would leave too many holes in policy, and those questions will inevitably be answered by those given decision-making powers in their own self interest and with their own narrow and limited knowledge of the world.
Since the complexity involved in trying to optimize a path forward with regard to any set goal, e.g., maximizing welfare, probability of survival, equality or justice, “happiness,” etc…, for any society is unbounded and overwhelming, rather than discarding what has worked or has led to this point of social/cultural development, it is reasonable to promote and value some concrete patterns of behavior that have led to positive feedback in the past. These accepted and promoted patterns of behavior may serve as fundamental building blocks of the culture to be taught to the young in order to perpetuate the society.
On the face of it, utilitarianism is a beautiful theory because of its simplicity in equating promoting the greatest good for the greatest number with justice. Of course what is the greatest good in the short term is quite different from what is the greatest good in the long term and that is one of the difficulties. As considered outcomes are pushed into the future, they become more and more speculative, so even if there is universal agreement on values and goals, which is a separate source of difficulty, there will likely be significant disagreements on actions to be taken because of the uncertainty involved. Another difficulty is that there will likely be virtually irreconcilable differences regarding the value of certain outcomes that occur in the far future. And, last, but not least, there is the difficulty that people are pliable and can be manipulated, particularly by other people who are more sophisticated or have more access to resources, so that people can be made to want and to value what other people want them to value for the good of the latter, which can mean that what will make those being manipulated happy, particularly in the short term, may not be in their long-term interests.
So utilitarianism has a simple and plain appeal, but it does not appear to be practicable for the foreseeable future except as a vague system to point in a general direction. Also, in a sense utilitarianism is a very artificial system in that what makes one happy is based in large part on what one is connected to, and what one is connected to varies and is malleable, and the decisions one makes based on what one is connected to change what one will be connected to in the future. So to make utilitarian decisions based on expectations regarding the medium term to long term future may be more sound than just making decisions based on the short term future, but the decisions one makes today affect what one will be connected to and what will make one happy in the medium to long-term future, so it involves more designing one’s future needs than meeting identified needs.
Feedback loop utilitarianism, a modification to utilitarianism which will be briefly described here, provides the opportunity to build consensus and to design an individual’s or a group’s future needs so that they can be met. Those who follow feedback loop utilitarianism organize their social reality according to the existence and potential of feedback loops. They value those which provide the most sustenance, physically and emotionally, over the longest period of time with the highest probability. Such feedback loops come in different varieties, at different levels of intimacy, with the first level being internal to the body, the next level being the immediate family, the next level being a network of extended family or friends or work associates, the next level being a community of some sort, possibly geographic or possibly interest-based, and the following levels being political entities such as cities, states, and nations, with the last level being the human race, though some may want to add a superfluous level of all life on Earth or even all intelligent life in the universe.
As an aside, note that out of the infinite number of ways to model human society, one model that has some appeal is that the humans and all their machines and other tools and means of production are interconnected in a sort of giant economic machine that maintains itself by creating positive and sustainable feedback loops, and for the human components of that machine to be productive they must be properly motivated to be productive in a healthy and sustainable manner. From past experience in efforts to optimize the motivation, it appears that redirecting sexual energy to economically productive activities is very helpful, particularly the highly intense sexual energies of young men. This has generally been done by tying the young men’s sexual opportunities, usually through marriage or other sexual relationships with young women, to their direct or indirect (such as with academic or scientific accomplishment) economic productivity. The past few decades have severed this connection, and young men’s motivation and economic productivity has begun to spiral downward, creating unhealthy and negative feedback loops, which have led to an increase in suicidal behavior and destructive tendencies as their reward/motivation system with positive feedback loops has become broken.