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Socratic Session:

On the Hidden Deception in Believing

Formatted like the Platonic dialogues, the Socratic Session is an imaginary conversation on issues of metahistory and questions relating to belief. In this dialogue, a metahistorian is cast in the role of Socrates, the skeptical philosopher whose dialectic method guides the course of the conversation but does not control the outcome. The session exemplifies the search for a truthful approach to specific issues of metahistory. (On the Socratic view of truth, see the essay Socrates in the Last Days.)

The metahistorian and a believer meet for an afternoon chat at the usual place, the Lost World Café. The trigger issue of the conversation is reflex belief.

Believer: I believe in the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest.

Metahistorian: Fine, but would you allow that this theory is a set of beliefs, rather than a statement of absolutely proven truth?

Believer: I might go along with that, although I do draw a sharp distinction between belief and scientific theory. Belief is essentially irrational. It requires a blind act of faith, but the essence of science is rational process and proof. A belief cannot be proven or disproven, but a legitimate theory can.

Metahistorian: A good distinction there, but let’s not assume that all theories can be proven. In fact, to prove Darwinian theory we would have to go back into the past and observe the development of life on earth over millions of years. This is just not possible. Ultimately the theory reduces to a belief-system, even though it presents itself in a scientific guise.

Believer: Fair enough. I am quite confident about the theories I hold, so I do not have to impose them as absolute dogmas. For the sake of discussion I can go along with the terms you propose. Let’s call the ideas that make up Darwinian theory a set of reasoned beliefs.

Metahistorian: Agreed. Now I will ask if you believe that the set of reasoned beliefs stated in Darwinan theory is true?

Believer: Of course.

Metahistorian: Well that was short and sweet. Your response is a definite "yes." Fine, but can we look more closely at what we are actually conversing about here? Let me rephrase the question, like this: Do you believe that the Darwinian beliefs you hold regarding evolution are true in themselves?

Believer: Certainly. The truth of those propositions stands by itself.

Metahistorian: That may be so, or it may not be so, but that is not exactly what I am asking you. Can you see that I am not asking about the legitimacy or credability of beliefs specific to that theory, such as natural selection and competition to survive, but about the belief you hold about those beliefs?

Believer: Hold on a second... Well, yes, I can see that. In effect you are asking me what I believe about what I believe.

Metahistorian: Precisely. In metahistory we recognize a special class of beliefs held in regard to what we believe. These are called reflex beliefs. For instance, someone who rejects Darwinian evolution may believe the Biblical account of creation given in Genesis. Such a person will hold specific beliefs based on what the Bible says, but they will also hold personal beliefs about those beliefs. Most people who accept the Bible as authoritative on spiritual matters believe that the message it contains cannot be surpassed by human reasoning. This is reflex belief. Is that clear?

Believer: You are saying that the Bible contains a message consisting of beliefs that people adopt, and they also hold beliefs about the message. This implies that the reflex beliefs, as you call them, are not stated in the source of beliefs.

Metahistorian: The reflex beliefs are not drawn from the source of beliefs, whatever it may be, but applied to it. People find beliefs in the Bible, and they also hold beliefs about what they find there.

Believer: That seems perfectly clear.

Metahistorian: Good, because you can immediately see how reflex belief operates in Darwnian theory. You, for instance, may believe that Darwinian theory is the most complete and convincing explanation of evolution that exists, or has ever existed.

Believer: I certainly do.

Metahistorian: Well, that demonstrates reflex belief. No authoritative text of Darwinian theory states that it is the most complete and convincing explanation of evolution. The belief is not found in the source, but applied to it.

Believer: I see your point. It looks like reflex belief is inevitable in any domain, be it science or religion.

Metahistorian: Now let me repeat my previous question. Do you believe that the Darwinian beliefs you hold are true?

Believer: Of course I do.

Metahistorian: The question is hardly worth asking, you might say. It belabours the obvious. All this seems so self-evident that I may appear to be disingenuous by asking it.

Believer: You’re pretty close to that.

Metahistorian: Perhaps I am, but my reason for asking if you believe that the beliefs you hold are true is basically sincere. I put the question in that way because I am wondering if there is another question behind it, a hidden question. If you sincerely believe that what you believe is true (as everyone does, of course), then you will not be inclined to look any deeper into the issue, and you will not see the other question hidden behind the banal one. Not seeing the hidden question, you never get to ask it. Without asking it, you will never suspect the deception that operates within the act of believing.

Believer: This is getting a bit contorted, but I think I follow your drift. You are suggesting that I may be deceiving myself in some way in what I believe, or in the way I regard my beliefs.

Metahistorian: Yes, that’s what I’m getting at.

Believer: And you are proposing that the banal assertion, "I believe that what I believe is true," hides a deeper issue.

Metahistorian: That’s right. It’s a kind of gloss like the varnish on an image that prevents us from seeing the image clearly. I am also proposing that unless you can get to the hidden issue and consider it closely, you will be deceived in what you believe.

Believer: Okay, I’m game. So what is the hidden question?

Metahistorian: Do you believe that you hold your beliefs because they are true?

Believer: But you just asked me that.

Metahistorian: No, I asked if you believe that the beliefs you hold are true, I did not ask if you hold them because they are true.

Believer: If I take a moment to ponder on this I think I can see a difference. Just barely.

Metahistorian: The difference of phrasing is a nuance, a mere trick of syntax, but the difference of meaning is vast. Once we slip past the banal assertion, "I believe that what I believe is true," we come to the hidden question, which at first looks very odd. It strangeness is due to the fact that we never ask ourselves if we hold our beliefs because we find truth in them. The operative word here is because.

Believer: Well, I can follow this rather baroque procedure, but I cannot see where it is taking us.

Metahistorian: I think you will be able to see that better when you answer the question, the second one. You still have not really answered it.

Believer: Ask me again.

Metahistorian: Do you believe that you hold your beliefs because they are true?

Believer: Well, of course. I am inclined to answer this question in the same way as I answered the first question. I am still not seeing a difference.

Metahistorian: Be careful here. It’s all too easy to blur the two questions, but they are totally distinct. Seeing no difference, you will tend to answer them in the same way. But this is a mistake. You are at risk of tricking yourself.

Believer: Tricking myself? I can’t see how.

Metahistorian: It’s simple. Your response to the first question (which is the response anyone and everyone would give) reveals nothing. The proposition is purely tautological, question and answer refer to themselves: you believe that what you believe is true and you hold it to be true because you believe it. This phrase is a like a synaptic tape-loop in the mind. It repeats and reconfirms itself, endlessly. But there is troubling issue hidden behind this mental iteration, a question we never ask ourselves. If you pose the hidden question to yourself, you will be confronted with a startling realization. Go ahead, ask yourself the hidden question, putting in the first person this time.

Believer: Do I hold my beliefs because they are true?

Metahistorian: That’s right. That’s how to ask it. You have found the decisive accent. Obviously you hold your beliefs to be true, you regard them as true, but do you really hold them because they are true? Do you see now what asking this question does? Do you see what the exact syntax implies?

Believer: I think so. It implies that even if I regard what I believe as true, that does not mean that I believe it because it is true.

Metahistorian: You have it right. The question is really troubling because it challenges our universal assumption about why we hold beliefs and -- here is the most startling thing -- it suggests that we may have reasons for adopting beliefs that have nothing to do with the truth of those beliefs.

Believer: That is troubling. Obviously whatever I believe I must consider to be true. Thinking in that way confirms my convictions, it gives me confidence in what I believe. The tack you’re taking threatens this confidence.

Metahistorian: To consider what you believe to be true is perfectly natural and, of course, transparently self-serving. There is an internal logic that tells you: Because I believe it, it must be true! I am proposing that this logic is deceptive. Can you now see the difference between assuming "I believe it, so it must be true" and asking, "Do I believe it because it is true?"

Believer: Oh yes. I can see a difference. I can see how this question, which you say is hidden behind the banal assertion that our beliefs are true, can initiate a process of self-examination. It could make me ask myself some rather probing questions.

Metahistorian: Yes, it could. For instance, consider this question: Did you look at the beliefs you hold before adopting them, determine that they contain truth, and then freely choose to accept them?

Believer: To go through a process like that consciously and deliberately would be quite a challenge.

Metahistorian: Let’s say that it’s a challenge worth considering, if we have any inclination to place supreme value on truth. We can formulate the challenge in the golden rule of metacritique: Never assume that beliefs are adopted because the believer finds them to contain truth.

Believer: That’s pretty radical. It makes me wonder what holding beliefs has to do with the experience of truth. Isn’t knowing the truth a basic human need?

Metahistorian: It surely is. But the problem is, the need to believe may not serve our need to know the truth. At the very least, we cannot assume that these two needs are identical, or even that they work together. Close investigation may reveal that they work against each other. Metahistory is a critique of belief. It proposes that the reasons we adopt beliefs are independent of the truth contained in those beliefs. Without making this distinction, we are bound to deceive ourselves about what we believe. We will always assume that the power of our beliefs must be due to the truth they contain. This is a terrific, a truly staggering deception.

Believer: Well, I still believe the Darwinian theory of evolution, but I am feeling a bit vulnerable about it. To say the least.

Metahistorian: That’s perfectly natural. But metacritique does not demand that you surrender your belief in Darwinian theory, or even to suspend it. To share and compare what we believe is a powerful and revealing experience, but there is more. In addition to discussing what we believe, we can consider our reasons for adopting beliefs. These may turn out to have precious little to do with the truth in the beliefs, if indeed there is any.

Believer: This is hard to see at first, but perhaps it is not threatening to my beliefs after all. You are saying that metahistory involves questioning beliefs less than it involves questioning the reasons for adopting them.

Metahistorian: This is exactly right. Metahistory poses a disarming question: Do we adopt beliefs because we find truth in them, or for other reasons? The process leading to this question had to start with an unusual tack: asking what you believe about what you believe.

Believer: That’s what you call reflex belief.

Metahistorian: Correct. There is immense value in detecting and examining reflex beliefs. There are many reflex beliefs relative to specific beliefs we hold, and there is one universal reflex belief that we all hold in regard to everything we believe: we believe that what we believe is true in itself, that our beliefs contain truth. But the assumption that we adopt beliefs because of the truth we find in them is deceptive. It prevents us from looking honestly at how we come by our beliefs. It deters us from considering what conditions and reasons having nothing to do with our quest for truth might compel us to adopt beliefs. In short, if we do not examine how and why acquire our beliefs, we tend to assume that we adopt them because of the truth we find in them. This is not necessarily so. We could never have disclosed the mechanism of self-deception that operates in belief without first looking at the issue of reflex belief in its universal and comprehensive instance.

Believer: You are saying, then, that the universal tendency to believe that what we believe is true conceals an act of self-deception.

Metahistorian: Yes. Our dialogue has allowed us to go beyond this universal belief to what it conceals. Now we realize that even though we regard what we believe as true - and this is prefectly natural, of course -- we cannot suppose that we hold our beliefs because of the truth they contain. The deception resides in our supposing that the truth contained in our beliefs persuades us to adopt them. Metahistory proposes that the reasons we adopt beliefs may have precious little to do with whether they contain truth or not.

Believer: This is startling, even though I am not someone prone to adopt beliefs of the irrational kind. Nevertheless, I have always assumed that people embrace beliefs, even irrational ones, because they find truth in them.

Metahistorian: That is a correct psychological insight, I would say. Those who adopt what you, a scientifically minded skeptic, consider to be irrational beliefs, are totally convinced that those beliefs connect them to profound truths. The universal expectation is that beliefs exert enormous power over us when they convey deep truths. This expectation plays a key role in the mechanism of self-deception we are considering.

Believer: All this is rather contorted, but equating the power of beliefs with the effect of truth is a huge contortion it itself, isn’t it? It looks like we have to work through a little contortion, a little tricky syntax, to get out of that big contortion.

Metahistorian: That’s a good way of putting it, but we’re not out of the big contortion yet, not by a long shot. The hidden question, "Do we adopt beliefs because we find truth in them, or for other reasons that have nothing do with our need for truth?," merely opens the mind to a process of ever-deeping self-examination.

Believer: I can feel threatened by that process, but also challenged in a positive way. Is it really possible to know the difference between merely holding beliefs to be true and adopting them because there is truth in them?

Metahistorian: The only way to see this difference is to use metacritique. After that, we face the fascinating task of determining what is genuinely true in the things we choose to believe... In metahistory we can assess beliefs by the behavior they produce, and we can defuse them by taking apart the rationale in which they are nested (the detonation device). Beyond that, we can examine our reasons for adopting beliefs. I call this process dereasoning beliefs. It does not require that we invalidate them, merely that we look at the reasons for adopting them and then set the reasons aside. Having done the dereasoning, we can then look at the truth value of the belief.

Believer: You mean that after dereasoning a belief, we are able to see how it stands by itself?

Metahistorian: Exactly. There is disillusionment in this process because we must initially surrender the assumption that we adopt beliefs because they carry truth that stands by itself. This is what we have done in our conversation.

Believer: It’s a tricky process, and I am not entirely satisfied. There are some crucial aspects of our talk that need clarification but overall I am satisfied with the method we’ve worked out.

Metahistorian: It takes patience to work through beliefs. By dereasoning we can finally see the difference between the act of believing and the truth-seeking process. It helps at the outset if we set these two actions apart and keep them apart. The best way to examine beliefs is to consider what makes us believe, what compels us to hold beliefs. As the process unfolds, we will learn if and how the act of believing satisfies our need to know truth, or if and how it doesn’t.

Believer: The dereasoning process you’re proposing reminds me of what Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Metahistorian: In this context, he might have said, "The unexamined belief is not worth holding." When we strip away the reasons and conditions that have determined why and how we adopt beliefs, we prepare ourselves to look in naked honesty at the truth they carry, if indeed they carry truth.

JLL: September 2003

Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.