Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Magnetic Belief

In an earlier essay I perverted the famous Douglas Adams quote: “Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” into: “isn’t it enough to imagine fairies at the bottom of a garden without having to believe it’s true”. The point I was trying to make is that by constraining imagination with belief we either: 1) limit imagination, or 2) believe stupid things.

It has been pointed out to me that: “belief is a powerful force, and to constrain it by limiting belief to plausible things is to limit oneself”. Now… I really did try and craft that paraphrasing sentence with the intent to capture the essence of what has been said to me. As I re-read it I cannot help but realize that I captured less sense than should be used to fill out a sentence. Unfortunately, it is difficult to glean enough extra sense from the statements to fill out the space enclosed in the quotation marks. So, let me disassemble the “quote” to find the lacking sense.

“Belief is a powerful force”. Like what…magnets or something? Is there a unit of measure for belief; how about “the Ted Haggard (abbreviated TH)”. How strong is a TH? How many kiloTH are needed to bend a spoon?

I may wax ridiculous, but there is a point. In order to be powerful something has to have more power than something that is week. This allows some relative scale for comparison. A force is something that acts on something else, so the action is observable. An observable and quantifiable action can be related to other forces. So it is accurate to say that a certain number of Ted Haggards represents X number of joules (a measure of force), and we know that X Joules –if properly applied- can bend a spoon.

I could say that they meant “force” metaphorically; so I will. However, I know that they did NOT mean it metaphorically, but where do you go with the mystical magic force that doesn’t do anything and is very powerful at the same time?

A metaphorical force is often one who’s existence is postulated by an action. If, for instance, a huge number of people with signs that had pictures of a US president surrounded by swastikas on them descended on the DC mall to see a former Alaskan governor speak then one might metaphorically say that their action was the result of a force. Let’s call the swastika bearing sign coagulation causing force a “Sarah Palin (abbreviated SP)”.

We know that the literal forces that brought the swastika folks to DC were acting via planes, trains, or automobiles. We know the literal forces that kept them together were forces with names like “friction, or “gravity”. We know, or can approximate, the litany of literal forces needed to create the mini brown-shirt teabagger meeting on the mall. What imaginable activity could the metaphorical Sarah Palin perform? This is, of course, a rhetorical question. The SP is a “motivational force”.

Motivation is a steering activity. Being motivated does not create any actual potential for activity. Motivation merely directs the realization of existing potential. In the case of the teabagger protests the motivated individuals would have had the potential to congregate with swastika signs, but they would have been doing something else instead. Perhaps they would have been yelling at televised footage of American Idol judges?

So if belief is a motivational force like the Sarah Palin it is observed through directed realization of existing potential. If we direct our potential on the basis of implausible, or irrational, information I do not believe we are being prudent with our potentials. Of course one could reasonably suggest that dancing is imprudent, and I like dancing. There are worse things one can do than dance. People can be motivated to perform actions that are contrary to their own well being. History easily yields up examples of people being motivated to perform hideously inhumane activities.

Motivation provides direction; lacking a scalar component it cannot define a vector of force. It is, however, the direction that we apply ourselves in that defines the cultural part of our humanity. If we squander our humanity by abandoning the practice of deciding our best heading then we abandon so much of what is best about ourselves. Unfettered belief too often leads to delusion. The Sarah Palin can easily be used to measure delusion.


Anonymous said...

Well Said...... I enjoy your writing


adult onset atheist said...

Thank you Jamie

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the placebo effect
is a pretty quantifiable measure of the force of belief, no?
Sarah K

adult onset atheist said...

The effect of belief on physical well being is well documented and extremely interesting. In addition to the positive placebo effect there is the hypochondriac effect where people display real symptoms because they believe that something is making them sick.

It is interesting to note that the placebo effect is most powerful with psychological illness. In some cases placebos are arguably more curative than drugs.

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