Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Some thoughts on the Belief-Machine

So, my noble interlocutor Jack finds the belief-machine "sinister." I agree that there would be something fishy about using the machine. The point of the idea is to pinpoint the fishiness. So, let's go.

One might say that using the machine subverts one's autonomy (or free will). But, paradoxically perhaps, sometimes "giving up control," or "letting go," is precisely what's needed to liberate ourselves from unnecessary suffering. Of course, one might say that's exactly the problem with the machine: using it is a hyperactive effort to control our own beliefs. But if we were to imagine someone who really wanted to believe something (say, an extreme pessimist who wanted to believe in the goodness of people, or just that goodness is possible...), we might think that the machine would be a quick way to relieve this problem.

A worry I have is the thought of having a belief of significance with no sense of why one believes it. One would, of course, be free to seek out reasons, but we might worry that such an inquiry would be biased from the get-go, pure confabulation. It might be thought that one's inability to adopt a particular belief on one's own is reason for thinking that one shouldn't have the belief. But the sort of beliefs I'm imagining one might have "put in" are ones that others have, and I might not understand their reasons, but trust their judgment, and so think I should believe that way, too, even though I can't bring myself to do it.

Certainly there are things about which I should trust others more than myself, and I might think of my failure to do so as a failure of character. Now, you might say that the problem with the belief-machine in that case is that it addresses a symptom rather than the "disease": it "corrects" my belief, but not the character flaw, as I see it, that prevents me from believing as I think I should.

So, is that the problem: not that the machine circumvents the need to understand why one believes such-and-such, but rather that using the machine involves circumventing the problem of understanding oneself?


  1. I suppose that the Belief- Machine like so many of the other things that man has created would in turn give birth to both positive and negative outcomes. Some good examples of these existing things are items like drugs, money, governments, weapons and so many others.
    I guess we should ask ourselves what might be the worse possible outcome for mankind if indeed the Belief Machine were ever to become a reality. I think the answer to that question is vaguely disclosed within the above listed items. What exactly is the underlying ground reality that gives birth to so many of the negative outcomes that we experience in life? The answer is man himself, it is man that is the problem. Man has always been the problem and he has always been most deeply and intimately a problem for his own self. It is here where I think the Belief Machine would have the most disastrous effect for mankind eventually leading to the total extinction of man himself.

  2. Matthew you said:

    "So, is that the problem: not that the machine circumvents the need to understand why one believes such-and-such, but rather that using the machine involves circumventing the problem of understanding oneself."

    I believe that this is the very root of the problem although it actually goes much deeper then even this. Heidegger speaks of the they world by which all men are subject to being indoctrinated into without his ever fully realizing what has actually taken place. The they world is a world where man has constructed an artificial make believe reality which he has come to accept as his true identity. This is the false self in which we all have already come to believe in without question. It is the world of the egocentric self that experiences itself as some sort of center around which all things must orbit. It is this false self that the belief machine would take to an undreamed of level. I believe after a very short time of use, we would see the following enticement hanging above the machine in the brightest of lights, "Ye shall all be as gods ."

    A world full of gods is a world headed toward total annihilation.

  3. Jack, I'm not sure about your interpretation of Das Man ("the they"), at least the point about artificiality. (Perhaps this is a minor point, since "superficiality" might be a better word.) That aside, I think what you're suggesting dovetails with my thoughts about the self in the post, and that this sort of self-manipulation can (and perhaps often would) involve a sort of "fleeing" from oneself--treating a symptom rather than a cure.

  4. Matthew, I think that we should consider this Belief Machine as a reality that has long ago arisen within the very world of the present. In fact this Belief Machine has from the very beginning been a most active part of our world. The only difference is that instead of it being some sort of non-thinking,non living machine, it is a most human one. What exactly is a good definition of a machine? I would say that a machine is a sort of relative reality that has been given birth by man or a thinking individual either directly or indirectly. A Belief Machine would by necessity operate within the laws of logic and for the purpose of some possible future hoped for result. With any machine, a certain predesigned structure is always oriented towards some specific goal future outcome. What I'm saying is that we do not have to imagine some sort of imaginary Belief Machine in an imaginary future time but that this Belief Machine has always been operative since man"s very beginning. It is real time and real reality.

  5. I think that when we finally get to the bottom of truth if indeed we ever do succeed in doing so, we will find that man himself has already become the belief machine which in turn creates more belief machines.

    The following quote from the matrix is much truer to life then most anyone would suspect or even give it credit for.

    "Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.... Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.... Remember, all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more."

  6. Well, there are things we can do to try convince ourselves of certain things: hang around (or avoid) certain people, read (or avoid reading) certain things, etc. So, perhaps the belief-machine can be taken as a metaphor for "inauthentic" means we employ of convincing ourselves of, or making ourselves comfortable with, certain things.

    Personally, I think the view that this world is a "prison"--which was more elegantly presented by Plato than the Wachowski bros.--is overblown. There are ways we can "imprison" ourselves, etc. etc., but the world is not the problem, as I take it you (Jack) would agree...

  7. Matthew, how would define "the world" that is capable of robing man of his authentic freedom and identity.

  8. The world is the real life belief machine


    by James Finley

    "The primary goal of this little walled-in existence that I imagine myself to be is that of adjusting to the demands of society. This is essential, for this little self derives its total meaning (called relevance) from the myths held by the other selves. As the other selves keep changing, adjust­ing and readjusting these myths, the isolated individual must keep pace in order to avoid falling into nonexistence.

    Merton points out that the problem is that this flow of change is moving everyone toward inevitable extinction. The knowers will die. All that was known will be lost or rearranged and offered to new generations of experts who will hold up as new that which is old many times over.

    Each society suffers from a we-have-finally-arrived syndrome in which the attitudes, achievements and opinions held by that society are given a colossal significance that towers over what other societies say, think and do. This is not to say our own society, for example, has not made real progress but rather that the whole concept of progress itself is given such top priority that we find it difficult to under­stand so-called "backward" countries that do not accept it.

    The first map makers were known to have placed their own country at the center of the world. Each country still does the same today. And the individuals in each society are expected to believe in and support what the society determines to be significant. To fail to do this is to become oneself insignificant. And in this context not to be signifi­cant to the society is not to be at all.

    For Merton, one of the primary tasks of all the au­thentic religious traditions is that of freeing us precisely from this kind of tyranny in which the world is a place that makes absolute demands to which we must comply in order to remain real. Applying this to Merton's own monastic tradition, Merton could, of course, point to the monk as the marginal person par excellence who is freed from the ungodly demands of the world.

    Merton says of himself that this world is precisely what he left in entering the monastery:

    . . . what do you mean by "the world" anyway? .... My concrete answer is: what did I leave when I entered the monastery? As far as I can see, what I abandoned when I "left the world" and came to the monastery was the understanding oi myself that I had developed in the context of civil society-my identification with what ap­peared to me to be its aims ... "the world" ... did mean a certain set of servitudes that I could no longer accept. ... Many of these were trivial; some of them were onerous; all are closely re­lated. The image of society that is happy because it drinks Coca-Cola or Seagram's or both and is protected by the bomb."

    The prophetic dimension of the contemplative's role (or nonrole) in society is to a great extent grounded in the contemplative's refusal to embrace the world as a god that gives meaning to life without first accepting and receiv­ing life from God. The contemplative, the prophet, is thus for Merton the marginal person, of whom he writes:

    He does not belong to an establishment. He is a marginal person who withdraws deliberately to the margin of society with a view to deepening fundamental human experience .... We (mar­ginal people) are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal man accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death. The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these peo­ple live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life."

  9. Guess I am going to have to make my pilgrimage to Gethsemani, Ky, now that I'm close. (That's where Merton lived as a monk.) But I'm not sure I follow your drift (which is not to say that this little essay isn't interesting in its own right).

    Suppose I tend to get "caught up in the world" and want to extricate myself. I could use the belief-machine to get me to belief that, say, politics and Coca-Cola aren't that important...(I'm half-kidding, since I'm pretty persuaded on the point that the machine treats a symptom rather than the "disease").

  10. Matthew, the following pretty well describes the real life belief machine into which all of us men have no option of not entering into.

    What Heidegger Means by Being-in-the-World

    By Roy Hornsby

  11. Matthew,

    I've been thinking about a definition for the word "machine" which may add more light to the conversation that we have been having. I believe that if we define it's meaning to narrowly, it may end our discussion prematurely.

    I'd like to begin by saying that a machine is a type of rigid and solidified entity / structure that more or less functions on its own with an occasional tweaking toward the achievement of a specific goal that is of the utmost importance to the entity who puts the machine into action. Once the goal is finalized and has been agreed on the machine is put into action and the one thing necessary is to keep the machine working smoothly and moving in the right direction. Direction always acts within the parameters of reason either consciously or unconsciously. When the machine is human society , the hardened structures that will always exist within and behind the society will always tend to falsify what true human freedom actually is. I would say that the underlying structure of most human society's lead man into slavery and away from freedom. If this is true then the belief machine called society creates the disease and is blind to the symptom .

  12. Matthew,

    I believe that your post on "The Belief Machine" is a perfect segway for diving deeper into a type of manufactured reality / illusion in which all of us men are intimately involved / co-joined. I know that this may indeed sound only like hogwash to you but I can assure you that it is of no such thing.

    Some of mankind's greatest thinkers have given personal testimony to this reality. Men like Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki and many others.

    Truth is always Truth even when there is no man to recognize it as so.