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No ‘isms’ for me

May 19, 2011

Very often people subscribe to ‘isms’ of one sort or the other. Labels are a notional convenience. A certain body of ideas or related notions is often labeled as some sort of an ‘ism’ – ‘Communism’, ‘Capitalism’, ‘Marxism’, ‘Theism’, ‘Atheism’, ‘Agnosticism’ and what not. Sometimes, however, we take what is meant to be a mere notional convenience – a kind of abstraction for the collection of related ideas they represent, as words usually are – more seriously, devoutly, and ardently than is required, or justified. There can be an ‘ism’ to almost anything, any idea. Terror with an ‘ism’ becomes ‘terrorism’. The suffix ‘ism’ seems to denote an allegiance to a set of ideas rather than the ideas in themselves; for only when an idea has a sufficient following does it seem to deserve an ‘ism’.

The idea without the ‘ism’ is what we should be concerned with, for the ‘ism’ carries with it the unnecessary baggage of allegiance, and sometimes the consequent fundamentalism bordering on mere rationalization of what the ideas stand for as opposed to an open, rational approach to sifting through those ideas. Adherence to an ‘ism’ can be – if you’re not careful – a hindrance in your ability to evaluate an idea on its own merit. Biases can creep in when you are evaluating the validity of some ideas. Instead, you can consider an idea, deliberate upon it, and make it your own without owing any intellectual allegiance of that kind to it. That is, as Bertrand Russell put it, you won’t die for your ideas because you accept the possibility that you might be wrong. Though, of course, intellectual integrity requires that you stick your neck out for the ideas you make your own – that is, you consider them defensible and reasonable – in any rational discourse. And not shy away from a critique thereof. That, however, doesn’t mean you owe an allegiance so strong to those ideas that you’re willing to rationalize anything they say even in the face of insurmountable criticism or evidence, instead of filtering those ideas through the sieve of rational argument and letting go of those of them that seem untenable.

A problem I have had with the culture of debate is that it always emphasizes black or white, for or against, your view or mine. Most of the debates I have seen – in school, or in college, or even elsewhere – usually end up being exercises in rationalization of the premise the parties for or against a motion seek to establish; whereupon, the matters of fact are often obscured by matters of opinion. A position, for or against the matter under debate, is already taken, and all that is done is to selectively look at arguments that support one view or the other. What is not appreciated very often is the fluid nature of most arguments, in the sense that they make a certain position more likely than the other but they do not always definitively rule out the other. And, of course, the truth might just be (and usually is) somewhere in between – a position that nobody thought conceivable at the start of the debate.

The faith instinct – that of clinging to your beliefs emotionally – is a human characteristic. It is what makes us passionate about things – belief in a certain idea, in a certain ‘ism’ – and leads us to arguments, both clever and stupid. Clever – when we are essentially rational; and stupid – when we are trying to rationalize despite all valid evidence or arguments to the contrary. It leads us into fallacies of one sort or the other, if left unchecked. Sometimes – when we realize we can’t quite defend our beliefs and we seem to be losing the conviction we started with – we stop listening to any criticisms thereof and continue singing our own song regardless of what anyone has to say. The notion central to an ‘ism’ is that of belief – you subscribe to an ‘ism’ when you believe in the ideas it stands for. The process of acquiring a belief, therefore, is one that needs to be looked at closely.

Much of the misery that many of us go through when confronted with something in conflict with our beliefs is a product of the unwillingness to reconsider the beliefs we hold so dear, perhaps because they seem such an essential part of our world-view that we can’t imagine abandoning those beliefs – for then we might feel rudderless in a world no longer consistent with what we imagined to be true, and perhaps also because we have been conditioned into not questioning those beliefs all our life. This is particularly true of religious belief which, in almost all human societies, is deeply entrenched since one’s childhood. Any comment that might contradict such a belief is vehemently censured or simply ignored without even bothering to evaluate the merits of the comment, for fear that it might just be true and might thus weaken the concerned religious belief. In questions of matters of fact, it does not matter what your religious or political affiliations are, it does not matter what ‘isms’ you subscribe to, it does not matter what your beliefs are – what matters is the truth, the matter of fact. And to reject a fact because it is inconsistent with your beliefs doesn’t change the fact. What must change, when you discover the inconsistency in your belief system, is the corresponding belief. It must reflect the fact that is seen to be true. And this process of updating your beliefs – using the real world as a check – is a process of growth, of developing an accurate picture of the world instead of an illusory one.

The point to be taken away from the preceding discussion is simply this – that beliefs must be derived from experience and reason, not prejudices; that they must be amenable to change and capable of self-correction in the light of new experience or evidence; and that ‘isms’, while a notional convenience, should not be taken more seriously than is tenable. Free up your mind from unnecessary ‘isms’ and look at the world as a laboratory for your experiments with life that helps you evolve a world-view that is ever-changing, ever-growing and ever-expanding in the light of new lessons and experiences. It is a most rewarding experience to not be enslaved by an ‘ism’, to be a free thinker. Use an ‘ism’ if you will, but let not the ‘ism’ use you.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. soumyajit permalink
    May 20, 2011 7:59 am

    well writ words.

  2. June 2, 2011 2:12 pm

    ‘isms’ are often just given as a title to what people are doing. Sometimes, people do not understand why others might be behaving or acting in a particular manner, fail to understand that they are acting in a particular way because thy believe in it and not because they want fall in the cult of ‘ism’. Perhaps it’s easier to classify the reason for actions.
    One should also note, that ‘ism’ are often used when the character of the action in question is often extreme. It’s either towards the right or the left. The center tends to escape being tagged as ‘ism’.
    Being able to look through the fallacies in your beliefs and being open to new ideas is what would save one.
    Always being rational is not possible for different people like to look at things in different manner. Rationality ( as defined in free dictionary would be )
    1. the state or quality of being rational or logical
    2. the possession or utilization of reason or logic
    3. a reasonable or logical opinion

    So in reference to not being rational… “Is that the logical thing to do, Spock?”
    “No … But it is the human thing to do.”…

    • ravithekavi permalink*
      June 2, 2011 5:47 pm

      “fail to understand that they are acting in a particular way because thy believe in it and not because they want fall in the cult of ‘ism’.”

      understanding why people act the way they do is a different problem – that of neuroscience and pyschology, perhaps. beliefs, of course, are a product of the way you look at the world. and the way you look at the world is conditioned by influences – parental, from friends, or otherwise – that shape your thinking. what one should be able to do is not be constrained by the limits of those influences and be able to put one’s beliefs through the test of experience and reason. and, change them if they are untenable, instead of clinging to them unnecessarily. and this is not because i say so. this is because it will help them better match their beliefs with their experience of the world. and thus enable them to efficiently navigate reality.

      “One should also note, that ‘ism’ are often used when the character of the action in question is often extreme. It’s either towards the right or the left. The center tends to escape being tagged as ‘ism’.”

      Agreed. By an ‘ism’ i don’t just mean a single action – i mean an unflinching allegiance to something that might lead one into doing unreasonable things.

      “Being able to look through the fallacies in your beliefs and being open to new ideas is what would save one.”

      Exactly!

      “So in reference to not being rational… “Is that the logical thing to do, Spock?”
      “No … But it is the human thing to do.”…”

      Here the question is one of value – that of saving an individual they valued, risking everyone else’s lives. Rationality is a tool that can help you make good decisions. We are not machines programmed to be rational. We change our programs often. And that is what I emphasize, a dynamic belief system that is constantly updated. How you use it is up to you, depending on what you value.

      Once in a while I might not do the rational thing – I might instead do the fun (or, the human) thing. The important thing is to know the difference.

      P.S. free dictionary is a lousy place for understanding rationality. read this, instead: http://lesswrong.com/lw/31/what_do_we_mean_by_rationality/

      Especially, note the part about instrumental rationality – about achieving your values. Oh, and do read this interesting piece on Spock, lest you take his word to be the last: http://lesswrong.com/lw/59/spocks_dirty_little_secret/ 🙂

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