Thinking about Thinking — and Other Things: Desiderata As Beliefs

This is the fifth post in a series. (The previous posts are here, here, here, and here.)This post, like its predecessors, will leave you hanging. But despair not, the series will come to a point — eventually. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.

How many things does a human being believe because he wants to believe them, and not because there is compelling evidence to support his beliefs? Here is a small sample of what must be an extremely long list:

There is a God. (1a)

There is no God. (1b)

There is a Heaven. (2a)

There is no Heaven. (2b)

Jesus Christ was the Son of God. (3a)

Jesus Christ, if he existed, was a mere mortal. (3b)

Marriage is the eternal union, blessed by God, of one man and one woman. (4a)

Marriage is a civil union, authorized by the state, of one or more consenting adults (or not) of any gender, as the participants in the marriage so define themselves to be. (4b)

All human beings should have equal rights under the law, and those rights should encompass not only negative rights (e.g., the right not to be murdered) but also positive rights (e.g., the right to a minimum wage). (5a)

Human beings are, at bottom, feral animals and cannot therefore be expected to abide always by artificial constructs, such as equal rights under the law. Accordingly, there will always be persons who use the law (or merely brute force) to set themselves above other persons. (5b)

The rise in global temperatures over the past 170 years has been caused primarily by a greater concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which rise has been caused by human activity – and especially by the burning of fossil fuels. This rise, if it isn’t brought under control will make human existence far less bearable and prosperous than it has been in recent human history. (6a)

The rise in global temperatures over the past 170 years has not been uniform across the globe, and has not been in lockstep with the rise in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The temperatures of recent decades, and the rate at which they are supposed to have risen, are not unprecedented in the long view of Earth’s history, and may therefore be due to conditions that have not been given adequate consideration by believers in anthropogenic global warming (e.g., natural shifts in ocean currents that have different effects on various regions of Earth, the effects of cosmic radiation on cloud formation as influenced by solar activity and the position of the solar system and the galaxy with respect to other objects in the universe, the shifting of Earth’s magnetic field, and the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates and its molten core). In any event, the models of climate change have been falsified against measured temperatures (even when the temperature record has been adjusted to support the models). And predictions of catastrophe do not take into account the beneficial effects of warming (e.g., lower mortality rates, longer growing seasons), whatever causes it, or the ability of technology to compensate for undesirable effects at a much lower cost than the economic catastrophe that would result from preemptive reductions in the use of fossil fuels. (6b)

Not one of those assertions, even the ones that seem to be supported by facts, is true beyond a reasonable doubt. I happen to believe 1a (with some significant qualifications about the nature of God), 2b, 3b (given my qualified version of 1a), a modified version of 4a (monogamous, heterosexual marriage is socially and economically preferable, regardless of its divine blessing or lack thereof), 5a (but only with negative rights) and 5b, and 6b.  But I cannot “prove” that any of my beliefs is the correct one, nor should anyone believe that anyone can “prove” such things.

Take the belief that all persons are created equal. No one who has eyes, ears, and a minimally functioning brain believes that all persons are created equal. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, didn’t believe it:

On September 18, 1858 at Charleston, Illinois, Lincoln told the assembled audience:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality … I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman, or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men….

This was before Lincoln was elected president and before the outbreak of the Civil War, but Lincoln’s speeches, writings, and actions after these events continued to reflect this point of view about race and equality.

African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, for his part, remained very skeptical about Lincoln’s intentions and program, even after the p[resident issued a preliminary emancipation in September 1862.

Douglass had good reason to mistrust Lincoln. On December 1, 1862, one month before the scheduled issuing of an Emancipation Proclamation, the president offered the Confederacy another chance to return to the union and preserve slavery for the foreseeable future. In his annual message to congress, Lincoln recommended a constitutional amendment, which if it had passed, would have been the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The amendment proposed gradual emancipation that would not be completed for another thirty-seven years, taking slavery in the United States into the twentieth century; compensation, not for the enslaved, but for the slaveholder; and the expulsion, supposedly voluntary but essentially a new Trail of Tears, of formerly enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa….

Douglass’ suspicions about Lincoln’s motives and actions once again proved to be legitimate. On December 8, 1863, less than a month after the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln offered full pardons to Confederates in a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction that has come to be known as the 10 Percent Plan.

Self-rule in the South would be restored when 10 percent of the “qualified” voters according to “the election law of the state existing immediately before the so-called act of secession” pledged loyalty to the union. Since blacks could not vote in these states in 1860, this was not to be government of the people, by the people, for the people, as promised in the Gettysburg Address, but a return to white rule.

It is unnecessary, though satisfying, to read Charles Murray’s account in Human Diversity of the broad range of inherent differences in intelligence and other traits that are associated with the sexes, various genetic groups of geographic origin (sub-Saharan Africans, East Asians, etc.), and various ethnic groups (e.g., Ashkenazi Jews).

But even if all persons are not created equal, either mentally or physically, aren’t they equal under the law? If you believe that, you might just as well believe in the tooth fairy. As it says in 5b,

Human beings are, at bottom, feral animals and cannot therefore be expected to abide always by artificial constructs, such as equal rights under the law. Accordingly, there will always be persons who use the law (or merely brute force) to set themselves above other persons.

Yes, it’s only a hypothesis, but one for which there is ample evidence in the history of mankind. It is confirmed by every instance of theft, murder, armed aggression, scorched-earth warfare, mob violence as catharsis, bribery, election fraud, gratuitous cruelty, and so on into the night.

And yet, human beings (Americans especially) persist in believing tooth-fairy stories about the inevitable triumph of good over evil, self-correcting science, and the emergence of truth from the marketplace of ideas. Balderdash, all of it.

But desiderata become beliefs. And beliefs are what bind people – or make enemies of them.