We all believe in stories. Stories about ourselves, stories about the world around us, about the societies and communities we are part of, about our histories, and so forth. We tend not to think of these stories as “stories”, however, because we hold them true – that’s what it means to believe something: to hold it true – and we tend to think of stories as untrue. But at least some of them are untrue. We don’t all believe the same things, so at least some of us must be wrong.
Furthermore, many of the stories we believe in – especially those we hold dearest (whether we are aware of it or not) – are much like myths, the archetype of stories, and not just in their form (i.e. they have heroes and dramatic plot twists and surprises), but in their role and function. Our most important stories are the ones that give meaning, that tell us who and what we are, that tell us what the world is like, that tell us where we belong and what our communities are like, and so forth. It is hard to overstate the importance of such stories. According to Ernest Becker and the psychological theory that was inspired by his work we need these stories to fend off an otherwise debilitating fear of death.1 We need stories to give meaning to the world around us, to make sense of it, and to give ourselves a place in it, because our self-esteem depends on our beliefs that we are somehow making a meaningful contribution to something important, something that we are part of and that survives us, to our societies, cultures, or civilizations.
Some of the stories we believe in are more peripheral – they don’t play a central role in shaping our views of ourselves and the world around us. Others are more central. The more central a story in someone’s view of herself and the world, the thicker the defensive walls around it, and the fiercer the response to a perceived threat. To give an example – there are people who have built their belief systems on the conviction that Earth will experience a climate change-related catastrophe leading to global societal collapse within a decade or so. (Usually, methane is identified as the cause of the catastrophe.) My previous article, On the Fragility of Civilization, disagreed with such views in two ways that may seem mere details to non-believers: firstly, I argued that due to inertia of the Earth system collapse won’t occur that soon (it will probably take 25 to 30 years), and secondly, I argued that no further catastrophe is necessary (i.e. that climate change is already catastrophic and that the compounding “small” effects of natural disasters are enough to cause collapse). These two – apparently small – disagreements were more than enough to activate the defense mechanisms of the believers in impending catastrophe, however, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the most hostile responses to my article all originated in that camp. My article threatened their worldview, and thus it threatened them, so it had to be neutralized.
Such “worldview defense” is a normal response to a perceived threat. But unfortunately, it seems that the nature of worldview defense isn’t particularly well understood. Or let me rephrase that, psychologists have a fairly well-developed and empirically supported theory of worldview defense,2 but their insights have insufficiently reached a wider audience. “Insufficient”, because worldview defense matters. Let’s illustrate this with another example. Image a debate between a scientifically and philosophically informed atheist and a religious believer. The atheist produces a series of science-based arguments against some aspect of the religious believer’s belief system (against the existence of God, miracles, or souls, for example). But the believer doesn’t budge, if anything she becomes further entrenched in her beliefs. Arguments cannot dislodge someone from her deepest held beliefs. Rather, she will defend those beliefs with anything she can muster, because she needs those beliefs, in the exact same way that the atheist needs her beliefs (in the non-existence of God, miracles, souls, or whatever).
Reason is powerless in a struggle with the stories at the center of someone’s belief system. This is the case even if that “someone” ascribes to rationality otherwise, and even if rationality is a central part of her belief system. You might expect that a rational, intelligent, well-educated person is more likely to accept a rational argument against her belief system, but the contrary turns out to be the case. The reason for this is that she is also better able to defend her belief system – she has more tools, more knowledge, and more tricks she can muster. This is called “motivated reasoning”.
In Against Democracy,3 Jason Brennan divides the electorate in three groups: (1) hobbits, who are pretty much ignorant about anything political, and rarely have strong opinions (and often no political opinions at all); (2) hooligans, who “have strong and largely fixed worldviews”4; and (3) vulcans, who “think scientifically and rationally about politics”.5 Vulcans are rare, and “most of us are either hobbits or hooligans, and most hobbits are potential hooligans”.6 Hobbits and hooligans are incompetent decision makers, however, and that is a problem because:
If most voters act foolishly, they don’t just hurt themselves. They hurt better-informed and more rational voters, minority voters, citizens who abstain from voting, future generations, children, immigrants, and foreigners who are unable to vote but still are subject to or harmed by that democracy’s decisions.”7
And therefore, “to justify democracy, we’ll need to explain why it’s legitimate to impose incompetently made decisions on innocent people”.8 The only plausible explanation would be that any alternative would be even worse, but that explanation fails according to Brennan, because he thinks there are better alternatives. That is, he wants to empower the vulcans.
The problem is that there are no vulcans, however. Brennan thinks that vulcans are rare, but not non-existent, and the self-congratulatory claims that are generously sprinkled throughout the book make it clear that he believes that he is himself a vulcan. But he is not, and that is the reason for this apparent detour: Brennan is a perfect illustration of my point that even otherwise rational people are “hooligans” when it comes to deeply held beliefs.
Brennan is a hooligan for libertarian capitalism. He has written books defending both libertarianism and capitalism.9 The cornerstone of Brennan’s defense of libertarian capitalism is its foundation on mainstream, “neoclassical” economic theory, which as I and many others have shown, is an ideologically motivated, incoherent fiction that serves no other purpose than defending capitalism.10 And, not coincidentally, one of the most important pieces of “evidence” in Brennan’s case against democracy is that most voters are not believers in neoclassical economics.11 (Instead, most voters tend to favor economic economic policies that are closer to Mercantilism or List’s National System approach. Interestingly, the historical evidence suggests that those theories actually work, while neoclassical (i.e. mainstream) policies do not.12 So it turns out that there are cases in which the “hobbits and hooligans” actually have more sensible preferences than the supposed “experts”.)
What this case illustrates is that there are no vulcans. The more convinced someone appears to be that she is a vulcan, the more likely it is that she really is a hooligan under the influence of some ideology that she doesn’t recognize as an ideology herself. But that is how ideology works, of course, which brings us right back to what I wrote in the first paragraph of this article: we don’t recognize the stories we believe in as stories because we believe them to be true. (That is, again, what it means to believe something. And that is what ideology – especially hegemonic ideology – establishes.13) Nevertheless, one can try to be as vulcan-like as possible, but an essential part thereof is to realize that fully becoming a vulcan is an unattainable ideal (if it is “ideal” at all).14
So, back to the main point: the more central a story (or belief, or ideology, or value, and so forth) in someone’s worldview and/or view of herself, the stronger the defense thereof, regardless of how rational (or vulcan-like) the person in question (thinks she) is.15 And this has some very important implications. When presented with counter-evidence against story, idea, or theory X, the believer in X – provided that it plays a central role in her believe system – will do everything she can to defend X, and in the process might actually start to believe in X even more strongly. This may seem counter-intuitive (to rationalists, at least), but counter-evidence against deeply held beliefs often makes people stronger believers in those beliefs. Consequently, reasoning and evidence are ineffective against such beliefs: some of the stories we believe in are immune to reason.16 And this creates a very serious problem.
Imagine that some people have extremely harmful beliefs – beliefs that are not just harmful to themselves, but also, or even more, to others. And imagine that these are deeply held beliefs – they are part of those people’s most central stories. Imagine, for example, that these people believe that CO₂ is harmless, or that climate change isn’t real, or that women, other races and/or future generations are of lesser worth, or something similarly harmful. The problem is that there is (almost?) nothing you can do to change those people’s minds. Trying to argue with them or trying to prove them wrong is not just futile, but often even counter-productive: it will only make the believers hold on to their harmful beliefs even stronger. So what is one to do when faced with an adversary that deeply believes in something truly harmful?
I have no clue, but it should be fairly obvious that this is a rather urgent question, given that there are a whole bunch of widely held beliefs that are threatening the natural and social structure of our world, and thereby the lives of billions of people. Beliefs in human mastery over nature, in technological solutions for most problems, in free markets as solutions for every other kind of problem, in the greater worth or importance of the old than the young, in the greater worth or importance of the in-group17 than others (or the out-group), and so forth are all widely held and have all proven to be extremely dangerous. Some of these beliefs are among the causes of the current climate crisis, and block any way out of that crisis.18 Others have lead to oppression, pogroms, and even genocide.19 But these are the stories we – or many of us, at least – believe in. And these stories are killing us.
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- Ernest Becker (1973), The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster). The psychological theory based on his work is “Terror Management Theory”. For an introduction and review of three decades of research, see: Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, & Tom Pyszczynski (2015), The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (New York: Random House).
- See: Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski (2015), The Worm at the Core.
- Jason Brennan (2016). Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
- Idem, p. 5.
- Idem, p. 6.
- Idem, p. 9.
- Jason Brennan (2012), Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press). Jason Brennan (2014), Why not Capitalism? (New York: Routledge).
- See Economics as Malignant Make Believe, as well as Steve Keen (2011), Debunking Economics, Revised and Expanded edition (London: Zed Books).
- See also: Bryan Caplan (2006), The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
- Erik Reinert (2007), How Rich Countries Got Rich…and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor (London: Constable). See also: On Free Trade Ideology.
- On hegemonic ideology, see: Lajos Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm). For an edited excerpt, see: The Hegemony of Psychopathy (excerpt).
- And Brennan is obviously failing in this respect.
- Although people who are closer to vulcans might have less or less elaborate stories at the center, and/or might be more tolerant of other stories and less aggressive in defending their own. This is a bit speculative, however.
- Implicit death threats don’t work either, as illustrated by some anti-smoking campaigns. If being a smoker is an important part of the story someone tells herself about herself (i.e. her subjective self-identity), then the response to reminders of death will be to strengthen her commitment to that story, and thus to smoking. See: Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski (2015), The Worm at the Core, pp. 203-4.
- One’s own family, tribe, community, society, country, culture, race, or other kind of social group.
- This concerns, for example, the beliefs in human mastery, technological Utopianism, the primacy of the elder, and free market dogmatism. I intend to return to the relation between these stories and climate change in a future chapter in the No Time for Utopia series.
- This concerns the primacy of the in-group and its family members such as nationalism, patriotism, racism, civilizational pride, sexism, and so forth.