Paranoid Belief and the Celestial Teapot

The Utah Teapot

The Utah Teapot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bertrand Russell made the following claim about the consequences of believing  in the existence of an orbiting china teapot.

If however the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of a psychiatrist in an enlightened age or the inquisitor in an earlier time.

Russell Bertrand  Is there a God? 1952

That people have persecuted others for their failure to conform to socially held beliefs is undoubtedly true. Jonathan Swift made a similar point through his eponymous narrator, Lemuel Gulliver.

Difference in opinion hath cost many millions of lives: for instance whether flesh be bread or bread be flesh: whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue: whether it is better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire:  what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red or grey; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean, with many more.  Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.

Gulliver to his master houyhnhnm (talking horse)  from Swift Jonathan Gulliver’s Travels 1726

Why do we behave this way? When does perceived eccentricity in the other, lead to persecution rather than toleration?

Richard Dawkins with his meme theory places the problem with the belief. This was not the position taken by Jonathan Swift, who held that the problem lay not with the belief – any belief can be used to form a faction – but with human nature.

Are party and faction rooted in men’s hearts no deeper than phrases borrowed from religion, or founded upon no firmer principles? And is our language so poor that we cannot find other terms to express them?

 Swift Jonathan  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity 1708

The argument that will be made here is that Jonathan Swift was right – the problem lies in human nature.

“Any meme will do.”

The Argument

‘But you got to see the football, at least. Did you enjoy it?’

Nutt’s face lit up.  ‘Yes it was wonderful.  The noise, the crowds, the chanting, oh the chanting! It becomes a second blood!  The unison!  To not be alone! To be not just one but one and all, of one mind  and purpose!…..

Pratchett Terry  Unseen Academicals 2009

We are creatures who bond on shared beliefs, love of country, religion, football team, whatever.  We hold these beliefs with a certainty that goes well beyond rationality, and if challenged can come up with some amazing examples of logic to defend our certainty.

These social belief systems can operate in ways that a good utilitarian would approve of – the greatest good for the greatest number of people, or they can be as paranoid and destructive of human well-being as Bertrand Russell alleged belief in the Celestial Teapot would be.

A social belief system that acts to increase co-operation, reduce interpersonal conflict and enable its adherents to combine forces effectively when under genuine threat, whether from human or nonhuman sources, will increase not only the happiness, but the average biological fitness of its adherents, i.e. their likelihood of having grandchildren.

Belief systems which act to increase interpersonal conflict and cause their adherents to act as though they are under threat when they are not, or worse still to attack the differently beliefed, will decrease their adherents average genetic fitness.

The weasel word here is average.  These paranoid belief systems don’t decrease the genetic fitness of everyone equally. In a society where people feel under threat, those in leadership acquire more power, and with it the potential for vastly increased reproductive fitness.

Paranoid beliefs, i.e. beliefs which induce a reaction to imaginary threats, result in leaders having greater power and social standing than the situation requires. A leader who increases paranoia in his or her followers, increases his or her power. (Is the real reason for the menopause that it freed women to grab power and manipulate others, so as to maximise their number of grandchildren?)

The destabilising of a society is not in the interests of the majority of its members.  For a leader to be believed and followed the threat must appear credible, and it is here that an instinct for self-deception may be a leaders most valuable asset.  The most believable  leaders are likely to be the ones that believe what they are saying.

Of course the fact that the leaders are deceived into believing to be certain, that which only might be true, means that others may see through them. If they have managed to build up enough paranoia among their followers, then this will only add to their power.  They will have real traitors or heretics to denounce.

Which in turn gives those followers, who might have doubted them a reason to keep quiet, and an even better reason to loudly affirm their conformity, and  to seek out traitors and heretics i.e others on whom to project the  ‘evil‘.

This is another behaviour pattern that would be aided by an instinct for self-deception.  Methinks the lady or gentleman doth protest too much, is an accusation that the truly self-deceived human being will be unable to recognise as applicable to them.

The will to power, the urge to social conformity, and the ability to see evil only in the other – this unholy and almost certainly instinctive trinity – has led to massive human suffering.  These drives have undoubtedly infested religion, but they are not exclusive to religion.  They will infect any social grouping, and if we wish to avoid their consequences the first lesson that we should learn is to distrust our own motivations.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:

1 Peter Chapter 5 Verse 8

N.B. Jonathan Swift alleged that the most bloody and furious wars were fought over things indifferent, i.e. things that make no practical difference, the symbol not the reality.  Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot fits the bill admirably.


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