Believing, Really Believing, and Talking to Your Car

On the Muslim calendar, Lailat Al Bara’a began at sundown yesterday (on Sat Feb 24). For Sunnis, on this night Allah decides the fate of all people living on Earth for the coming year. For Shiites, the day is the future birthday Al Imam al-Mahdi, who will be the twelfth and last Imam of Shia. Here in Iowa, even nonMuslims are familiar with celebrating future birthdays, as March 22 is the future birthday in Riverside, Iowa of James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise.
I’m interested in what we believe. In particular, I’m interested in those things that we believe but don’t really believe – the things we pretend to believe. And why we do that. For example, we personify inanimate objects – and that’s a pretend belief. Do you talk to your car? (“Come on, start.” Or: “Please, please make it to the gas station.”)

St. Francis of Assisi talked to "Brother Sun," and "Sister Moon" -- to "Brother Wind," "Sister water," "Brother Fire," and "Sister Earth." He was liable to talk to any creature he encountered, calling it a sibling. If Francis had had a car, I imagine he would have talked to it, too. Simon and Garfunkel, feeling groovy, sing, “Hello, lamppost. Whatcha knowin'?"

We don’t really believe our cars, or the Sun, or lampposts, hear us, or understand, or in any way care about whatever we may be saying. A lot of us know our cars don't hear or care, yet we talk to our cars anyway. I do.Some of us even name our cars. LoraKim's and my car is named Merope -- because she’s a Subaru, and Subaru is the Japanese name for the constellation that we, and the Greeks, call the Pleiades, and the Pleiades, in Greek mythology are the seven sisters, daughters of Pleione and the Titan Atlas. Merope is one of those sisters, and I picked that name because Merope is the only sister who married a mortal. The mortal she married was Sisyphus, which would make LoraKim and me, collectively, Sisyphus -- which, yeah, I kinda resonate with -- some days more than others. So there’s this little story I have – a story to participate in -- which enriches my experience of the particular automobile to which I have the key.

It also connects me to a little bit of family history. Y’see, my Dad used to speak fondly of a Nash Rambler they had back around the time I was born and was too little to remember. There’s a black-and-white photo in the family album of my young parents standing beside that car. Her name, they told me, was Terpsichore – also a figure from Greek mythology: the muse of dance. It makes me smile to look at that old photo. It makes me laugh to think of that hulking Nash Rambler as the muse of dance.

And today, I have Merope, and I do talk to her. When I enter the garage to drive to church, I say “Good morning, Merope.” I might add, “How are you today?” She responds, as things do, by silently shining. Upon returning home, I get out of the car and walk around, pat her on the hood and say, “Thank you, Merope. Good car.” Many people talk to their pets this way – “good dog” – which might seem less crazy that saying “good car” to a metal mechanism.

When we do talk to nonliving things, it’s more often in frustration. One evening as a boy, I was on the periphery of the kitchen as my mother, a physics professor, struggled to open a jar. “Come on,” she said to the jar, “what’s the matter with you?” as her white-knuckled hands strained to twist the lid. My father entered just in time to hear this. He turned to me and said, “Son, it takes a physicist to believe in the perversity of inanimate objects.”

There is an actual thing called resistentialism – the idea that objects deliberately resist human intentions. Wikipedia says that resistentialism
“is a jocular theory to describe ‘seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects,’ where objects that cause problems (like lost keys or a runaway bouncy ball) are said to exhibit a high degree of malice toward humans. The theory posits a war being fought between humans and inanimate objects, and all the little annoyances that objects cause throughout the day are battles between the two.”
There are times when this is an attractive theory. We apparently like to project on objects an imagined hostility toward us. On the other hand, we like to project on our pets various positive feelings toward which we sympathize.

The line between what we really believe and what we pretend we believe can get fuzzy. I don’t really believe my car can hear me, or understand me, yet I consciously decide to talk to her – and pronoun her -- as if she could. Sometimes some of us talk to the universe in general as if it could hear us – and, after all, isn’t that what prayer is: consciously deciding to talk to the universe in general as if it could hear and understand us? Prayer is good for us – it helps orient us the way we want to be oriented. It draws on the part of the brain that we use for relating to other people – that constructs an understanding of other people as person-like: as having agency, as having beliefs and desires.

To address our car – or reality-as-a-whole -- as person-like – puts us into a story that enriches the relationship, that makes it more meaningful. If you have one of those smart speakers in your home, you can say, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” or “Alexa, play NPR.” (For those of you listening at home, my apologies if I just activated your Alexa.) You can say mean things to your Alexa, and it won’t have any affect at all how she performs with your next request. Or you can be nice, and say, “Alexa, thank you,” and she’ll say, “you’re so very welcome” – and that won’t have any effect on how she performs on your next request either. But it has an effect on you.

The practice of being nice to things around you is a practice, and it shapes you, whether the inanimate things care or not – just as prayer is a practice, and it shapes you, whether the universe-as-a-whole hears or cares or not. Pretending they are person-like helps reinforce habits for how you treat actual people.

You don’t really believe that Alexa, or your car, is a person, but it’s good practice to pretend she is and be nice to her. On the other hand, believing in the perversity of inanimate objects – as Dad gently suggested to Mom – maybe isn’t a belief, or even a pretend belief, you want. Resistentialism is maybe not good practice because it trains you to see more perversity everywhere, including in your fellow humans. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree – and the tree of you is always growing.

Certainly, it’s good practice to treat your dog as person-like – as having beliefs and desires entitled to a certain degree of concern and respect. It may be the case that your dog's person-like-ness is another pretend belief -- that dogs don't really have the feelings we attribute to them. But keep in mind that you and I might also not REALLY have the feelings we attribute to each other either. It's unclear how much of a distinction to draw between human and canine emotional lives. We might not even REALLY have the feelings we attribute to ourselves.

Which of our emotions are "real" -- as in, objective facts of biology -- and which are social constructions (interpretations we learn and could have learned very differently)?

Psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are mostly socially constructed. There are, she says, two biological continua that are "real." There's the pleasant to unpleasant continuum, and there's the high arousal to low arousal continuum. For low arousal and pleasant, think of blissful calm. For high arousal and pleasant, think of something really fun and exciting. For high arousal and unpleasant, think of being very scared or anxious. For low arousal and unpleasant, think of being bored or lethargic. As far as what's "real" biology in our emotional lives, that's it.

That's all there is: just the pleasant-unpleasant continuum and the high-low arousal continuum. Everything else emotional -- joy, love, anger, fear, sadness, shame, ennui, schadenfreude, and on and on -- is socially constructed interpretation of our biology.

There is no neurological state or condition of the brain that all and only angry people have. We have to learn how to read each other's feelings, and read our own feelings, just as we learn to read marks on a page as words of our language – and in both cases that’s a process of constructing meaning. Indeed, if you don’t know at least one certain word of French, you won’t be able to detect ennui in yourself or others – and until you learn the German words schadenfreude or weltschmerz then you can’t have those feelings, because the feelings aren’t a biological reality, they’re a social construct, constructed with our language.

In her chapter, “Is a Growling Dog Angry?” Lisa Feldman Barrett says that the growling dog isn’t angry in the sense of the dog itself constructing “anger” from its experience. Anger is an interpretation, and dogs don't interpret that way. That is: to be angry requires speaking English or some language with a word that translates as "angry." Since dogs don't speak such a language, then, in that sense, the growling dog isn't angry. On the other hand, we humans do interpret ourselves and others with the concept, "anger" -- and it's reasonable that we should interpret dogs that way, too. In THAT sense, yes, the growling dog IS angry.

We include dogs in our social reality when it comes to some emotions – and we should. "Reality," said Phillip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” But we need to distinguish between a single individual not believing in something and a whole society not believing in something. Physical reality is that which doesn't go away even if everybody stops believing in it. Social reality is that which doesn't go away if you, alone and by yourself, stop believing in it, but does go away if everybody stops believing in it.

Anger -- in dogs or in humans -- isn't physically real. If no one believed in anger, it wouldn’t exist. Money isn't physically real either. There are coins, and paper currency, and, these days, electrons in bank computers, but none of that has value, none of it constitutes money, unless humans believe it does. If no one believed in money, it wouldn't exist. So, at one level, anger and money are pretend beliefs.

But anger and money are both socially very real. If you alone, by yourself, were somehow able to stop believing in anger or in money, they would not go away. So, at another level, believing in them isn’t merely a pretend belief.

We do like to pretend. I remember as a teenager spending a rather thrilling afternoon with friends pouring over Beatles lyrics and album covers looking for clues that Paul was dead. According to the theory, Paul McCartney died in a car crash in November 1966 and was secretly replaced by a look-alike. Clue-hunting proved infectious, and became an international phenomenon. It was kind of exciting to see a clue. "Oh, look, this picture from the Magical Mystery Tour album: they’re all in white tuxedos, with roses on the lapels. The other three have red roses, but Paul’s rose is black. Ah!" And: "Doesn’t the cover of the Abbey Road album, with them walking across the street, look like a funeral procession?" It was fun how weird it was.

There’s a basic rule for this sort of game that is better known as a rule for improvisational theatre: never argue against what another character makes up. Accept whatever they say and build on it. The rule makes improv comedy more fun – and it also makes conspiracy-theory building more fun. Without ever saying out loud or acknowledging the “Yes, and…” rule, that’s exactly the rule I was following that afternoon I got all caught up in the “Paul is Dead” game. If someone were to say, "See, Paul is barefoot in this picture, and that's a sign of mourning," I would never have been such a killjoy as to reply, "Yes, in Judaism, mourners take off their shoes when they're indoors. But (1) the Beatles aren't Jewish; (2) in this picture, they are outdoors; and, anyway, (3) wouldn't it be the other three Beatles who would be mourning?" Caught up in the game, I couldn't have entertained such a reply.

Nevertheless, even in the midst of it, some part of me knew it was a game – just as people all caught up in a role-playing game like “Dungeons and Dragons” still know it’s a game. For some people, though, the fun of pretend belief starts to blur over into real belief. It stops being a game. I imagine that’s how the QAnon conspiracies work.

It’s fun to join in with others in cooking up wacky interpretations of “clues.” It’s a way to connect with others, to be creative and collaborative together – following the rule of, “Accept whatever the other players add, and build on it further.” In the case of the Paul is Dead rumor, the whole thing mostly served to spur album sales, though it became a little annoying for Paul and the other Beatles. In the case of QAnon, it does more harm.

Even with QAnon, some amount of the belief in it is people pretending to believe it rather than really believing it. As Steven Pinker writes in his book, Rationality:
“Millions of people endorsed the rumor that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, [but] virtually none took steps commensurate with such an atrocity, such as calling the police. The righteous response of one of them was to leave a one-star review on Google. It’s hardly the response most of us would have if we literally thought that children were being raped in the basement.”
Well: Until one person, Edgar Welch, took the belief seriously and burst into the pizzeria with his gun blazing. He apparently really thought he was rescuing children. “The millions of others," Pinker concludes, "must have believed the rumor in a very different sense of ‘believe.’”

Pinker notes that:
"[Hugo] Mercier also points out that impassioned believers in vast nefarious conspiracies, like the 9/11 Truthers and the chemtrail theorists (who hold that the water-vapor contrails left by jetliners are chemicals dispensed in a secret government program to drug the population), publish their manifestos and hold their meetings in the open, despite their belief in a brutally effective plot by an omnipotent regime to suppress brave truth-tellers like them. It’s not a strategy you see from dissidents in undeniably repressive regimes like North Korea or Saudi Arabia.” (Rationality 299)
Many of these people are very seriously pretending to believe the conspiracy – still, for all their seriousness, pretending. Pinker says there’s a zone of the physical objects around us, and the people we deal with face to face. There’s a set of rules and norms that governs these interactions.
“The other zone is the world beyond immediate experience: the distant past, the unknowable future, faraway peoples and places, remote corridors of power, the microscopic, the cosmic, the counter-factual, the metaphysical. People may entertain notions about what happens in these zones, but they have no way of finding out, and anyway it makes no discernible difference to their lives. Beliefs in these zones are narrative, which may be entertaining [like the future birthday of Captain Kirk] or inspiring or morally edifying [like the future birthday of Al Imam Al-Mahdi]. Whether they are literally ‘true’ or ‘false’ is the wrong question. The function of these beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose.” (Rationality 300)
The conspiracy theory behind anti-semitism has been growing and morphing and poisoning minds for centuries. It’s hard to imagine it was ever any fun, but the way it evolves suggests the application of the “Yes, and…” rule to bizarre interpretations of fabricated “clues.” Such conspiracy theorizing does function “to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and give it a moral purpose.”

Evil doesn’t start as evil. It starts in a very human, necessary function. We need to make sense of our world – to have a story to participate in that lends meaning to our lives. Sometimes the stories turn toxic. We need to have our stories – but what can be done about the toxic ones?

Of course, the obvious: stand up for the truth. Be willing to violate the rule of improv, and say “no” rather than accepting and building on the other person’s craziness. Adhere to good standards of credibility. Don’t leap to conclusions beyond what the evidence supports. Cite your sources and ask others to cite theirs. Be skeptical. Be ready to change your mind. We need a lot more observance of all those guidelines.

I have one other suggestion not so obvious. Take an improv class -- and encourage the teaching of improv in our schools. I suggest this because improv actors know that they are acting, and we need to get better as a society at drawing the distinction between when we’re really believing and when we’re pretending to believe. We don't need to stop all pretend-believing -- as if we could. We don’t need to stop having money, and constructing subtly-differentiated emotions. We don't need to stop playing board games with story lines or talking to our cars and pets -- or "Brother Sun" or lampposts. Much of that is helpful, or good for us and good practice.

We just need to be able to step back sometimes and recognize that we are, in fact, playing make-believe.

Also: improv is hugely fun, and we could all use more fun. We need to have fun with this weird thing we’re all saddled with – and blessed with -- called being human.

May it be so. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Sir, while writing a comment at the bottom of this page immediately following my reading of it is, by definition, improvisational, I must promptly shout my approval of every aspect of both style and thought employed by my, still growing, exceptional student. Not only do you have the ideas, you have the discipline and interest to create the argument while citing expert, research -supported theory. So much of the confident, clear assumptions—by which I make my way past the disruptive, self-focused diatribes and calls for Hell, here and now—are delineated here. All the best to your heart, brain and, God willing, soul, young fellow of caring thought,
    Mr. Benson