You are in a Cult
The Black Belt
This is the Black Belt of Mixed Mental Arts. It has been a long journey. Along the way, you’ve learned about culture; how it affects your life and your cognitive processes. You’ve learned about how your human brain works; its functions and its limits. You’ve learned that the world was built by people no smarter than you. To survive in this world, you need to learn, unlearn, and relearn, innovating along the way. And when you put all those different parts together, you can cross cultural lines to absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own to make kintsugi.
We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.
– TS Eliot “Little Gidding”
The Blind Man & The Elephant
The first man feels the hairs at the end of the tail and declares they’ve found a rope. The second feels the wriggling trunk and screams it’s a snake. The third feels the ear and declares it’s a fan. The fourth feels a tusk and decides it’s a spear. The fifth feels the hard side and decides it’s a wall. The sixth feels the tall long legs and shouts that it’s a column. Each believes they know the truth and that the others are idiots, angrily beating each other.
To each of these blind men, what they believe is reality. However, as NYU professor Jonathan Haidt Haidt explains, the accuracy of each model of reality is not the problem. The real source of discontent and discord is the behavior that Naïve Realism, or the belief that “I see the truth” inspires. “It is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest. Naïve realism gives us a world full of good and evil… [but] good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them.”
“The Blind Men and the Elephant” is the ultimate example of Naïve Realism, and what Haidt calls the “biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony.” Each blind man represents a fundamentalist. Each blind man represents a cult. We all belong to a cult. You are in a cult.
The blind men are each convinced that they see the world as it is and yet, each is wrong because he hasn’t felt the whole elephant.
The story of the blind men and the elephant was originally told about religion but it’s a mistake to think that being one of the blind men has anything to do with believing in God. In fact, it has to do with being human. To solve the world’s problems, we have to reframe humanity. We need to realize that we are all in cults.
The Cult of America
The Cult of Atheism
The Cult of Islam
The Cult of Christianity
The Cult of the Free Market and Libertarianism
The cult of Social Justice
The Cult of Communism
The Cult of Fascism and Naziism
The Cult of Progress
The Cult of Wealth
You Are in a Cult
The history of the world since the rise of agriculture is littered with cults that have all been trying to solve one basic problem that we described with the Orange Belt. How do you satisfy humanity’s physical, emotional and psychological needs when your society is so far beyond the Dunbar Number? The core concept that our culture binds and blinds us all so much that we are all blind men and that individually none of us will ever be smart enough to understand the elephant is one answer.
The amount of information defining reality keeps increasing. There are 60 million scientific papers, 130 million books, 6000 living languages, and 7.5 billion people. You will NEVER, as an individual, feel your way around the entire elephant but you can compare notes with the other blind men and together piece together a more realistic view of the elephant. We can mix the mental arts. However, in order to do that, you have to let go of the most destructive idea in the world: that you or anyone knows the truth.
A lot of people think science is the truth, but it’s not how professional scientists, like quantum physicist and Mixed Mental Artist Spiros Michalakis, think. Instead, science is a series of stories or models that more or less approximate reality. A lot of people believe God, or Mohammed, or Jesus are truth. But even people who believe in the same religious doctrine have different sects that disagree on what that truth is.
Humans have always told stories about reality. Our stories always make sense to us because we operate in a world of naive realism. Science evolved to puncture our naive realism and test our stories against the available evidence from reality. But no matter how good a tool science is at mitigating cognitive bias, scientists are still human. Many of science’s stories are so good that some people have fallen hard into the trap of naive realism. They believe the world they see is objective reality, “because science”. However, true scientists know that humans (including scientists) are biologically incapable of being objective. Our thinking is always shaped by our feelings. That’s why science must be a collective endeavor. We all have different biases. We see different parts of the elephant. It’s only by pooling our insights, including non-science ones, that we can get a more realistic view of the world.
Our best chance for understanding reality is to learn from the people who know different parts of the elephant. The people you think are “obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest” can be the people who will most help you because they will reveal the parts of reality you can’t see. Understanding their perspective will help you create a more balanced and accurate view of the world.
How do you do this? First you must stop focusing on the speck in your neighbor’s eye and remove the log from your own. Be mindful of your own cultural biases, your own limitations, your own blindness as you feel the elephant. Then you must put the white belt back on and assume what the Zen Buddhists call “the beginner’s mind.”
If you think you’re the expert who has it all figured out then your arrogance will blind you to all the things you don’t know. Thinking of yourself as a beginner kicks you into a humble state primed to absorb new information like a sponge.
No matter how good you get at anything you must always be ready to learn, unlearn, and relearn You must do this to survive. We must do this to survive. The world is constantly changing and we all need to constantly update our cultural software. People have been updating and evolving since time immemorial.
You are not your culture. Your culture is merely a set of tools you use to survive and thrive in a given environment. You may be in a cult, but it doesn’t define you. You can’t escape the human impulse to form cults, but you can keep it at bay by constantly puncturing your own naive realism with new ideas and experiences that break through bias.
You are an explorer. Your journey doesn’t end here The world is constantly changing. Wisdom isn’t to be all knowing. Wisdom is knowing how little knowledge you have. Be humble and curious while continuing the path of discovery. Your journey is just beginning.