Sunset over Pakhuis Pass in the Cederberg. A true reflection of the complexity of life, each sunset is unique and can be experienced in full only once. Photo by: Jethro Watson
I thought I’d start this discussion of concepts with an easy, light, beginner sort of concept: Belief.
Why? Well because it ties into so much else that we think and do and allows me a good starting point to discuss some key ideas which Ill return to in more detail later. So get some coffee and strap in, we’re going to the root of it all first up.
The puzzle of belief has vexed me for many years. When I was younger the idea of belief appeared to me to be a kind of dichotomy between whether there was a God or not. This seems to be such a prominent question in our society that we just cant lift our heads from the fodder for long enough to understand that the concept of belief has a much broader context.
Belief is actually something we do everyday to a lesser or greater extent. When we brush our teeth in the morning, we believe that this action will lessen tooth decay and postpone any dental work we may need. We understand that there are many scientific studies and statistical reports of this actually working. But have we read any of those studies? Or do we know or understand the statistical process they used to come to this conclusion? Unless you’re a statistician, probably not. To overcome this problem we form beliefs about knowledge (This is one of the primary concerns of a branch of philosophy called Epistemology). Only once this belief has been tested, and it passes, can we call it knowledge. In reality a belief is formed from various inputs, like advertisements, parents teachings and professional advice (because they obviously ‘know’ the truth of the matter). This belief is powerful enough to get you to brush your teeth often enough to avoid tooth decay. The interesting thing is that this belief works and later on in life you still have teeth.
Beyond this kind of belief about knowledge, we have integrated belief into the way we achieve as well. We have all heard of the idea, in some form, that when you believe in your self, you achieve. How often has a climber said to another ‘you’re there, you just have to believe and you’ll send’. And it works, people who continuously doubt themselves, saying ‘I’ll never do that’, don’t typically end up doing it. In corporate companies, experts are employed to create a brand vision and then run workshops on communicating this vision to its staff, the goal is not to get the staff to understand the vision but actually believe in it. This belief becomes a shared goal with almost mythical properties, suddenly everybody’s on board. And it works, companies who have managed to create a corporate culture based on their belief in the future vision have achieved extraordinary things.
So belief works, it seems to me, to help us achieve things, from daily actions to bigger goals. It also seems apparent that we are in some way wired to believe things, without this ability we wouldn’t be able to acquire knowledge and achieve future goals, or at least the process would be harder. Subjectively I’ve also noticed (and this seems to be anecdotally repeated) that when I believe in something it makes me feel better, its as if belief bolsters our emotional well-being. When I believe that ill be successful at some task, I find the journey less arduous. When I believe that brushing my teeth prevents tooth decay, I feel more motivated to do it. So if belief is such an integral part of our lives, and we become mindful of this process, then we arrive at the question of ‘what should our beliefs be?’. Well that question immediately invokes the idea of Meta-Beliefs. Beliefs about God, ethics, spirituality and even existentialism. Whilst I’m not a fan of the ‘powerful leading the unquestioning’ model of organised religion and I think the question of whether there is a God or not is actually a redundant question, I certainly don’t have the all the answers to this question. However, it does seem to me that we should be mindful of our beliefs, and that we should believe something. We should have some lighthouse or beacon that we can point to and say ‘I believe that, I know its a leap of faith but I’ve chosen to believe it for the following reasons’ (also bearing in mind that those reasons can change and as such so should your belief).
To this end, and this being a platform for me to discuss the concepts which have helped me achieve the kind of rejuvenation of life and to remain sane and positive during this journey. I’m going to detail the most important thing I’ve chosen to believe and why. To do so however, I need to tell you my take on two concepts: ‘Being’ and ‘Good’, then I’m going to tell you about hatred. My hatred, of everything.
Lets deal with Being first. What do we understand by the word Being? We could launch into a truly existential debate about how being is a purely subjective thing and that we could never actually know if reality exists outside of our own consciousness. But that seem overly academic, I think we can all accept, at least on a practical level, that there is a universe out there and that there is something we call time. These two things, in my mind, are what define Being. Firstly that there is a reality, which encompasses all matter and all things that matter (so thought, feelings, beliefs, etc…). Secondly that this universe changes over time in some way, this is important as the only thing we can change is the future version of the universe, we cannot change the present no matter what we believe.
‘Good’, well this is a bit more difficult to unpack. I’m going to skip the classical literature here which could involve a long discussion of the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (Do look them up them up though). I’m going to define ‘Good’ in two ways. They are in my view different sides of the same spectrum and they turn ‘Good’ into a process moving along this spectrum. Firstly, Its a movement away from bad. Secondly its a movement towards Complexity. Ill explain. To definition of what good is needs to encompass a wide variety of things, the individual, the collective, both of these over time and then all three of these for multiple species in different places (and even possibly for what we consider inanimate matter as well). This is an almost infinite amount of complexity, but that seems to me to fit. I just cant help but see increasing complexity as what we are all aiming for, as esoteric and out there as that seems. It also seems to me that Consciousness is key to this process. I see the universe as being balanced by two opposing forces, complexity and entropy. Our (and other) conscious minds seem to have the ability to counteract this process of entropy through our agency in the world. Our beliefs and actions are able to renew the energy of failing systems should we choose to do so. If we do, we create more complexity, building on what has gone before with exponential effect. We have no idea where this will lead, its far too complex an algorithm for us to understand, but we each play our part for good or bad. ‘Bad’ on the other side of the spectrum is easier to define, in its simplest form it is needless suffering. Its a purely subjective thing, a consciousness specific darkness. Its the dark side of anger, hatred and most of all resentment. Its the thing that leads to the idea of Nihilism, the idea that there is no meaning in life and that the world can go to hell and take my depression with it! The most fundamental form of this needless suffering is created by malevolence, the ultimate betrayal of Being, to create suffering for the sake of suffering. Its purpose is to dim the light and colour of existence, to create the opposite of complexity, a perpetually experienced nothingness.
During high school, towards the end of my university career, during my time in Port Elizabeth and again when I was living in Standerton, I had succumbed to this pattern of depression and Nihilism to some degree or another. Sometimes my hatred was so complete that I would say things like ‘Its not a great species this, we shouldn’t continue it’ or ‘reality was a mistake’, sometimes it was just a sense of lack of meaning that left me disillusioned with life. But either way he depression was slowly taking its toll on me, it wasn’t sustainable and looking back it was soon going to end, for better or worse. As it happened, climbing pulled me out of that hole, allowing me physical escape in the moment, which seemed to alleviate the sense of meaninglessness that I felt. Although I wasn’t yet able to identify and articulate this process of meaning in my life, it was nonetheless embodied in my actions. Climbing gave me a light to aim for and slowly my life became more complex. With the meaning and direction that climbing brought to my life, the depression and Nihilism vanished. And with it too, the sense of resentment towards Being which I had felt. I was, for the first time in a long time, free of the seemingly eternal hatred I had harbored towards existence. I was only able to fully articulate this idea after listening to Dr Jordan Peterson’s lectures on ‘The psychological significance of the Biblical stories’ (linked Below), he gave me the language needed to fully analyse the process through which I had been growing. I was able to retro-engineer the belief that had lead me out of that dark hole and back to life.
So this is what I’ve chosen to believe: That Being is fundamentally Good. The very existence that we inhabit is in fact a good thing. That Being moves from a state of simple suffering to a state of greater complexity and as conscious beings we have the responsibility to ensure that what we do inside of ‘Being’ promotes and accentuates this process. The opposite of that is malevolence, resentment and suffering without necessity , creating a hell within ‘Being’.
There is in fact no evidence for this premise. Who am I to proclaimed that there is actually a good, perhaps the universe doesn’t care, perhaps its all just experience -no good and no bad, perhaps its all just chance and one day it’ll count for nothing. If we want to go way out on the spectrum of ideas, there could in fact be no Being at all. Well I have no argument that could say one way or the other, there is in my mind no way to know whether these theories of mine hold weight or if there is just nothingness in which we float. But belief in something is powerful and if you are to live in this reality and you make the leap of faith that on some fundamental level, Being is Good, then you set yourself up for a better life, a life less prone to being Hellish. It opens a path to meaning and hope. It creates a world in which you can stand up and say that you’ll keep trying, keep fighting to make it a better place and avoid the darkness of meaninglessness. It gives you the fortification necessary to withstand tragedy and malevolence as best as your situation allows. It gives you the reason to breathe and to hope for another dawn and another sunset when your legs are crushed and your world consists of nothing but pain.
So if I am to live in this Being, then I choose to believe this. Being is Good. If you think otherwise, I challenge you to ask yourself, as I did those yeas ago, where that theory leads and what you would do about it if you had the power?
Many of these ideas have been explained by Dr Jordan Peterson and I would like to credit him for the articulation of these ideas, specifically: the idea of ‘what matters’ and the idea of ‘resentment towards being’. I encourage you to visit his YouTube Channel and invest some time listening to the lectures on ‘The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories: https://www.youtube.com/user/JordanPetersonVideos/featured