Sunday, September 20, 2015

Is the Believing Feeling Good for Us?: Part Two -- The Self, Dogmatism, and Donald Trump

In Part One I discussed what I called, echoing the band Journey, the believing feeling, the feeling that most of us get when we have certain kinds of beliefs.  But is this feeling good for us?

The Good Kind

I feel good when I believe that my family and friends care about me and when I believe that I care about them.  Luckily there seems to be pretty good evidence in favor of these beliefs.  Even when the immediately available evidence is questionable (for instance, when we annoy each other), we’re probably better off maintaining this belief for the sake of fostering healthy relationships.

Skeptical Therapy from the Cross-Cultural Trio

The problem comes when the believing feeling makes us worse off, intellectually and morally.

I was thinking about this last week when I was teaching Zhuangzi in my Asian Philosophy class.  Zhuangzi was a classical Chinese Daoist philosopher, who along with some Indian and Greek counterparts, like Nāgārjuna and Sextus Empiricus, forms a nice cross-cultural club of ancient skeptical philosophers.
Zhuangzi dreaming he's a butterfly (or vice versa?)
Zhuangzi’s whole point is that the ways we become rigidly attached to language and belief impede us from living skillfully and in tune with the Dao.  Nāgārjuna and Sextus have similar ideas (minus the Dao, of course): for Nāgārjuna the context is the Buddhist worry about attachment to self and Sextus aims to eliminate mental disturbance.  For the cross-cultural trio, the idea is that the way people become dogmatically attached to their beliefs can be quite harmful; each philosopher offers his own brand of therapy meant to cure us of these ills.

Therapy for Today

I think this therapy is relevant for our culture of belief today.  Ancient skeptical therapy may be just what we need to get over our addiction to the believing feeling.  The cross-cultural trio can help us to diagnose and treat our disease.  I've previously suggested that skeptical therapy might help those who got bent out of shape about that dress in February of 2015.

The Self

A key to understanding the cause of the more harmful kinds of believing feeling can be found in the heated debates of philosophy and politics.  Think about it.  What’s the most common refrain?  Each side insists, “My view, my position, my platform, my idea is the right one.  I am right.  You (i.e., not me) are wrong.”

Buddhists like Nāgārjuna would diagnose this as part of the illusion of selfhood.  That is, we take there to be some underlying, relatively permanent self – the thinker of thoughts, the haver of ideas, the defender of positions, etc.  This is why debates about abstract philosophical matters or far-flung political proposals get so personal: it’s not just the ideas, it’s the way we tie up our identities with our views, the way we identify our self with our beliefs.  Since we crave the idea of the self, we feel good whenever we can support our self by having, defending, and spreading our beliefs.


According to Sextus, almost everyone is a dogmatist.  “Dogmatism” has a negative connotation today, but Sextus really just meant anyone who had what he called rash beliefs that create mental disturbance.  While we set out to defend our beliefs and feel good, this can leave our minds disturbed, much like eating too much can disturb your stomach!  You have to go out and defend your belief; after all, people aren’t just attacking your beliefs, they’re attacking you!  And what about the sneaking suspicion you might be wrong?  What then?  Oh, no!

Why the Believing Feeling is Bad for Us

So the believing feeling can make us more selfish and more anxious.  And the skeptical trio of Zhuangzi, Nāgārjuna, and Sextus might be able to help you there if that’s your issue (for more information, see here, here, and here).  But I also think the believing feeling is bad for us on a more collective level.

Contemporary Dogmatisms: Market Fundamentalism and Donald Trump

Market fundamentalism is the idea that unregulated markets are the solution to all of society’s problems.  This is a kind of dogmatism.  While markets are fine in some parts of society (anywhere you need to make money), I see no reason to believe that they must be unregulated or that markets are the solution in sectors of society that aren’t about making money (education, public transportation, healthcare, etc.).  If you don’t believe me (and you probably shouldn’t), listen to economists like Joseph Stiglitz, who identifies market fundamentalism as one of the causes of the 2008 financial collapse.

In recent months we in America have been treated to the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump.  I originally enjoyed Trump's campaign as an entertaining joke, but Trump has disturbingly remained the frontrunner in most of the Republican polls.  What could be the explanation?
Trump promoting himself
I think Trump’s success is the result of the believing feeling.  Some of his supporters feel good to hear someone echo their sexist or racist thoughts.  Others like someone who “speaks his mind” or the fact that he’s an “outsider” with no political experience.  Despite his support, most of his proposals are vague and impractical.  Trump’s whole candidacy is, in my humble estimation, insane.  But I don’t think his supporters are irrational or stupid (at least not all of them).  I think Trump’s success can be explained by the believing feeling high jacking the minds of otherwise reasonable people.

In some cases, maybe we should stop believing.  Sorry, Journey.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a nice article that uses Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to explain Trump's popularity: