Coronaviruses of the Mind


I have been trying to explain why we are not entitled to just believe anything at all because we want to. If we do that we encourage ourselves and others to be credulous. People should only believe what the evidence supports.

Part of the problem is that people pass on their superstitions and their prejudices and irrational beliefs to their children. Added to that, ordinary people in ordinary situations can infect others with their irrational beliefs. Irrational beliefs are never innocent. Such beliefs often have seriously harmful consequences.

Philosopher Arthur Schafer “sees irrationality as a kind of infection.” If we didn’t before, we now know how dangerous infections can be. The same holds for infectious beliefs. For example, Lewis Weiss the Reeve of the R.M. of La Broquerie said if he did not feel sick he could not pass on Covid-19 to anyone else. The science says he is wrong. He should listen to the science or he might infect others who in turn can infect even more people. That is how a virus works. Weiss’ belief, just like the coronavirus, was not innocent. In fact it was dangerous.

When the evidence is not clear, people should suspend belief. But people love to take a leap of faith. This is exactly why irrational beliefs are so dangerous. They can spread like a virus leading to others believing what you believe, even though there is no evidence to support that belief, but even worse, can lead others to believe other irrational beliefs because they have been conditioned to do that by the culture of belief. I think that is what happened recently in the United States. Trump believed (or at least claimed he believed) that the recent election was laced with voter fraud and had been stolen from him. He had no evidence for that, as was shown repeatedly in various courts. Yet many people came to believe that. As a result these people won’t believe in the legitimacy of Biden’s election. That could have very dangerous consequences in a country as polarized as the U.S.

Because of our long-standing habit as people in both Canada and the U.S. and many other countries, “Credulity is a rampant disease in modern societies,” according to Arthur Schafer. Not only that, but it is one of the most dangerous diseases our world has ever faced.

Particularly where an issue is complex, such as Covid-19, or a complex election, it is very easy to confuse people. We are not a skeptical rational society, even though our very capacity to survive, not just flourish, is dependent upon our diligently, conscientiously, and thoughtfully looking at evidence to support our beliefs.

As a result Schafer concluded said those who feel a liberal tolerance to those who espouse superstitious or irrational beliefs (beliefs that are not supported by evidence) have got it wrong. “It is not permissible to believe whatever makes you feel good,” says Schafer. It is ethically wrong. And we ought to be willing to say so. According to Schafer those who take the attitude that it is permissible to believe whatever makes one feel good is sort of like stealing. “Such beliefs are equivalent to stealing from your fellow citizens by making yourself credulous.” says Schafer. That weakens society and we all suffer as a result.

We have to remember that giving up reason and evidence, as the only valid basis for beliefs, is not just unwise it is dangerous. If we base beliefs on sacred texts, authority, or wishful thinking we can come to believe absurdities. Voltaire got it right when he said, “Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Perhaps a better current example, might be, those who can make you believe an absurdity can make you believe that the coronavirus is not dangerous.

We have to remember that irrational beliefs can have very serious consequences. We should not do anything to encourage them. We ought to do everything we can to stamp them out. We should be cultivating a spirit of questioning, of careful scrutiny of evidence, of diligent searching for the best and most reliable evidence, and of conscientious analysis of arguments based on evidence. We should listen to experts, but do so critically, not with blind acceptance. We should do everything we can to foster critical thinking for it is in such horribly short supply and our lives depend on it. If we could not see that before we can certainly see that in the midst of an international pandemic. That’s why it is unethical to believe without evidence. The rational life is the ethical life. The superstitious life is based on moral flaws. We should choose the ethical life.

1 thought on “Coronaviruses of the Mind

  1. professor:

    reason and science have been hijacked. reason is not critical and transformative, it is instrumental, harnessed to the domination of nature that capital and the machine demand.
    morality has become a tool of power and certainly should not be categorically allied with and tied to reason. fascist germany after all was one of the more remarkable unions of science/reason and evil that the world has ever seen.

    public health, if ever it was, is not autonomous, particularly since 9/11. the threat of biowarfare has made public health a matter of national security. it is now subservient to political power.
    health care is also not autonomous. it has been taken over by capital.
    never forget, hospitals, the paragon of medical and bureaucratic science, are responsible for around 100,000 iatrogenic deaths per year. hospitals are dangerous places to be.

    the point here is not that public health should be ignored. but it is ambiguous, like everything else in the postmodern world and itself needs to be viewed skeptically and carefully.

    in the present circumstance, there has been virtually no discussion about the savaging of the environment, overpopulation, the worship of the machine and capital, and the evolution of pandemics. the only focus has been masks, distancing, and vaccines, all of which are extremely short term measures.
    you have not heard a single extended, never mind repeated, discussion from any public health or political authorities about the need to engage in radical ecological measures to address THIS PANDEMIC, but particularly FUTURE PANDEMICS.
    so what has been presented as the real scientific and rational approach is actually reason as reactive; reason as an implicit sanction of the present political, economic, and technological order.

    there is no obvious and categorical link between reason and morality. certainly, none that has been presented in the last couple of millennia. reason is important, but insufficient.

    we are in a serious hole here. religion, the former definition of morality for better or for worse, is no longer the predominant narrative and reason by virtue of its inherent insufficiency is not in a position to replace religion.
    reason cannot be the definition of morality.

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