PhilosophyPsychology

Don’t stop believing… in baby cabbages and islands

Until I was twenty eight I believed that Brussels sprouts were baby cabbages. It’s true. Despite having a family, a mortgage and a job, I believed this. It wasn’t until I began to understand the nature of belief and truth that I understood why.

We learn stuff. We remember it in packets or schema. These are linked to other similar things that we know and are told, and where they aren’t, we make it up, assume. Or believe. Schema theory, of course, is just a modeling of how we think, not a definitive answer to it, but it works well enough to understand how we fill in the gaps between what we know and what we don’t.

So, I took a cabbage and filled in the relational gap between it and a Brussels sprout. They look the same, both green, one a mini version of the other and taste similar. So baby cabbage is the ‘logical’ conclusion I assimilated from the information I have. Yes, it felt instinctively right in my heart that this was ‘true’.

Another long-held belief of mine was shattered only the other day when I realised, after almost half a decade of living in the UK, that the island I live on that was once joined to the European mainland, did not just ‘float away’ and separate. Despite the hours I have spent trying to see where, if you turned the UK sideways, it would fit into the French coastline, I learned that it was actually fluctuating water levels over an almost unimaginable time, plus the ice age, that separates the UK from Europe.

The key work in the last paragraph was ‘learned’. For, over my lifetime, I have held on to an assumption or belief that has never been challenged, or when it has, I chose to fill in the uncertain gaps with previously assimilated or assumed knowledge rather than newly learned knowledge. This is not the same logical conclusion as the baby cabbage scenario, rather it is a choice on my part to believe that I am right. This enters the territory of ego and bias, supported by status and financial standing and underpinned by pride and even violence, should the belief be strong enough.

So the landscape of my world has changed drastically. Sprouts are actually a separate plant species to cabbage and, with a drop of water levels, we would all realise that the national demarcations we hold so dear and project themselves onto racial and ethnic discrimination are not so clear cut.

In the middle of all this muddled thinking, where one minute one thing is ‘true’ and the next my schema gaps are buzzing with something else, I realised that my inherent dot-to-dot gap-filling comes in handy after all. Between the more physically real aspects of this world, the things that would still exist if human beings disappeared (be it without our conceptual labeling, but nonetheless) like the moon and the mountains, I am able to weave a rich story that helps me cope with the chaos and uncertainly of life and death, and, even better, I am free to weave whatever I wish. I can literally make my own rules, and believe exactly what I want to. But between my brain and the external world, it’s only my ‘truth’. When more people ‘believe’ the same thing, it becomes shared knowledge, and when someone writes it down it becomes theory.

But, as you can see from the above, that doesn’t make it ‘real’. Just entertaining and life-structuring at it’s best and war-starting and discrimination-causing at it’s worst. Even if you wanted to stop believing, it would be difficult as it is something we have to do to make sense of the world. But life’s much more interesting when you question everything.