The favorite location of ego is in the silo “observatory” of our logical mind – in the head, in other words. This is the place where self-consciousness takes, or can take, its perspective on reality, engaging in the work of constructing and maintaining a world, which in this context refers to the construct of meaning that each of us, as a self-conscious individual, inhabits and defends.
I say that ego “can” take its perspective from that vantage point because, while the work of constructing a world certainly begins up there, it’s not long before we start thinking that we have all the information we need and proceed to draw our conclusions, close the windows, and lock the mind inside our convictions.
This is when our beliefs, along with the behavior they motivate and justify, can become pathological. Our logical mind is no longer taking a perspective and constructing meaning in reference to reality, but has instead been commandeered by the insecure ego and its desperate need – broadcasted outwardly as an imperious demand – that its closed-off view of things is the way things really are.
We happen to have some egregious examples of this closed-minded, trapped-in-conviction type of ego pathology featured in the U.S. national news right now.
These individuals cannot accept reality because it doesn’t match up to the world construct in their minds. They fall easily into conspiracy-thinking and become victims of delusion. And if the conspiracy they have fallen for is sufficiently extreme and apocalyptic, they will not hesitate to endorse or commit violence – which, of course, will be spun in their own minds as heroic action – for the sake of “the truth.”
What has to occur for someone to lose their perspective on reality and get caught in conspiracy-thinking? The explanation is not that they are stupid or gullible pushovers; many of them are intelligent enough to know better – but for some reason they don’t.
Perhaps we can reach some clarity on that question by first considering another, more foundational one: What makes a belief claim true? Indeed, what is truth? Popular consensus regards truth as “out there,” as just another word for objective reality, the simple facts, or the way things really are.
Truth in this sense is something to find – ferret out, dig up, bring into focus, or put our hands on. Given that a belief is not outside us in that sense but instead inside our mind, it would be erroneous to call a belief “the truth.” A belief about a fact is not the same as the fact itself.
Let’s just accept the idea that a fact simply is, that something is a fact quite apart from our attention on it or whatever we might think and believe about it. It is what it is, and our belief about it is something else – an observation, an opinion, a judgment, a story that carries some interpretation of what it means.
Truth is neither the fact by itself nor the belief in our mind, but a measure of how realistic, reality-oriented, or in touch with reality our belief happens to be. The truer a belief, the closer it gets our mind to the way things really are.
It’s possible for a belief to be meaningful but not true. A (false) belief can be very meaningful but lack any contact with or orientation to reality. Granted, a majority of the stories we love to listen to, tell to others, watch on the stage or screen, and read in books are in the category of “fictional,” referring to a narrative that is shaped, molded, and “made up” by the human mind. Such stories and the beliefs they may induce in us might be true in another sense, as expressive of the storyteller’s inner reality. Religious myths and poetry are examples of “fictional truth.”
So, we have made a critical distinction between truth as a measure of proximity, transparency, and mediation which a belief exhibits by some degree with respect to reality, the given facts, and the way things really are. A fact is not a statement, but some objective reality that the statement presumes to describe, define, or interpret. If a claim is made about something allegedly real – perhaps a conspiracy ring of Democrats, human trafficking, pedophilia, and cannibalism – then the truth of that claim is judged on the basis of evidence, of real facts that substantiate it and bear it out.
That particular bit of conspiracy-thinking has absolutely no basis in reality, no factual evidence to support it. Then why would anyone buy into it?
Typically some “evidence” is provided in the form of photographs and testimonies – not by someone the soon-to-be-true-believer personally knows and lives with, but likely conveyed on social media in the form of some viral online post. To be clear, a photograph or testimony is not really evidence but only a kind of claim that something is real. Since no one has actually met a child-trafficking cannibalistic Democrat, the supposed conspiracy ring is a pure fabrication with no basis in fact – except, perhaps, in the fact of the believer’s disgust with and animosity toward Democrats and what they represent.
A false claim would not be persuasive to a mind that isn’t already possessed by irrational fears of the dreaded thing. The fantastical and apocalyptic tenor of the claim will only be persuasive to someone who is already on the verge of feeling overwhelmed by the ambiguity and uncertainty of things.
But reality is itself ambiguous (shades of grey and not black-and-white) and beyond the certain grasp of our minds.
Any person who suffers with generalized anxiety will eagerly reach for anything that promises to break it all down into managable pieces – especially if those pieces are the elements of a conspiracy theory promising to resolve their anxiety in some dramatic, decisive – even violent and gruesome – way.
Those who invent and spread conspiracy theories of this kind can rightly be named “ideological terrorists,” for the way they seek by inception to plant a viral idea into the minds of those who are especially susceptible and “eager to believe.” A preposterous conspiracy theory like that promulgated by “QAnon” does its work by stirring the fears that some folks have over a perceived slide of American democracy into a socialist and, eventually, communist state.
Exactly what this would mean is not altogether clear to them, but at the very least it would deprive them as citizens of their civil liberties, economic opportunities, and the authority to protect and determine the future of their children. In this way, Democrats (as proponents of top-down government interventions), trafficking pedophiles (who threaten to take our children) and cannibals (in order to kill and eat them), are operating as metaphors – but which they take quite literally.
Their fears are rooted in deeper – we can even say more respectable and legitimate – concerns, but it’s the horrific imagery that mobilizes their hostility against the Democratic party.
At the very least, this is all a lesson in human credulity – of how easily we lose contact with reality and start believing things that are fantastical, delusional, outlandish, and simply not true. The combination of our own native insecurity and uncertainty over what’s farther out and up ahead is a fuse just waiting to be lit.
4 thoughts on “Reality, Truth, and the Things We Believe”
Thanks for this. It helped me think through things as I’m preparing to talk about this very topic in my classes starting next Tuesday.
That’s great to hear, Patrick. As a society we need to dig deeper into this phenomenon, so we don’t fall into it as easily … Thanks for reading!