How Can We Live Together? Part III

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting...
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Believing is Seeing.

Until about 500 years ago we all believed planet Earth was at the centre of the Universe. Geocentrism  – i.e. the belief that the sun, moon, stars and planets all circle the earth – was taken to be a scientific fact. When astronomical observations of the planets didn’t quite fit with this ‘fact’, new scientific theories were developed to explain these anomalies.

This belief in geocentrism was, for the most part, without any hidden agenda. It was just, quite literally, unthinkable for most people that the universe could be otherwise. The geocentric model was seen as the ‘natural’ order of things and all science during that time used this ‘fact’ as its reference point.

Galileo, Galileo…

Down through the ages many scientists suspected this was wrong, but it wasn’t until after the time of Galileo, in the 1600s, that heliocentric cosmology – i.e. where all the planets (including Earth) circle the sun – began to take over. Galileo’s heliocentric proposals were, famously, met with bitter opposition from clerics and philosophers. However, gradually, as telescopes advanced, heliocentricity became an easily provable hypothesis. Over time then, it seeped into the general unconscious so much so that nowadays we can’t understand how anyone ever believed otherwise.

But why was there such vehement opposition to heliocentrism? Some of the opposition was definitely due to a literal interpretation of Christian and Islamic scripture, but perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps some of it can be explained by our tendency to see the world, not as it necessarily is but how we believe it to be.

Theory versus Reality

In his book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, the physicist David Bohm speaks about how we each see the world and how this has a significant influence on our actions. As he puts it,

our theoretical insights provide the main source of organization of our factual knowledge.(1)

Bohm also speaks about how we often mistake our own perceptions for proven objective reality and then, truly believing we are in possession of ‘the facts’, we act.

So what do we really think about the world and how do we even find out?

Although our modern way of thinking has, of course, changed a great deal relative to the ancient ones, the two have one key feature in common i.e. they are both generally “blinkered” by the notion that theories give true knowledge about reality as it is. Thus both are led to confuse the forms and shapes induced in our perceptions by theoretical insight with a reality independent of our thought and our way of looking. This confusion is of crucial significance, since it leads us to approach nature, society and the individual in terms of more or less fixed and limited forms of thought, and thus, apparently, to keep on confirming the limitations of these forms of thought in experience. (2)

Throughout history there are countless examples of how we have not only espoused a belief but then convinced ourselves that we have scientifically proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt and thereby made it a ‘fact’ of objective reality. Some of these ‘facts’ that we use to operate our world are simply a lack of information and as soon as more information becomes available we adjust them accordingly. However, as was proven by the slow up-take on heliocentricity in the face of overwhelming evidence, we are not always open to seeing things differently. And if this is the case with physical phenomena then how much more is it the case regarding our human interactions?

American Psycho?

American psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl, in his book, The Protest Psychosis, examines the incidence and diagnosis of schizophrenia in the US. Up until the 1950s most US patients diagnosed with schizophrenia were women who were unwilling, or unable, to look after homes and families or were seen as an embarrassment to their husbands.

However, since the 1950s, schizophrenia is disproportionately diagnosed in young, African-American men. Of his work Metzl says,

I integrate institutional, professional, and cultural discourses in order to trace shifts in U.S. popular and medical understandings of schizophrenia from a disease of white docility to one of “Negro” hostility, and from a disease that was nurtured to one that was feared.(3)

Metzl also makes a case for a link between clinical changes in the understanding of schizophrenia during the 1960s and 70s and the rising civil rights movement in America. Where he says that, …in its worst moments, (the medical establishment) treated aspirations for liberation and civil rights as symptoms of mental illness. (4)

Learning to See.

It is easily provable that what we believe to be true is influenced by what we believe in the first place and it is equally easily provable that this human inclination has caused both individual and societal problems throughout history. However, there is nothing intrinsically bad in this – only in its application. We don’t need to eradicate human instincts but rather to train them so that they assist us to grow and develop. For example, we don’t tell our children to ignore their hunger and not eat but rather we teach them to eat properly so that they can be healthy and get the most from this instinct.

Becoming Conscious.

In the same way we can look at our tendency towards viewing the world through conscious and unconscious conceptual frameworks and rather than try to eradicate this practise we can develop it. By making these conceptual frameworks conscious we can better construct them as useful lenses for viewing the world, which will help us to be in charge of our instincts rather than vice versa. Once we are conscious of them, our conceptual frameworks can act as maps that really help us as we try to make progress both as individuals and societies. Because the lenses we use to look at the world will do more than just cut the glare, they will dictate our actions and, thereby, ultimately create the world in which we live.

*Photograph of David Bohm – Wikimedia Commons

Next:  How Can We Live Together? Part IV – Conceptual Maps.

(1) David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 5

(2) ibid, p. 6

(3) Jonathan M. Metzl, The Protest Psychosis, p.11

(4) ibid.

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  1. Yes, beautifully said!

    Reading this is like looking in a mirror. The ‘background’ is a bit unfamiliar, but the central image (and conclusion) projected is exactly the same. But your question is, “How can we live together?” That in itself is perhaps our biggest ‘Riddle.’ Especially given the continued existence of such ‘conflicted’ beliefs…whether religious, scientific, medical, or otherwise. How, given that context, can we all learn to believe the same?

    Perhaps the new paradigm which may answer that question is the Internet. Largely because by nature it expands (and thus helps dilute) structurally myopic, and otherwise culturally conflicted perceptions (see Human vs. Cultural Identity), and thus offers the ‘public eye’ a far less locally constrained (and defined) point of view. Inherently it is becoming an ever-expanding expression of a sort of ‘unified field theory,’ one that inherently fosters looking out, instead of in. And thus generates a far more ‘inclusive’ point of view than has otherwise been possible.

    So a huge change in perception is at hand…and it may very well contain precisely that ‘gift of togetherness’ that (hopefully) we all would wish to come, soon, into view.


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