How much of what you know is the product of rational thought and how much of what you know was programmed into you by others? This is a question that I have been tossing around for quite some time. There are many things that I have believed over the years that I eventually realized weren’t the product of rational thought but simply things somebody else told me.
This question is especially relevant when discussing political matters. Take the debate over government controlled healthcare for instance. Most people living in countries with state controlled healthcare believe that the only alternative is no healthcare whatsoever (unless you’re rich). Here in the United States the idea of government controlled healthcare is catching on more every day. But did most of the people arguing in favor of government controlled healthcare conclude that it was the best option after a great deal of research and thought or are they just parroting what they were programmed to parrot:
“The National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion,” Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor Nigel Lawson famously once observed. However, given the swivel-eyed fanaticism with which its supporters will defend it, even from the overwhelming evidence of its shortcomings, at this point it might be more accurate to describe the NHS as Britain’s national cult.
The utterly unparalleled degree of moral outrage which greets any criticism of the NHS bespeaks the decades of propaganda — in the state’s schools, from the state’s politicians, and on the state’s news and media outlets — which have taught the British people to believe that the only alternative to a state-controlled healthcare monopoly is for the poor to die in the streets. So pervasive has this myth become that the Labour party has been able to base its entire electoral strategy, for decades, on painting themselves as the only party that truly cares about ‘our NHS’, and a recent survey found that, when asked ‘What makes you proud to be British’, the NHS was the nation’s most common answer by a considerable margin. All this has led to a situation wherein the desperately needed reforms to Britain’s healthcare system cannot even be discussed, due to the irrational overflowing of blind rage and uncomprehending contempt that greets any criticism of Britain’s ultimate sacred cow.
More often than not, when I debate the topic of government controlled healthcare with a proponent their arguments don’t run very deep. They usually involve parroting the propaganda. If I bring up an angle that isn’t covered by the propaganda, the proponent usually falters because they don’t have a foundational understand of their belief. They haven’t really thought about it. They haven’t researched it. The knowledge was programmed into them by others and they mindlessly run with it.
I should note that I’m not making a criticism. Each and every one of us has a head full of programming. However, relying primarily on programming necessarily limits you. Case in point, the government controlled healthcare debate. A lot of data exists showing that government controlled healthcare isn’t the be all, end all that many of its supports claim it to be. If they’ve actually taken some time and put some thought into their belief then they might be able to rebut that data. Most supporters though are unable to provide a meaningful rebuttal because they don’t really understand the issue since they’ve given it little or no thought.
We see the same thing with a lot of religious individuals as well. Most people inherit their religious beliefs from their parents (i.e. their parents programmed that belief into them). How many Christians do you know who seem to know next to nothing about Christianity? I know quite a few. Hell, I was raised Catholic and can say that most of the people who attended the same church as I did knew next to nothing about Catholicism (even my Sunday school teachers, all of who were volunteer parents, knew very little). These people never gave their belief the same careful thought as Thomas Aquinas.
From the standpoint of individualism this question takes a more interesting turn. If you consider yourself an individualist, wouldn’t it make more sense for you to act on the knowledge you’ve acquired over rational though rather than the information programmed into you by others? One thing that I’ve become better at and am constantly working to improve is analyzing my beliefs to determine whether or not they are beliefs that I’ve actually come to due to rational thought or were programmed into me. The best way I’ve found to determine which of the two categories a belief belongs to is to analyze the opposite position in depth. If you understand the arguments against your belief and can make counterarguments that support your belief then you have necessarily given at least some rational thought to the belief. Maybe you decided that your belief was incorrect or maybe you were able to come up with counterarguments against the criticisms of your belief. Either way, you’ve at least given your belief some rational thought and can therefore say it is, at least in part, yours by your own volition.
I believe that an important part of becoming a self-actualized individual is constantly analyzing your beliefs and trying to learn about other beliefs. I won’t claim that rational thought will inevitably lead one to my conclusions. In fact, your conclusions will almost certainly differ from mine to some degree. However, by analyzing your beliefs and other beliefs you can say that you believe what you do because of your actions, not somebody else’s.