Beliefs as Era Indicators

The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.
A common Gibson quote, but have you reflected on how many levels it applies to? It is not just about technology, for instance – which might be a typical first understanding of the message. Let me portray how it applies to beliefs, and how it may be an even more useful picture to carry in your mind.

If you were to travel back in time to the renaissance, Terminator style, not a thread on your body, you would be from the future. But almost nothing about you would set you apart much from anyone else of the era – your strange dialect and manneurisms, relative lack of calluses from not having done much as manual labour goes – but nothing that would place you in another time, rather than from some other place – except what is in your head.

All sorts of things you believe (and more importantly don't believe) set you apart as a member of a different age. Some living in those days share some of your beliefs about how the solar system is arranged, for instance (the future was unevenly distributed back then, too, after all), but most don't, and would find you a strange eccentric full of funny made-up ideas, uneducated about how things are. You would probably find that it makes it easier to live peacefully by not insisting on convincing others about what you know and hold as true, and find people laughing at or dismissing you much less, the less you do, and the more you just blend in with the beliefs of the era. Getting on with life just takes precedence over distributing your ideas across the population of the era.

It is nice to live peacefully; most people probably prefer it, both then and now. And much like what you would behave like, to live in the past, most people we ever meet in life behave, today, rather than taking every opportunity to challenge other people's beliefs you know or have reason to believe different from yours. And consequentially, we live in a patchwork of partially overlapping belief worlds, medieval to far future, every moment of every day of our lives – much more than we would see in technology, say.

Discovering, exposing yourself to new beliefs (especially the high-impact core beliefs that affect your perception of yourself and the world), and challenging and upgrading those you currently hold, is the quickest way from now to the future. It always has been, whatever time you live in. Since the future is not evenly distributed, your future is one different from everybody else's, so you can zoom right past all your peers without anyone even knowing or noticing. Many of the people you meet daily in life live in places you will never set foot in, both having solutions and problems of times long gone, times yet to come, or futures you will never reach, as seen from your own time line.

While one might assume that most of our beliefs about ourselves and the world are derived from facts, they are generally not. More typically, they are based on other beliefs instilled by social upbringing and education, our perceptions or best guesses about experiences we have had and made – and very rarely subjected to any rigorous challenges. If I ask you how many senses you have, chances are very large you might come up with the number five without even for the briefest moment considering to make an inventory of your biosensory inputs – because someone taught you that, at some point. You would not challenge me if I remarked that you have a very good sense of balance stemming from an ingenious set of tubes in your inner ear, because this belief is a piece of trivia that is about language – a (today) dated agreement about what constitutes a sense, in the English language's traditional classification of nouns – not because you believe that your body lacks this sensory equipment. But unchallenged, it might never have occurred to you that this number five is a piece of random inherited baloney that we keep passing on to coming generations. Many – or hopefully most – of our beliefs are replaceable like this, when we realize they are incorrect, incomplete, irrelevant, just unhelpful, or worse, downright deceptive.

When people talk about life-long learning, I think they mostly talk about new skill sets, and rarely new beliefs. I used to think of it that way, before pondering what things I have learned over the last decade of the greatest worth to me as a human, in my everyday life. While some of that is certainly life skills like love languages and how-to type knowledge, most of it are things like a revised understanding of nutrition, that sugar is a drug, high-fructose corn syrup (the main ingredient of soft drinks and typical candy) is technically a kind of poison and how they affect me and my perceptions of the world when ingested, how clothes confine and isolate people both from themselves and each other, notions about how to assess and change what I believe and why, the importance of being wrong, in order to discover what is right – and many, many more. Picking up new skill sets, in terms of life impact, rank way down on the scale, by comparison.

Love and respect your teachers, and listen with indulgent curiosity to people expressing opinions you don't believe in. Because, apart from your imagination, that is your best source for new useful beliefs. And if you are more extrovert-wired, it may be the richer source of the two. And don't just listen for the substance of it, ask why and try to understand, as best you can, the motivations behind them, when it is better than "because someone told them". All learning worth having should come with explanations, and conversely, suspect all knowledge you hold that you can't derive from something. When you can't derive why something is true, you will rarely realize when that knowledge expires because of changes in the world, new discoveries and technologies with consequences to the old knowledge.

I do not rank myself a great teacher, in part from having little patience to pick gentle language or stick mostly to neutral ground, which are great skills I appreciate in people I do rank as such. My own style of communication is largely weaned among slightly autist-leaning programmers that charge at things passionately and pick and choose selectively from what is flung around, narrowing in on beliefs via what proves useful, while rarely or never interchanging belief with identity. The best are often wrong, and often change their mind, as soon as they discover they were wrong, and in such a culture, charging on strongly and having people point out your errors when spotted narrows in on better ideas far quicker than stepping lightly and covering your trail in qualifiers and disclaimers. While strongly conflict averse myself, I find merit in this efficient way of prestige-less shortcuts to arrive at better truths, and will note that it immediately breaks down out of context, if applied in contexts where skins are less thick, people more married to their beliefs and less selective about their take-aways.

If I note as one of my relative-future beliefs that I observe to be ill distributed around me (surveying my nearest grocery store's dairy section is more than enough data needed for that) that "light" products, for the most part, substitute healthy fat (that play a part in some pleasant sought-after taste or texture) with unhealthy processed sweeteners trying to replicate the same, to keep up with beliefs about fat that shot to the sky after some spectacularly bad science in the early 1980s, and causing more problems than they solve, I may be dispensing useful data, but not particularly good teaching. If I link to Robert Lustig talking about the same, I am somewhat better, but still not very good: I have not particularly rigged you to be interested in the subject, and chances are slim that his explanations seek you out at a time you are interested in them.

Especially as my motives for raising the example is mostly to self-indulgently lament living in a future, steeped in a contemporary medieval world not yet based on said future. When, one or a few generations from now, everybody believing in today's common notion about dieting and counting non-qualified carbs, and everybody passing on such beliefs to future generations – once they have all died out, my future will likely slowly get more evenly distributed, but until then, I can only nurse, co-create and choose local clusters of future in a sea of past. The more you live in the future, the more everything that surrounds you is all locked in the past.

While my tone may deceivingly marry "future" with value judgments as "good" and "past" as "bad", my intent is more in line with "more useful" and "less useful", to myself and other members of that world. You are more adapted to your surrounding era by holding its beliefs, however unaware of what might be incremental or radical improvements to its status quo by believing otherwise. I am fortunate to live in a time, with a mentality and income where, upon discovering that I don't see clearly as far as others, and diagnosing the cause as astigmatism, I could patch my lenses via some LASIK surgery in 2012, instead of changing my behaviour and wearing external optical patchwork every day of the rest of my life. Many either don't have that option, or worse, have, but never find out, even if they would have chosen it and been successful attempting it.

The core point I have made above is that beliefs, more than most things, define who we are, what we do and what comes out of it, how we feel about ourselves, what paths we choose, what we aspire to, worry about, avoid, and why; whom we share what with and when, and that we are at choice about them to the extent we choose, and never more. They can be pliable or rigid, set in stone or actively eager to get replaced, iterated, and superseded. And they exist in a multidimensional soup of other beliefs, most unreflected upon by those holding on to them. Some are benign, many illicitly planted, some detected, many not. Lots of beliefs are comforting but disastrous, like denying climate change, choosing a set seeming to incur less responsibility. Some are chosen to have an easier time coping – and sometimes believing falsehoods can help you live with a higher quality of life than you would have with a greater awareness, if knowing makes you brood or get plagued by guilt.

Life is a set of choices, but choices are downstream from beliefs. Upstreams from beliefs are whatever processes of multiplication and elimination you instill. Make them good ones. Live long, and prosper! :)
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