Concepts, ideas, and beliefs

Although they form the bedrock of our life and reality, every idea and concept is just as much a mental construct (read: a fabrication) as any other. Our ideas about physics, death, and economics govern our lives, but these ideas are not the things they conceptualize. They are models we have constructed to make sense of the sensations and experiences we encounter. You may have heard that the force of gravity causes objects to accelerate at a constant rate of 9.8 meters per second per second, and this rate may be observed in experiments, but this pattern has no inherent meaning.  Meters, seconds, and numbers do not exist—these are mental constructs humanity has invented to make life easier to understand. This is not to say that meters, seconds, and numbers are not tremendously valuable concepts; indeed, they are. What it means is that the reality we perceive is inseparable from our conception of reality, the practical upshot of which is that if we modify our conceptions, we modify our reality.

Reality is a matter of perception and changes depending on the viewpoint we adopt. When you pass a stranger in a grocery store aisle, why do they avoid eye contact with you? Is it because they are shy or because they think they are better than you? The reality of the situation for you, i.e. the outlook you take, is influenced by the kind of day you’ve had, whether you’ve showered recently, or whether you’re wearing clothes of which you’re particularly embarrassed. Similarly, the properties of wood change with the particular epistemological system with which you are infatuated. Does burning Palo Santo cleanse your dwelling of spirits or merely release stored potential energy as heat? Changing your beliefs can change your world.

Now, this is not to say that modifying your beliefs will enable you to fly. However, it is unquestionably the case that given certain ideas you may believe it impossible to fly and given others you will be able to construct an airplane. Some beliefs are useful, and others are not, but not in every circumstance or at all times. For example, although traffic lanes, symbolized by the white and yellow lines painted on roads throughout the world, are a tremendously useful concept much of the time, they are not always the best solution to the problem of traffic. Traffic lanes are fantastic when the problem of traffic is maintaining an orderly flow of traffic and minimizing accidental collisions on the highway. But when one particular vehicle needs to pass through a sea of other vehicles as quickly as possible, such as when an ambulance ferries a patient to a hospital, traffic lanes can severely impede the ambulance’s progress. In such situations, it is better for the drivers to discard the concept of traffic lanes, ignore the lines of paint, and pull their vehicles off to the side of the road to allow the ambulance to pass unhindered. After the problem of the ambulance has been solved, lanes of traffic are again a useful concept and are reinstituted.

Such conceptual adaptability is more or less difficult for an individual depending on the degree to which that individual realizes the concepts involved are entirely mental rather than physical. Disregarding the lines of paint which symbolize traffic lanes is easier for an experienced driver who has repeatedly allowed an ambulance to pass, but a new driver who is still in the process of internalizing the rules of the road may find it more difficult to think of the lines of paint as mere symbols. Once it has been realized that every concept, idea, and belief is a product of human imagination, the maxim of conceptual adaptability can be applied to other areas of life. Indeed, one should examine every concept, belief, and idea one holds or encounters for components which are useful or useless, for it is as Seneca said: “…The things of greatest merit are common property.” Just because one aspect of a certain idea may be incorrect or inefficient does not mean the entirety of an idea should be discounted.

One need not wait until a belief has been disproven or determined to be inefficient to change it, however. Concepts, ideas, and beliefs can all be actively tailored to produce desirable results. Moreover, disparate ideas and beliefs can be combined to form conceptual amalgamations. Composed of ideas from potentially competing schools of thought, such amalgamations may at first seem unwieldy or dishonest to the traditions from which they pull, but this should not be bothersome to anyone who has taken the message of this post to heart (which is largely identical to Robert Kegan’s conception of the fifth stage of adult cognitive development). The only test for such a composite that should matter is whether it performs its functions well and is an efficient component of one’s worldview.

Remember: You are not your gender. You are not your hobby. You are not your body. You are not your mind. You are an assortment of self-perpetuating systems, mental and physical. These systems can be manipulated through violence, medicine, good books, and propaganda. Rejoice in the gift of humanity. Blessed with reason and self-awareness we can observe and make deliberate changes to our lives, minds, and the world. Take charge of your systems—calibrate your reality.

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