Archimedes famously said, “give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” This is equally true of the world of ideas. Descartes said that, given a single idea that was certain and indubitable, he could likewise entertain the highest expectations. But implanting in others a single false idea that leads one to evil corollaries and unethical actions can be equally powerful.
Few people examine the realm of beliefs, even though understanding beliefs is the key to understanding people and the systems (ideological or political) which rule over them. The concept of the fixed idea is a key to understanding how people are radically changed, and how indoctrination can override the true self. The fixed idea, above all else, is the fulcrum for making good men adore evil. The fixed idea is also essential to all brainwashing.
And here’s the clincher: it takes no more effort to make people believe a fixed idea than it does making them believe any other idea!
But what is a fixed idea? We can identify them by looking at two specific attributes:
1. The fixed idea is an absolute, said to be true in all cases, and generally must not be questioned (or cannot be questioned because it has epistemic consequences).
2. The fixed idea is an a priori, and any justification offered for it are obviously ad hoc and after the fact. Either way, it cannot be disproved by observation or experiment, making refutation impossible unless one shakes his belief in the idea to begin with.
3. The efficacy of a fixed idea depends on how many corollaries can be pinned to it, and how varied those corollaries can be.
Religion is the most obvious source of fixed ideas. For example, Christianity is predicated on the fixed idea “the Bible is an infallible book.” This is by definition absolute and a priori (the idea that any book is infallible is certainly not observable or proveable). Most importantly, a wide number of varied corollaries can be pinned to it, as history demonstrates. “God exists” is also a fixed idea, but it doesn’t have many corollaries unless it’s linked to the Bible or some other vehicle.
The most versatile fixed ideas are the most powerful. One can pick anything from a book and extract some ethical principle, or its opposite. Likewise, belief in the law as an absolute is very open-ended, as it can be used to justify just about any system or principle, especially as the law itself is always constructed by class interests.
The idea that “the law must be obeyed absolutely” underpins statism, like the idea of “my country, right or wrong” underpins war. In all these institutions that characterize our society, you will find at least one fixed idea. In capitalism, I believe the fixed idea can be found in the concept of profit.
I said that it’s as easy to convince someone of a fixed idea as it is to convince them of any other idea. The easiest way to accomplish this is to bombard the prospective believer with “evidence.” Of course, no such evidence actually exists, but disparate facts or fictions can be implied or assumed to prove that the idea is true.
As an example, many disparate facts or fictions can be marshalled to “prove” that the Bible is infallible. One can argue any number of the following:
* “More than one billion people consider the Bible to be true.”
* “The Bible has hundreds of fulfilled prophecies.” (we know they were fulfilled because the Bible itself tells us they were)
* “Evolution is a lie. Only the Bible has the answer to where we come from.”
* “Science cannot give us the answers to life’s purpose. Only the Bible has the answer. Any answer you might give is entirely subjective.”
* “The Bible is the only book that claims to be the word of God.”
* “Despite its size and number of books, the Bible is so coherent that it couldn’t have been written by man.”
And so on and so forth. These are, of course, ad hoc rationalizations, besides the numerous fallacies each of them commits, but to the uninitiated such an aggregate may be very convincing. Well, we know it is, because people convert all the time. Everyone assumes that everyone else must have had good reasons to do so, but in fact no one really does. In conformity and obedience, we find that everyone has the same belief that “someone must know what they’re doing,” “someone must know the really good arguments,” and crushing disillusionment when we realize they don’t.
There is no end of logical or pragmatic rationalizations to someone who is confronted with facts that contradict a fixed idea. Any number of these facts, no matter how valid, can be ignored. There is such a thing as cognitive dissonance, but this is not a point at which we can no longer rationalize as much as a point where our brain simply gives up. It is possible to rationalize even against the direct evidence of our senses, but most people do not have the capacity or will to doublethink their way out of it.
I am reminded of the most famous current Christian theologian, William Lane Craig, who admitted in writing as well as in personal testimony that if he went back in time, observed Jesus’ tomb for any number of days, and saw that Jesus never came back out, he would still believe in Christianity and would take this observation as a test of faith. Of course, we don’t know if he would actually react in that way, but either way it probably takes someone as uncreative and humanity-demeaning as a theologian to be able to rationalize his own perceptions to such an extreme degree.
Now here’s another interesting personality-related phenomenon. I said that a fixed idea (not just religion) can make good people commit evil actions. Not only that, but it can also make an entire society evaluate evil actions as being good. But if that’s the case, then why do most people not commit these evil actions? Why are not all Christians or Islamists as violent as their fundamentalist counterparts, why do not all believers in the law want to bash everyone’s head in, why are not all nationalists soldiers, and so on and so forth? In short, why do most people not take their beliefs to their logical conclusion?
While there is no clear answer to this question, it seems logical to conclude that it must have to do with the degree to which the fixed idea has imparted to the individual a level of ethical dogmatism. Most believers do not wish to impart harm to others, unless that harm is abstract or explained away by authority. Those who actually go out and inflict concrete harm are usually those whose livelihood depends on the institution examined, or people who have been changed the most by the fixed idea’s influence on their lives as a whole.