Why Do You Believe That?

An Absurdist View Of Culture and Society

Good morning lovely people!

I’m sharing an interesting article below, which I wrote for The Philosopher’s Stone last week about the basis of our belief systems. If you’re interested in other happenings the past week:

  1. My article, “Trusting Someone New After You’ve Been Cheated On,” was published by The Good Men Project on Thursday.

  2. Sober January is officially 2/3 over. I will write a full post at the end of the month breaking down what happened, and why I think I will be starting every year like this from now on.

  3. I started writing a sci-fi novel, and now that I spoke it into being, I have to follow through with it.

As always, I would greatly appreciate it if you shared the newsletter with anyone you know who might appreciate poetry or perspective pieces. The easiest link is through here: http://bit.ly/calexanderpoetry and they’ll get a free pdf of my first poetry collection, The Cosmic Hello. If you never got a copy yourself, feel free to email me at calexanderpoetry@gmail.com and I’ll send you one too.

Lastly, there has been a severe lack of poetry in this poetry newsletter, so before you read the article, here is a poem that I wrote a couple of years ago that hits on some of the major themes of the article:

Apes Actually

Sometimes I think our monkey
brains probably shouldn’t have realized
we have monkey brains. Maybe
we should have stayed in the trees.

And there was an exceptional monkey;
his name was Richard Einstein (no relation)
relating relativity to a relatively real
rec room crowd. He did and didn’t
and did his didn’t. Didn’t he?

And he did it again, or always
or never, it’s hard to tell some of
the time, or some of time.


Why Do You Believe That?

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”
― Karl Marx

I’m about to lie to you. Well, I guess it is more like perpetuate a lie to you, but it’s a lie that looks a lot like truth, so do you mind? Spoiler: The following story is a lie.


The Five Monkey Experiment goes something like this: a group of researchers once put 5 monkeys in a room with some bananas at the top of a staircase. Every time a monkey tried to climb the staircase, the researchers sprayed the monkeys with a fire hose, until the monkeys stopped trying to get the bananas anymore.

Later, the researchers took away the fire hose, but the monkeys had been trained not to go after the bananas, so it didn’t matter; the fire hose was no longer needed. Slowly, the researchers began taking one monkey out of the room and replacing it with a new monkey.

When the new monkey came in, he looked around and was like, “Hey guys, why is no one going after the free bananas?” and began climbing the stairs towards the bananas. The other 4 monkeys grabbed the newcomer and beat him until he no longer tried to reach for the bananas.

The researchers replaced the other monkeys one by one until there were no monkeys left that had ever been hit with the fire hose, and yet all 5 monkeys had been beaten into submission and learned the lesson to never attempt to get the bananas.

Spoiler Episode 7: Return of the Spoiler: that experiment never happened, even though a lot of people seem to think it did.

Descriptions of this experiment can also be found online, as a result of this story being told many times in various blogs, books, and speeches. The experiment as described in the story, however, never happened. — Dario Maestripieri Ph.D.Games Primates Play

Why then, has this experiment been shared so many times even though it’s all but confirmed as fake?

Because It Tells The Truth

Ethics are the set of moral principles that guide a person’s behavior. These morals are shaped by social norms, cultural practices, and religious influences. Ethics reflect beliefs about what is right, what is wrong, what is just, what is unjust, what is good, and what is bad in terms of human behavior. They serve as a compass to direct how people should behave toward each other, understand and fulfill their obligations to society, and live their lives. — Lumenlearning

A huge part of our beliefs about right and wrong, moral and immoral, taboo or not, etc. come from our culture. If you think about the strangeness of large parts of our identity being placed in such a nebulous construct for a moment, you find yourself in a never-ending vortex of infinite regression.

Infinite regression is a phenomenon that arises when we ask about the justifications for reasons rather than just the reasons themselves.

This is not the same as asking, “why do you believe (insert cultural norm here)”; it is actually asking, “why does anyone believe (that same cultural norm)” You find yourself in an infinite regress when you ask questions like: “Who made God?” or “What came before the big bang?”

There is a rather famous example in philosophy called Turtles All The Way Down that goes something like this:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!


We also find ourselves in infinite regress when we think too deeply about our cultural beliefs. Why are W.A.S.P. (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) American’s in general so prudish about sex? Oh, we have Puritan forebearers. Oh, and their parents were religious extremists in their own countries before that. Oh, and their parents branched off from their own religious sects in the dark ages. etc. etc.

The only problem is if we think too deeply about this. It all starts to feel very silly. How many of our core beliefs and actions are based on an infinite regress that has little or no connection to reality? How many of us are staring at bananas with no idea why we aren’t all climbing the stairs to grab them?

The experiment itself is a lie (thankfully for the poor monkeys). But the underlying truth is constantly impacting our individual and societal decisions, and for the most part, we never question it. We raise our kids in the same faith we were brought up in. We teach our kids the same politics we were taught. We discipline our kids the same way we were disciplined. And we so rarely stop to think:

Does any of this make any sense at all?


Thanks for reading. If you’d like to share this newsletter with someone, here is an easy link: http://bit.ly/calexanderpoetry