The Influence of the Subliminal

     In C.S. Lewis's memoir Surprised by Joy, he writes: 

    "Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.  Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken.  You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive 'apart from his Christianity'.  Now, I veritably believe, I thought - I didn't of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense - that Christianity itself was very sensible 'apart from its Christianity'."

    This is a significant insight of Lewis's: that there are some beliefs which become ridiculous once articulated.  Another way to say this is that there are certain ideas that are not believed by argument but because they are propagated subliminally.  But, once stated, it is clear that these beliefs are false.  

    Many of the most powerful and pervasive ideas in the modern world are of this nature.  In his recent post "Do you want Heaven, or the other place, or nothing?  Childhood - Single Adulthood - Marriage/Parenthood", Bruce Charlton articulates what is held up as the goal of modern life: 

    "The potential of human existence is based-upon some version of an idealized young, single-adult life - involving some combination of wealth, power, freedom, high status, fame and attention, travel and leisure, excitement and comfort; lots of preferred-type sex with attractive others and without guilt, strings or recriminations ... 

Underpinned by our own beauty, sexuality, charm, intelligence, dominance, strength and fitness, perfect health and immunity to illness, disease and ageing."

    Of course, this goal is never actually stated explicitly by those who believe it.  No one believes this because they were argued into it; it is simply propagandized endlessly and the alternatives ignored, suppressed, attacked, and mocked.  The belief operates at a sub-rational, subliminal level.  What Charlton has articulated really is what people believe, but like Lewis admitted, if anyone was actually to admit this explicitly, it would be clear how pointless (not to mention impossible) it is as a life goal.  

    Another example relates to managerialism.  In the Middle Ages, theology was referred to as the Queen of the Sciences (science broadly conceived as any intellectual discipline).  By this, it was meant that theology was the central and primary intellectual discipline, the most fundamental and the most advanced, while the other subjects were the handmaidens of the Queen; their job was to serve theology by illuminating other areas of knowledge.  Over time, the science considered Queen of the sciences has changed.  In Ancient Greece (although they did not use that term), the Queen of the Sciences was philosophy; centuries later, the mathematician C.F. Gauss (1777-1855) famously said:

    "Mathematics is the queen of the sciences and number theory is the queen of mathematics.  She often condescends to render service to astronomy and other natural sciences, but in all relations she is entiteld to the first rank."

    while in the early to mid twentieth century, the Queen of the Sciences was considered by many to be theoretical physics.  In all of those cases, there was at least some justification for viewing these disciplines as the most fundamental and central disciplines (also taking into account that the meaning of science narrowed from intellectual disciplines in general to natural science from the Middle Ages to the modern era).  Currently however, the two candidates are either leftism ("studies", etc.), or managerialism.  

    Both of these are treated as if, to paraphrase Gauss, "they are entiteld to the first rank in all relations", i.e., as if these two subjects (I won't call them disciplines) have, by virtue of their superior position, the right and indeed the obligation to critique all other subjects.  To actually argue this would manifest its absurdity, since both of these subjects are obviously extremely light in intellectual content and it is also apparent that they are simply justifications for cultural subversion and bureaucratic takeover.  Thus, even though these two areas really are treated as the Queen of the Sciences, this is not because of any argument; the belief also operates on the subjective level.  

    Another example is the idea that if we just had the right bureaucratic procedures, then society would become a utopia.  And this is even taken further when it is assumed that not only can policies guarantee good, but anything bad that happens only happens either because a procedure was not in place or the procedure in place was flawed.  These assumptions are behind almost every media evaluation of any unfortunate circumstances and indeed, the entire birdemic response was based on these assuptions.  As with the other examples, if anyone was to actually try to argue this, it would be seen to be ridiculous, yet vast numbers of people speak and act as if they believe just that.  Once again the influence is below the rational level.  

    And people readily absorb beliefs in this form.  Large numbers of people are very adept at instictively taking up these assumptions, which underpin media and official communications where everything is always interpreted in light of these assumptions (although they are never spoken or argued for). 

    There are three ways out of this, corresponding to the division of human decision making into three parts: instinct, reasoning, and intuition.  One way is to have correct instincts and reject these assumptions and the actions based on them without any deliberation.  Pretty much everyone who lived before 1900 or so would fall into this category.  It's much harder now, for most of us, because we live in an environment where so much is built upon false and unnatural assumptions, so we have to consciously become aware of insticts which correspond to what is true and reject those which work with these false assumptions.  

    The second way is to explicitly articulate the assumptions and rationally perceive that they are untrue.  

    And the third way is to strengthen our intuition, by grounding our thinking in what is most good, true, and fundamental.  Although much of intuition operates unconsciously, it is not the same as instinct, because it is based on the spiritual truth about reality, rather than biology.  Both are natural, but one is higher than the other.  William Wildblood has written much about this topic, and has a good recent post on the intuition.  

    And these are not mutually exclusive; it is possible and good to use all three.  

2 comments:

  1. Well said. I myself recognized the absurdity of these in my early twenties, but was incrementally 'worn-down' into substantially accepting them from then onwards - up until after I became a Christian at about fifty when things began to turn around quite quickly.

    This wearing-down into acceptance did not (as you say) happen by logic or evidence; but by the sheer weight of assumption in the people and discourse.

    I see a similar trajectory among most people I have known - regardless of their party political or religious differences from (say) forty years ago... they have all ended-up in pretty much the same place.

    This could well be another instance of the 'inevitability' of the End Times. in that the demonic powers can maintain a relentless long term pressure of false assumptions that has a cumulative effect on the mortal, fallible, vacillating mortals.

    To escape requires (at least) both wanting to escape, and being willing to take individual personal responsibility for assumptions (which is another way of saying intuition must indeed be primary).

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    1. "that the demonic powers can maintain a relentless long term pressure of false assumptions that has a cumulative effect on the mortal, fallible, vacillating mortals."

      Good point

      I was mostly thinking about the pervasiveness and subtleness, but the constant repetition over years and years is another reason why people believe them.

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