The Incumbency of Thought


I had a bit of difficulty finding a good picture to place at the beginning of this post, and the one that I eventually went with was chosen more for its humor than for direct representation of the subject matter I’d like to discuss.  For although the danger incurred by running with the bulls can be seen in a pragmatic light as “stupid,” the incumbency of thought that I’m interested in is less of a mock-able topic.

Probably the most important assumption I need to explain is that I assume (rightly so, I’d argue) that we come into our own as thinking individuals not as tabula rasa (a blank slate), but rather as an assemblage of influences and ideas that are melted into a unique mix we call our “own” ideas and identity.  This is no small assumption, as my precept largely invalidates our ideas of autonomous self-definition.  This is not to say that we have no free will (that’s a whole different level of philosophical discourse), but that the collection of biases, assumptions, and value preferences that constitutes “us” isn’t designed by us; it’s chosen by our culture, family, friends, and coincidence.

Why is that assumption so important to explain?  Because if we don’t choose much of our preference package, then we usually aren’t even conscious of the adoption of those preferences.  Do you vote Republican or Democrat?  For many, that choice isn’t so much the result of a well-thought-out introspection, but rather an assumed preference influenced by any number of factors.  Or even if it is something that you’ve given a lot of thought to, are those thoughts pure rational calculations, or just weighing different preferences you’ve acquired from other influences?

Maybe you’re convinced that you control all of your own thoughts and preferences, and have rationally meted out any undue influence from anything outside your own island of reason.  Good for you.  If you actually believe that, though, you should probably stop reading now.  Because anything further I say not only rests on this precept that we either aren’t responsible for our own preferences or didn’t originate them, but also that you’ll probably be resistant to the very idea that you’d ever let an idea or preference linger in your mind if you didn’t have a good reason for it.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with this being a goal akin unto Plato’s Forms, but has little business being the “attained state” of any honest intellectual.

So what’s the big deal with preferences not being our own?  Well, the problem lies in the reality that we rarely question those assumed preferences.  And although I’ve used “preferences” so far to describe these influences, the realm of personal choice is hardly the limit of where this influence reaches.  Our very worldview can be shaped – or even completely and unequivocally determined – by these cultural and interpersonal influences.  And oh-so-often, those influences do not remain simply a starting point for our beliefs; they become our life-long, strongly-held beliefs.  And anything that threatens those beliefs is seen as threatening our very being (even though that “being” is largely composed of outside influences).

Take politics, for example.  Are business people stingy and never to be trusted?  Your answer to that was probably never the result of gathering data and forming an informed opinion on the matter.  More likely than not, your stance on such a question of reality was heavily influenced by a particular political viewpoint.  But one can hardly be expected to avoid any such early opinion-forming, especially when taking the time to appropriately establish the reality of business people’s ethics.  This tacit acceptance of outside influence on our worldview is human nature (both from a biological perspective of a child’s readiness to blindly follow their parents’ dictates; likely a survivial advantage, and from a psychological perspective; we are easily influenced).

The real question of interest to me, then, is where do we go from here?  Granted, we’re only human.  Our worldview is going to be almost entirely determined for us when we’re young and impressionable.  Sure, there will be some extraordinary parents out there that foster critical thinking in their child’s formative years, so that they might have some hand in shaping their own worldview.  But even under the best intentions, and in light of the overwhelming force of culturization, our worldviews are always subject to some heavy influence.  What can we do after those thoughts and biases have already been inculcated?

This is where the incumbency of thought comes in.  For this is the important point where we can use reason and introspection to at least attempt an evaluation of our present worldview.  We must not only ask questions like “what do I think of business peoples’ ethics” but also “what should my opinion on such matters be?”  Do we have good evidence for our current beliefs?  If not, then shouldn’t we change our beliefs, or at least suspend our belief while we try to gain some better understanding?  Well, that seems like the reasonable thing to do, right?  But for so many people (and in so many different aspects of their worldview), the opposite position is taken: “what evidence is there against my current belief?”

That’s a very different stance.  Not to be too absurd, but if you grew up believing in Unicorns, which position would you take with respect to changing your belief in Unicorns?  Suspend (or abandon) belief in Unicorns until you have some evidence or good reasons for your belief?  Or wait until someone arrives with evidence against the existence of Unicorns?  I’m betting you’d take the first option, given the example.  But what happens when the example changes?  What about politics?  Or even more taboo: religion?

Here’s where it gets tricky.  I’ve been essentially dancing around the topic so far, but I fear being too direct because it might – no, will – offend a great many.  So if you don’t like your own beliefs being challenged, I’d strongly advise that you cease reading the rest of this blog entry.

“The incumbency of thought” is not limited to religion, but I can hardly think of a more difficult belief to challenge.  It’s one thing to challenge one’s thoughts on a business person’s ethics (i.e. whether they are stingy or not), but to suspend or abandon belief in one’s religion is quite another.  And as this topic is hardly a lightweight, let me be very clear in one thing first: I have no qualm against religion itself.  What I do find most irritating is the incumbency of belief in religion.  Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how many children continue to follow the same religion as their parents even when they are adults?  I haven’t been able to find more than  few studies conducted solely in the U.S., but I imagine that the worldwide percentage of static religious affiliation across generations is rather high.

I know a lot of bright people, or at least people I perceive to be brighter than myself.  Some of them have re-evaluated their adopted worldview from their formative years and suspended (or at least verified) their beliefs.  But that’s rare, even among bright people.  More often than not (in my limited personal experience, granted), the in-born (for lack of a better term) worldview is left standing, unchallenged.  Why?  Because it takes a lot of work, and intellectual courage, to challenge what we perceive to be central to our identities.  Questioning one’s religious faith can be a terrifying proposition.  Fire and brimstone certainly don’t sound pleasant.  So it’s not with scorn that I point to those who maintain and avoid critiquing their beliefs, but rather a sense of pity.  Why pity?  Because they’ve locked themselves away from a world of possible alternative worldviews.  Because their dogmatic adherence to one and only one worldview precludes them from even considering that someone else’s different worldview has any credence.

In a sense, to refuse to challenge one’s own worldview (again, largely a function of one’s culture and social environment), is to fail to make the ethical move to understanding “the other.”  For if one’s belief in Jesus as the only possible reality, then what about everyone else who believes in Buddha or Mohammed or Shiva or just no god at all?  Until one makes the critical step to at least suspend inculcated belief (that is without evidence, which I would argue is largely the case with just about any religion), then it remains fundamentally impossible to see any other worldview as anything but flawed and wrong.

Am I being too harsh?  Should we defer to inculcated thought?  After all, there are a lot of people who believe in Jesus, and they live pretty good lives.  So maybe suspending belief in Jesus is unnecessary, since his believers seem to be doing pretty well, right?  Well, Muhammed’s followers could say the same.  Where does that leave us?  Go back to what I said earlier in this post: do you believe in something until evidence against it is provided, or do you believe in something only after evidence has been provided forit?  In the case of religion, all metaphysics aside, there isn’t much concrete evidence for or against god(s).  Or at least nothing that falls into the realm of serious scientific discussion.  So in light of a lack o evidence (for or against), which approach makes the most sense?  Should we all stay with our respective religions (for there is not likely to be much anti-god evidence presented), or do we suspend our belief first?

Hmmm . . . ponder this, I will.

Until next time, bonnes pensées.


  1. dag

    You present an interesting premise. I like the term “incumbency of thought.” However, I’m not quite sure that “incumbency” is as terrible as you make it out to be. People have a limited ability to acquire, process, and reflect on new information. To compensate, we come to trust our past experiences and the socialization from our society. We can’t be forced to continually approach each new decision or fact as completely isolated.

    Now, I do agree that people tend to rely on tradition, prior experience, and “the incumbency of thought” much too frequently. We are capable of so much more reasoned reflection than many people exercise.

    My favorite professor used to paraphrase Raymond Aron. We are not objects, we are subjects. We cannot therefore be entirely objective. We can only hope to be fair. And to be fair is the act of not letting one’s values prejudge one’s conclusions or dominate the process of analysis – making rigorous distinctions between concepts and realities. She would also quote Mary Ann Glendon saying that law, like much of life is, “critical ongoing reasoned reflection.” These approaches seem decent to me.

    As to your points about religion – I’m not sure it represents the same type of “incumbency.” Religion serves many purposes in people’s lives – few of which are completely accessible using objective analysis. And I think that faith plays an important and proper part in many people’s lives – within the confines of Aron’s and Glendon’s advice.

  2. dag

    Okay, I randomly stumbled accross this quote from Camus. “A reflective man generally spends his time adapting his ideas of things to the alterations imposed by new facts. It is in this process of bending and adjusting thought, in this conscious elimination of error, that truth – that is to say, what life can teach us – is to be found.”

  3. admin

    I suppose my frustration with those situations and/or people who rely too much on tradition as their main or only worldview did come through a bit strong in the post. 😛

    You make a very good point (which I didn’t really stress very well) that because of a scarcity of time, energy, and resources, we simply can’t try to evaluate every believe de novo. The Raymond Aron paraphrase imbues your point with a note of humility; we can only give our best attempt to be fair in our subjectivity.

    I think the practice of common law (despite its weaknesses) is an especially good example of Glendon’s “critical ongoing reasoned reflection.” For although common law does not rule from abstract truths (an “objective” law), it does provide a framework for continual progress (for the optimist; perhaps ‘change’ would be more accurate) in the spirit of an ongoing legal discourse.

    I think the only point on which I disagree with you is religion. I do not doubt that religion serves many important social and psychological functions. And for many, faith is an important part of their lives. But that idea of “faith” stands pretty far away from reasoned discourse. That by itself doesn’t make faith ostensibly ‘bad’ by any means, but the nature of faith itself (a completely subjective belief without any objective evidence) doesn’t much lend itself to critical evaluation, does it?

    For example, say I have faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (a parody, obviously). And that faith involves belief in the doctrine that all other gods are illusions, and that followers of those fake gods must be converted to Spaghettism. What reasoned conversation could you have with me regarding my position that would avoid a critique of my faith? If I consent to following reason or common sense, am I not doing so in violation of my faith? For what else do you need when you have faith?

    The example I give really isn’t that extreme. Many of the major monotheistic religions (or at least the main interpretations) are not very friendly in their view of other religions. I’m sure there are Bible/Koran/Torah verses that say otherwise, but religious conflict (both contemporaneous and historical) are damning evidence that the most popular passages involve not love and peace, but fire and brimstone.

    But there are numerous examples of religious groups finding common ground and peacefully coexisting. Part of that can be attributed to an isolationist or a laissez faire approach where different religions just avoid one another. But others are active attempts to build relationships with people of other religions.

    Is that consistent with faith? Or is it a more pragmatic realization that these other people are reasonable individuals as well who have their own belief system? This crucial step – recognizing other people as having a legitimate worldview different from one’s own – is all that I’d ask for. So if one can set aside, for the moment, their own conviction/faith in the “one, true God” and recognize other religions as having merit of their own, then we’ve reached a point where ethical concern for others goes beyond pity for the unsaved, and becomes a much more egalitarian and equitable situation.

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