The phrase originates from a conversation that occurred directly after a scientist’s speech in which he described how the earth revolves around the sun.
At the end of the speech an elderly lady stood 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 then asked, “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!”
This anecdote was cited by Stephen Hawking, in his book “A Brief History of Time.”
A belief system is turtles all the way down. Why talk about “Belief Systems and the Social Contract”? Because, before we are anything else we are a species of believing social animals. Beliefs are demonstrably more powerful and durable than knowledge. History is a litany of beliefs triumphing over facts. It is a failing of intellect that has led to wars, depredation, and widespread social discontent throughout human history. Once past survival, we are at root, meaning-seeking organisms and we go to great lengths to rationalize whatever beliefs we can adduce to reinforce those meanings.
It can be said that beliefs are the actual substance of the social contract; to not believe is to not participate. Beliefs inform the social contract – they saturate it with ideas, fantasies, and ideals that often do not necessarily reflect reality or, for that matter, possibility. There is hay to be made in this by politicians and others seeking to influence the least capable members of a society to achieve approval for policies that are not of ultimate benefit to them.
A belief system is a set of mutually supportive notions, a psychological state which holds the beliefs to be true even in the face of contradiction. The beliefs of such systems can be religious, philosophical, ideological. The philosopher Jonathan Glover says beliefs are always a combination of these and that such systems are difficult to revise. Glover suggests that beliefs have to be considered holistically in that no belief exists in isolation in the mind of the believer – beliefs are social and psychological in nature. It can also be said that beliefs are often an existential black hole into which go facts never to be heard from again. Facts quite often are regarded as irrelevant if they do not accord with beliefs – racial stereotypes being an example of this phenomenon. Truth becomes, at bottom, a belief system you either believe in or not.
Two of the most influential thinkers on the subject, Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, differed on what underlies belief systems. Adler’s social/psychological theories stood against Freud’s. Whereas Freud claimed sexuality lay at the base of personality, Adler said power was the real aphrodisiac. Actually they were both right. Power attracts sex as a magnet does iron but it does something else as well – it creates fear and, too often, submission. There is the belief system called Capitalism which would destroy any social contract standing in the way of accumulating wealth. Perhaps to the disappointment of Freud, the contemporary Oedipus fantasy is wealth beyond the dreams of avarice with requisite social control.
In the case of those seeking power and influence, such as politicians running for office, the more believable is going to prevail. It’s marketing exercise with a certain quantity of shuck and jive telling people what they want to hear. May the best man win comes down to making the best sounding case, plucking the right strings, addressing fears and aspirations with the best sounding rhetorical spiel. It comes down to who can create the most believable fantasy addressed to either end of the political spectrum. Who can best tell the public what they want to hear. It has little or nothing to do with truth.
An example of fantasy social contract “rights” are gun laws that permit people to carry loaded weapons into public places on the premise that gun owners have the right to do so, ignoring the right of other people to be safe. Anyone who has ever fired a sidearm even at a shooting range knows most people don’t have a clue as to where their bullets are headed. It is a certainty that innocent people are likely to be wounded fatally or otherwise if some paranoid would-be gunslinger decides to open fire in a crowded public space. Another example involving public safety is where people speeding along on a crowded freeway believe that all the cars in front of them have functioning brake lights.
What is belief after all but a handy acceptance of what is presented, thought, experienced, or felt as real and true without the necessity of objective proof? In spite of the efforts we make as organized societies to make it possible for diverse people to coexist peacefully and productively, beliefs intervene at nearly every level – our socially destructive race relations being a perfect example infecting the American social contract for centuries. Ironically we must organize social contracts which, in spite of conflicting beliefs, which will allow us to live together in some state of harmony. Thus we add yet another belief system to the stack – the notion that we can all get along which holds until other beliefs conflict. It’s a stack of beliefs inextricable one from the others. They are all too clever by half, those turtles.