I’m a skeptic, or at least I try to be. Socrates, one of the most influential thinkers in history, is supposed to have said “the beginning of wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” I feel obligated to modify this, as it contains a contradiction, to “the beginning of wisdom is in knowing that you most likely know nothing or at least very close to nothing,” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and doubtless it is severe hubris to suppose that I have the authority to instruct Socrates. Perhaps it is the contradiction itself that embodies the real significance of the saying. Regardless of the precise wording, the point is that bound as we are in our human forms, with our human viewpoints, we cannot hope to come to a truly comprehensive and objective understanding of anything. The best we can do is to develop approximations and best-case explanations for what we observe around us in the universe. Most significantly, this understanding makes it imperative to question everything. Including whether or not you should question everything. Which means you need to question whether to question that you should question everything. Down that road, madness lies (I’ve been there – it’s kind of nice).

However, to be a functioning individual you have to make certain assumptions. The wiser among us will make the more prudent decisions about what assumptions to make and which ones ought to be questioned more deeply. For instance, we cannot prove that this universe in which we live is not, in fact, a complex computer simulation, an alien’s video game server, the event horizon of a four dimensional black hole, or many other “existential” theories. However, since we cannot prove it because we have no tools able to differentiate between “reality” and such a simulacrum of it, the question need not lead to a daily existential crisis. Although it’s possible that the force holding us to the surface of the planet, which we currently call gravity, could spontaneously reverse itself because of something we don’t yet understand or perhaps even imagine, it’s useful to assume that when you step into the shower, you’re not going to have to stand on the ceiling because all the water decided to start falling up. And while I cannot prove to you or myself that I am not simply a figment of your imagination, I choose to assume that each of us are distinct entities that have chosen thus to interact with each other.

In a way, these certain assumptions are a kind of belief system, and perhaps future generations who have come to a deeper understanding of the universe will look back on our conviction that gravity is a consistent force of attraction as superstitious nonsense. Just like language and even morality evolve over time, so too does our understanding of the universe. Two examples serve well to illustrate this idea. We look back today on people who thought that the Earth was flat and that they would fall off the edge if they went far enough as ignorant and superstitious. Yet consider their position. What evidence did they have to the contrary? Without the benefit of high altitude flight or Earth-imaging spacecraft, the mathematics and measurements necessary to prove that the Earth is, in fact, round are surprisingly complex. Recall also when you would have to do those “story problems” in math classes. Did you take the results seriously as an accurate depiction of events? If you sat down right now, and calculated that the flat piece of paper in front of you was actually a sphere, would you believe your math, or your senses? Really, it should not be astonishing to us that people believed the Earth was flat. It should be surprising to us that they figured out it was round. The Greeks were even able to calculate its radius to within a few kilometres, which is nothing short of amazing.

Consider also the various models of the heavens. Although Copernicus was not actually the first to propose that the Earth was not the center of the universe, we look back on his experiences today and dismiss the Church and other intellectuals who condemned his theories as either cynics looking to protect their own power, or fools. But consider the evidence to which they had access. The moon, the most obvious and easily measurable of the celestial bodies, clearly moved around the Earth. And from the perspective of someone standing on Earth, it certainly looks like the planets and sun, which are the other easily measured celestial bodies, are also moving around the Earth. Even including the movements of the starscape relative to the Earth (since with the telescopes of the time stars still appeared more or less fixed in the sky relative to each other), it was possible to calculate a system of consistent movements and prediction based on the Earth being at the center of the universe, and it was variations on those calculations that had been done for centuries, even as far back as ancient Egypt.

The point of this discussion is essentially to explain why I consider skepticism to be so vitally important. It is absolutely essential that we keep our minds open to alternative explanations for the universe in which we live and with which we interact. Just because one explanation is the accepted explanation doesn’t mean it is “right” – there may not even be a truly “right” answer to a lot of the deep, probing questions about the universe. If we hew too strongly to a single explanation simply because it is the one that is commonly accepted, then we will inevitably be scoffed at by our ancestors the same way we scoff so readily at those who did not accept Copernicus’s teachings. There is absolutely no reason to believe that our current understanding of the universe is so very much closer to being a “right” answer. Even if there are truly right answers to be found (which I doubt, but that’s another post – this one is already going to be far longer than usual), what we have now is at best a less wrong answer than the answers that have come before.

Why are we having this discussion? Why are we having a discussion about skepticism in a post that’s supposed to be about belief? I suppose, to some extent, it’s because I went off on a bit of a tangent about a topic that’s rather important to me. However, I thought it was important for you to have at least some of this context, so that you would understand why I have been struggling with this problem in my writing. I know, intellectually, that belief, or assumptions if you prefer, are a vital part of character, and that it really isn’t realistic for all of my characters to be raging skeptics, especially not in a fantasy world with technology and understanding similar to the late Middle Ages in Europe, but I have been struggling with how to implement that in a believable (all puns intended) way. This is especially pertinent to Blood Magic, which features religion as a prominent component of the World.

I recently began writing the seventh episode, and although not serialized, it will prove to have some strong connections to the ninth episode (don’t worry – I’m not going to include any spoilers in this post, at least nothing more than you would see in the episode summaries included on the page). Specifically, both episodes are going to be dealing with different religions and philosophies, and how people come to believe certain things. This is part of my ongoing effort to use Blood Magic as a sort of experimental canvas, and this is an especially important topic for me to work with, since religion has such a massive role in my epic fantasy series, Fo’Fonas. With that in mind, I began a few weeks ago to research a commonly held, modern-day “superstition”: astrology.

According to some studies, up to 1/3rd of the American population believes that astrology is backed by somewhat or very significant science, and as much as 25% of the population believes that astrology can accurately and reliably predict things about their lives. Doubtless it is my own “superstition” at play, but I cannot help but hope that some of those numbers are people who fail to grasp the difference between “astrology” and “astronomy.” Of course, I think those studies were probably finances by astrological societies, so that’s worth bearing in mind. Regardless, with my research I am attempting to understand better why otherwise intelligent people would believe that the relative positions of the planets and stars would have some kind of special and personal significance that applies exclusively to an individual.

To better understand this modern-day belief, I have examined the history of astrology, as well as other beliefs that various people have held throughout history, and attempted to isolate commonalities. For one thing, most organized belief systems have some kind of individual appeal. They offer personal predictions or promises. They offer explanations or insight into unknowns, whether those unknowns are natural phenomena, foreign invasions, human nature, or the future. Third, these offerings can usually only come to the average person by way of complex, difficult, or mysterious processes, usually undergone and the results delivered by some kind of authority (like a priest, shaman, or oracle).

If I were undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the nature of human belief and what ties different beliefs and practices together throughout all of human history and across civilizations, I would obviously come up with more than three parallels and would require much more robust evidence than an hour or two of internet research. However, for my purposes as a writer, this seems a sufficient place to start. Specifically examining astrology’s longevity and modern-day appeal and traction, I think that all three of the main points I isolated apply.

People want to matter, and perhaps especially today, they want to matter on some kind of a grand scale. There is also a trend towards more focus on the self. Medicine is driving towards a more individualized approach (or at least it was – COVID may change that), companies cater more to the individual needs of their employees, and there are more options for customization of experience than perhaps at any other time in human history. So the idea that the heavens themselves could be communicating an individualized message to help you has an especially strong appeal.

With the second point, I focus on the last two unknowns: human nature, and the future. I don’t think most people who believe in astrology are using it to explain why it stormed last night or to predict when North Korea’s next missile test might be. Instead, they turn to astrology for insight into what might happen in the future (which is perhaps the biggest unknown there is), and to help them with their relationships (understanding human nature). Both of these play again into the idea of a personalized prediction, and cater to this explaining of unknowns that we crave. Unknowns are evolutionarily dangerous, which is why so many people are afraid, or at least wary of the dark. That makes a system that can reduce unknowns especially appealing.

Although the purveyors of astrology do not disappear for days into the wilderness where they eat venomous snakes and have visions, and they don’t usually perform secret rituals in their homes in communion with Nostradamus (In the final books of The Lymond Chronicles, Nostradamus plays a semi-prominent role, and it was Francis’s interactions with him and his astrology that first interested me in better applying belief in my writing), they do maintain some amount of mystery around just how the predictions are made. Even though many people are able to generate predictions themselves through astrology websites, they cannot see the actual calculations and observations that go into those predictions, and the very skepticism with which the majority of the population views the practice contributes to its mystery and therefore its continued appeal. This is probably the weakest pillar supporting astrology’s continued popularity and cultural relevance, but neither should it be disregarded entirely.

Can these three pillars of belief systems be applied to writing? The answer is absolutely yes, whether consciously or unconsciously, but the more pertinent question is whether or not I will be able to successfully apply the ideas I have learned and conceived through my research to my own writing. The only way to know is to try, and of course to practice until I master it. Hopefully the work here will be reflected in the coming Blood Magic episodes. And I hope it doesn’t only help me – if you are reading this as an author or aspiring author, I highly encourage you to consider trying some of these concepts out in your works, as well.

5 thoughts on “Understanding Belief

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