the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
The conventional is based on agreement, not necessarily fact. We agree that something is the case, and accept it as the case from then on. Convention (etymologically, a “coming together”) contrasts with the empirical, which is based on observation of fact.
Things that are conventional only exist as ideas. There is no empirical reality, no measurable or observable truth. Ideas are real, so conventional things do exist; but they aren’t based on anything independent of our thought. Conventions are therefore the kind of reality that we can change collectively merely by agreeing to do so. Empirical realities are not so easily altered.
And because conventions are independent of empirical realities, they are not responsive to changes in empirical realities. If we form our impressions of the world based on observable facts, but conventionalize those impressions, they will eventually, as the world changes, no longer reflect the real world. But because they originally did reflect the real world, our belief in their reality may be a permanent feature of the conventions. We react to the world based not on what it is, but what we think it is. If we are relying on outdated conventions, our decisions will be flawed and their outcomes not what we desire.
Myths and superstitions are examples of beliefs that were once accepted as true, but now dismissed as false belief. Many such beliefs were originally empirical; they were simply the result of unsophisticated empiricism. When such unsophisticated beliefs are conventionalized and then never challenged, there is no room for better, more sophisticated empiricism. Our wiser selves are beholden to our more primitive selves. However, the terms ‘myth’ and ‘superstition’ are only applied to beliefs after they have been widely identified as false. It would be more valuable to identify our conventions now, as such, so that we can question them continually, and never find ourselves accepting things that a simple analysis of the facts would disprove.
When people are asked to identify a superstition, for example, they will often cite one of a handful of standard nonsensical beliefs about good and bad luck — the number thirteen, black cats, mirrors, ladders — while completely ignoring the various tenets of their religions that are accepted without question, some of which are incompatible with everything we accept about the functioning of the world.
Among the most significant conventions not associated with the (conventionally-identified) religions is the country model, the belief that the world is naturally divided up into geographical units that are more-or-less permanent, and are suitable units for understanding all of the world’s issues — culture, politics, economics, history, even ecology. In our minds, the primary setting for any event is a country. Our primary loyalty is to a country. Countries were mostly based on government, but fossilized in many cases, so that changes in government boundaries no longer affect country boundaries. In fact, country boundaries do not respond to any changes in the world, other than glacially-slow changes in thinking. This gives a great deal of power to the organizations recognized as “sovereign” over these countries, since that sovereignty includes resources and even populations.
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