Symbolic Belief and Cognitive Dissonance

Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth. — William Blake, The Proverbs of Hell

While it is on my mind, I thought I would quickly post something about this today, as these are hot topics and might just as well be called “the Jekyll-and-Hyde Syndrome”. It is apparently implicated in the Pope’s remark that “duplicity is the currency of the day,” and in the perceived epidemic of hypocrisy and apparent Double-Think, too. All in all, these are seemingly symptoms of the dissolution of the personality structure of Late Modern man and the breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness structure. As far as I can determine, there isn’t a lot of difference between what is called “symbolic belief” and “cognitive dissonance”.

“Symbolic belief”, as a diagnosis of a certain malady of the mental consciousness, surfaced a few years ago in relation to the “birther” controversy in the United States questioning whether Obama was actually born in the United States. Symbolic belief is the holding and expressing of beliefs that in your actual heart of hearts you nonetheless know to be false because holding that symbolic belief serves some other aim or purpose (such as the belief that Obama was secretly Muslim). That’s often the effect of propaganda. The target of propaganda knows that the propaganda is false, but believes and acts as if it were true. This is quite similar to cognitive dissonance, or the apparent ability to hold two contradictory beliefs or belief sets in one’s mind at the same time. These conditions — or condition — of apparent duplicity is the meaning of “loss of integrity”.

It seems like weakness of character, or a moral failing. And perhaps it is that. But there’s also another possibility — one suggested by Blake’s “proverb of Hell” quoted above. Whatever is possible to be believed, is an image of the truth. This is, in a nutshell, Gebser’s own understanding of the dissolution of the personality structure of modern man and the disintegration of his consciousness structure — the double-movement. What is a falsehood — what looks like duplicity and deception and hypocrisy and schizophrenia — may be the emergence of a truth not yet fully realised — a half-truth that is distorted for being incompletely realised; an image of a truth that is not yet a realised truth.

Now, this is somewhat different approach to “symbolic belief” and cognitive dissonance. Castaneda, during the course of his apprenticeship, for example, experienced severe cognitive dissonance, but was at least conscious of the fact. “Symbolic belief” has more the character of a fraud because it’s a disguise for other motives other than the judicious discernment of what is true and what is false. It is more in the nature of a rationalisation for ulterior motives, and in Obama’s case it was definitely racist ones, so symbolic belief was a more or less (usually less) conscious form of deception and self-deception. This kind of “symbolic belief” is the communication style of most propaganda which relies on direction by indirection, which is the illusionist’s trick. This is the nature of “brand management” too.

Cognitive dissonance can be something else — an apparent self-contradiction because of the “irruption” of a new consciousness structure that is only partially realised and which may take a few generations, in fact, to become fully actualised or manifested. Cognitive dissonance can mean, therefore, the clash of two belief systems associated with two different structures of consciousness — one that is actualised and one that is in the process of emergence or “irruption”. It is, in fact, Gebser’s argument that this is the nature of the “double-movement” of our times.

That’s the core meaning of Blake’s proverb. A belief may be only an image of the truth, but which is not yet a fully realised and actualised truth, ie, knowledge proper. A belief may be only a quarter or a half-realised truth in the historical process of unfolding, and which can be in those terms mistaken for a lie, or a fiction, or a “myth”.

For example, a half-emergent consciousness of wholeness may be interpreted by the more egoic functions of consciousness as the idea of totalism or the totalitarian. But the whole and the totality have quite different, and in fact contradictory, meanings. In fact, a partial realisation of wholeness is a lie in itself because its realisation is incomplete. It remains, then, a half-truth at best, and a half-truth is often deceptive, maybe even monstrous, from the perspective of the old consciousness structure. A more analytically attuned or perspectivist consciousness structure would even experience that “wholeness” tendency as chaos, in the presence of which it would resort to magic to try and dominate, domesticate, and tame it.

In fact, the practice that Gebser advocates in the experience of this “double-movement” is simply mindfulness — the same as the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and non-attachment. The secret of the successful transition, as far as Gebser is concerned, is to know when “to let happen” and to know when “to make happen”, with the accent definitely on the “let happen”, or what Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan called “Not-Doing”, or what Buddhists call “mindfulness”.

More ecological or eco-dynamic ways of thinking are intimations of wholeness, and are, indeed, encountering reactionary resistance but also distortions of meaning or co-optation (or what some call “green-washing”). And this goes for “holistic branding”. There is a kind of “truthiness” to it that nonetheless disguises its corruption and perversion. It’s co-optation. But, in later posts, I’ll show how Jung’s integral psychology (which is what it is) is now being exploited by “managers of meaning” to achieve just the opposite of what Jung intended for it.


One response to “Symbolic Belief and Cognitive Dissonance”

  1. Charles Leiden says :

    Good writing and I agree. I appreciate your articulation of the quote by Blake. W.I. Thompson in The Edge of History wrote “one can say almost anything about human culture now, and it will be true, for everything is going on at once.” There are many dynamics happening. I would suggest that one must experience an awareness of a call to be more aware of what a human is. To be able to transcend one’s cultural programming and start to question everything. As you know, the human being is complex. Wisdom (what is wisdom?) suggests that self-knowledge is paramount. Every culture answers the basic questions for each of us. To conform means basically means just to follow these ready-made answers. As you write, “all of us are asked to believe things that cannot possibly be true” this is the nature of groups.

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