"In a sense, there's nothing to believe in"

When I started “What You Believe In” last summer, I wanted to know if it was possible to dig out the real self in someone or if we are to be continually shocked and surprised by people we’ve trusted.

A few weeks ago, I came across Julian Baggini’s TED talk “Is there a real you?”, which piqued my curiosity. Could someone have the answer to that? Is there a way? Can I stop harassing strangers for their answers and be done with it?

Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher, founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He turned out to have a very pragmatic approach, which should be refreshing for those of you who have read my other articles, encouraging positive thinking and other “trick-your-brain” tips, as I like to call them. Don’t worry, our circumstances could also mainly be shaped by luck. Here’s why:

Julian Baggini

"In a sense, there's nothing to believe in"



What does trust mean for you?

Julian - It’s such a simple question and yet so difficult to answer. Trust is what you’ve got when you don’t feel the need to check and verify. It’s as simple as that. The very definition of trust is that you are accepting what someone says or accepting what they’ve done without having to go and check that it’s authentic or that they’re being honest, or that it works.

What does it mean to be a man for you?

Julian - It’s an interesting question. I just think to be a man is primarily to be a human being. And in that sense it’s no different to being a woman. The only difference of being a man to being transexual or any other gender is biology. Culturally, to be a man in a modern western country should be to be a little bit aware of your privilege and your power, the advantages that you have and to try and use those responsibly. And also give away some of them if possible. These advantages are very subtle but if I’m a man sitting at a table in a meeting, I’m more likely to be listened to than a woman. It’s not inevitable, there are some women who are much better at getting the attention than men. But on average, you have that advantage. Your abilities are more likely to be rated than those of women. They’ve done studies around praise words used in school for boys and girls. Girls tend to get praised for hard work, effort, diligence and boys tend to get praised for talent and ability. As a man you’re more likely to be assumed to have abilities than a woman, who’s more likely to be seen as working very hard for herself.

Is there anything you hide from yourself? Or from others?

Julian - There are obviously things I hide from myself. But if I succeed, I don’t know what they are. I try not to. I think it’s quite important to try and be honest about oneself and one’s own weaknesses. Because you can’t do much about them if you’re not aware of them. What I hide from others… I think I hide a great deal. That’s not because of any kind of great shame or embarrassment. I just think I’m a fairly private person. I don’t really want to share my most personal intimate things with other people. If it’s anything to do with being a man, it’s probably more cultural than biological. Culturally, the British are quite reserved. Although I sense that’s changing. There seems to be a lot more younger men tactile with each other than people from my generation. They hug and they say “I love you, man!”. My generation never would have said to a friend “I love you”. Is it cultural or is it my personality? But my personality is so much shaped by my culture in the same way that my gender lens and everything. It’s all these things together.

Is there anything you believe in?

Julian - There’s quite a lot I believe in. But I don’t believe without any reservation or without any doubt. One of the things I struggle with a bit given my philosophy background… It seems that a lot of people think that if you can’t know something for sure then you can’t know it at all, whereas I think there’s nothing we really know for sure but that doesn’t mean we know nothing. I believe we are mortals, that there is no life after death. I believe that it’s possible to be good and decent with other people. It’s possible to live a good life. There’s a lot of chance involved in this. And not everyone does get a good life. I believe it’s possible to have a better future or that you future turns out to be a complete disaster. Surely everyone believes lots of things. In a sense, there’s nothing to believe in. I believe in everything there’s good reasons to think is the case. Most of what we believe, we don’t even notice we believe it. Because it’s just… of course we believe it! Some people believe that everything happens for a reason. I certainly don’t believe that. The other day, I was at a funeral. And this guy was in his eighties when he died. I heard a story about him when he was really small, one or two years old. He was living in Brislington, which is a suburb of Bristol. It was bombed by the Luftwaffe and the house was reduced to rubble. They were in the cellar, survived and were dug out by neighbours. But most of the people around them died. He was just lucky. He was in the cellar, he survived. He could just have died. His whole life that passed could never have happened as well. It’s just luck.

Is there anything you’re grateful for?

Julian - I’m a very big believer in gratitude. Although I’m an atheist it doesn’t stop me from feeling grateful. I’m grateful for the fact that I live at the time I live in. I’m a real winner in life’s lottery. Being a white man in one of the wealthiest nations in the world is a huge privilege. I also feel very grateful for the cards I was dealt with in life. Some people like to talk about how they achieved what they achieved despite their circumstances. But actually my dispositions and environment were such that I was able to flourish in it as well as I ever could. And I’m not a depressive person, I don’t have anxiety issues which a lot of people do. I’m also very grateful for lots of specific things that happen, like this coffee that came with this very nice biscuit. I try to cultivate that feeling of gratitude. Some people do it in a very mechanical way, because it’s meant to be good for your wellbeing. In a way, object to that. I suppose I don’t like the way a lot of these things become instrumentalized. The idea that you’re doing a gratitude diary with the intention of improving your own happiness seems to be the wrong reason to be grateful. You’re grateful because you appreciate. And if you’re feeling grateful because you think it’s going to make you happier, it’s not the same thing. That’s the whole law of attraction stuff, which is evil basically. I’m being too strong but it’s a very bad thing. It encourages people to believe they have more control over their destiny than they really have. And also, negatively, it can lead them to blame other people for their misfortune. Because the law of attraction implies that if you don’t attract certain things, it’s because you don’t want them enough or when someone gets cancer, it’s their fault. They should have been full of positive energy. It’s ridiculous.