Why Do People Believe The Earth Is Flat?
“A joke: Two fish in a tank, one fish looks at the other -
‘Wait…’ He says, ‘who’s driving this thing?’”
I recently watched the documentary on Netflix’ The social dilemma’, which was terrifying, but at times sensationalised. The documentary put forward the idea that people who watched conspiracy theory videos would be served more flat earth content and, through an informational feedback loop, would come to believe the flat-earth theory. Something is missing form this theory and I don’t believe thats why people believe the Earth is flat. It’s easy to dismiss people who believe the Earth is flat as being idiots, that they are just stupid and stupid people believe stupid things? This might be the case sometimes, but many are articulate and at least capable of logic, so why then would they come to this belief? Which has been called, the ultimate conspiracy theory? Is there something more going on? As Ernest Hemingway said,
“A writer you should not judge, you should understand.”
Maybe there is something we can all learn about belief, human psychology, and how we are not really poles apart from the flat earther’s (pardon the pun).
A flat earth was at one time the dominant world view until about the 15th century. I’m not going to prove the Earth is round in this article. Honestly, the people who engage with this problem on that level of analysis are just as dumb as the flat-earthers; it’s telling someone with depression to just be happier. Statistically, being happy is good for you; good luck. The Ancient Mesopotamians in the first civilisation in 7000BC believed the world was a flat disc with water above (cause where the rain comes from?), saltwater all around and underneath, because well, the sea, and if you dig down, you get - water. This conception of reality lines up with your sensory information and is bound together with a little imagination. A perfectly logical belief for people with no satellites, astronauts, photography, or an objective conception of the universe. Why then, in the year 2020, when we have all those things, do a growing number of people think the Earth is flat?
Well, firstly, I need to explain a little about beliefs. A belief is a moral imperative because a belief tells you how to act in the world. An example: If I go to the shop to get milk. Firstly I believe there is a thing called ‘shop’. Secondly, I believe there is a thing called ‘milk’ in the ‘shop’ - hence going to the ‘shop’ would help me achieve my aim of getting ‘milk.’ Therefore, my beliefs dictate how I will act. If I believed ‘milk’ grew from trees, then going to the ‘shop’ to find ‘milk’ would be ridiculous. Obviously, I would just check the ‘milk’ tree? (I’m glad we don’t have to milk trees). If your belief system is wrong, you test it in trial and error in the world, and the belief is untrue, then you are faced with letting the belief die and adopting a new map? Or clinging to the belief which has proven untrue. Why would someone do this?
We don’t like our belief system to die because then we have to renegotiate our map of the world of possibility. While this is probably fine in the milk tree scenario, it is a lot more complicated when our core beliefs are threatened. Say if someone we loved puts a knife to our throat and threatens to murder us - poof, our belief that ‘people are good’ is gone - our belief system is rendered null and void in a moment, and you drown in the complexity of this new world. Is every person this bad? Can anyone be trusted? Is evil everywhere? This is how PTSD works - an event so traumatic that how you thought the world worked before was destroyed and cannot be rebuilt the same way again forever. Another problem proceeding from this is once your belief system is destroyed, you can’t just go and get another one. This is because you now know that your belief system can be destroyed, so you will lose faith in belief systems in general. You have learned that there is no true-truth, or saving truth in Buddhism, and you become skeptical, cynical, nihilistic, and unable to believe in anything. If you have ever been on the internet, you will understand this doomer mentality, you have fallen from grace.
Falling from grace is an old problem. An early example is dealt with in the story of the Buddha. When the Buddha is a young man, he lives in the walled city under his father’s protection, who wants to keep him from all of the world’s ills because he is such a promising young man. He is given every pleasure, victory, and joy but still feels incomplete. So at the age of 29, he goes on a rare outing from the palace without his father. Outside he sees an old man who was sick and infirmed and finally a dead body. He is confronted with the tragedy and malevolence of life, and his sheltered and protected existence can never be again. Perhaps we can all think of a time like this in our life. When our trust was broken so deeply, and in a way that could not be fixed and that the world after would never be the same. If not, it’s coming.
So what does this experience of the fall have to do with people thinking the Earth is flat? Well, in every flat earther interview, you will see them speak about a quasi-religious experience when they realised the truth. They lost their faith in the mainstream picture of reality, and then suddenly, the globe flattened out in front of them, and eureka, they were back in the game! The problem is belief systems regulate our emotions, and you can’t exist without a belief system; to be human is to believe. So what do you do when you can’t believe anyone? In this current Coronavirus climate of confusion, many of us have felt the same way about institutions and governments. We have been misinformed, and nobody really knows what’s going on. The emperor has no clothes, and as one fish said to another, nobody is driving this thing; it’s a fish tank. It is a harsh realisation that nobody knows the final truth of anything and for a person who believes in a flat-earth theory, they are the only authority. If your own eyes are the only instrument for apprehending truth and your sensory experience is fundamental, just like the people of ancient Mesopotamia, you end up with a view of the world as a flat disc. I mean, did any of you know Galileo? Work with him? We didn’t discover the heliocentric universe or see the Earth is round, but we take it on good faith that it is true from people who know. So how does a person become a flat-earther? Could be narcissism, could be as a joke, could be just to piss people off on the internet. Still, the answer for those that truly believe is a complete loss of trust and faith in humanity in general. How else could you believe that everyone is lying to you? Unless you believe human beings are fundamentally rotten? Buzz Aldrin is a liar! You never met Buzz Aldrin? Maybe your belief in people was just rocked to the core a long time ago, and rather than go the way of the Buddha to find your faith again, to find something worth believing in, you went the way of the flat-earther instead.
The ironic thing about the flat-earth theory is that it reveals how close we are still to primitive people. If we lose trust and forget the history and tradition of human thought which has brought us to where we are conceptually, we don’t really have much to fall back on. Just apes with smartphones, arguing on the internet about the shape of the rock we are all sitting on; not that clever, when you think about it.
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