As a part-time psychotherapist I find myself more and more having deep conversations with “clients” about a very critical subject.

The topic?  What, I ask them, have you chosen to believe is true?  About your life?  About your relationships?  About yourself?

I call it “epistemological (theory of knowledge) therapy.”  Pretty catchy, eh?

Well, maybe not, but it does drag what appears to be an automatic and reflexive process out into the light for examination.  Most of us, for better and worse, believe that what is true is handed to us fully formed and immutable.  Somehow, someway, by someone, we are told what is true and we accept it, as if it has the solidity of granite; thereafter, it is what it is and it does not change.  Then, inevitably, we find ourselves imprisoned in a cell constructed of our own beliefs about what is true.

But I am finding that more and more people are expressing their discontentment with the epistemological hand that they have been dealt.  They are coming to understand a surprising meta-truth; that the door of the epistemological prison cell in which they find themselves actually swings free and can be opened with the mere brush of a cognitive hand. A thought, even a whim, and the door is open.

It is with real perplexity then that we realize we can step out of the cell of self-imposed beliefs and into a the strange domain of the unformed; we understand that as it is within our freedom to choose to believe, it is also within our capacity to choose not to know. And once we choose not to know, then we are free to learn anew.

I have often used the metaphor of the zoo-imprisoned bear who one day finds the cage door unlocked and shoves it open and wanders out into the free world.  Often, after a brief period of bemused exploration, he returns to his cell and waits for lunch.

Of course, the bear’s next meal is not the result of his own foraging but rather is brought by his captors, those who were complicit in forcibly extracting him from his true home. And after a time in captivity the delivered meal may seem both more tasty and convenient, and our homeland is but a distant memory. Are we captives, or are we free?

We all know people who, if you question their beliefs, will respond with a snarl, as if you had stolen their food. They react with anger and what psychologists call “defensiveness.”  Their beliefs are as precious to them as the cage is to the bear.

But now, in the age of Covid and post-election fanaticism, we find ourselves more than ever called upon to step boldly, or even timidly, out of the prison of our beliefs into the harsh but warming light of the free world.  We are seeing that the belief-system that we have inherited from family, from teachers, from political leaders, from the experts of the day, is not working. And it appears that the price of errors about what we choose to believe is ascending rapidly.  You can call it consequence-inflation, and just like monetary inflation it degrades the value of whatever you have.

I recently watched a video in which a credible expert proposed that the latest virus is an unintentional side-effect of industrialized animal farming  – and that the next one will likely wipe out half rather than one-hundredth of humanity. Yes, the consequences of complacency are rising.

Maybe capitalism is at fault, or maybe socialism or maybe simple human greed, but in truth all these are choices about belief, however momentary, and they are choices that can be unmade – or “deconstructed,” as the philosophers like to say – as easily as they were created.

There was a time when humanoids examined things, examined everything, when human beings looked at the world with clear eyes, and decided slowly, very slowly, the significance of what they were seeing. Human beings understood from the beginning, that decisions about meaning, about truth, were fundamental to existence – or nonexistence.  There were few, beyond oneself, who could be trusted to make such determinations.

Now the speed of experience has increased immeasurably and therefore we look to others, those who talk through our phones or our computers, to determine what it all means, what the torrent of information means.  As the thousands of questions arise, some of them, like now, seeming to be about life and death, we turn our conscious gaze away from our own minds and look to others to tell us what is true.

One thing is certain: as they say in the Big Book meetings, when you discover that what you are doing is insane, then to continue doing the same is suicidal. Therefore, the assumptions that we have made for decades and even for centuries can no longer be accepted.  We must examine things for ourselves and only then decide what is true.

Whether the belief is that we need millions of heavily armed police to keep us from murdering each other or that we need thousands of nuclear bombs to protect us from a vague unknown enemy or that we need three-burger sandwiches to keep us from the momentary pangs of hunger or that we need vast medical institutions with budgets in the many billions to keep us alive, we must to drag those beliefs out into the sunlit commons, question them deeply, and, if necessary, throw them away.  In other words, use Occam’s Razor: Question everything and keep questioning until all that remains is what works. That is the truth.

It is only by reclaiming our freedom to choose what we believe that we can survive. With industrialization and post-industrialization, with easy food and constant entertainment, we have become lazy and reluctant to really examine the foundations as well as the implications of what we believe, and, therefore, what we do.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, we human beings are precisely that animal that must function at its most glorious, with every cell transforming and every neuron firing, if we are to have the chance to allow the grand experiment that is the planet Earth to succeed.

As I have suggested to some estranged couples, there are no rules against accepting that you don’t know, and starting anew. The innocence and freshness of receptive awareness is the gift.

We can choose to be intelligent, compassionate, kind, and open. We can look at the world with a child’s eyes.  We were children once.  We may have to surrender a good deal, we may have to learn to live with a much higher level of uncertainty, we may even have to return to the painstaking process of withholding judgment until we have completed our own examination.

But at least we will, each one of us, have reclaimed the choice, the choice about what to believe, which begins, of course, with the simple choice to be.