Doctrine Vs. Ideology

Ideology is a subject being discussed more and more these days, although the term itself isn’t always mentioned. Critiques of government, society, religion, and other similar discussions make up some of the most poignant conversations in today’s media. We’ve seen a spike in right wing ideologies around the world, and ideologies previous thought dead from a global perspective — ideologies like communism and anarchism — are once again gaining global traction. Rather than add to the deluge of content discussing the merits and downfalls of a specific ideology, I figured it might be useful to take a step back and examine what ideology is, and how to recognize a good faith attempt to discuss it.

So what is Ideology? Language is fluid and definitions change, so I won’t waste your time with the dictionary though you can rest assured that I have indeed looked it up. Feel free to do the same. The common thread throughout the word’s historical meanings is its relation to idea and belief — its most common use in modern discourse is to describe political and social beliefs. The word isn’t strictly limited to political and social uses, however, so I believe it’s fair to say that “ideology” refers to what actions a person considers good, what they think of their fellow people, basically any word ending with “ism”. Everyone has an ideology as a side effect of being self-aware: one cannot exist without experiencing existence, and once cannot experience things without reacting to those experiences. Those reactions are determined by the person’s ideology, and that person’s ideology is affected by their experiences. If that sounds confusing and cyclical, that’s because it is — self awareness is an inherently odd thing to be aware of, like a mirror facing another mirror.

The key thing to take away from the definition of ideology is that it isn’t based on anything factual — there is no way to prove that your belief is correct, because there is no way to know what or if there even is a specific reason for our existence, and therefor no way to prove whether or not a person is existing correctly, according to their purpose. A religious person may disagree, but regardless of the source of their beliefs, they ultimately made the decision to follow and act on them. For the moment, we’ll say that any purpose one finds is ultimately a decision they have made, to assign that purpose to themselves and/or others. This doesn’t mean ideology has no effect on our material reality, or that it isn’t worth having or thinking about, in fact I personally believe the exact opposite (I am writing this article, after all). Ideology is a metaphysical concept, meaning that it is extremely abstract, effecting our personal lives, societies, and indeed the physical world around us, but in difficult to understand and often changing ways due to the ever-changing nature of our universe. Aside from metaphysics, we have what I will simply call “material reality” so as not to confuse “physics” with the branch of science. Material reality is what we see outside of ourselves: our bodies, environment, etc.

So we have metaphysics and material reality existing in tandem, effecting each other but in confusing and hard to measure ways — this, combined with the subjective nature of what is considered “good” and “right”, is why humanity has never been 100% on the same page in terms of what to believe. Belief’s power to change material reality is immense, however, which is why every ideology will try to convince you they are correct, even if they’re in the process of killing you and your family; if not for your benefit then for their own and the people around them. Ideology also defends itself with something we call “cognitive bias”, and by doing so also helps to spread itself. It’s been said that Romans went from feeding Christians to lions, to embracing their beliefs (or something akin to their beliefs) because they were impressed with the strength of their faith. I haven’t honestly looked into it, and I’m sure the truth is far more complicated, but it’s no secret that “doubling down” on an idea can sometimes convince people to get or remain on board with it, regardless of the idea’s merit.

So we’ve talked a little about what ideology is and how it spreads, now let’s discuss how an ideology traps people and grinds them against the material reality: doctrine. The literal definition of the word is very similar to ideology and indeed has relation to the word “belief”, but where things start to differ is the word’s root in the Latin words for “teacher” and “teaching”. Here we can see that while ideology can come from within someone, doctrine is something that is taught from an outside source. In this way, doctrine has more in common with rules and laws than it does with belief — regardless of your ideology or what you believe, someone else is expecting or at least wanting you to follow doctrine. Despite being metaphysical, doctrine tries to assert itself on the material world like a physical force by manipulating ideology. Science is often used this way, as people argue about it’s laws, rules, and discoveries, and that they mean one thing or another, but such arguments completely miss the point: “science” is merely a method for deciding what to believe, and any discoveries made using that method are not fact but merely observations supported by active attempts to control the variables being observed — in short, scientific discoveries are just beliefs, albeit tested ones. While some ancient scientific studies still remain uncontested, scientists are constantly disproving and expanding upon each others’ discoveries. Asking questions, considering how to answer them, then performing those actions and interpreting the results to form a conclusion, is the scientific ideology. Recording the discoveries of scientists and treating them as incontestable facts for all of time, is doctrine, and arguably quite unscientific. None of this is to say that scientific discoveries are useless, but that they have much more to say than just their conclusion.

Doctrine takes an ideology and applies it to the material world, usually starting by writing down actions the ideology “requires” and enforcing them in some way; Doctrine takes someone’s beliefs, and tells people how to act on them, often with the assertion that not acting this way is bad for their selves and/or their society. Given that our experiences — directly related to our actions, of course — effect our beliefs, doctrine then begins to effect a person’s ideology to suit the doctrine. Sometimes the opposite happens, and the indoctrinated begin to oppose the doctrine’s ideology, but either way, the ideology is not formed directly from within the individual. If the individual’s ideology supports the doctrine, their cognitive bias will be predisposed to believing the source of the doctrine or other similar sources — this is how people in cults remain in the cult no matter how or how many times the leader has been proven wrong. In the other direction, if the person’s ideology begins to form in opposition to the doctrine, their cognitive bias will be predisposed to rejecting other sources of belief. While I personally believe the latter is healthier for the individual and their society, neither outcome is ideal; ideology should come from the individual, but should be equally open to the perspectives of others for the sake of evolution, or else it becomes a sort of personal doctrine that’s just as difficult to leave.

So how does one tell the difference between someone simply discussing ideology, and someone pushing doctrine? Due to the fluid nature of language it can be hard to tell, even when you’re actively looking — remember, none of us are immune to cognitive bias. One key thing to watch for is accusations of “do” rather than “believe”; To say “scientists believe that correlation does not necessarily mean causation” is a correct description of the ideology, as science puts merit in the quantity of fine details being considered. To say “scientists do not correlate”, however, would be incorrect, as it is impossible to consider every factor in a scientific study no matter how many resources and how much time the scientist has to study. A true scientist accepts their discoveries are limited to their own awareness of the known unknown, and will probably be happy when a new discovery disproves or alters one of theirs. They also know that no statistic is ever 100%, and therefore if they never correlate, they will never discover anything. Someone making a “do” claim rather than a “belief” claim may not necessarily be doing so in bad faith, but it’s important to catch them and convert their meaning into a belief statement, and to remember that the person making the claim is merely stating their beliefs — myself included.

This article is coming dangerously close to discussing the nature of knowledge itself and what it means to know anything, which is its own deep and confusing section of philosophy, so I’ll leave it here fore now. I think most people’s primary frustration with philosophy is it’s lack of actionable conclusions, so I’ve done my best to give some actionable advice here, but it’s important to acknowledge the limits of an individual’s ability to know something. Possibly even more important is to acknowledge a person’s awareness of their own limits — when they talk about what they “know” are they aware that they’re merely stating their perspective and might be wrong, or are they under the pretense that they have considered every possibility and discerned a nugget of pure information which they are now flawlessly and without possible misinterpretation, passing on? While the latter wouldn’t preclude them from being at least partially correct, it shows that they aren’t aware (or at least, aren’t willing to acknowledge) their own limits, and if they aren’t accepting of their own ignorance, how can one be sure of how ignorant they truly are?

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