We are said to be in a world that has been disenchanted by science, where the feeling of magic and mystery has been swept aside by the cold hard search for scientific truth – but too many of the “truths” we keep finding in and for our lives are things that just click with and feel right for us, personally.
Human psychology is a miraculous thing. We can learn so much, from the largest scales of the cosmos down to our own deep-seated biases. Working collectively, we can come to a much better understanding of so many things. The cosmos is becoming self-aware in us, as Carl Sagan put it.
And at the same time, we so easily continue to fall prey to our biases and predilections. Even in the collective endeavor based on critical observation and re-testing that we call science, social pressures lead to blind spots; paradigms can make plain facts invisible.
In everyday life, it’s all the stronger an issue how quick we are to evaluate something we see based on our own prior experiences, (limited) knowledge, and (selective) understanding of things, and how steadfastly we hold to this evaluation in our desire to be correct and consistent.
We just need a glimpse of a person, and we judged them. We hear a sub-second “Hello” and believe we know the speaker’s personality.
An opinion or interpretation, once made, is bolstered by facts and further observations that support it – and a subconsciously very selective awareness of only those facts and views, not the ones that would make us question our assessment. And so we read the news, to be entertained, not for the hard news we all say we’d prefer.
“… that feeling is a truth, but what it believes isn’t true at all…” *
There is one good piece of news in that: You could say that it is a way in which we are very much of this world, in it, at home in it. We observe what we would, we interpret it as we happen to do, all because of the ways we have been and are woven into its structures, having evolved as a social species, having grown up in a certain culture, society, and context, and being influenced by certain communities, ideas, and conditions.
We even feel deeply about it all, what we see and what we make of it.
This is, truly, not the worst of things…
“Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity — our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.” – Donella Meadows, “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”
It does, however, tend to become problematic because we want to be correct and consistent. And thus, rather than break with an initial, subconscious, split-second, impression or interpretation, we make up a story that “proves” the correctness of what we thought at first. Counter-evidence may not even get seen, and if it comes into conscious awareness, it often leads to all the stronger a disbelief in it (it “backfires“).
If it were only single people believing what isn’t true about things of little consequence, it wouldn’t be the big problem.
In fact, insofar as there are perspectives and issues we find interesting and feel are just right for us, and we thus get the motivation to engage with them, it is a good thing. You hopefully have some things which you feel deeply about, that seem to strike a chord in you and make you passionate to learn more about them – even though you wouldn’t be able to explain this fascination rationally.
This is just the case where it’s only about you, though. Sure, you may want to share that fascination with others, and you may be a bit disappointed when someone you care about doesn’t share in that passion, but it’s not the end of the world.
When we interact and need to get to a consensus, but can only feel our truth, however, it is a problem. People have killed each other over such things, not least when it comes to religious beliefs. Now, we are threatening to wreck our futures because we cannot and do not want to see how we are a part of this world and need to live like it.
It has, unfortunately, come to the point where the nicely-feeling truth wins over fact – and it does not help that modern liberalism, good as it can be in many a case, wants to allow everyone’s “truth”, even in things which are just facts.
We even ask if someone “believes” in science, in climate change, as if that were a matter of how you feel about it, when it is not a matter of belief and feeling. The CO2 levels have been rising and the climate has been changing.
This, then, is the question to ask when a statement or observation feels true: Does it feel true because it is right or just because it somehow fits in with my beliefs and observations, makes me feel good, and thus comes to appear true to me?
The same with what feels untrue: Does it feel untrue because I have a resistance to it, wanting it to be false so that I am right? Or is it really false?
However something feels, however good intuition can be for us at times, we need to get at home in our humanness: We need to understand that we will instinctively and subconsciously react to and judge people and things within split-seconds, thanks to our necessary animal heritage – and we can and need to also pause and think consciously so we don’t remain at the instinctive-animal level but make good on our humanity.