Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Lies We Tell

Trial & Errors by Jonah Lehrer

Oh we're a tragically short sighted species.  We invent meaning and dwell on facts while the Truth  is all around us.  Our fictions have served us well, landing us on the moon, splitting atoms, harnessing electricity, but the vast majority of us believe in these things rather than recognizing our limited understanding of them; precious few recognize the huge distance between whatever reality may be and our crude thoughts on it.

We are like moles, blind to what is around us, feeling our way along with our weak senses, trying to make sense of the phenomena we bump into.  We crudely describe the book in our hands because we perceive photons bouncing off it, giving it shape and colour in our eyes.  We think the seeing and touching of the book is the book itself, it isn't.  On a fundamental level our intelligence is removed from the reality in which it is suspended.  This offers us a wonderful imaginative freedom, but also creates a perilous relationship between our being and what we perceive as our place in the universe.

When the stories we invent about the world around us roughly approximate Truth, we are able to stumble forward, creating light in the dark.  Unfortunately these successes feed our egos, provoking us into believing that our understandings are Truth.  Our rough approximations have allowed us to advance in technology, but the vast majority of us use it in ignorance, not even understanding the rough approximations, let alone the galactic distances between our minds and the Truth they inhabit.

One of the most cunning stories we tell ourselves is that of causality.  The result of anecdote, and such an old habit that most of us only see it as truth.  Like other fictions of science, this one often approximates the unknowable, and regularly gives useful results.  Conditioned to recognize this as Truth, we take it in as such; happy fictions for our distant minds.

We busily collect data, numbers that refer to truth in the same way that a nice photograph renders a stunning sunset; a moment in time rendered with data, far from the Truth of the thing.  We then further simplify these poorly recorded moments and correlate the data.  Our triumphant result is a new fact to the happily ignorant.  We make drugs and give them to people based on this approach.  We tell them we can or can't cure them of a disease another set of 'facts' probably gave them.  We live and die by our fictions.

We use technology to further remove us from this Truth, taking us into invented worlds and created moments, free of the complexity of the alien Truth we ourselves are a part of.  Perhaps one day we will harness technology to allow us to comprehend Truth on its own terms, but it seems unlikely.  We'd rather harness atoms and photons to move ourselves away from Truth and create more fictions.  The majority treats technology as a distraction when it might be the key to realizing our place in the cosmos.

Science, like religion, creates stories to justify our sense of self-importance; invented meanings to make our mental isolation bearable.  And like religion, science can be a powerful means of directing and empowering us in our mental confines.  We are free to be assholes of universal proportions, to abuse reality and each other, to embrace lies and greed, and invent self importance.  Systems of thought like science and religion can offer us a way of structuring our minds in potentially virtuous, more universally harmonious ways, but they only work if the user is honestly and truly humble.

Humility is the key to any genuine understanding, be it scientific or spiritual.  We only recognize our blindness to the phenomenal world around us when we view it through the prism of sincere humility.  The nature and complexity of the universe operates on so many more dimensions than we can sense or even comprehend, and until we recognize that, our theories and ideas won't come close to assuming their true (and humble) place in the scheme of things.  Humility recognizes our limitations and allows us perhaps to evolve beyond them without fiction taking over.  It recognizes the limited scope of our perspective and allows us to authentically extend our thinking beyond the confines of our experience.

The moment any human endeavor gains a profit motive, it is no longer humble before creation.  If greed invents short shortsighted economic motives, or competition drives research and ignores evidence, or political power is the reason for analysis, we fall back into the realm of human affairs.  We might become successful in those terms, but only at the expense of distancing ourselves from universal Truth.

We're in such a dead end that most people now believe that profit produces happiness and greed is a virtue.  We think that offloading physical effort to mechanization and thinking to digitization makes us better.  We use technology as an excuse to make ourselves less, not more conversant with nature.

A world ballooning with over seven billion human beings, the vast majority of whom are happy to make use of science and technology without realizing that its fictions are trapping us in a dead end.  On top of that, many of that majority still cling to older ideas of species divinity based on the last round of wrong headed human self-aggrandizement.  Humility is about as far from religion, science, economics or education as we can possibly place it.

Yet Truth surrounds us intimately and continuously, if only we'd quiet our thoughts and feel it.


Notes:


Kant's noumena & phenomena
Plato's allegory of the cave
Causality gives us the appearance of intimate knowledge, it's the source of arrogance.
"Every story is a slippery conjecture, a catchy conjecture..."
Perception is the greatest prejudice of all.
There isn't a test for any disease, there are correlated results.  Correlation in statistics is a purely abstract means of understanding reality.
Does teaching an idea based on the fact that it's our best way of explaining of explaining it make the knowing less valuable?