The Search for the Truth
Pretty much everyone is very wrong very often. I am no exception. Far from it. The day before Trump won the election, I stated to several of my friends that I wouldn’t be surprised if he failed to win a single state. Shortly before making this assertion, I had bet another friend $200 dollars that the Cubs wouldn’t win the world series. The track record of those with whom I speak doesn’t seem to be much better. Even the experts are proven wrong on a very frequent basis. They also disagree vehemently. If you do even a small amount of research into the history of any academic field, from physics, to medicine, to religion, to biology, you begin to realize the astonishing degree to which consensus is lacking.
This truth has been driven home to me many times. On such time stands out above the others. I was attending a political science class during my senior year at college. The professor was discussing two conflicting theories as to the overarching cause of world wide environmental degredation. One school of thought held that environmental degradation was mostly the fault of the so called Global North; Wealthy, developed nations who’s endless hunger for natural resources was said to be the primary culprit for our environmental troubles. The other school of thought posited that it was actually the less-developed countries, also referred to as the Global South, who were causing the issues. After spending the next hour making the case for both theories, he ended by saying “As with most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.”
It was a beautiful sentence, and much needed at the hyper-liberal college I attended. Less than a year earlier, I had taken a class in sustainable development, in which the teacher had argued exclusively for the “The Global North is at fault” viewpoint. Although this is the view point with which I am slightly more aligned, to act at though the matter is black and white strikes me as an example of bad teaching.
Similiar dichotomies exist everywhere. Some nutritionists are ardent supporters of the idea that a diet devoid of all meat will lead to the best health outcomes. Others say that such a diet will result in serious vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies. Many proponents of western medicine feel that practices such as acupuncture, chiropractic, yoga, energy medicine, and other ayuvedic methods are complete scams. To me, it seems very likely that many of them are. It also seems very unlikely that alternative practices would have reached their current levels of popularity if they were entirely unhelpful. Militant atheists utterly deny the existence of God or mystical experiences. On the other hand, priests, rabbis, and shamans have chosen to devote their lives entirely to the, possibly imagined, world of deities and the “immaterial.” Might there be a higher power, a being that created / interacts with our world? It doesn’t seem impossible by any means. If God does exist, I’m guessing that he’s clever enough to trick us into thinking he doesn’t. Then again, plenty of religions make diametrically opposed statements about the nature of reality, meaning that plenty of religious followers are living in fantasies.
So what is the answer? How can one live in this hyper-uncertain world? I’ve spent many years trying to investigate this question. While I still occasionally feel overwhelmed by uncertainty, I have developed some strategies for dealing with it, thinking about reality, and learning in a way that seems to be giving me a reasonably symmetrical picture of what is going on.
Here are some of the strategies:
Consider and address intellectual path-dependence
We are all subject to confirmation bias. After our opinions have developed critical mass, the only information that can make it through our cognitive filters is that which runs in accordance with our current views (for the most part at least). Any information that does not fall under this umbrella leads to a surge of anger and is thrown out (again, for the most part). I’m no different. Just a few hours before writing this, I read an article arguing that self driving cars are essentially a media stunt and will play no significant role in the near future. I barely processed it. Instead, I put the author on my mental list of idiots, and moved on. Maybe I’ll act more maturely next time. I think I will. I usually do. I’m a vegan, but I follow plenty of health practitioners who are in favor of eating meat. I’m a theist, but I follow plenty of atheists on Twitter, and I’m pretty sure that most of my closest friends don’t believe in God. I can tell you first hand that listening to the opinions of so many people who disagree with you will probably result in a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance, but I still think it’s worth it.
Zoom in and zoom out
I’ve been fascinated by both telescopes and microscopes for as long as I can remember. If you spend time studying reality at varying levels of magnification, you will soon begin questioning your assumptions about the causal mechanisms that are responsible for everything from human behavior to the motion of distant galaxies. It turns out that once again there is a disagreement even among hard-core physicists as to the underlying drivers of motion and causation. It also turns out that the raw mathematics describing the nature of some aspects of reality disagree with the mathematics describing other aspects of reality (The famous incongruence between the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.) Despite the endless questions and confusion that research into the worlds of the very microscopic and the very macroscopic will generate, I am still a huge proponent of delving into both fields of study.
Question your heroes
The fact that someone has been right about a lot of things, or very successful in a certain field, does not mean they are right about everything. Question everything, even the assertions of your heroes and or those who are very good at making things happen.
Study the Non-Verbal
Words are not the things they represent. Movies are not real, not even documentaries. The world of books and movies is beautiful, but anyone who lives primarily in this world is missing out on some very important aspects of reality. I’m saying that as a person who has often been guilty of doing so. Escapism is my natural tendency. My default mode. It’s why I make a conscious choice to run, juggle, and play golf and guitar, even when I really don’t want to (Most of the time). There is a lot to be said for non-verbal forms of learning and self expression. They expose you to states of mind that simply do not exist in the world of words.
Talk to People Face to Face
I once listened to a presentation on face to face communication, given by a Buddhist practitioner. At one point, he claimed that 70% of the information communicated in a conversation is actually conveyed non-verbally. The first thought that sprang to my mind was “In that case, how about we tape your mouth shut and see if you can get 70% of your point across?” But as time has passed, I increasingly understand what he was talking about. Again, books are great. Movies are great. Listening to lectures is great. However, much like spending time in the non-verbal of endeavors of sport and music, there is something to be gained from two way conversation that you’ll never get from the one-way consumption of written or spoken information. For many people this is obvious. For me, it wasn’t. For around a year and a half, I read a lot and spoke very little. I’m happy that that year is over, and will forever take issue with anyone who says that listening is more important than speaking.
My final tip would be to bear in mind the fact that, if the proper measures are taken, we can make intellectual progress. We can become more right. Or at least less wrong. Although we may never achieve a perfect view of the world, we can take comfort in the fact that some world views are more accurate than others. As Sam Arbesman has pointed out, the theory that the world is round is better than the theory that the world is flat, and the theory that the world is slightly egg shaped is a bit better than the theory that it is perfectly round. There is order in the chaos. We can learn. We can predict. We can, slowly but surely, make our way towards the truth.