For most of human history, men and women have developed their ideas of God through group experience and tradition — and they’ve then been willing to kill those who didn’t accept their notions of who and what God is.
Every group seems to have believed it was uniquely qualified to speak for God. Every group believed it knew the truth. Every group was willing to use force to impose its idea of God on everyone else. Every group was willing to kill those infidels who didn’t know their truth and worship their God.
Many modern rationalists like to laugh at those people — both the primitive early religious folks and the comparatively flexible and more rational modern religious groups. They like to look down their noses at religious people and say, “The world would be great if all of you stupid people would just worship my god — the god of reason.”
I’ve realized recently that rationality has been turned into just another false god.
In the same way that every person who had absolute faith in his religion has been certain he was right, every person who has used reason to reach a conclusion is eager to impose that conclusion on others — through force if necessary. (What do you think government is? And what do you think voting says you’re willing to do?)
Psychology experiments routinely confirm that we all fool ourselves into believing whatever we unconsciously decide to believe. We all believe we are the rational people with the right intentions. We all believe that those who disagree with us are irrational or dishonest or crazy. Maybe all three. We all believe that when we lie or cut corners, it’s justified — because we have the truth on our side, unlike everyone else.
I love reason, but I’ve lost faith in the power of reason to save human society — because we are all hopelessly human.
Hopelessly locked in our own subjective experiences.
And we are hopelessly blind to what we’re doing, so we all believe we’ve found some sort of objective truth — and almost everybody is willing to kill and destroy in order to impose that truth on others. (We just ignore the fact that coercive government is imposing the will of the majority on others through force.)
We all have a narrative of what the truth is, but we rarely can see how we constructed that narrative. We can rarely see that our carefully reasoned conclusions are based on assumptions which we can’t prove — any more than anyone else can ultimately prove his assumptions.
So what’s the difference between truth and narrative? I think objective truth exists at some level — that there is some ultimate reality if you could get to the core of everything — but I believe it’s literally impossible for humans to know the truth. At least not for certain. Because everything we “know” is filtered through faulty senses and through faulty brains that aren’t capable of discerning truth.
The best we can do is start with assumptions about reality and then use reason to build conclusions. We call those conclusions our version of truth, but they’re actually just the stories we’ve told ourselves based on the assumptions we start with.
If you assume a certain person or group is evil every time it does a certain action, you are going to see evil every time that thing happens — and you’re going to tell yourself that your conclusion is objectively true. You are blind to the core assumptions with which you started and you’re going to label your assumptions as objective truth, even if they’re nothing but your subjective observations.
I have a narrative about the way the world works and so do you. Beyond that, I flesh out my narrative with the values I have chosen to accept as truth. So do you, although you might not even be consciously aware of having done that.
For me, my social and political assumptions start with the idea that every human being has the natural right to be free and to control himself, as long as he doesn’t interfere with other people’s freedom to do the same with their own lives. To me, this is an obvious moral principle. As a result, my narrative about what is right and wrong in the world flows from that assumption. I believe that any use of force to make other people behave as I prefer is morally wrong. My political and social position is therefore a clearly reasoned conclusion.
For someone else, a core principle might be that every single person has the moral right to have the things he needs to live in the world. To that person, it might seem like the most obvious moral principle that making every person equal is more important than anything else. For him, the driving narrative is based on that principle. He will believe that the use of force to equally distribute resources in some way is an obvious moral good. To him, this would be a clearly reasoned conclusion.
So how do we determine objective truth? We can’t.
All we can do is to be aware of our biases, try to understand our core assumptions and then realize that other people’s conclusions will radically differ from our own. This means we have to set our world up in ways that allow different people to live out their ideas of truth in ways that don’t interfere with one another, because the only alternative to this is having one narrative slowly take over and force its view on everyone.
But it’s not just at the political or social level where our differing narratives create problems. We are constantly angry and hurt with other people who have different narratives about what’s going on between individuals. We can have long-running narratives about relationships and we can have different narratives about what’s going on during any specific situation. If we aren’t aware of our differing narratives — and then communicate clearly about how we’re seeing things differently — we’re constantly going to be hurt and angry with people we claim to love.
In her newest book, “Rising Strong,” Brené Brown tells a story about how she and her husband had radically different narratives about what was going on in one situation — and how it led her to make up a story in her head to explain his actions, even though it turned out her story had nothing to do with what was going on.
One summer, Brown and her husband, Steve, were on vacation with their children at a lake in the Hill Country of Texas. She and Steve went for a swim together and as she was swept up in feeling joy about experiencing the moment, Brown said something sweet and vulnerable to her husband.
“I’m so glad we decided to do this together,” she said. “It’s beautiful out here.”
Brown said she has come to expect Steve to be far better than she is about being emotionally vulnerable, so she expected an affectionate response. She expected a response of love and belonging. But he was seemingly cold.
“Yeah, water’s good,” Steve said.
Brown says she felt embarrassed and ashamed. She had opened herself up and hoped for an understanding and loving response from Steve. Instead, she felt something more like rejection from him. Even though she comes from a family which wasn’t very good at expressing feelings — so she was more accustomed to shutting down when she felt such things — she tried again.
“This is so great,” she said. “I love that we’re doing this. I feel so close to you.”
Again, Steve’s response wasn’t anything like what she expected.
“Yep, good swim,” he said. Then he swam away from her.
Because of her upbringing, Brown’s normal response to such a situation — feeling rejected and ashamed — was to be aggressive and self-protective. Instead, she decided to be vulnerable one more time — and to ask him what was going on. Before they got out of the water, she asked him to stop so they could talk. She told him she was trying to connect with him and it felt as though he was pushing her away.
“I feel like you’re blowing me off,” she said, “and the story I’m making up is either you looked at me while I was swimming and thought, ‘Man, she’s getting old. She can’t even swim freestyle anymore.’ Or you saw me and thought, ‘She sure as hell doesn’t rock a Speedo like she did 25 years ago.’”
After a bit of discussion, the truth came out.
Steve wasn’t trying to be distant with her. It turned out he had been fighting off a panic attack for the entire swim. He told her about a dream he had had the night before in which he was with their children on a raft when a speeding motorboat came rushing toward them. In the dream, he was trying to pull the children to safety and was feeling as though he wasn’t able to save them all.
As the two had been swimming that night, Steve had been consumed with thoughts of that dream. He couldn’t even concentrate on what his wife was saying. He was just concentrating on finishing the swim and getting out of the water.
The reality suddenly hit Brown. Both of them had been so caught up in their own narratives of shame that neither could see what the other was dealing with. In her mind, the shame narrative was that she was no longer attractive enough for Steve. At the same time, he was dealing with a shame narrative about whether he could save his children — and be strong enough for his wife.
It wasn’t until each one of them could understand the other person’s narrative that they could connect about what had been happening. Unfortunately, most people in such a situation would have never reached the point of understanding the other person’s narrative. Most people would have angrily assumed his or her narrative to be true — and pulled away from the other, full of shame of no longer being enough for his or her partner.
The stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening feel true — especially when they’re accompanied by a lot of fear — but they’re just narratives, not objective truth.
In everything we do — relationships, politics, friendships, everything — we have beliefs which have been shaped by our assumptions. We don’t even notice how we come to believe the things we believe. But everyone chooses a belief according to his cultural bias and personal experience, even though he believes it’s for rational or principled reasons.
Then everyone chooses bits and pieces of evidence which supports his belief and ignores evidence to the contrary. Then he argues with other people, selectively ignoring evidence and — perhaps more importantly — redefining words and appealing to authority to justify himself.
Those in the majority on a topic can smugly pat themselves on the back as being morally superior to have their obvious rightness confirmed by “almost everybody.” Those in minorities can smugly pat themselves on the back for being among the few who aren’t deceived “as everyone else is.”
And everybody is certain he’s right about almost everything, despite the fact that nobody has enough knowledge or wisdom to justify such certainty. But through this entire charade, everybody will swear that knowledge and reason will change minds — the minds of others, of course, since his doesn’t need changing.
In this way, everyone sincerely insists that reason is on his side — while the group cultures driving everything sit quietly in the corner and laugh at our belief that we are choosing for ourselves.
Everything I’ve seen recently has reinforced my growing suspicion that reason is useless in creating social change. I suspect there are larger unseen patterns of nature that are going to play themselves out even if we oppose them. I’d like to be wrong about this, but I’m coming to believe people (leaders and followers) fill roles dictated by a script handed to us by something we don’t understand.
A Calvinist might see a theological interpretation to this gut feeling of mine and a physicist might see a deterministic interpretation (at least within the context of quantum randomness). I don’t know what to call it, but it feels like a force of nature — like tides or a hurricane — that you can run from, but you can’t change. I’d love to return to my former assumption that rational humans can change the world through reason, but I don’t see the evidence for it.
Culture ultimately drives everything in a society. If you look around yourself and realize you don’t fit in the culture you see, it’s a good sign you’re going to have trouble influencing those people’s attitudes and beliefs.
The vast majority of people take on the beliefs and practices they’re around. They don’t rationally decide to do this. They simply unconsciously mimic what others are. (Why do you suppose most religious people in the U.S. are Christians and most religious people in most Arab countries are Muslims, for instance? Do you think they all made conscious choices?)
Ideas don’t spread because they’re rational. They spread because certain people who share a subculture unconsciously adopt an idea when it’s useful to them in some way. Trying to change people through reason is doomed to fail — and it always will be. This seems to be something which is impossible for very rational people to accept.
If you want to understand the world of news and social media right now, study the psychology of mass hysteria. That’s what is going on. You will find explanations for group behavior in psychology and sociology, but you won’t find it in reason — even though all of us believe we’re the epitome of reason and everybody else is irrational.
(You cannot read discussion about players standing — or not — for the U.S. national anthem and still believe reason can resolve emotional disputes.)
Humans experience cognitive dissonance when you ask them to question their dearly held narratives. Their instant reaction is to strike back and tell you that you’re wrong. It’s difficult to get people to honestly and rationally evaluate the truth and reason of a position which upsets what they already believe. That’s true for me and it’s true for you, but the more you’re aware of it, the less you feel threatened.
A shallow and false sense of certainty creates much of the ugliness, anger and hate we see around us on all sides today. To a large degree, that certainty now comes from excessive trust in reason. We have so convinced ourselves that we are rational people — and that our conclusions have been reasoned carefully, unlike everyone else’s — that we can’t accept that we are just as likely to be wrong as our enemies are.
As a side note, I’d like to point out that those who believe in individual liberty can never win in a majoritarian political system because they place their faith — at their best, at least — in the power of reason. This is completely at odds with what actually changes masses of people. Libertarians of all varieties tend to consider themselves rational, yet they can’t even agree with one another and they arrogantly argue in ways that make each side of a debate think the other must be stupid.
So I’ve lost faith in the power of reason to save us. I’ve lost faith in the idea that we can reason our way to a happy and peaceful world. I now understand that the best we can hope for is to separate ourselves from one another in ways that allow all of us to live out our narrative of what’s true. If we don’t do that, nothing will ever change. We will continue to live with the advocates of one system of reason or another to bludgeon everybody else in an effort to force all of humanity to obey their narrative.
So does that means reason is useless? No. Reason has given us a lot of valuable things. It can help us in countless ways. But it fails when we turn it into a god. Reason is only as good as our limited ability to correctly perceive reality and our ability to understand our assumptions — and it’s only as good as our ability to be honest with each other that my narrative and your narrative might be wrong.
I try to be rational. More and more through the years, I question myself more than most others do. At least I think so. I’ve undergone radical shifts over the years as I have discovered my own errors and unproven assumptions.
I think I’m doing better about not making reason a god, but maybe I’m fooling myself. How would I know? I’m the easiest person for me to fool.