by James Wallace Harris,
All too often we think we know but we don’t. Why do so many people argue with 100% certainty against others who feel equally convinced? Often wisdom tells us the more we know the more we don’t know. Does that mean the person who claims to know nothing knows the most? Why is this reality so hard to understand? Even eyewitnesses are often fooled. And why is it so important to know thyself?
Reality is complex, but is it unknowable? Humans believe they are the crown of creation because all animals are ignorant of their own existence. Is our sentience really a quantum leap over all other life forms on this planet? If we compared ourselves to an amoeba, ant, or cat, we can see that awareness of reality has slowly gotten more complex and each of those animals perceives a larger portion of reality. Does that mean we see everything in reality, or are we just as blind to a much larger reality?
I believe we’ve evolved a number of cognitive tools to analyze reality, but it’s important to know the effectiveness of each.
First-Hand Experience. Common thought claims we have five senses for perceiving reality, but we actually have many more. People often believe seeing and hearing things for themselves is a primary source of knowledge. However, our senses can deceive us. For example, the lady cop who shot a man in Texas because she thought he was a burglar in her apartment when she was in his apartment. Just pay attention to how often eye witness accounts fail. Or better yet, recall all the times your senses have fooled you.
Instinct and Intuition. Our genes and unconscious mind direct us to act without thinking. Many people prefer to go by gut reaction than thinking it through. But how often does gut reaction tell us to kill or take what we want?
Language. By breaking reality down into pieces and giving each part a name goes a long way into gaining useful insight. But language is imprecise and the parts of reality are many. People who know the different names for trees have a greater understanding than the person who only knows the word tree. Language has evolved tremendously giving us one of our best tools. Pay attention to how words help you to perceive how reality works, and observe how people with lesser or better language skills fare compared to you.
Word of Mouth. We learn from other people’s observations. When we were hunters and gatherers hearing from scouts describe where animals could be hunted was vital. On the other hand, if a seafarer told you about mermaids you ended up believing in an unreal being. Word of mouth is very unreliable. Remember the Kindergarten game of Telephone? Word of Mouth evolved into journalism, and we know how reliable that can be. Word of Mouth has always had a fake news problem. Gossip, innuendo, slander are also descendants of word of mouth.
Counting and Measuring. Simple arithmetic became a tool that lets us invent, build, grow crops, trade, and develop an economy. Counting and measuring evolved into mathematics.
Mysticism. Mystics are people who claim to acquire knowledge from a higher source. They became shamans and seers who influenced other people. They also speculated about how reality worked, inventing higher beings. Even today many people still give credence to mystical insight. However, mystical insight has produced an infinite variety of conflicting information. We have to assume its all suspect. Mysticism tries to be the first-person experience of the divine.
Religion. Religion is codified mystical insight that is retaught as the truth. Religion allowed us to create very complex social structures. However, its truth is suspect. If there are a thousand gods, most followers are atheists to 999 of them. Religion succeeds in creating artificial realities that may or may not interface well with actual reality. Religion spreads best through word of mouth.
Laws. Laws are an external tool to encourage consistent thinking. Religious laws attempt to force mystical insights onto a population. Secular laws attempt to get people to work together.
History. If you study the Old Testament you’ll see it’s more about a history of a people than spiritual instruction. We have always tried to remember the past to explain how we got here. Early histories were no better than word of mouth stories that could be highly inaccurate. And each succeeding generation of historians alters the histories. A good example is the New Testament. Whoever Jesus was, and whatever he taught, has been constantly changed by each new writer of the New Testament. It appears the historical Jesus advocated communal living and sharing that today would be called communistic. The historical Jesus was concerned about creating heaven on Earth. It was later writers that gave him superpowers and turned him into God. Studying the history of Christianity is an excellent way to understand how history constantly mutates. History is a worthy way of understanding reality but it has to be tempered by comparing multiple histories.
Philosophy. Where religion taught that knowledge came from God or other spiritual authorities, philosophy teaches us we can figure things out for ourselves. Using rhetoric, logic, and mathematics men and women observe reality and deduce what’s going on. This was a great paradigm shift away from religion. However, like the game Mastermind, it leads to a lot of false assumptions. Elaborate castles of logic can build imposing concepts but that often turns out to be illusions of great knowledge. Philosophy is a major tool for understanding reality but it also has major faults.
Ethics. Ethics, like laws, attempt to come to a consensus on what’s right and wrong. Ethics is based on philosophy. Although in recent years, some ethicists have tried to look for a scientific foundation.
Science. Science combines mathematics, statistics, observation, testing, and philosophy into a systematic way to evaluate reality. Science assumes if tested observations and measurements prove consistent by scientists from any nation or culture then they might be true. Science never assumes it finds the absolute truth, but just the current best guess based on all the existing data. Science is statistical. Some science is so refined that it works incredibly well with reality. Space probes visiting distant worlds validate hundreds of years of scientific endeavors.
Scholarship. We have made education into a major portion of our life. We spend our entire lives trying to figure things out. We study, we think, we make assumptions. Like philosophy, scholarship often builds vast models of speculation. Scholarship tends to endorse results from competing trends. However, scholarly theories can be deceptive and even dangerous.
The problem is we use all these tools to explain our version of reality. Unfortunately, most are unreliable or clash with other people’s version of reality. Science has proven to be the most consistent at explaining reality, but science doesn’t cover everything. For example, right and wrong. These two concepts are ancient, probably coming out of mysticism or an instinctive desire for justice. Both religion and philosophy have tried to perfect them, but our reality is completely indifferent to morality or ethics. We have invented many concepts that just don’t exist in reality.
This causes problems. Several million people might believe with absolute certainty in a particular concept and then try to impose that view on millions of others who are just as certain such a concept is invalid.
We live in a polarize society because we all embrace different ancient beliefs, most of which we can’t explain how they came about. We just accept them as true. Most people believe in God because it was something they learned as a little kid. They won’t let the idea of God go no matter how much other cognitive tools disprove God’s existence.
Donald Trump seems to base most of his knowledge from first-hand experience and word of mouth information. Twitter is the perfect tool for word of mouth. Trump is neither religious, philosophical, or scientific. But this isn’t an uncommon way of dealing with reality. Few people are philosophical or scientific. Too many people only want to trust first-hand experience and instinct, but we know how unreliable those cognitive tools are. People who rely heavily on first-person experience and word of mouth tend to disbelieve science.
There have been various disciplines that try to teach self-programming that jettisons cognitive bullshit. Zen Buddhism is one. Meditation can be used to seek mystical insight or to observe the working of our own being.
The reason I wrote this essay was to help me think clearer. I’ve been reading books on Greek philosophy, and early Christian history. They are teaching me what people 2,000-2,500 years ago thought. I can see those ancient people struggled to make sense of reality without science. I can also see the same struggles today in people. We just don’t think clearly. We’re too influenced by low-level cognitive tools that deceive us. We base our existence on illusions created by those most primal cognitive tools.
I keep hoping the human race will get its act together and create a sane society that coexists with reality, and not on insane illusions and delusions. I realize until everyone becomes a master of their various cognitive tools, and learn the limits and limitations of each, we can’t start working on that sane society. We can’t start learning what’s real until we learn how to perceive what’s not real.
7 thoughts on “Our Cognitive Toolbox for Working with Reality”
Referencing your last paragraph, “I keep hoping the human race…,” I’ll say only that I opened Pandora’s Box many years ago and gave up anything and everything that resembles either “hope” or “faith” in the human animal.
As always, a great column and you stay safe and be well.
Randy, like you, I’ve given up most hope, but not all. There’s always a chance for a black swan. Don’t you think?
That issue of what, cognitively, constitutes reality is a tricky one – as you say, for individuals it seems to be about how they were brought up as to where they stand. Like you, I hope humanity will get together and create a shared sense of reality that works for betterment. Alas, I fear that one driver of any personal sense of cognitive reality is a need to self-validate; and humanity as a species seems to be the master at first creating an illusion and then treating it as real. The two aren’t a good combination.
Wait a minute here! Did I write this? It speaks as if I did? And nowhere to be found do I find conflict in your perspectives. Not within your views of religion, nor philosophy nor the false perceptions of reality or science as the “best bet so far” for explaining our natural world. I feel I like should compliment your insights, but seeing how they mirror mine — as Spock says when he meets his younger self — that would be oddly self-serving. So I’ll just say thank you. I very much enjoyed your post!
Wonder how many people do think like us? Checking out your blog really does show we have a lot of overlapping views. https://wordofwayne.com/2020/01/21/your-reality-is-not-mine/
Wonder how many people do think like us? — Judging by the number of your followers and their comments — I’d say a lot! You can add me to that list now as well. Oh and thanks for adding my “Beliefs and perception” post to your “Posts I liked List.” What a great idea having a promotional list like that. Now why didn’t I think of that? Lol!