Is there a difference between what is true and what we believe is true?
Thinkers and scientists have asked this question for ages. Is there an objective reality? How much does ‘the truth’ depend on us?
Nietzsche believed that truth contained a divine element, a “metaphysical faith” which served as the foundation of logic, rationality and science. “From the flame lit by the thousand-year old faith, the Christian faith which was also Plato’s faith, that God is Truth; that Truth is ‘Divine’.”
According to the philosopher, this faith was the foundation for Western intellectual tradition.
Many people today would argue that truth, best expressed as scientific law, is absolute and perceptions (i.e., findings made through scientific investigation) are relative. The law of gravity is a ‘truth’ yet our explanation of this law (i.e., ‘theory’) may change over time. Put differently, truth is singular and perceptions plural.
But is truth really singular?
Since the mid 20th century, we’ve known that the smallest bodies of matter are comprised not of substance or particles but clouds of probability, dissolving patterns of light and dark that change so quickly and imperceptibly that they may be both true and not true at the same time.
Nietzsche would have called them “degrees of apparent-ness”: what you think something is it suddenly isn’t.
The idea that reality can ‘collapse’ into one possibility or another (what Schrödinger called quantum superposition linked to random subatomic events) left a gaping hole in scientific theories taught for generations. It impacted not only physics and chemistry but also how people conceive the world.
Seventy-five years later, many of these notions are still trickling into our collective consciousness. Imagine how many other distinctions and connections we’ve been taught that aren’t what they seem?
Intuition stumps deliberation
Even the law of cause and effect, claim some quantum physicists, is subject to violation. What most people regard as universal truth – in this case, that every given moment in time is the result of a chain of events – may not be completely true.
The physicist Richard Feynman once said that quantum mechanics deals with “nature as She is – absurd”. As an example, he’d cite the uncertainty principle, which explains why two linked properties (i.e., particle position and speed) can’t be simultaneously measured by nature, nor even precisely defined, since the accurate measurement of one will necessarily diminish the accuracy of the other.
The point is that everything, in its own unique way, is relative. Which has a lot in common with the basic building blocks of matter. So even though quantum mechanics doesn’t describe our everyday realities, it resonates with the roots of these realities. Not just relative differentials between how individuals see and measure the world, but relative realities of the human race.
Although this idea is not new – even Aristotle argued that human knowledge is at best an approximation – it helps explain why intuition (i.e., making sense of the world in non-linear ‘holistic’ ways) has always been the default setting for humankind.
First, intuition is involuntary, at work whether we like it or not. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others argue that intuition (not deduction or analysis) is our most potent form of cognition. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book subtitled The Power of Thinking without Thinking, he lauds the sheer force of snap judgments and gut feelings, which he calls “rapid cognition.”
According to Gladwell, “there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.” He claims that intuition can often outperform the best projections, and that too much reflection often leads to mistaken second-guessing about what our ‘gut’ knows to be true.
“In the act of tearing something apart” he says, “you lose its meaning”.
Kahneman calls intuition “metaphorical, associative and impressionistic… the secret author of many of our choices and judgments”.
History and human bias
Over the last several decades, scientists have performed diverse experiments on the many biases and ‘heuristics’ that characterize (and often animate) intuition: the anchor effect, confirmation bias, availability bias, the Halo effect. The list goes on. All are hard-wired into human consciousness, enabling us to make snap decisions with uncanny accuracy yet also skewing both our knowledge of the world and ourselves.
“The thing about human cognition is that it settles into a stable representation of reality… and tends to suppress ambiguity”. Kahneman calls this process associative coherence, an essential evolutionary feature in which “everything reinforces everything else”.
Thanks to associative coherence, humans use subconscious tricks and illusions to ‘make sense’ of their environment, to see their day-to-day life as being much more coherent that it actually is. “We are prone to overestimate how much we understand the world,” says Kahneman, “and to underestimate the role of chance in events.”
Our natural discomfort with ambiguity and chance is so subtly ingrained that we tend to favor familiarity as a matter of course, even when something is only half true… or even false. “When faced with a difficult question,” says Kahneman, “we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”
Subject to these forces, people are less concerned about the ‘truth’ of facts than with the malleable shapes and forms that facts can take. What matters most is having a coherent narrative about onself, a story that fosters an ‘illusion of inevitability’ – about one’s roots, values and place in the world.
What doesn’t fit this narrative, we tend to discard – usually without even noticing. As Kahneman says, “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
Social media and truth
Many would argue that we now live in a post-truth world, where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
But when have ‘objective facts’ ever guided public (or even private) opinion? Many of our deepest held judgments and ideals are based not on facts but on emotion, feeling and belief… what we think is true, or at least truer than the alternatives.
This is part of what makes the world so painstakingly difficult to navigate, the dividing line we subtly ignore between fact and alleged-fact, cause and correlation.
Or maybe we recognize this line implicitly (and at the same time, renounce it) whenever we pledge allegiance to an ideology or ‘-ism’, or act on a ‘deeper truth’ against all prevailing evidence. Equality, fraternity, liberty, justice: aside from their emotional and aspirational appeal, how much of these ideals are based on real ‘facts’?
“Our attachment system preferentially sees things according to what has happened in the past,” said Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist at Columbia University and the co-author of the book “Attached,” which explores how attachment behaviors affect the neurochemistry of the brain. “It’s kind of like searching in Google where it fills in based on what you searched before.”
Kahneman believes that the root of the problem is not our inability to understand the world per se but our refusal to recognize (and/or accept) our cognitive limitations.
Fake news and faith
If history is a guide, we know that facts change; not only physical facts but causes, motives and context. This is especially true regarding the complex motives that drive people to act. For what’s ‘true’ now may not be true in 10 years… or even tomorrow. What matters – now as always – are not ‘facts’ but our interpretations and narratives of what those facts mean.
Michel Foucault, the famous relativist, once compared the human race to a skiff, describing it as lost at sea “among the mirages of knowledge, amid the unreason of the world — a craft at the mercy of the sea’s great madness.” Unless it is thrown an anchor in the form of ‘faith’; or “raises its spiritual sails so that the breath of God may bring it to port,” the little boat is easily lost.
His point was that ‘out at sea’, people need much more than ‘facts’ or science to guide their lives. For science not only fails to fully describe certain phenomena, it often fails to acknowledge that they exist.
Is it surprising that every single major religion, philosophy and political system in modern history started off as an intuitive vision in defiance of the facts?
Even Nietzsche – the man who said ‘God is dead’ – couldn’t imagine science without ‘metaphysical faith’. For so much in this world makes no rational sense, not to us or even so-called experts. The real truth is that every human struggles with the facts of his or her own life, often compelled to rely on what’s false (or what isn’t necessarily true) to maintain an illusion of order and stability.
It’s part of what makes the human operating system so unreliable.