By Wayne Saalman
[Photo by Logan Weaver]
ONE OF THE GREAT MINDS of the Renaissance, Francis Bacon, once said, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.”
This short and simple insight is stunningly spot on. Millions of people choose to believe what they prefer to be true, rather than what the facts make so vividly and abundantly clear to anyone who is willing to follow the facts where they happen to lead.
It appears to be a common perception today that we live in a “post-truth” era politically, socially and culturally. In these times, “facts” are not as important as adherence to a certain ideological perspective which accords with one’s preferred belief system. Thus we find ourselves living with phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts”, as well as commonly hearing people state that, “It all depends on how you interpret the facts,” which is actually true enough, but facts do matter.
Too many, unfortunately, simply ignore any data which does not support their preferred viewpoint. This is especially true at present in the realm of televised journalism. CNN viewers, for example, cannot bear to watch Fox News pundits offer their take on current events and Fox News fans cannot bear to watch CNN’s news anchors. While there does seem to be some degree of prejudice on the part of the anchors on these programs today, we can learn to note their biases and draw a “fair and balanced” conclusion for ourselves regarding whatever information is being presented.
After months and years of such divisive coverage, we are all, to a certain extent, indoctrinated into a preferred viewpoint. Constant reinforcement has served to deepen the divide between the various stances. One cannot but wonder how that divide will ever recede.
All children, of course, are routinely indoctrinated into a particular interpretation of truth as they grow up; the one which happens to be prevalent in the political, social and religious arenas into which they are born. This is true whether the society of one’s birth is a democracy, a monarchy, a socialist regime or a dictatorship. Nor does it matter if the family religion into which one is born happens to be Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other faith. All political and religious communities teach their particular interpretation of truth.
It might seem a bit harsh to use the word “indoctrinated” here, but it is certainly milder than using that loaded, pejorative adjective “brainwashed”. The fact is, though, if what one learns as a child are the doctrines by which one’s parents, teachers and clerics live, then this is, quite simply, indoctrination.
As in all things, however, the learning process can be used to inculcate high ideals and noble virtues in a society’s members or used for exactly the opposite purpose: to instill prejudicial notions, many of which can be quite dark and dangerous in nature.
It is easy enough to understand why parents would want their children to believe as they do. This is especially so if a cornerstone of an ideological mindset concerns “freedom” versus “oppression”, for example, or “eternal salvation of the soul” versus “eternal punishment”.
For millenniums, we humans have been arguing over what is best for ourselves and our progeny. We have also been debating whether there is such a thing as “absolute” truth or whether truth is essentially and always “relative”.
Despite the issue having been debated for millenniums by academics, philosophers and theologians, humanity has yet to agree on the exact nature of truth, which is quite telling. What this suggests is that “ultimate” truth is not merely, or just, elusive, but quite likely that the very bedrock of knowledge, the one upon which we routinely believe “truth” to be sourced, is a foundation upon which we may never be able to decisively plant our feet.
Nevertheless, this particular prospect is something with which we can live! After all, at the most rudimentary level, it is “duality” that makes the world go around; positive and negative energies propel our planetary physics at the most basic level of life, while good and evil are at the root of our moral and ethical perceptions. If truth was absolute, none of us would be challenged to reach a position for ourselves. That challenge is what catalyzes us into deeper levels of contemplation.
Unfortunately, there is no means by which to determine what is absolutely true or false. Even the “laws” of physics are only “true” until such a time that the latest scientific evidence happens to alter the validity of those laws. Indeed, the word “valid” is far more appropriate to scientific enquiry than the word “truth”. Similarly, when it comes to mathematics, “internal consistency” is probably the best that can be said about the models which seem to point toward some universally accepted “law”.
As the late, brilliantly insightful author, Robert Anton Wilson, once wrote, “Some minds cling to certitude, not because it can be clearly justified, but evidently because such minds have an emotional need for certitude.”
An “emotional need”… Here is the crux of everything in this era in which we find ourselves. We are now living in a realm of relativity in which our emotions have come to reign over us. Many a great mind has understood this over the centuries and, even more so, the most persuasive political and religious leaders who have used it to their advantage time and again.
The most indisputable characteristic of emotion, however, is that it can never be absolute. It can only be relative to the individual who experiences a particular emotion at a particular time. And just because we are fired up and emotionally charged over an idea or event at one moment doesn’t mean that we will feel the same later on. Likewise, those around us may or may not be charged up about any particular idea that has cast its spell upon us and vice versa.
The reality is that we all react differently to ideas and events, and our emotional responses can and do change from day to day. Even within a single individual there is no absolute locking in of an emotional response once and for all. Emotion is fluid for the simple reason that it is a chemical-based reaction in the body. Like all liquids, the flow of these streams of biochemical constituents constantly undergo transmutation as our inner and outer environments are subjected to things like weather, food and drink, the people around us, the way our relationships are playing out and so on.
Why then do we prefer a certain thing to be true? Because it serves an emotional need and makes us feel good. In effect, it comforts us in a world of uncertainty where there are no guarantees about virtually anything. If we stop to think about it really, we could as easily be hit with any number of shockers on any given day as not. We could, for example, suddenly get diagnosed with a disease, get caught out in a house fire or a car wreck, lose our job or our good standing in a profession, or we might see our significant other simply walk out of our lives forever. Yes, virtually anything can and does happen due to any number of unforeseen circumstances. As bizarre and unlikely as it seems, the whole planet could in fact shatter into trillions of pieces in the next hour through some solar or cosmic event that is completely unimaginable to us at this particular moment.
In short, the unexpected happens. Political upheaval and Covid-19 are recent short term proofs of this; climate change is a long term proof that must now be dealt with as urgently as possible, for our planetary environmental concerns have now reached an existential crisis point.
In spiritual terms, one might wonder if the biblical aphorism which contends that it is the proverbial “truth that sets the soul free” can still apply, or have any efficacy, in a post-truth era.
It’s an intriguing question and one that is valid for each and every one of us, whether we happen to believe there is such a thing as a soul or not. Everyone, after all, has a personality which exhibits “spirit” in some way and, therefore, is able to mount a “spirited” exposition or defense of a fervent belief with very little effort.
Quite possibly the only truth that actually can set the spirit free, especially in the current, highly divided political climate, is the ability to dispassionately use logic in order to arrive at a level of knowledge that essentially transcends emotion.
I would hasten to add that when one pursues such a methodology it does not turn one into an emotionless automaton. What it does is allow a person to weigh all of the facts at his or her disposal and synergize what is discovered by overseeing all that is available to be overseen. When we do this we can enjoy a higher perspective, which can then yield the kind of essential understanding of events that qualifies as an insight sourced in “wisdom”.
Emotion, nevertheless, is the very thing that so allows the mind and the heart to sing, so of course we don’t want to lose that. What is optimal for humanity as a global family, it appears, is putting rational, civil discourse grounded in logic ahead of our emotional impulses such that emotion underpins, rather than dominates, our many public discourses. This is precisely how we can achieve a genuinely “fair and balanced” viewpoint, however, and not get carried away by neurochemical reactions which can incite us to act irrationally.
The wise, therefore, look at — not just both sides, but all sides as there are many, not just two — and that is the higher viewpoint to which we should all aspire.