Not every true thing is conveniently obvious. And even so, large numbers of people may well operate on the assumption that all true things are—or should be—obvious. It is a common overestimation of human capability, often based on the assumption that what can be detected should be detectable without effort—and more particularly, detectable by our natural human senses.
Here are a few ways it happens:
- Flat Earth. Tom believes that if the Earth were really round, he’d be able to perceive it by looking at the horizon on the beach, from an airplane window. (He assumes that his eyes and brain must have sufficient resolution to detect the curvature of such a large planet from our close proximity.)
- Nutrition. Russel believes that if what he eats were really causing him harm like his friends tell him, he would see or feel the harmful effects right away. (He assumes that any harm done would be detectable by way of his senses, and he discounts the long-term build-up of small effects.)
- Cognition. Lisa believes that if she were wrong about something, she would know it. (She assumes that she must have some sensory faculty to notice error without looking for it, as she does with things like pain and hunger.)
- Consensus. Billy believes that if his friends or coworkers disagreed with him, he would sense it without investigation. (He assumes either that the others would always volunteer this information, or that he has the faculty for detecting it automatically.)
- Religion. Bianca believes that if God were disapproving of something she or her church were doing or teaching, she would sense it. (She assumes she would have some sensory perception of it, or as with the consensus problem just above, that God would make direct and unmistakable contact about it.)
- Atheism. Franklin believes that if there were a God, he would be able to see him or perceive him in some other sensory way. (He assumes that human senses would be capable of detecting God’s existence.)
In each of these cases, the bad assumption is that the various natural human senses are capable of detecting things they cannot detect. This seems to fit into the category of assuming that life in this world should be easier than it is, and shouldn’t require as much work as it does.
Though it’s certainly not true in every case, many things that cannot be got at through the human senses can be discovered through research and reason. For example, due to the special case of the interlocking relationship between the Earth and the Moon, we on Earth will never see the backside of the Moon directly, for nature never shows it to us. It is discoverable, however, what the backside of the Moon looks like—but not without effort, and not directly from here.
Meanwhile, what lies beyond some certain black hole in space may be beyond our technological ability to discover for quite some time. It is hypothetically discoverable, but not yet. That is, not from here, and not now.
Alternately, the quark—a tiny subatomic particle that is too small to be seen with any equipment we have—cannot be got at by sight at all, but by reason based on some thing we can measure. Yet quarks are not light years away from us, like whatever lies beyond some certain black hole; they are all around us, right here. And still, we cannot sense them with the human senses. We must get at them some other way.
And so it goes with philosophy. We cannot detect by our standard human senses, for example, that the Golden Rule or the Non-Aggression Principle are morally good ideas. We can get at it philosophically, however—through reason and imagination. For example, we can ask, regarding some certain behavior, “What if everybody did that?” and “What if nobody did that?” And from there, we can use our imagination and reason to try to size up what life would be like if this or that were either widely adopted or never adopted. We can get at these things this way, but we can’t get at them through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, balance, and so forth.
But (good) philosophy takes work, and is simply not convenient. Testing ideas against one another, and against the known facts, and against the known logic—this is hard work. And it shouldn’t surprise us to see lots of faulty philosophies in play, because people by nature tend to be messy and inconsistent in our thinking. And this very article is evidence of that. What I mean is that most of us have never thought through the human experience thoroughly enough to figure out what the six items listed above have in common. We have never detected the pattern that connects them, or realized how common such assumptions are in our human culture.
It would make sense, then, that, being still somewhat unaware of ourselves, not all our thinking would be well-developed and fine-tuned. Indeed, if we are still prone to overestimating what we can gather by our natural human senses, we should expect to make errors quite predictably from time to time!
Cognitive scientists seem to have settled firmly in these recent decades on the realization that humans tend to be cognitive misers, meaning that we tend to default to expending minimal energy on our thinking, even when we’re capable of more. Similar observations have been made about us when it comes to philosophy and morality—that most of us don’t strive much in the quantity or quality of this sort of inner work. And there’s even a term now (dysrationalia) for people failing to thinking rationally, despite having adequate IQ to do so. The debate continues as to what causes this, but I strongly suspect that much (not all) of it comes down to the human will: What kind of person does each of us want to be?
The Inner World
In my experience, most people are more apt to get their houses well equipped and decorated than they are to get their own inner lives well equipped and decorated. Similarly, it’s more likely that the outward schedule of activity will be filled in than that there will be much on one’s inward schedule—things they want to reflect on, vet, read about, research, discuss, and document. We may all do some of that, but it seems that most of us don’t tend to do very much of it.
But what if we did?
Let us imagine: What if everybody did that? What if everybody were frequently reflective, and apt to vet things before believing them? What if everybody were regularly gathering new information? Would that change this world substantially?
I think so.
And conversely, what if nobody did that? What if nobody thought through things before believing them? What if nobody vetted anything first? What if nobody cared to learn anything new?
That, my friends, would make this world much worse than it is already!
My Constant Frustration
I live in a constant state of frustration, having created for myself quite a rich inner world, yet living in a society that isn’t very conducive to such a life, and that doesn’t much value such things. I am by no means smart enough to know everything, and I certainly don’t even have the mental bandwidth to notice everything! But be that as it may, I do happen to notice lots and lots of errors every day—errors in what people (including me) say and do—errors in public policy and corporate policy—errors in fact and logic and typing and programming—errors in efficiency—errors in comparisons and in contrasts—errors in morality—errors of assumption—errors in human relations, and in religion.
And I personally see so much promise in addressing these things—in equipping my inner life for such work. By no means to I have a perfect inner life—just ask my friends!—but I am much more confident (for better reasons now!) and secure than I was in my earlier years, and I think it’s for having developed good inner habits regarding how I manage my thoughts, emotions, and beliefs.
And I can’t help but to think “What if everybody did this?”
I think the world could be so much better that way. But alas! The world doesn’t think it would be better that way; it thinks it would be better just like it is, without having to do anything new—with this one exception: That it would be nice if everybody else would cut out the dumb junk they do. That’s the way the cognitive/moral miser often thinks. And I can’t help but to think (with horror), “What if everybody thought this way?”
Well, nearly everybody does, to some extent, anyway. And look at the results all around us! I believe this one fact alone is behind much of our grief in this world.
So, frustration about this sad fact is a daily feature in my life. Yet even so, I don’t throw the habits in the trash, because they have some personal value for me in my own life, even if I can’t enjoy a rich life of discussing these things with this disinterested world.
Acknowledging The Limitations
I am quite aware that there are truths I cannot sense with my human senses. There are even truths I cannot get at through analysis of empirical data, or through reason. There are most certainly even things I cannot imagine, even though they are true! And I realize quite firmly that I am most likely wrong about many things.
Even so, I would no sooner abandon my inner world of reason and imagination and the pursuit of wisdom than I would abandon my human senses. No, I want both, and not just the one. And I wish that even one tenth of the people in this world were as excited about it as I am. (I am also constantly wishing to find others who are more excited about it—and better at it—than I am!) But I realize that very few of us seem to invest very much in that inner world.
I don’t have much by the way of statistics in this, but I did do some rough calculations once regarding one particular philosophical conviction—and those figures might be generally helpful here. I was pondering how many people ever reach a conviction that they don’t want to believe anything that’s false. By my rough and barely-vetted estimation, it’s probably between 1 in 10,000 people and 1 in 100,000 people who end up building their philosophical lives to the point where they decide that they don’t want to believe anything false anymore. (There are many ways to measure our personal philosophical development, of course, and this is just one of them.)
Assuming I’ve estimated accurately (as approximate as it is!), that would mean that there would be somewhere between 3,000 and 30,000 people in the United States who have reached that mile marker of inner due diligence. To put it in perspective, at the higher ratio, that’s roughly one per city and ten per county. (There are roughly 30,000 cities in the United States, and 3,141 counties.)
Meanwhile, the masses are more likely to default to something much lower on the inner quality-control scale. They won’t mind as much if they are wrong about this or that, and are much more apt to get at only those things they can sense directly with their human senses. They don’t have as strong a conviction about making the most of their minds, and about vetting the mental work they do. Whether they were never taught about this rich inner life, or whether they simply don’t care to be that sort of people, the result seems roughly the same.
But they could if they wanted to!
And as it turns out, IQ doesn’t have much to do with it. (People with average IQs can do this kind of quality control practically as well as those with high IQs. So it seems that IQ is not the determining factor in such inner development. Rather, it’s the human will (I believe). It’s about what kind of people we want to be!
Someone might ask me,
“Why bother with all the suffering, Jack? Why not just shut down all that internal machine and your critical observations about this world, and just try to enjoy life?”
My answer is that I see that I’m not the only one suffering in this world. If there are difficult consequences to the life of inner high quality-control, there are certainly difficult consequences to the life of low philosophical quality-control. It’s a different kind of suffering, sometimes, but I find it preferable to what I used to suffer in my earlier years. I find that most of my aggravation is not about the consequences of my own sloppiness anymore—though I certainly still have such struggles, as I am yet imperfect. But what I’ve done is to take control of more and more of that, whereas when I was less proactive, I would leave more to chance and let the chips fall where they may.
So I’m not interested in going back to a lower level of inward diligence. No, I’m still working to take it higher, and would recommend that anyone else do the same. Being a fan of truth, the way I see it is that the more ways you can learn to get at the truth, the better! And one can get much more of that done with the mind and the senses, than with the senses alone.