Monday, July 11, 2016

Life as a Dance with Reality

© Charles D. Hayes

If a sense of objective reality (as best as we human beings can discern it) represented the True North of life experience, where do you suppose a compass would show your location to be in relation to True North? How far away would you be from being as close as you could get, that is, if you were to try with all of your might to discover it?
Imagine having a cell phone app that would give your position on a given subject with respect to True North and tell you how much of what you believe about life is yet unproven and how much is objectively grounded. If, before we could leave our homes, each of us had to nail down what we know and believe based on hard evidence as opposed to arbitrary claims, most of us would never be seen in public again. The gap between what we think we know and what we can prove is so large that just acknowledging the reality gap is troubling.
Of course, it is entirely in our nature to accept what we see when we look out on the world as straight-up reality, but if we have learned anything at all about human behavior during the past century we know for certain that nothing could be further from the truth. We are neurologically rigged for misperception, self-deception, and false attribution. That, more often than not, things are not as they appear is one of life’s most underappreciated great lessons.
According to philosopher Daniel Dennett, there are two fundamental types of argument for making a case about something said to be true: skyhooks and cranes. A crane argument is simply one that offers supporting evidence; it’s like logical scaffolding that says A is true because B and C show that this is the case. A skyhook argument, on the other hand, as the name implies, exists simply because someone deems it so. Now, it’s really disturbing when you fully realize how many skyhook arguments we accept without question and go about living our lives as if these things were true.
Our courts are intended as institutional efforts to find True North. Our jury system is predicated on an ability to discern cranes from skyhooks, although juries sometimes fail outright, while attorneys attempt to disguise skyhooks as cranes. But when a court is functioning as intended, skyhook arguments are thrown out as hearsay.
Popular culture is a collective bubble of skyhook assumptions with little interest in, or tolerance for, cranes. Popular beliefs are widespread, not because they are true, but because they are popular. Politics is mostly skyhook rhetoric spun to appear as cranes.
Inevitably there are many things we have to take on faith because there are times when even science has to create cranes that rest on skyhook assumptions. For example, we know enough about the sun to justify our faith that it will shine tomorrow and the day after, but we are a long way from an ability to completely describe our very own star in terms of slam-dunk cranes without some guesswork.
I hope it will not come as a shock to most people that all religions are held in place by skyhooks. That’s why the term faith can be a deal-breaker for some, and it is why, to a significant degree, religious belief has resulted in reality wars in order to claim ownership of the truth.
To put this whole situation in perspective one has to marvel at the amount of time we human beings spend arguing over things that we literally haven’t the first clue about. Still we will fight and even go to war over skyhook beliefs.
Politically everyone I know, left, right, or center, wants pretty much the same thing—a free and just society with equal opportunity, where hard work is rewarded, and a system that is not rigged by the government, big business, or special interests of any stripe. And yet our culture of social media has so dramatically upped the tempo of our illusionary dance with reality that skyhook music is getting louder and louder, while groups are polarizing and huddling with likeminded dancers in opposing corners of the ballroom.
If you don’t believe your dance with reality is a casual and pretty much thoughtless waltz, then just ask yourself what argument you’ve had with someone lately where you’ve studied the subject to the core, eliminated all of the skyhooks at play, and used only cranes to substantiate your position.
My point is that all of the many problems we face in America today—poverty, global warming, income inequality, political corruption, crime, and drug abuse—can only be solved with reasonable positions based on factual data, with crane arguments, supportable all the way down to bedrock. Some things work and some don’t. It doesn’t take rocket scientists to figure out what does work, but we do have to dispense with all skyhook assumptions.
I’m reminded that the only reliable way to achieve a more just and equitable society, is for more and more of us to care more about solving problems than about whose side wins the argument. To make this happen requires that we slow our dance with reality and stop exchanging skyhook opinions. We need to do the homework required to address the problems we confront and get down to comparing cranes in search of the better argument.  

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