Healing Our Achilles Heel Before It Kills Us

Humanity's weakness: Claiming our subjective preferences are objective truths

Posted Mar 03, 2014

What do humans want? Many things, of course, but overarchingly we seem to want validation, support for our preferences whatever they may be. We’d like nothing more than to have our subjective preference prove to be objective truths.

Objective truth is elusive, but not entirely so. We have ways of guessing what’s true, ways that have evolved over human history and indeed natural history. Organisms have conformed to physical reality’s truths by trial and error since the beginning of evolutionary time. Humans have this unprecedented capacity for language, which gives us a new way to ferret out truth.

For a long time the best guesses at larger truths were authority and revelation. Mohammed had truth “revealed” to him in a cave by the angel Gabriel. He became an authority. The old testament, Christ’s word, any sacred text. Until the 1500’s “probably” meant merely “on good authority.”

Revelation and authority live on today as sources of truth, but have been upstaged by science which includes but isn’t limited to bench science. Science relies on two approaches working together:

Coherence-testing: Whether we admit it or not we all assume that the universe has reliable habits, and so expect that however detailed our analysis, they too will be consistent. If you’re talking out both sides of your mouth, saying opposite things, you’re not likely speaking truth. There are plenty of habits that change under different conditions, but once you spell out those conditions and how they affect things, you’re expected to be consistent. If you say “If A then X” and then say “If A then not X” we have our doubts about whether you’ve got truth. Science relies on logic and math for ferreting out such inconsistencies.

Correspondence: Coherence isn’t enough. I’d be entirely coherent if I said, “The entire universe is made of gummy bears,” but my assertion would have no correspondence with sense data. Correspondence is conformity to sense data, whether direct through our five senses or intermediated by for example reliably consistent (coherent) scientific instruments.

Science has proven a more reliable source of truth than revelation and authority. Everyone knows it. Even the most devout religious person relies on science and technology for practical truths. No one is willing to fly on planes built by biblical scholars. Still there’s a whole lot of restless grumbling about science, complaints about it’s “supposed authority.”

Today, we’re experiencing a clash between revealed authority and science. Both have their place, but both feel the other’s encroachment. The religious and spiritual lean on revealed authority because it’s so sturdy, declared truths that are absolute, final, end of story, no need for further evidence or inquiry. When life is hard we need something firm to hold onto. So it’s bound to be destabilizing when scientists come along and say, “that thing you’re leaning on? It lacks coherence and correspondence.”

One way the religious and spiritual try to restore the solidity of religious and spiritual truths is to point out that science itself is rickety. “Yeah yeah, what does science know? It changes its mind. One day coffee is bad for you; the next day coffee is good for you. And you claim science is better than faith?”

Science is indeed rickety, but by design. It never claims end of story, just the best story so far, the story to be beat by a better story if and when one comes along based on coherence and correspondence.

“That’s BS,” the science-doubters might say, “Scientists claim they know with absolute authority. They talk about having proven things once and for all.”

It’s true, some scientists use the word “proven” about their claims, but scientific methodology doesn’t buy it. Supposedly proven things do get unproven and when they do, science changes, sometimes with a fair degree of ricketiness in the process.

We have laws preventing snake oil salesmen from making false claims that their products are "scientifically proven." I wish we had laws preventing religions from claiming that they are. 

Wishful thinking is a contraction, from "I hope it's true" to "My hope is true." It cuts out the wish, and says, "careful thought has brought me truth." It's the gut saying, "I declare my subjective intuitions to be officially objective."

We all do it. There's nothing we want so much as our hopes proven reliable, our biases proven unbiased, our likes proven likely. Now that science is the cultural gold standard for the pursuit of truth, religions have two choices, beat science or join it, claim "science is wrong; my faith is truer" or say "my faith is scientifically proven." There's plenty of both. 

I wish the religious could simply say "I wholeheartedly believe in miracles (or whatever) but I would never push my belief, since it's probably not true." That way they'd get all the benefits of having beliefs we can lean on without the social cost of people insisting on their solid supposed truths that sciences more careful and reliable method proves aren’t.

Christians get territorial about Mormons, saying "they're not true Christians." I wish there was more room for scientists to say territorially, "if you don't follow scientific method you can't claim our credentials."

The desire to treat our subjective preferences as objective truths runs far beyond the realm of big ideas. When people say, “That’s unfair” instead of “To me that seems unfair” they’re implying final objective authority. We tend to escalate to such claims of final objective authority in clashes, which it doesn’t take much to start. One person’s subtle impulse to insist can drive all debaters toward declared objective authority, some people more rapidly than others.

Back when I was dating, I used to list as a priority stipulation being with someone who didn’t automatically translate “Ouch” into “You’ve violated an objectively proven moral principle,” or automatically translate “I want” into “By objective standards you owe me.”

That is, I wanted to be with someone who at least recognized the human tendency to treat the subjective as objective, who recognized the tendency in herself and who aimed as I do, to put a lid on it, if not immediately, in short order.

I have a 5-minute rule for myself. Overheating I might lurch toward claiming my subjective standards objective, but I owed it to others to back down quickly, if not in five minutes at least in five hours.

One woman on the dating site got in touch precisely because she loved my priority stipulation. We chatted some and decided to meet.

It was the shortest date of my life. I lasted all of six minutes before bowing out, saying “I don’t bet we’ve got enough compatibility to make a go at it. I wish you well.” Within those six minutes she had pulled objective rank on me at least five times.

As I biked home from the date she texted me angrily calling me names and telling me that I must have set the whole thing up just to frustrate her. I wrote back calmly and eventually she softened a little. 

I think nothing breeds the tendency to treat our subjective as objective like rickety intimacy. The stakes get so high. 

And in a way society as a whole is stuck with rickety intimacy. Though I wish we could all afford a live-and-let-live attitude about everything, we can’t. We’re stuck making intimate decisions collectively. It’s easy to apply live-and-let-live with people you don’t have to live with, but here we are, one planet, one spaceship earth, collectively deciding its fate.

Which is why I propose solutions that the spiritual tuck in their elbows and give science precedent over revealed authority in collective decision-making. Science sucks. It’s a rickety system. It’s just the best system we’ve ever found for discovering what’s true before it kills us.