A Humbling, Helpful Adage to Live By

A helpful reminder on how to take perspective.

Posted Feb 06, 2016

I was recently quoted in an interesting article in The Guardian about The Donald as saying that if you view humans through the lens of a psychologist, you realize that “we are all full of shit”. As is often the case with quotations of experts in the media, the quote was only partially accurate and taken somewhat out of context. Given that some folks in the comment section criticized the quote, I felt it warrants some clarification. Actually, I made the statement in the context of sharing an adage from my good friend, Dr. Craig Shealy, a fellow professor in our JMU doctoral psychology program. Here is the full quote:

We are all full of shit, just to different degrees and to different degrees of awareness.

This is a maxim that we frequently share with our doctoral students, as they encounter a global perspective and immerse themselves in the diversity of worldviews. I am fond of it because it forces a humbling view of one’s perspective and the perspective of others. But—and this is the point that The Guardian article misses without the back half of it—it does not lead to the claim that we can’t know anything.

Consider, for example, applying this quote to me and the ToK System, which frames and represents my worldview. I can clearly access many criticisms, such as: the ToK seems to presume that quantum mechanics and general relativity will be someday merged, but that hasn’t happened and likely will never happen; the idea that the universe began as an “energy” singularity plays fast and loose with the concept of energy relative to how physicists generally use it; there really is no satisfactory explanation for the emergence of living matter but the ToK seems to presume there is; there is no good explanation for emergence of experiential consciousness; the “joint points” of Behavioral Investment Theory and the Justification Hypothesis have been around for over a decade and have not gotten much traction in mainstream psychology, and on and on. The point here is that a sign of maturity to be skeptical of what you want to believe, to be able to see criticisms of one’s perspective without getting defensive, and to recognize that there are serious limitations to the human capacity to know the real, absolute truth (if there is even such a thing).

But the quote does not point to a full-fledged skeptical nihilism. By emphasizing that there are different degrees of validity, the quote clearly emphasizes that not all views are equal in their degree of bullshit (which is why I was disappointed to not see this part in the Guardian article). Consider, for example, that data suggest that large numbers of American citizens believe that humans walked around with dinosaurs (40% by some counts) because the earth is only a few thousands of years old and they know this because of what the Old Testament says in Genesis. Given knowledge of geology, evolutionary biology, and, perhaps most important, theology, this view of the world exists at a level of bullshit that is qualitatively different than the ToK System. It is known to be errant at every sophisticated level of analysis.

Finally, via the reference to awareness, the quote pulls for a self-reflective capacity that is too often lacking in human discourse. The bottom line here is that we seem to be living ever more in an age of confusion, where folks are not only uninformed, but misinformed, and our culture is one where people seem more inclined than ever to latch onto what they want to believe with virtually no capacity to step outside their view and engage in critical, skeptical thinking about it. As such, I believe we humans would do well to try to live up to the spirit of this humbling, helpful adage.   

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