Wednesday 12 November 2014

The great lie: Hearsay evidence of the nature of reality

The great lie which we tell ourselves, which we allow ourselves to believe; which we convince ourselves it is necessary to believe - is that our fundamental understanding of reality must take into account not only our human nature, as we understand it, and our directly-experienced knowledge; but also *and mostly) a vast and open-ended quantity of hearsay evidence.


By hearsay evidence on reality, I mean anything which we do not know for ourselves or from people who we have real reason to trust.

In other words, hearsay encompasses almost-everything we (think we) know: stuff taught us by institutions such as school or college or textbooks, that we experience vicariously in art, everything we learn-from the mass media.


Much of what we regard as true was not even taught us as true, for instance something we read in a novel or saw in a movie (e.g. something about war, or other countries, or human relationships); but has become regarded as true simply by by the psychological process of our minds retaining the 'information' while losing memory of its fictional provenance.


Is it remotely plausible that any genuine understanding of reality could embrace all these sources of information? - many of them candidly made-up, many of them lies and manipulations, many of them honest but erroneous?

To ask the question is to answer it.

So long as we insist that our understanding of reality, of the human condition, takes full account of the latest theories or 'findings' of (self-styled) science, of the latest reports of history, of the compelling pictures found in TV documentaries, of the latest and most viscerally-wrenching mass media themes - so long as we insist on including such 'knowledge' in our 'philosophy of life' - then for so long we will not have a valid or coherent philosophy of life.


One 'secret' of the great mystics, is that their understanding of reality is direct. Their understanding is based on what they personally know by experience and by revelation.

And nothing else!

The great mystics do not find a place in their scheme of things for whatever topical and impactful 'evidence' they happen to have read, been told about, or seen depicted today or yesterday.

The great mystics will not accept hearsay evidence; and almost all of what we suppose to be evidence IS hearsay. 


In the modern world, most of what we 'know' we do not know; because it is untrue.

Yet much of what we really do know, we refuse to believe because it conflicts with this vast ocean of fake knowledge.  

We judge validity by falsehoods - and reject the truth we need.


The path to wisdom is the opposite. Our understanding of reality is limited to what is real; and what is really known to us is a very small proportion of what we say and think.

But that, and only that, must be the basis of understanding reality.

Thus our understanding of reality is necessarily going to look very partial; we will not be able to explain everything we are confronted-with (most although not all, of which will anyway be false); we will not be able to answer more than a small fraction of the questions and challenges that other people confront us with.

We will therefore not be able to convince other people that we are right.


This state of affairs ought to lead us each to be humble about how much we know, but rock solid in what we do know.



Gary seven said...

I believe that our dependence on "media" is the source of this problem you point out. The more "educated" one is, the more one is bombarded by external messages, i.e. culture, i.e. hearsay, i.e. LOLZ!

Western civilization is collapsing, in my opinion, because we have stopped questioning and begun mindlessly consuming media, which is nowadays overwhelmingly visual, which is processed by the right hemisphere of the brain (associated with The Feminine). It is no accident that in the past 3 years or so, written instructions have been largely supplanted by links to videos. During this same time, transgendered this and homosexual that have been disproportionately expressed in our media...

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gs - I certainly agree that the mass media has made this vastly worse than ever before in human history.

But the Right Brain Left Brain stuff is actually an example of this hearsay phenomenon.

All this is 'just' theories (very interesting ones, in the case of Iain McGilchrist - but theories nonetheless, and much of the 'evidence' these theories are based on is false.)

I am talking here about our fundamental, solid beliefs about the nature of reality - that which we base our faith upon. Insofar as we include scientific theories in this bedrock, even good theories - from philosophy, history, science or wherever, we are using hearsay, and very likely making a mistake.

ted said...

What you are referring to is a direct knowing of God. And yet that knowing will always get interpreted through a structure. For instance, a Buddhist will unlikely have an experience of a Divine Other, but will nevertheless have direct experience to that which knows. It seems we can't escape some hearsay, since those cultural and religious structures give us some way to interpret experience.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted - I'm not sure whether you are correct. There may be problems of communication, but Buddhist could share the same basic, core mixture of experiences and personal revelations as a Christian, upon which to build his vision of reality - but there would certainly be additional cultural differences according to specific circumstances. It is how we judge the validity of these extra elements that my point comes in - what are, and what should be, the criteria for regarding evidence as relevant to this fundamental judgment? Nowadays we are far too lax about our evaluations, and try to include far too many 'facts'.

Adam G. said...

You can't say it often enough.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Meaning that I am repeating myself here?

Ho hum, it's true; I admit it. But let's say it may be, it is, the same old stuff; but in a new and clearer expression?

Nicholas Fulford said...

Reality is a construct - we each have one, and they are broadly based on a combination of common and related elements and unique individual experiences which interact with the brain to form memory of different types.

It is often interesting to observe what happens to people who lose (parts of) their memory due to dementias and brain injury. People can become quite different - in personality, behaviour and belief as they undergo a loss of memory and brain function. One writer whom I recommend is Oliver Sacks. His observations of patients who have undergone compromises to the brain of various forms is fascinating.

For those of us without these explicit losses of brain function the reality we have tends to me more fixed - even though the basis of certain key aspects have lost their original references. I find Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulations" to be very relevant to this issue of realities that become dissociated and "free floating" and "free associating" elements that recombine to form totally fictional realities.

Direct experience of altered states - mystical / ecstatic experiences - may be a common unconditioned states that are free in large measure from fictional "realities", but only so long as the people occupying those states are refraining from exiting them and then framing them within their reality. It is in interpretation that the mystical states become distorted. Attempts to frame them cause the difficulty, and result in the diversity of religious forms. There would be nothing the matter with this if religious forms were used as talismans to elicit the common states only, but what I often see is that they become a means of establishing a distinction that does not in fact exist in the ecstatic states themselves. The frame of the religious reality is taken as more real than the experience that is its basis. The narrative should not precede the experience, but be a portal to bring others into the experience. Once in the ecstatic state their is no distinction based upon the way that lead to it. It is like a great mountain with many approaches to the summit. Sitting on the summit, the pathways are irrelevant, it is only the summit and all who sit their are in common-union.

Adam G. said...

Meaning that you are dead right and it needs to be repeated early and often.

This is a very good formulation of the basic idea.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - As do often, this is a reflection on what I have myself (misguidedly) done and tried to do, many times. This seems to be yet another 'Antichrist trap' for preventing people from having a strong and simple faith.

pyrrhus said...

Absolutely right, Bruce, as I only came to realize later in life. Everything and everyone that matters is personal to your soul and spirit. Accept your reality, it's a Gift.

Wm Jas said...

But how do you know so much about "the great mystics" and what their understanding is based on? More hearsay!

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Intuition/ revelation not hearsay; but nothing that would count as public or objective evidence either.