Beliefs, Truth, and Wisdom

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Apparently, a landscape in Provence, France. When in doubt, use a random landscape photo. | Source

We live in times where truth is not a given. The age of information ushered in such a deluge of opinions, reports, and supposed-facts that we are no longer able to keep up. Perhaps some of the most diligent can stay on top of the infinitely-expending pile of things we’re supposed to know about in our daily lives, but most of us are simply humbled by its enormity. Amidst so much information that is supposedly all equally crucial, it is no surprise that truth has become a rare commodity. Some of the best methods that humanity has developed to systematically discover truths — namely, science and its methods — require time, discipline, and training. These inputs that fuel systematic truth-discovery are by no means equally distributed, and we are suffering the consequences.

Our age will likely be marked by notable features of post-truthism, fake news, anti-establishment sentiment, rise of conspiracies, and the ensuing widespread hate we see through racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, and more. It is no surprise that an era that showed so much promise — sparked by an information revolution — has turned sour, because the technology has succumbed to the same usage patterns that have plagued humanity for centuries; different tools, same games.

Being able to navigate this new, incredibly frightening world, requires a serious reckoning with notions of belief, truth, and wisdom: how they are distinct, and why we may have taken them for granted. It’s an investigation that requires intensely critical thought that extends into the self, ideally realizing that we are all subject to the evils of our time no matter how “on the right side” we think we are. It’s a tall order that we must rise to, and help each other along the journey.

Beliefs and Truth

Any reshaping of our view of reality must make distinctions between what we believe, and what is true. As mentioned above, truth is something that is rare, and difficult to come to. There are certain conditions which make it easier that have largely broken down in the information age, so we often swim in a sea of beliefs that have not yet undergone the evolution to truths. Failing to recognize the difference between the two has proven itself to be more dangerous than many may have thought.

Importantly, it is not as if we literally see and hear different things based on our models of the world, but without rigorous training, our brains are apt to perceive, and then interpret our perceptions through our worldview in a way that can skew otherwise objective information.

Beliefs are cognitive elements that exist in our mind whether they are true, false, or anything in between. When we learn anything, it can be said to be a belief. Therefore, from the moment we are born and devouring the world, our plastic brains are reshaping through the stimuli we receive, and we are forming a complex network of beliefs. Our brains also seem to learn in a hierarchical manner: our “core beliefs” are formed first, and then built upon in order to create higher-level, abstract beliefs. A clue to this organizational pattern can be found in language, as we cannot describe complex ideas without describing them with more concrete words. An abstract idea like “democracy” cannot be pointed to in the world, but consists of a complex relationship of other ideas such as freedom, individualism, collectivism; which are in turn quite abstract, and comprised of more concrete building-blocks. The more abstract our beliefs are, the more susceptible they are to being false, as they are built from many component beliefs which may each have to be true in order for the whole to be true.

Due to this complex nature and hierarchical nature of beliefs, we are likely to also filter our perception through the worldview that our beliefs comprise. Importantly, it is not as if we literally see and hear different things based on our models of the world, but without rigorous training, our brains are apt to perceive, and then interpret our perceptions through our worldview in a way that can skew otherwise objective information. This is how two people may walk past the same homeless person, and one feels quite bad for his unfortunate circumstances, and the other may shake her head at the laziness that landed him there. In truth, nobody knows the story of this homeless man, and if we are not careful, we may simply assume that he is a confirmation of our models of the world: there is a confirmation that people fail due to their laziness, or there is a confirmation of the unfairness of luck and society’s unequal nature.

Contrast all of this with truth, something which marks our beliefs as justified. The best system humanity has concocted for determining truth is science and its methods, as it attempts to show that phenomena occur consistently, and in diverse conditions. Science additionally has the goal of attempting to falsify existing beliefs to ensure their rigor. Truth, even as determined by science, is very hard to nail down. Even widespread scientific dogma has been overturned as certain popular theories give way to others, but one of the key ideas behind science is that this overturning is baked into the process, and encouraged.

A key takeaway from distinguishing belief from truth is that the difference lies in the method of acquiring and testing beliefs. The methods of science are designed to try to overcome pitfalls that otherwise lead to false information if we simply assume our beliefs are true. And it’s not as if this is simply an abstract notion, it has an immediate application in, say, how we interpret news. Do we assume that the reporter is reporting truth, or beliefs? Do their sources seem like credible people who themselves have tested for truth, or are the sources simply reporting beliefs? Do we consider that when we read news, our beliefs are shaping the way we interpret information that could otherwise be a bit more objective? It’s been shown that when people engage in this type of critical thinking, it is much less likely they they succumb to the allure of fake news. But, we are not often encouraged to think this critically, as those who produce and distribute information often benefit financially from emotional, belief-driven thinking that lacks a critical element.

…we are all susceptible to informational manipulation, we are all subject to perceptual interpretation through biases, our minds should be viewed as more fragile than we like to believe…

The debate is incredibly complex in its fullest form, and additionally includes modern phenomena like distrust of science and other “elite” institutions, and a rejection of the patriarchal, Euro-centric “rationalism” that has dominated Western thought for centuries. There are great arguments for both of these movements, but taken too far, they become fuel for a dogmatic post-modernist world that rejects any notion of truth altogether, and is used to justify a society where nobody can be wrong for being hateful if it is simply their opinion. In light of this complexity, a simplification is in order that can both reassure us emotionally — as a post-truth world is a really scary one — and methodically, as we shouldn’t have to be scientific experts to navigate the world.

Wisdom

Distinct from both truth and belief in their common forms, which often concern individual events or debates, we can tease apart wisdom as something that is built over time and seeks to be guiding in its nature. In these times, we need wisdom more than ever, and it often seems to be even more of a rarity than truth. Our fast-paced and ever-quickening Capitalist societies do not put much of an emphasis on wisdom, and the long-term thinking it involves. In contrast, societies that persisted for millennia seem to have revered wisdom in the form of ancestors, wisdom from nature, or the guidance of virtuous philosophy.

In our post-truth era, an important piece of wisdom that we all need to internalize is that our worldviews are likely to be disproportionately built from beliefs over truths. In that sense, we are all susceptible to informational manipulation, we are all subject to perceptual interpretation through biases, our minds should be viewed as more fragile than we like to believe, and we should constantly be critical of information that is aimed at informing how we eventually make democratic decisions. In short, we need to be radically humble in a way that goes so far as to allow curiosity about those whose worldviews may seem obviously wrong or disgusting.

We are in uncharted territory, and it’s important to realize that.

Of course, part of the informational wisdom of our times should also be a rejection of the pitfall that because we are so fragile, nobody is right, so we can believe whatever we want. That is a fallacy, as some people clearly have more expertise than others, and are likely closer to truth than we are. However, we also somehow need to balance this notion with the equal notion that even experts have biases, and can fall prey to them if they are not rigorous and critical of themselves. Wisdom seems to be a game of balance — and it also seems exhausting. But in times where technology plays into bias, makes manipulation easier, and does not have truth as part of its profit model, we unfortunately have to help each other be vigilant. We have to mitigate the exhaustion through sharing the burden.

These are No Longer a Given

Navigating belief, truth, and wisdom has never been an easy task. Since societies have changed to rule more by opinion than force (at least, domestically), information has been a key element of power dynamics. In the wake of the second World War, the horrific consequences of hate-fueled propaganda has been so shocking that societies took great pains to ensure nothing of the sort could happen again. Unfortunately, with the rapid changes in information technology, it appears that the same tactics used in that era are reborn anew in a way that few understand, as the technology circumnavigates many safeguards of the past.

We are in uncharted territory, and it’s important to realize that. As such, we have to be on our toes, and not take peace and our safety for granted. These times are exceptionally difficult, and as such, we have to help each other navigate and cope. Even though our institutions and norms may not be set up to encourage truth discerning thought, and critical wisdom, we can take up the mantle and lead the creation of new norms that unify us in common purpose. For all we know, the future of our societies may depend on it.

Written by

PhD student in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer with Sunrise Movement and MA Peace Action. Philosophy nerd.

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