Losing my religion: the unknowable self and the myth of a well-ordered society

I suspect that you and I don’t really know anything.

Today, thanks to a lot of trial and error, we humans have a pretty good understanding of what we need to do to distinguish between plausible and implausible beliefs. If we run controlled double-blind and repeatable experiments that generate a sufficient amount of data of sufficient quality, we can use statistical methods to confidently identify those beliefs that are false and those that are plausibly true but still in need of further testing. Considered from this perspective, it seems pretty obvious to me that you and I don’t really know anything. Most of our beliefs have not been tested in this way. 

To start, almost all of our beliefs about the universe are taken on faith that the people doing the work of understanding the universe are doing it correctly. To be sure, this is probably a sensible approach for you and I to take. It certainly seems much more efficient to rely on a specialized community of inquirers to undertake this work, but it doesn’t change the fact that you and I don’t really know what the scientific community knows. Their well-tested beliefs are, for us, articles of faith, even if we can expect them to be much more reliable than the articles of faith generated by theologians interpreting ancient texts. And if this is true, it is true whenever we rely on others to formulate and test beliefs on our behalf. Beliefs that we don’t test ourselves are, for us, articles of faith. 

With that conclusion in mind, take a few minutes to catalogue all the beliefs that you have and rely on each day that are formulated for you and/or tested by others. If you are honest with yourself, I am pretty sure the list will be quite long. And while it is tempting to believe that we have good reason to rely on others for all of these beliefs, I’m willing to bet that you have not tested that belief either. I, for one, can admit that I have not tested it — and most of my other beliefs. I also feel pretty comfortable guessing that you and I are in the same boat. 

And this, I think, is the crucial consideration. We might be able to shrug off the fact that particle physics is for us a matter of faith, but I suspect it will be much more unsettling to realize that you and I never properly test a whole range of beliefs that fundamentally shape our sense of self, our identity, and our daily experience of living.

Consider: Am I happy or unhappy today? Am I happier or less happy than I was yesterday? Last week? Last year? Am I better off now than I was three years ago? Am I consistently making choices that support my well-being? Did I go to the right university? Was I right not to go to university? Am I in the right career? Are my goals for the future the right goals? Am I with the right partner? Would I have been happier with no children or more children? Am I the person I wanted to become? Who was I? Which of my memories are accurate? How accurate? And so on. For all of these questions and many more, there are objective and measurable answers. I’m also willing to bet that your answers to these kinds of questions are a mix of educated guesses, received wisdom, and Magic 8-Ball proclamations. 

To further complicate matters, it is very likely that some of these questions can’t ever be properly answered. We could, for example, carefully track our self-reported experiences of happiness over a long enough period of time to come up with some plausible theories about what makes us happy and then test those theories with more data. However, we probably will never be able to adequately test whether any particular life choice was the right one to make. There are no do-overs in life. As a result, we can’t even generate the data that would put us in a position to make a valid assessment. Furthermore, in the face of this certain uncertainty, it seems likely that we can’t even reliably assess these choices in the here and now because we don’t have the well-tested beliefs upon which to assess the expected outcomes. So, even if we want to evaluate our life choices before we make them (overlooking the important consideration that many people don’t), we don’t even have the correct data for that evaluation. 

One plausible way to sidestep these concerns is to simply stipulate a lower burden of proof for these kinds of beliefs. Perhaps, it doesn’t really matter if we have properly tested beliefs about our happiness, our favourite foods, or our career path. One might be happy to claim that the good life requires only that we can tell ourselves a convincing story in the here and now that we are happy, well-off and that the events of our lives brought us here. All’s well that we can describe as ending well! And while I suspect that this tactic might actually be the best explanation for our species’ reproductive success up to this point (i.e. that we have a curious ability to reimagine suffering as a net benefit), I remain suspicious of the notion that we should lower the burden of proof for these kinds of beliefs. A delusion is a delusion is a delusion, even if we can convince ourselves that we are happy about it. 

In the face of this uncertainty, however, I suspect the only appropriate conclusion is to give up on the notion that we can ever definitively know ourselves. We are constantly evolving animals that are bound in the flow of time and, as a result, there are beliefs about ourselves of which we can never properly test. We have to rely on hunches, received wisdom and wild guesses because we have no other option. It isn’t because we are inherently mystical or otherworldly. It is because we are constrained  by our temporal existence. The much larger and crucial delusion, I think, is the belief that we could know with certainty who we are and what we value. Once we give up on that idea, the notion that we don’t know ourselves with God-like certainty seems much less unsettling and becomes just another mundane limitation of human existence. 

And while this conclusion might be well and good on the personal level, it creates one teensy-weensy little issue when we turn our attention to society and its organization: the fundamental and essential assumption of a liberal democracy and a market economy is that you and I can know our own well-being and happiness, know it better than anyone else, and reason effectively about it. Thanks to research in neuroscience and behavioural psychology, we now know with some certainty that these assumptions are false. We are poor reasoners in general but especially about what we value. Additionally, many of our beliefs about our own well-being are demonstrably false (i.e. people remember happiness that they did not experience and forget pain that they did). So, if it is true that most of our beliefs are inadequately tested and that we can’t even make accurate judgments about what we value or think to be good, democracies and markets are, at best, arbitrarily organizing society and, at worst, guaranteed to do it poorly. Garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes. And to be clear, this is also true for authoritarian strong men, councils of nerds, and any other social-political system that depends on anyone looking deep within themselves to figure out who they are, what they value, or what they want to become. The root problem is the practical constraints of inquiry. There is no social architecture that will solve that problem for us.  

What then of politics, society, and its organization, if we can’t count on people knowing themselves with any certainty? 

First, I think we need to recognize and accept that our present-day social and political habits, institutions, and systems are largely the consequence of chance (akin to biological evolution), prone to constant change, and persist only as long we allow them to persist. They are an expression of our need to organize ourselves, they reflect the environment in which they developed, and they emerge like any other natural phenomenon. They can become better or worse (relative to a host of benchmarks), none of them will magically persist over time, and there is no reason to think that solutions from hundreds and even thousands of years ago will work for today’s challenges. We need to accept that society’s organization is an ever-evolving and accidental by-product of the on-going effort to solve many different, discrete and often intertwined problems. 

Second, I think we need to get out of the habit of appealing to any claims that rely on introspection alone, in the same way that we almost got out of the habit of appealing to claims about the one true God. There are a lot of well-tested and plausible beliefs that we can use to guide our efforts to organize ourselves and direct our problem-solving efforts. The challenge, of course, is that even well-tested beliefs don’t all necessarily point to the same conclusion and course of action. In those cases, we must resist the temptation to frame the debate in terms of largely unanswerable questions like “what’s best for me”, “who’s vision of the good life is correct,” or “who worships the right God.” Instead, we need to look to well-tested beliefs, run good experiments, and always account for all the costs and benefits of whatever approach we settle on in the here and now, recognizing that with new evidence we may need to adapt and change.  

Finally, for those of us who think that we should settle our disagreements based on well-tested beliefs rather than dubious claims grounded in introspection, we need to lead by example. I think this will primarily involve asking the right sort of questions when we disagree with others. For example, what well-tested evidence do we have for one conclusion or the other? What kind of evidence do we need to decide the matter? What experiments can we run to get the necessary evidence? We will also need to get in the habit of discounting our own beliefs, especially if they are based on nothing more than introspection or received wisdom. And this might actually be the toughest hurdle to overcome both personally and practically. It is very natural to become attached to our own bright ideas before they are properly tested. Once attached, it becomes much easier to discount the evidence against them. To further complicate matters, humans also seem to be too easily motivated to action by strongly-expressed convictions that align with preconceived notions, whether they are well-tested or not. Asking for evidence before action and expressing doubts about one’s own convictions might not resonate with the very people we need to sway. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, there is no easy general all-purpose way to solve this problem. People who want to motivate others to action will always need to strike the tricky balance between rhetoric and honest communication. We don’t need to be puritans about honest communication but we also shouldn’t use the human condition as an excuse to spin outright lies — even in the service of thoroughly tested beliefs.            

Descartes is often credited with kicking off modernity when he famously doubted the existence of everything but his own thinking mind. In the very many years since he reached his pithy and highly quotable conclusion, we have learned a lot more about the best methods of inquiry and have developed a well-tested and always evolving understanding of the world. More recently, thanks to those methods of inquiry and their application in neuroscience and behavioural psychology, it is becoming increasingly clear that we can’t know much of anything from introspection alone — including ourselves. There is nothing you, I, or Descartes can know with any certainty by looking inwards for answers. Unfortunately, we continue to rely on habits, institutions, and systems which presuppose that you or I have privileged and certain knowledge about our own well-being, values, and optimal outcomes. This may partly explain — in conjunction with other issues (hello, massive inequality) — why liberal democratic political systems that rely on free markets are in crisis these days.

It was fashionable in the late 20th century to talk as if we had escaped modernism, but postmodernism, I think, only takes Descartes’ modernism to its logical conclusion, while willfully overlooking the fact that we humans have become pretty good at understanding the world around us. To set ourselves on a new path, to really escape the gravity well of modernism, we need to set aside the Cartesian notion that the aim of inquiry is absolute certainty and that such certainly can be found through introspection. Instead, we need to accept that we really don’t know ourselves, whatever our heartfelt convictions might tell us, and look instead to well-tested beliefs to guide and organize our lives, both individually and collectively. 

Know Thyself: It May Be An Impossible Maxim

Know ThyselfKnow thyself. It’s a maxim as old as the western intellectual tradition.

Unfortunately, it’s a maxim that may be impossible to honor, especially if you rely only on the examination of your conscious thoughts.

Looking inward to know yourself, research indicates, is probably useless and even misleading.

How can that be possible, you might ask? Surely, the surest things I can know are the contents of my own conscious mind. Can anything be nearer, dearier, or knowier to me?

Well, yes and no.

You do have unique access to the contents of your mind, but not to the processes that produce those contents. Your mind is the product of very many different and often independent processes of your brain, the vast majority of which are unconscious. Your conscious mind is unaware of the unconscious processes and can’t access them.

As a result, when you examine the contents of your conscious mind to figure out why you made one choice rather than another, for example, the processes responsible for that choice are likely to be unknowable to the conscious mind. Rather than admit it has no answer to the question, your mind will normally produce an answer — willy-nilly — based on whatever evidence happens to be available. It won’t even be aware that it has simply made the answer up.

So, to know ourselves better, we should not look inwards to the contents of our minds but instead outwards to our behavior and how others react to it. Because so much of who we are happens unconsciously, we are more likely to develop a better understanding of who we are by examining our behavior in the same way that we examine the behavior of others to understand who they are.

One of the unexpected outcomes of this research into our brains is that other people — even complete strangers — are often as good or better at predicting our behavior than we are. The unique access we have to our own conscious thoughts often impedes our ability to predict and understand our own behavior. Introspection makes us feel more confident about our self-understanding, but it does not necessarily lead to a better or more accurate understanding.

If you are intrigued or horrified by the idea that other people may know you better than you know yourself, take a look at Strangers to Ourselves. It’s a very readable introduction to this research.

I’m also in the process of developing a little online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in this book (and others) from a philosophical perspective. The implications, I think, are huge.

If you want to be the first to receive the course I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.