Posted by: Edward | November 10, 2012

Living in our own stories

The truth is that the “true” truth doesn’t matter to people. We care about the story truth. If there is a true truth, we don’t know it. Instead of knowledge we have interpretations. We interpret the evidence of our senses and we solidify those decisions as beliefs. Then we use those beliefs to make new interpretations as we have new experiences. These beliefs influence how we act and they begin to filter what evidence our senses show us.

Over time these past interpretations have far more influence over us than the evidence of our senses. Over time these interpretations on top of interpretation come to be increasingly abstract. We go from the evidence that Billy got more ice cream than us to talking about concepts like fairness and favoritism. These are the story truths. And most of our lives are lived for these.

The truly interesting thing is that because we believe in these abstract fictions, we act as if they are real and we create things to concretize them. We build law courts and print money. We build the world in the image of our beliefs. Our interpretations end up changing the world underlying the evidence and interpretation games we play.

The problem is, when our whole world is interpretation built on interpretation upon interpretation… what if our initial and fundamental interpretations just weren’t very good?

One option is to practice a kind of radical uncertainty. The fact is, that whatever it is you think you know you could be mistaken. One way I do this is to attach arbitrary probability values to my assertions. This is to acknowledge that anything i think I know is the result of my interpreting ambiguous and incomplete evidence in terms of my assumptions and believes about reality. The idea is to accept that you are acting on your best guess about what is going on and to be willing to reinterpret the situation as new data comes in.

The second option is to remind yourself that most of what you are striving for or contending with are social fictions. To paraphrase Robert Anton Wilson, guns are real, blue uniforms are real; police are a social fiction. The authority that we grant authorities over us is an implicit agreement we’ve made with each other to act as if it exists. How much else in your life is the same thing? Only by making these agreements explicit can we challenge the ones we that don’t work for us.

The third and perhaps most powerful option is to look for disconfirming evidence. This is very difficult as you’ve spent your entire life looking for evidence that confirms your interpretations without ever realizing that you were doing it.

There are two avenues to go about looking for disconfirming evidence. One is when you find yourself thinking, “that’s just the way it is,” or that some idea is “just common sense” then look for experiences that contradict the underlying belief. The second is when you have an experience that surprises you, that defies your expectations, try to figure out what you are assuming about the world that the experience contradicted. It’s time to revise that particular interpretation. At it’s best this is what science is all about.

Train yourself in the idea that what you know is a provisional interpretation and you will be much more adaptable to the strange new world all around you.


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