Fooling Ourselves

Presented at the October 4, 1998 Service

I think most everyone likes to think of themselves as being realistic. They like to consider themselves as being practical. They like to regard themselves as down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and matter-of-fact. And they like for others to think so too.

But I think that the reality is that we also like to fool ourselves, and that we often fool ourselves.

Wishful thinking, for example, is generally dismissed as the past-time of fools. But wishful thinking is something everyone does to a greater or lesser extent every time they make any sort of plans for the future. How many here are saving for retirement? Why? How do you know you'll live to enjoy your old age? Have you thoroughly considered what your chances are of actually doing so?

Living in a fantasy world is even worse than wishful thinking. But look around you. 90+% of what you see in this room, and probably where you spend the majority of your time, is the result of someone's fantasies. Not so very long ago, this was all fantasy. And many things that are fantasy today will be reality tomorrow.

"AHA!" it might be said. "Just because human civilization has remade much of the world doesn't mean that that world is fantasy!" But, then, what about the entertainment industry? What is going to the movies about, if it is not about living in — even if only briefly — a fantasy world?

At the end of this month is the traditional holiday of Halloween. And what is that if not a celebration of fantasy? The "Halloween" film franchise — the monster/horror genre, that is — has long been wildly popular almost since the beginning of motion pictures. But consider what this is: it's people going to great lengths — paying, even — in order to fool themselves into being shocked and frightened. Does any other animal do that? (Yet anthropologists talk of such traits as opposable thumbs, tool-use, and language.)

Science, at least, because it is built up out of facts and reason, is safe from such puzzling and irrational contamination. Or is it? What is science, after all? And what are facts and reason?

Reason refers to the principles of logic. Things are what they are, and they can't be what they aren't. Later events cannot be the cause of earlier events. If no crows are white then all crows are non-white. 2 + 2 = 4. If X is a circle in Euclidean space than X cannot have angles. All robins are birds but not all birds are robins. That sort of thing.

But all of these principles: of identity, of cause and effect, of number and extension and the like, all of them clearly derive from nothing other than our experience. But the sort of experience that points to and allows these generalizations, is a special sort of experience. It is experience that is exclusive of fantasy, dreams, and illusion. It is experience that is not limited to the subjective and the personal, or to one's own internal feelings and mental state. No, this sort of experience is of a sort that, remarkably enough, is accessible to virtually anyone. It is a kind of shared, public experience. Yet it is not really a communal or collective experience since everyone perceives it independently. So, it is a kind of subjective experience that correlates sufficiently from one person to another that it can be considered to be truly inter-subjective, or objective.

So it is that reason arises out of facts. And both flow from this remarkable fact, this fundamental rational principle, that there are experiences that people naturally, customarily, and, indeed, almost ineluctably agree about. From this we infer that there is something that is independent of ourselves that possesses its own existence and character. And this we call, of course, objective reality.

To be sure, there are cranks who deny the inference. Christian Scientists, for example, pretend very hard that they can doubt, if not disbelieve in, the world of sensible reality. But even they behave in ways that show that they acknowledge the laws of nature. All of them, that is, save for those of medical science.

Yet surely the most remarkable thing about this inference of objective reality is that it remains merely an inference, and therefore a kind of assumption, supposition, or fantasy. Though all of our experience continually validates it, there is always the possibility, in principle, that future experience could repudiate it. Therefore, the "laws of nature," including even the foundational proto-science of reason — the principles of logic — are no more than — and no less than — the patterns that we see in this peculiar subset of human experience that we call objective reality. And all of our scientific knowledge is a kind of abbreviated description or diagram of this experience.

What is gravity, for example? No one really knows for sure. But the word "gravity" encompasses a vast accumulation of objective facts and findings. "Gravity" forges the many particulars into the general. "Gravity" simplifies and orders the many, often seemingly different phenomena, into a concept, an abstraction, which is different in character from any of the individual phenomena as they are actually experienced. This is why, I think, Isaac Newton, in his Principia, insisted that, "I frame no hypotheses." As far as he was concerned, the force of gravity was only a way of describing the irreducible facts of objective reality.

For some reason, this is often no longer recognized: that scientific discovery is not something that takes place "out there" in the objective world, but "in here" in our own subjective understanding of objective experience. For in thinking that we discover and demonstrate new phenomena we are in fact merely noticing what we had previously overlooked. And in discovering new scientific principles, we are in fact merely arranging those phenomena in ways that are of significance only to us. The universe pays no heed to our "natural laws" and, given circumstances we fail to foresee, freely violates them. It is a kind of face-saving that we say, in such cases, that we have "discovered" new laws that were there all along. Knowledge, apparently, can be intoxicating.

So little is this appreciated that Thomas Henry Huxley found it necessary to point out that:

"The philosopher who is worthy of the name knows that his personified hypotheses, such as law, and force, and ether, and the like, are merely useful symbols, while the ignorant and the careless take them for adequate expressions of reality."

And he might have added, "adequate, ultimate, and final expressions of reality."

So let us not fool ourselves. Or, failing that, which seems inevitable, let us not forget that we are always fooling ourselves to some degree when we try to bridge the gap between experience and understanding. There is always the possibility when we think we have gotten it right that we have really gotten it wrong. And there is always a probability that we have not taken sufficient notice of what reality really is: the essential inference from each of our subjective experiences that allows for the existence of objective facts and reason.

The truly extraordinary aspect of how we have "fooled ourselves" into exercising a measure of mastery over the world of objective reality is that it has permitted so many people to continue to reject the central inference on which both depend. And so we have satellite television transmissions of flat-earth theology and people promoting "scientific creationism" who are dependent for their lives and health on medical principles and technologies that are implicitly rooted in the idea of the ancestral unity of life on earth.

But that is a subject for another day, I am afraid. The important message for today is that we cannot absolutely avoid being fooled or even fooling ourselves sometimes. This is a recognition that leads to authentic humility and, at the same time, to genuine personal growth and worthwhile social progress. Only from the standpoint of being mindful of facts and reason, of Rationalism, and of Freethought as the religion of thought (as opposed to belief) is it accurate to say that, "the meek shall inherit the earth." Not as a prophecy of the distant future, but as a statement of fact.

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 1998 by Tim Gorski, Pastor, North Texas Church of Freethought