Saturday, May 6, 2017

Our Truths are Fiction

I recently read this article, Sometimes ‘Introspection’ Is You Just Making Stuff Up, and it both fascinates and disturbs me. The article delves into the “introspection bias” and shared some experiments whereby the subjects formulated clear reasons and explanations of choices they made all contrary to the facts. It reveals that we tend to make things up to explain or justify our actions, even when the facts behind our own experiences are demonstrably false. 

As someone who already spends too much time in my head, I have to wonder how often I fall prey to my introspection bias.

Reading this, I cannot help but think of the discipline of philosophy, and its cannon of introspective thinkers – I mean, Descartes, “I think therefore I am” – where does that leave us if even our fundamental existence comes into doubt?

Existentialists start with a premise that life is inherently meaningless, therefore you must create your own meaning. This however, takes existential angst to a whole new level. The meaning one carefully crafts and creates is potentially based on criteria that also is without meaning – my angst may not even really be angst, but a fabrication or at best some sort of meta-angst.

Plato through Socrates admonished us to “know thyself” but reading this, what can we really know? Worse yet, our continued contemplation may take us further and further from our truth as we craft better stories to explain ourselves to ourselves.

On a more positive take, this article reveals just what incredible story tellers we are. We have a knack for finding connections even when none exist. Pattern recognition and creativity are our super powers. We constantly can write and rewrite our narrative.  Our inner voice is a con man.

This can be freeing in a way.  We get to reinvent our back story by finding significance in formerly insignificant past events through a sort of self-deluded epiphany. Perhaps in a world of alternative facts this is a perfect model for being and becoming. To be more authentic, you tell a more compelling story.

So what does this mean for “Enlightened Hedonism?” Is the truly enlightened hedonist one who focuses more on the hedonism than the enlightenment? Granted, there is always the danger of the paralysis of analysis, something I often suffer from. Sometimes it is just better not to think, but do.  Still there must be some way to calculate what are the choices that lead to a more fulfilling life.

 “Know thyself,” Plato’s words echo. Can we? Perhaps the answer lies in invoking the scientific method. We can still contemplate and navel gaze as we spin out hypotheses of why certain things fulfill us, give us pleasure, or reduce our pain. But until we test those hypotheses, we’ll never know if they are really true.

Do I not like spinach because my parents forced me to eat it? Perhaps I can find someone to force me to eat strawberries and see if I start not liking them too? Maybe my dislike stems from the way the spinach was prepared? I can experiment and try different preparations to see if changes my way of thinking. Then again maybe I just have to accept that my not liking spinach is just one of those things that remain unknowable.

I suppose the test is to ask ourselves in our internal speculations, can I verify my explanations? Or even further, does the explanation even matter? Will it cause me to lead my life differently?

Perhaps it makes no difference whether our explanations are truth or fiction. Leaning on the existentialists, perhaps it is always a fiction – our decisions based on our aesthetics as much as our ethics. In the end, we are just left to tell the best story with the life we are given.