Friday, July 12, 2013

Insight and evidence

We often figure things out and then see that our figuring was correct.  Those steps can lead us into thinking that our figuring is always correct.  It often is not and that is why evidence is important.  In olden days, life was hard enough and short enough, that most people had no time or inclination to think about nature and the larger questions that face us.  So, when someone made pronouncements, it was easy to assume that some divinely guided inspiration must be guiding him.  Thus, the thinker/writer/speaker could assert that his message (and it was often a "he" since women were caring for the fundamentals of life) was both divinely sent and totally correct.

It is tiresome to always be challenging and asking for evidence.  Furthermore, many of our most persistent questions cannot be answered with evidence.  We can always ask someone why they believe what they do.  However, just because my wife has not explained her grounds for her belief in a way that persuades me to believe in her explanation, insight or memory, does not mean that she is incorrect or unfounded.  I have learned this the hard way by placing small bets against her prediction or version of the past.

But it is not only in science or legal matters that we can consider the question of evidence.  The woman writer and thinker Byron Katie advises people every day to ask if their beliefs are true when they are thinking about love, marriage, parenting, friendships and other interpersonal areas.  I happen to be listening to the audio version of the book "The Undivided Past" by the British historian and Princeton professor David Cannandine.  He discusses six classifications that have often been used in the past to have and maintain a "we versus them" type of division, those of religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization.  Coupled with Steven Novella's excellent explanation of my human tendency to remember and accept statements from those saying what I myself already agree with, we get the situation where I challenge and doubt what those who disagree with me say, while welcoming to my bosom everything from those who seem like me.  I am capable of asserting that I don't do that, but there is a tendency to favor confirmatory over other evidence.

In many important parts of human life, we can't really collect evidence.  I have never been this age before.  I can read about others journey through their 70's but they may be very different from me or live in very different circumstances.  Even small decisions, such as what movie to watch or what to make for dinner are as much based on the need for variety and today's offerings in the market as ratings by others or my past experience. Further, there is an unending flow of information today so to require myself to absorb all that is relevant to my decisions is to block myself from all future actions and thoughts.

I think we are all in the darkness, or at least dim light, all of the time. We do know how to function with partial information and we do know how to recover from instances where evidence seems to have misled us.

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