A world of “alternative facts”…
“You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” ―
Facts are facts, right? Well, yes, but.
All facts (objective) are interpreted by the observer (subjective). Facts can often generate an emotional tone of varying intensities too. So, in broad strokes, how does that work?
The two Robin Koerner articles I linked at the end of last week’s blog post [“Mistakes,” and “Changed Minds“—they are well worth the read, why not do it now?] seek to understand why you and I can observe the same ‘facts‘ and draw totally different conclusions about what the facts mean. Koerner argues using the ‘morals’ [values] aspect of perception and suggests—along with brain scientists—our emotional memory and our biases hold sway in our interpretation of facts from the very beginning of the process of assessing the facts. So, how does ‘brain science’ fit into our political climate and widespread dissension over facts?
The limbic system of our brains forms the gateway of our experience. The limbic system is also known as the paleomammalian cortex (or, reptilian brain). Paleomammalian cortex processes are prior to prefrontal cortex (or, rational brain) processes. So, in addition to regulating our autonomic processes like breathing, blinking, digesting food, etc., our limbic system also hosts and manages our emotions. When we are faced with a stimulus (let’s say, Colin Kaepernick takes a knee) our limbic system is the first order of brain function engaged.
The amygdala is the organ that serves as the neurological entry point of our experience. All sensory data flows first of all through the amygdala. It serves as the coarsest memory screen for our emotional history as it tags the sensory data and flags it accordingly for the refined attention of the hippocampus. The sensory data moves along neural networks to the hippocampus for further processing. There it is compared and contrasted to all our previous memories and emotion-history using the markers and tags from the amygdala’s contribution as first filters. The hippocampus process creates even more nuanced filters for the data. Then, if the prefrontal cortex is sufficiently developed it receives the processed data for further (rational) processing with the constraints and emotional screening of the limbic system process attached.
In other words, through our emotional history and the memories of all our previous experiences, our values vector sensory data as our brain processes it. It’s a triaging, filtering process. Our emotional system makes the initial evaluation of any experience and only after it prioritizes and biases the data does it send it on along to the rational brain.
It really had to be this way. If our limbic brain handed all sensory input to our rational brain on an equality basis, then while we considered the loveliness of the flora, which fork in the path to take, and what pace to keep on our hike, the grizzly bear we encounter would eat us for his lunch. Emotions are our shorthand way of triaging, categorizing, and prioritizing data for the rational brain’s consideration.
So, our limbic brains and emotions are obviously quite necessary and yet terribly insufficient to consistently produce mature, healthy behavior within a rationally organized environment. We are both emotional and rational creatures, yet our emotion gets first crack at defining reality and in our polarized times that frequently means that our ‘thinking’ gets colored with red. So, perhaps a brief history of our philosophical relationship with facts would be helpful.
Enlightenment philosophers anguished over the distinction/connection between ‘facts‘ and ‘ideas.’ Given the emotional connection we’ve just seen, the intuitive concern of the rationalists may seem well grounded. Moynihan gets at the first layer of difficulty that we face when it comes to a common set of objective facts. We bring much of our own personal contextual orientation with us when we observe facts—our family, our education, our experience, etc., e.g., our opinion. In other words, no one parachutes into fact gathering as a blank photographic plate. People are all comprised of many aspects. Our social location (and our psychological and social experience/artifacts/residue) vector our interpretation of facts and their meaning. Bias and opinion are intrinsically grounded in our individual particularity (our subjective viewpoints).
Realism vs Idealism…
Assigning language to facts creates difficulty, too. Immanuel Kant’s system was at least partially true in that it perceived a cosmology problem. Kant argued we have no direct access to objective reality, no direct access to the ding an sich—the thing in itself. According to Kant, we do not know things themselves, rather we can only know the appearances of the things, that is, the way the thing itself effects our senses. Kant was struggling with the problem of a subject/object, dualistic cosmology, and how the two spheres rank/connect.
Alfred Korzybski articulated Kant’s partial truth differently. In Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics he wrote:
“Say whatever you choose about the object, and whatever you might say it is not. Or, in other words: whatever you might say the object is, well it is not.”
The idealists’ project ultimately leads to seeing objective reality as nothing but an illusion. Wilfred Sellers would later attack “the myth of the given,” testing/taking down the idea of an unnuanced, independent, objective reality from a human point of view. Fortunately, with Russell, Wittgenstein, et al., and the linguistic turn, the transformation of epistemology and ontology took a structural shape. With the linguistic turn and the influence of de Saussure, Korzybski and the structuralists were able to preserve the currency/legitimacy of the material realm. Korzybski was able to nuance Kant’s insight and conditionally reconnected us with the objective sphere when he even more famously remarked:
While our discursive methods (‘the ‘map’) are of a different order, nonetheless they are concerned with something quite real (‘the territory’).
As Koerner’s articles revealed, it’s no wonder modernist and postmodernist philosophers have struggled with our connection to objective reality. Philosophers are by and large rational creatures, so the idea of emotion being a key link in the chain of the process of assessing facts is rather challenging. Using late twentieth century research, in his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell was able to show what Plotinus argued nearly two thousand years ago in his neo-Platonism: that our conscious apprehension of objective reality is preceded by a non-discursive intuition. Thanks to brain science, we now know we need to nuance ‘conscious apprehension’ to include both non-discursive (emotional/non-linguistic) and discursive (rational/linguistic) dimensions in the process of apprehending.
Facts in action…
President Trump said, “I’m not going to get into it because we won, it doesn’t matter, we won.” You see, anything goes with DJT because for him the key and determining fact is, “We won.” His transactional morality (misguided Orange [ER] values) boils everything down to the end [the “deal”] justifies the means [indecency du jour].
President Trump has made a habit of demonizing the press for over two years now, “The enemy of the people,” “…body slam.” Did the Saudi government savagely murder and dismember Jamal Khashoggi? Does DJT’s response make you/I complicit the next time a tyrant somewhere confidently decides to savagely kill a dissident or journalist because Trump has clearly been green-lighting that kind of horrific behavior?
And so forth…
Take a knee…
Most can agree on one Kaepernick fact, we’ll take it up next week.
I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?