What do I Know? Critically Evaluating Subjectivity, Culture, & common sense
1. We do not see the world clearly, and we do not completely understand what we see. Our mind is not a “mirror of nature,” as many early theologians, philosophers, and scientists assumed (Abrams, 1953; Rorty, 1979; Polanyi, 1964). Human consciousness is not a passive receptor of experience, like a mirror simply reflecting an image of the real world. Instead our consciousness is like a lamp shining on the real world, but coloring what we see with the light of our own unique vision. Our consciousness actively engages with experience through our perceptual process in order to create knowledge, meaning, and values. Our brain connects the "fragments of knowledge" we experience into a coherent narrative. We understand our experience through our meanings and values, thereby, making our knowledge useful (Kahneman, 2011, p. 75). Consciousness also colors our experience with emotion, which helps us remember important events and give them meaning (Pinker, 1997). Our perception does not directly reflect the reality of the world we experience. Instead, we see a subjective world that is mediated by our biological brain and also by our culture.
2. We all inherit ways of thinking and acting that are particular to our unique social context. We call these ways of thinking and acting culture. We mimic the actions and beliefs of the individuals who shape us, such as our parents, peers, teachers, priests. Culture also includes larger social institutions that mold our behavior, such as families, schools, churches, organizations, and governments. Culture entails the language we speak, the customs we practice, and the beliefs we think are true (Geertz, 1973/2000; 1983/2000). All of this makes up our "social heritage" (D'Andrade, 2002, p. 223). Culture is a tool. It is a large assembly of "technological and social innovations" (Pinker, 2002, p. 65-66), which fosters our development as human beings, gives us meaningful lives, and helps us survive (Nussbaum, 1997).
3. While we are born into a culture, we have the power to accept and reject the various sub-cultures to which we are exposed. We can shape our own individual identity and character. Social scientists call this phenomenon subjectivity. Our subjectivity is our own unique identity and personal world view. But we are influenced by others in our culture, and since we seek to be like our friends and family, our subjectivity will be very similar to those around us. We use our subjectivity to understand our world, create knowledge, and communicate with others. Our subjectivity co-creates experience with the objective world and our minds create what has been called "subjective realism" (Flanagan, 2011, p. 66). The phenomena we see and experience (Kant, 1781/1994, p. 48) is real to us. It appears real, although it might not be objectively real; therefore, other people might not be able to verify what we see and believe.
4. While subjectivity enables us to live a rich and meaningful life, it can also cause many problems. Our brain can often misperceive the objective world, and these misperceptions can lead us to make bad decisions (Kahneman, 2011; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). For instance, we might hear a noise at night and believe there is a burglar in our house. We might see a weird flying shape in the sky and believe it to be a UFO. We might see a political protester burn a flag and believe the act to be unpatriotic. We might see a soldier step on a Qur'an and believe the act to be sacrilegious and an affront against our God. The conclusions reached in each of these examples may or may not be objectively true, but every example is subjectively true: the individual believed the phenomenon to be true as he or she experienced it. In each case the culture of the individual shapes perception, which leads the individual to classify experience in a particular way. Prior belief in house burglars, UFOs, a patriotic ideal, or a religious code would lead an individual to classify new experience with these frames of reference. This process of framing is all part of a normal functioning brain.
5. Outside of subjective framing, our brains can also malfunction or become damaged. Such malfunctioning can lead to false perceptions that can exacerbate the problem of subjectivity. The brain perceives a phenomenon that seems very real, but which is a product of the brain itself and does not objectively exist in the real world. Such malfunctioning might include color blindness, schizophrenia, or autism. It could include deliberate malfunctioning, such as taking mind altering drugs. It could also include being manipulated to believe a false memory, but really all our memories falsify reality even when the brain is working properly. We all tend to believe that our unique subjective vision represents the objective world as it really exists. But, in fact, the phenomenon we see is more of a product of our own brain rather than the objective world we partially (and imperfectly) perceive or remember. Even when it's fully functional, our biological brain does not work very well. It is, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely (2008) points out, "predictably irrational" (p. xx). We often make "naive, random" decisions based on "gut feelings," which can be "self destructive" (pp. 45, 53, 166), and even the brains of experts and scientists fall prey to these same flaws (p. 197). We are all, as one reporter explained, "confident idiots." Dan Ariely (2008) concluded his bestselling book on the brain by saying, "We are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the directions our life takes but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires - with how we view ourselves - than with reality" (p. 321).
6. The flawed process of subjective belief gets augmented and further distorted by our culture. Particular individual beliefs become shared by a large group of people, and thereby, they become the orthodox or official beliefs of that group or culture. Anthropologists and political scientists call orthodox beliefs "ideology" (Geertz, 1973/2000; Eagleton, 1991) or "common sense" (Geertz, 1983/2000). Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1983/2000) explained common sense as a widely shared "cultural system" (p. 76) that everyone accepts as "normal" and "natural" (p. 81). It is a collection of minds shaped by the same "presuppositions" (p. 84), which when heard over and over again become true by a default mechanism in our brain (Kahneman, 2011, p. 62).
7. Culture often acts like a "rubber stamp," which is "inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history" – all imprinting our plastic minds with common sense truths that we passively accept (Bernays, 1928/2005, p. 48). The early 20th century intellectual Walter Lippmann (1922/1997) explained, "For the most part we do not first see, and then define. We define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture" (pp. 54-55). Thus, common sense is "what anyone clothed and in his right mind knows" (Geertz, 1983/2000, p. 75) because he or she has heard it proclaimed and seen it as truth so many times before.
8. But common sense varies between different cultures, a fact which causes a lot of conflict when different cultures come into contact with each other. What seems “normal” or acceptable common sense in one culture can be labeled outrageous by another culture. Just think, for a moment, about how you instinctively view cannibals. Most, if not everyone, in our culture would say cannibalism is disgusting and immoral because it violates our common sense values of life and liberty. But how do you think cannibals view you? Likewise, think about the horrible atrocities committed by the Nazis in the early 20th century. The Nazi regime created a program to systematically brutalize and murder Jews, Communists, homosexuals, and other undesirable groups of people who were deemed inferior by the standards of common sense. Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the Gestapo secret police, explained, “In my work for the Fuhrer and the nation I do what my conscience tells me is right and what is common sense” (as cited in Kihlstrom, 2013, p. 11). Most people do not think about the values and behaviors considered common sense by their culture – they just do what everyone else is doing, even if that includes exterminating another group of human beings.
9. But we can learn to question our culture, and we deliberately chose to accept or reject what we are told by others. In her memoir, Tara Westover (2018) recounted how she was brought up in a small community in the woods of Idaho. She was told to never question her parents and to do whatever they asked her to do. She was prohibited from going to school or even going to the doctor. She explained, "My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs" (p. 197). But eventually she left her family and went to college (even though she had never been to school before and she only had the basic skills of reading and writing). While she was in college, Westover (2018) learned about the world outside of her small community where she grew up, and this new information challenged the way she saw her world and herself: "Something had shifted...I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant" (p. 180). Eventually, Westover (2018) rejected the way of life she was forced to lead as a child in order to choose a new way of life, which included going to Europe to earn her PhD and then later becoming Dr. Tara Westover, a college professor.
10. But unlike Dr. Westover (2018), many people never become fully aware of traditions, let alone question or reject them. By definition, common sense is "fiction accepted without question" (Lippmann, 1922/1997, p. 80). Common sense is declared "self-evident truth" because everyone already knows that it is supposedly true, as Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Common sense cultural fictions are very important to our psychological and social well-being. Common sense is the glue that makes society work. The historian Edmund S. Morgan (1988) explained, "fictions are necessary, because we cannot live without them... [they] make our world conform more closely to what we want it to be... The fiction takes command and reshapes reality" (p. 14). While the subjective magic of fiction can be denigrated by outsiders as mere myth-making, all human beings have their own ideologies and need their myths in order to survive.
11. And when our experience doesn't fit our ideology or common sense, then most people disregard or "disguise" the facts (Geertz, 1983/2000, p. 82) so as to reaffirm what they already believe. Most people are detached from the reality of the objective world. Instead, they rest serenely in their own subjective illusions - safe in the self evident truth of common sense. As PR man Edward L. Bernays (1923/2011) explained, it is the culturally programmed mind of the average person that "is the greatest barrier between him and the facts" (p. 133).
12. We can never escape our subjectivity, nor can we wholly eradicate the cultural influences that have shaped us since we were born. The 16th century British philosopher Francis Bacon called such subjective and cultural phenomena "idols" (Gaukroger, 2001, p. 120). He saw human subjectivity as "a corrupt and ill-ordered predisposition of mind" (as cited in Klein, 2003). Bacon believed, as have many scientists since, that we can destroy and abolish these "idols" so as to see the world with pristine and unencumbered eyes – as through "clear glass" (as cited in Klein, 2003). But this belief is a lie. Complete objectivity is a "false ideal" (Polanyi, 1962, p. 18). We can never escape Plato's (1997) epistemological cave.
13. We cannot "command" our nature nor the objective world. Our minds can never be "thoroughly freed and cleansed" (as cited in Klein, 2003). As the English philosopher David Hume (1888/1739) famously put it, "We have, therefore, no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all" (p. 268). The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1957/1844) later agreed: "We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors" (p. 269). Our perceptual tools are naturally flawed.
14. But Bacon, Hume, and Emerson admitted that our subjectivity was not a prison, as Plato once thought. As part of the natural world, we were still uniquely situated and endowed with an inborn capacity to know the objective world, however flawed that knowledge may be. Bacon said that we can "interpret" ourselves and the natural world, but this ability is grounded by the constraints of the physical world, including the limits of our own biological brain, which "must be obeyed" (Bacon as cited in Gay, 1995, p. 312). As reflective and critical beings, we can become more aware of how our biology, subjectivity, and culture influence our perception and behavior. We can also become more aware of how our biology, subjectivity, and culture can be influenced and modified, in turn, how they can be changed, not commanded. Our ability to alter ourselves and our environment produces the conditions of true freedom and moral responsibility (Dennett, 2003, pp. 1, 162).
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