Oh, humans!

That is my daughter’s new expletive, “Oh, humans!” and I must say it is more apt now than ever. We humans have a marvelous capacity for opinions, a huge talent really for thinking up thoughts about things. I go to the gym and see on the TVs shows wherein people, more males in suits than females dressed for business, are giving their opinions about sports and the body politic; I put on my ipod and listen to music, which I think comes from a more important talent. I read editorials many days as much as for the quality of their prose and to glean an occasional fact or two incipient to the writer’s thinking as for finding out their opinion (humor is the draw, and passion too, of course passionate humor is best). As a clinical psychologist I was trained “to stay close to the data” in my interpretations and indeed I strove to do that; it was a true necessity when offering one’s opinion in court. Harder to do than what one might imagine.

So our talent for facts is real but not huge.   Our capacity for fact-finding is very important and relies on special efforts to avoid false opinions, you know, like the scientific method. Even there, however, facts are difficult to find. Indeed, a scientific fact is presumed to be true only so far as it goes, i.e., the need for replication and determining the probability of falsification always frames a scientific fact as an educated statement open to correction. At the University of Virginia a project to replicate many of the robust findings of psychology has found their task to be fraught with difficulty. In their search for the Higgs boson, which is important because it indicates the presence of the Higgs field that we will probably never wander except in our mathematical imagination, physicists worked until they found some facts, i.e., data, with a probability of falsification of less than 1 in 3.5 million, what is referred to as 5-sigma.

Opinion is easier than fact-finding, like swimming is easier than building a boat. Of course, swimming feels more personally muscular but a boat will take us farther, and that is an important pragmatic and ontological difference. With more education of a sort that encourages critical thinking, fact-finding, and regard for the ancient attitude of skepticism, perhaps more will take opinions as just that, their own thoughts that may comport with any factual reality on so far. We have a tradition, a cultural bias better resisted, that our consciously rational thinking is a supreme achievement of humans, that evolution has granted us this so we can dominate the rest of nature, and that if only everyone else were rational, civilization would imperiously spread its contentment everywhere. It has taken until recent times for psychologists to re-discover that the basic human thought pattern is to have an opinion, say some moral or political stance, and then to rationalize it by marshaling facts to support our intuitive notions. I say re-discover because, again, some of the wiser ancients observed this long ago; skeptics have reproduced down through the ages though not in nearly enough numbers. Skeptics are important; that they do not multiply readily is not genomically driven but due to our cultural belief system biased for binding us to power and governance, even sometimes for good reason.

I have an affection for data based decision making, yet I am increasingly brought up short by the human capacity for opinion and often called back to cautious consciousness by the virulence of that opinion. Consider the explosion of asocial fantasy, pornographic, political or conspiratorial, on the internet. Consider the efforts now needed to preserve scientific data, gleaned through assiduous effort to understand our world, because that data is at risk from opinion mongers. Yes, the Catholic church 400 years ago put Galileo under house arrest and threat of death if he continued to espouse some facts. Yes, Hitler and Stalin perverted science to justify the final solution and Lysenkoism. Yes, some of America’s leaders reason their way to deny the benefits of our rich nation to a substantial minority based upon race, religion or what have you. And yes, small groups in our country have usurped governmental functions to do all of the above again, because opinions serve power more than understanding, and power serves the wealthy more often than not.

Here is why I find the biological power of art so important, because art is not opinion about things nor is it concerned with facts. Art conveys one’s own particular experience through symbolic forms reliant on empathy for a successful communal experience. In making no claims to factual truth or powerful opinion, true art, great art, achieves something deeper for humanity, at the least a consideration of assumed values and at the most a transcendence that allows us to view the human landscape with a sublime perspective. That enables us to understand the importance of basic values such as the Golden Rule, the necessity of prosocial governance, the importance of compassion, the tenuousness of reality, life’s daunting challenges (that we all share) to mitigate necessity and exploit chance, and the sense of Gaia as one, albeit complex, thing, i.e., an organism itself. Art, like a family or group gathered around a hearth to share a meal of remembrance and celebration, helps us remember what civilization is and isn’t and how delicate its hold on us here on earth is.

This post begins a periodic expansion on this blog of looking at current cultural issues from the perspective of our biological roots, because I feel the need to address the factual basis of this new expletive, “Oh, humans!” and that is my opinion.