Why our brain favors this over that.
From apple pie to religion, the road to our ultimate subjectivism is paved with the gravel of the senses.
Let’s look around our world. No matter who we are or what our belief system happens to be, it is an inextricable truth that our views are subjective. Nothing that you think say or do is free from the influences and experiences of your life. Our mind is merely a comparative machine, and without comparative or contrasting experiences it would be impossible (or nearly impossible) to understand, think about or communicate a single experience.
From the very first time we open our eyes, we begin to collect sensory experiences about the world. Gathering information about everything we touch, see, smell, perceive, and most of all we begin to form opinions about those things. Let’s ponder an example or two. If we were to ask your friend about their mothers (or fathers) cooking, they might well respond with ‘my mother made the best [Fill in the blank].’ Now let me ask if you were to go and have dinner at their house do you think you would agree with their assessment of ‘the best?’ Odds are you wouldn’t because, unless that was also your mother, you do not share the same formative experiences as your friend. Any sensory learning becomes concretized with the initial input. We wrap it in a box and tie it up with a subjective bow. It seems quite simple until you realize that this is the way we generalize absolutely everything. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Yes, the first input sets the standard against which all others are judged.
Is it any wonder that, If you were born in America, you are most likely a Christian? Were you Born in the middle east? Jewish or Muslim? How about India? Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist. I realize these are generalizations and it seems, perhaps, to be a ‘just-so’ story, but is it that mysterious why the God of our parents and our community unquestionably becomes our God?
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
Genesis 1:4 (KJV)
Our brains are evolved to deal with, sort and attempt to explain the natural world around us. The natural world is driven by physical laws governing the reality we perceive, and we understand things only by comparative contrasts. Everything we learn is placed into a spectrum on the sliding scale of reality. Good examples of this are light and dark, (sorry biblical literalists, dark is not a thing that can be separated from light), heat and cold. Of course, our brain doesn’t care that physics says ‘Darkness is merely an absence of visible light.’ This doesn’t work for our mind which uses contrast and comparison to see and make sense of things. Hypothetically, if we were to create a space that was pure light, we wouldn’t be able to ‘see’ anything. Our mind would just assume it was blank or empty. There is a significant point to be made here:
We sense things as having more strength when they are seen in a highly contrasted environment.
A single candle in the middle of a pitch black room will seem positively bright in contrast to its surroundings.
Here’s the tricky part. We enter every situation with a preordained set of ‘oughts’ built into our mind. How everything ought to look, taste, sound, etc. to meet our expectations. Those ‘oughts’ can be refined over time as we develop a more intimate understanding. For example, the first time we hear an instrument your child is playing, a cello perhaps, and love the sound, that becomes our benchmark. Now we decide to learn more about the cello and begin listening to other players. What happens? We begin to form opinions about ‘what a cello is supposed to sound like. Perhaps we interact with other cello lovers, and they say ‘oh, so-and-so is a much better cellist than that other guy.’ If that person is someone we consider to be an authority, then we are likely to adopt their view on the matter. What we have accomplished now is to take our subjective experience of joy (hearing our child play the cello) and created a hierarchy of the ‘goodness’ of the cello. This is an example of how the mind refines an experience down to a narrow subjective ideal. We forget, however, that this is still a subjective position. It is a critical mistake to assume ‘because I have done so much research into the goodness of Cello’ our opinion holds more weight than another person with an opposing view.
Our brains, while immensely complex and beautiful organs, are limited in the amount of information we can process at any given time. This is not a flaw it is an evolved and selected method of how our brain works. Remember, the number one function of any process in our body is to keep us alive. Our brain categorizes things into nice neat packages, so we don’t need to think directly about them. When we need to react to new situations and avoid danger, it is of paramount importance that our decisions are quick and decisive. This task is performed using the chunks of information stored from previous experiences. While this is helpful in survival situations, it becomes a burden in our day to day social lives.
Our personal experience defines our truth but that doesn’t make it true
We have run through quite a few concepts here, and I think they should be expanded upon in future posts. What I am hoping you take away from this is the ability to step back and examine your own subjective views on the world and perhaps move beyond some of the more rigidly held, even dogmatic, beliefs that each of us carries. If we look closely enough, we can see the subjectivism of our personal belief system. There is nothing inherently wrong with subjective beliefs until we try to inflict them on others as if they were objectively true.
4 Replies to “Apple Pie, Belief and Subjectivism”
A thoughtful essay, bringing out some important truths. To it, I would simply add that the human capacity for reason does allow us to see beyond our own personal sense of what is right and good–but that requires the courage and energy to think objectively. The problem is not that our perceptions are subjective but that relatively few people are willing to go beyond that subjectivity.
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Do you think we are capable of going beyond subjectivity?
Another fascinating post, thank you for sharing your knowledge in such an enjoyable style