Facts and Truth – Will Your Brain Let You See the Difference?

Facts are not as important as the truth that defines who you are, and every idea you have is a physical thing in your brain. The circuits become fixed and new information is modified to fit, because some things simply must be true.

That’s my summary of a recent interview I heard with academician George Lakoff, but what really caught my attention is that he implies you can’t change this. Even if you know your brain is filtering facts, you can’t help it. Not all facts may challenge your sense of self, and you can deal with those. But when the topic is part of your identity, you’re trapped.

That defies my sense of free will, which, of course, would only prove Lakoff’s point.

Lakoff says he can explain why certain positions that seem independent go together – for example, pro-life and flat-tax. I’ve often thought about this – if I know you’re a vegetarian I bet I can guess your politics. Why should that be so?

As it relates to politics, Lakoff says we see our nation through the metaphor of a family, and there are two kinds of families: the strict father and the nurturing family. Most people use a mix of these two approaches (so maybe there’s hope for a fact to get through!) but the basis of the strict father is that authority and morality go together – right and wrong are clear, tough love creates a disciplined person who will succeed, and if someone doesn’t succeed it’s their own fault and they deserve what they get.

Strict father types aren’t merely ruthless. Even if you’re wired this way, you will care for your own “in-group,” be it your family or some larger community. But beyond your in-group, those who “win” are by definition “moral” and deserve power:

Employers over workers
Adults over children
Rich over poor
Western culture over other cultures
and so on through religion, race, sexual orientation, etc.

I went scurrying to one of my favorite sources. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt says we each have an “interlocking set of values, virtues, norms…and institutions” that mesh with human psychology. We despise cruelty and bullies, have a sense of fairness and loyalty, respect authority, and inately know some things are noble while others are depraved. Interactions among these morals create our multitude of positions in politics and beyond. But Haidt thinks we can understand each other and work together. “If you really want to open your mind, open your heart first.”

I think I’m rational, that I can evaluate information, that I know reality from fiction and fact from fake news. But what if my brain is just as hard-wired as Lakoff says? What if I can’t escape my own in-group’s echo chamber, and you can’t escape yours?

I simply don’t accept that.
Which, as I said, may only prove Lakoff’s point.

I haven’t read Lakoff’s books and my summary of his short interview dont think of elephantmay be unfair. Don’t Think of an Elephant is on sale as “all new” and wildly popular to judge by the reviews on Amazon. As usual – given my contrarian nature – I’ll offer a few of the negative comments: “There is very little new in this reprint”… “the writing is a little convoluted”… and “I found myself balking at some of his ideas and suggestions.”

Which Lakoff would probably say proves his point.

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