It’s easy to grow up with a benign sense that our minds broadly offer us a reliable impression of ourselves, the people around us and the world at large. What we see, think and feel can be counted upon to amount to a more or less accurate picture of reality. We can call this optimistic thesis the ‘clear pane’ theory of the mind, implying that we are able to look out onto the world pretty much as if through an undistorted and blemish-free pane of glass.
Yet, a long tradition in philosophy has sought to warn us of a far trickier truth. The school of thought known as Scepticism – that began in Ancient Greece in the third century BC – proposed that a great many of our solid-seeming ideas and vivid sense impressions should not be assumed to be accurate or dependable and should be handled with a special care, patience and doubt. The data we operate with is most likely to be heavily distorted by our minds’ filters, scratches, blind spots and warps. To be wise means, for the Sceptics, to strive to be permanently vigilant about the distortions of our minds and the extent to which these encourage us to blunder and misunderstand reality.
One tiny instance of our distorting minds that particularly fascinated the Greeks was a strange phenomenon that occurs when a stick is partially submerged water: it immediately seems as if the stick angles into a V just at the point where it meets the surface.
But if we pull the stick out we’ll see that it is of course still straight. The Sceptics took this tiny example as a gateway to a vast truth: that our senses are humblingly fallible. The way things appear to us is often simply not how they in fact really are. The brain is a highly imperfect machine – a kind of faulty walnut – with an inbuilt tendency to malfunction and misread its circumstances.
Sceptical ideas were to be a leading force behind the development of modern science.
In the middle of the 16th century, the sceptical Polish philosopher and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus demonstrated that whatever our senses might have suggested to us for hundreds of thousands of years, according to logical reasoning, the truth is that the sun does not in fact revolve around the earth, but it is the earth that spins around a stationary sun in daily, annual and axial rotations.
From Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium - On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, 1543
The scientific method taught humans to treat with restless scepticism all the information and first ideas our minds produced: from the shape of the world to the structure of the cosmos, the origins of the species to the functioning of the body.
A later, prominent adherent of Scepticism, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein playfully pointed out that, so vulnerable are our minds to error, they struggle even to correctly guess the length of two wholly identical lines.
But the Sceptics weren’t only interested in the errors we fall into when doing astronomy or geometry. They were also fascinated by our tendencies to fall into error in our personal lives under the influence of our emotions (or as they sometimes called them, our desires).
They noted a range of factors that could throw our judgement badly off course:
Our minds are seldom without a range of moods, a kind of emotional weather, that scud over our mental horizons, normally without us having any understanding of where they have come from, when they might lift or even that they exist. However, these moods can have a decisive impact on the gestation of our ideas. We might in one mood consider ourselves fortunate, look brightly at the future and feel grateful to those around us. And then, a few hours later, without anything in the outer world having changed, another mood might lead us to a wholesale re-evaluation of almost everything about us. Devilishly, part of what it means to be subject to a mood is not to realise that we are in its grip: we simply feel that our friends (whom we liked quite a lot yesterday) are no-good and our job (which once offered us so much) is absurd.
The French 16th-century sceptical philosopher Montaigne liked to observe how much of his identity was buffeted by changing moods – and recognised that their nature was often determined not so much by reason and logic as by the influence of apparently minor physical factors: “I feel quite a different person before and after a meal. When good health and a fine sunny day smile at me, I am quite debonair; give me an ingrowing toe-nail, and I am touchy, bad-tempered and unapproachable.”
Montaigne mockingly observed that our entire world view might be altered by whether we have had a light or heavy desert. We are capable of switching from a benevolent optimism about the future of the species to a morbid pessimism because we’ve eaten a plum and custard tart rather than a handful of blueberries.
Tiredness can be another powerful agent that silently and invisibly perverts our judgement. The 19th-century sceptic Friedrich Nietzsche remarked: ‘When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago’ – though crucially, it is extremely rare and counter-intuitive to judge that it really might be tiredness that is affecting our outlook rather than certain objective facts in the world. We are keener to conclude that we have developed a deep resentment against humanity than that we urgently need to get to bed.
Lust similarly plays with our judgement, leading us to ‘see’ sensitivity, kindness and a decent alternative to our current partner where there is – in truth – an exceptionally beautiful profile and perhaps not much else. As the German sceptical philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wryly concluded: ‘Immediately after copulation, the devil’s laughter can be heard.’
Interpretation of Others
Our minds repeat in the presence of other people a version of the same mistake that they made in relation to the planets: thinking geocentrically rather than heliocentrically. We interpret the motives and psychology of other people primarily through the filter of our own concerns, histories and interests – failing to consider what else might be happening in their lives outside of our field of vision. The person who doesn’t call us back can quickly be imputed to have a desire to hurt us (rather than a busy diary or an ailing aunt) while the troubled look that passes over a friend’s face at once seems the result of something we have said (rather than the thought of their pressing morning assignment flitting across their brow).
Our minds assure us that they are judging each new person they meet on their own merits, while they continuously draw upon feelings and responses shaped by a past whose influence remains wholly unconscious. At moments of ambiguity, the mind may generate utterly unwarranted conclusions about others by confusing past and present. It might, for example, assume that any older man who speaks in a confident way is out to humiliate them – when in truth it was just one specific man, their father, who went in for this a few decades before. Or it might assume that those who love us will, after a time, invariably leave us – because a version of this unhappy scenario was branded across our childhood.
Flattery and Fear
Our minds are dangerously primed to fit in with common sense and prevailing opinion. One or two compliments can delight us and change our assessment of ourselves. But equally, we can be thrown off course by a single negative comment. We are recklessly sensitive to what an absurdly small number of individuals think – judging them to be the whole world. We get statistics all wrong. Our faulty minds routinely overlook the strangeness of the sample group they are being affected by.
Appreciating how flawed our minds are forms the basis upon which the skill of Emotional Scepticism is founded, this skill defined as a cautious awareness of the misleading power of emotions on our judgement. Having surveyed the fragilities of our minds, the Ancient Greek Sceptics recommended that we learn to develop an attitude of what they calledepoche, translated as ‘reserve’ or ‘suspension of judgement’. Aware of our proclivities to error, we were never to rush into decisions, we were to let our ideas settle so they could be re-evaluated at different points in time and we were to be especially vigilant about the impact of sexual excitement, tiredness and public opinion on the formation of our plans.
For a range of historical reasons we’ve collectively been extremely reluctant to recognise the benefits of Emotional Scepticism. The Romantic Movement bequeathed us the beguiling but often disastrous notion that it is our emotions that are always our finest guides. One of the most powerful advocates of this attitude, the English poet William Wordsworth, wrote a poem in 1789 entitled The Tables Turned (so-called because he intended to turn the table against reason), in which he praised ‘spontaneous wisdom’ and promoted ‘impulse’ as the source of truth.
Let Nature be your teacher …
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
This neatly sidestepped the reality that without sceptical science, we would still be under the impression that the sun spun around our planet every night. And no less problematically, if we follow our emotions in the key issues of our lives we may well end up like the spear-fisherman who, trusting the evidence of his eyes and forgetting the distorting effects of water, aims too high and misses his prey – though in our case what we tend to aim at isn’t fish but good enough relationships, peace of mind and satisfying careers.
Our vulnerability to emotional distortion is not our fault: it’s the result of a mismatch between the system of reasoning we have been bequeathed by our evolutionary history and the complex nature of the life tasks we are challenged by. We can’t wholly refashion who we are: we are inevitably going to be swept about by egotism, jealousy, wounded pride, projection and bursts of tired panic and anger. In other words, we are condemned by nature to be constituted in a less than ideal way, required to address the world and shape our lives via the mechanisms of an at times catastrophically faulty brain.
But we will have gone a long way to counteract the problems of our machinery if we prepare ourselves for it; if we sometimes – with all due respect – omit to listen to our minds for a time, waiting for an unhelpful mood to pass and accept that we are highly viscous bags of saline solution who stare out at reality via a highly unreliable and distorted pane of glass and must, therefore, frequently suspend judgement, moderate our impulses, watch over our diet – and strive to get to bed early.
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