Why can’t I just answer the damn question?
This post is based on a NaBloPoMo prompt: Do you need to have hard-cold facts to believe something, or do you know things with your heart?
If we only believed with hard-cold facts, there is not much we would accept as true. The way I see it, knowledge comes from two sources: our experience, and accounts of other people’s experience. By “experience”, I mean everything we go through, everything we feel, everything we study closely. And by “accounts”, I mean everything people share about their experience and other people’s experience, whether honestly or dishonestly, and sometimes honestly yet based on dishonest sources.
We learn in part through trial and error, by making hypotheses about the world around us and reflecting on the outcomes of our experiments. Sometimes those hypotheses are triggered by what other people told us – i.e. by doubt, distrust, or curiosity – or what we have observed and pondered. And sometimes our beliefs change: sometimes life events, influential people or thought-provoking readings force us to reconsider things we have accepted as facts over the years.
First-hand experience vs knowledge transfer
While our own experience can be biased or inaccurate, it is theoretically a trustworthy source of information on a variety of subjects, from things we passively observe to things we experiment with. This type of knowledge is based on our own interpretation of what is going on around us and what is happening to us. Sometimes experience is enough to understand something, other times reflection is necessary. While it is, by definition, subjective, the conclusions we draw from it are sometimes globally accepted truths.
Accounts of other people’s experiences, on the other hand, are anything but hard-cold facts, but are necessary to knowledge acquisition. Learning requires suspension of disbelief: we have to accept that not everything can be learnt through our own experience and to trust our teachers – whether actual teachers, our parents, writers, journalists, or people whose contributions to human knowledge throughout the centuries have made them authorities in their fields of expertise.
Manipulation and error
Unfortunately, even those regarded are experts can be wrong – or, worse, lie. And while we shouldn’t blindly accept knowledge from all sources, we do tend to believe what we read on the Internet and hear on TV even when we have no idea where this information comes from. Even accurate data can be manipulated, or a manipulation of its own, and lead us to believe things that aren’t necessarily true to get us to buy a product or support a bill.
When I write that our experience can be inaccurate, I think about the ways others can manipulate us, like a magician who tricks our senses and makes us believe in their “powers”, or a graphic designer who convincingly erases someone from a picture without us suspecting a thing. When the data on which we base our analysis has been tampered with, or when our perception of a situation is altered without our knowing, it is normal for us to reach inaccurate conclusions.
Actually, let’s be honest – even we can be wrong or lie to ourselves. We can misinterpret a situation, miss an important clue necessary to correctly understanding a process, or even reject a truth that makes us uncomfortable. We can refuse to test an hypothesis because confirming it may be damaging to ourselves or others, as in the case of a person suspecting their spouse of cheating but refusing to confront them or a college applicant refusing to open a rejection letter.
If we only believed with hard-cold facts, in the sense of knowledge that could only be acquired through our own experience, our world view would be incredibly limited. We couldn’t learn from others as we would have to find out ourselves what they had discovered before us, but maybe they could guide us through the same process that had led them to their own discoveries. They could still manipulate us through this guidance, so we would probably need to seek guidance from several “teachers” so we could experience different things and test different hypotheses before we reached our own conclusions.
Knowledge acquisition would be incredibly time consuming and, as a result, extremely restrictive. If you already feel like you don’t have time to learn everything that interests you, imagine having to do so on your own! Arts and crafts, for instance, could probably be taught, as practice would help confirm “hypotheses” presented by our teachers, but in more theoretical fields, researchers would just keep reinventing the wheel – hopefully not literally. Learning about our history would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, as we wouldn’t trust what others had written about past events.
Head and heart
I think this all shows that knowledge acquisition involves both our head and our heart. With our head, we learn not to believe anything we are told, but with our heart, we learn to trust people and what they tell us. As kids, we believe everything our parents say – at least until we realise that they don’t know everything or that they don’t always tell the truth. And at school, we tend to be more interested in and learn better from the nice teachers we like and want to please.
Whenever we seek knowledge, we are guided by our curiosity, a need to learn more about ourselves, the world we live in, and the people who live in it with us. Our brains can process and store everything we want – and don’t want – to learn, but I believe that curiosity comes from the heart, from a profound love for ourselves that urges us to find ways to improve, to dive deeper into the things that interest us, just for the sake of it or to bring us closer to achieving a larger goal.
In a world without lies and errors, hard-cold facts could be the only basis for belief, but in our world, the heart plays a major part in deciding what we believe. I believe what I experience, but I also believe what I am told by people I trust, people I love, people I respect. More than that, I assume that everyone is telling the truth and believe what they tell me unless I can think of reasons to challenge what they say – for instance if I don’t trust them or their new teachings contradict my current beliefs. Am I naïve or should I assume this is a human thing?
Featured image: conceptual vida by sofia cordova vega on Flickr, resized and cropped by me.