Identifying Truth in an Objectively Complicated World

I used to sell cars. In this industry, a lot is taught about selling ideas, products, and most importantly, yourself. The lessons learned are profound and ultimately bring light to the fact that people can easily be manipulated into believing things that aren’t based entirely on fact. 

Why does this happen? It’s largely perspective and framing, but it also involves the reasoning process behind why someone believes as they do. It’s not just objective facts that count. It’s the entire process that brings people into making sense of them. Beliefs come from somewhere, and it’s usually not just based on evidence. 

Ultimately, I find that we most often pick an opinion based on a personal experience, affiliation, or feeling, and then seek evidence to confirm it. We spend years defending viewpoints as they were taught to us, and we ignore evidence that is on the contrary. After all, contrary evidence doesn’t follow the belief system that we subscribe to. It doesn’t follow the logical reasoning process that brought us to our own beliefs. 

The most influencial factors include personal experiences, along with personal affiliations. High school cliques operate around this principle. A leader (or “alpha”) is in charge of controlling how the group behaves, dresses, acts, and engages with its peers. The group’s following tends to be biased towards the viewpoint and belief system of the alpha by affiliation. There is a cost associated with disagreeing and defecting from their group. That cost is disapproval. 

People are rarely inclined to change their viewpoints because there is often a cost associated with doing so. Confirmation bias causes people to view evidence through a lens of truth, and evidence that is to the contrary is instantly labeled as faulty. Truthfully, not everything is objective. Almost everyone will argue that their belief system was built upon evidence and facts, but most will never stray from some sort of confirmation bias. We always look for the evidence that proves us right. 

How Facts are Framed

I’m a religious person, but I also consider other viewpoints and am always evaluating. Everyone claims they are right, and while there is most certainly an objective truth, we cannot simply listen without evidence and be assured that one particular viewpoint is “it.” I ask a number of religious leaders from different faiths to explain their viewpoints and beliefs as a means of searching for answers in a complicated world. I was talking to one particular leader a few months back, and I walked away being told that “to be open minded is a sin. God doesn’t want us seeking truth elsewhere.”

This is an example of framing. It’s a psychological manipulation technique that relies on framing a situation in terms of what we fear the most. In this case, it’s disapproval of God. They attempted to frame open-mindedness as something that God disapproves of, and therefore, by me not listening to them with closed ears and unequivocally accepting it as truth, I was earning God’s disapproval. The fear is strong enough to keep many people in cult religions today. Many of these religious cults (including those that involved mass suicides with the belief of imminent salvation afterwards) have manipulated their members much like this. 

Reasonably speaking, truth is truth. We shouldn’t need to be closed-minded to protect the truth. If their words were the truth, they would be very comfortable telling people to have an open mind. It would be based on evidence, and it would arrive at the conclusion that they expect. 

What I’ve done here is I’ve realistically looked at this viewpoint from the opposite perspective than the one that was framed to me. I asked “What if this is false? How would people need to defend it? What behaviors would we expect to see?” And framing tactics that were employed on me during this conversation marked the list. This sort of thing is exactly the kind of behavior one could expect from those defending beliefs that they are unsure of. 

This is, in part, how we are controled by mass media and by our leaders alike. Facts exist, but the facts we hear aren’t always the facts that represent truth. It’s not only what they tell us that counts. It’s also what they don’t. Omission speaks louder than words.

Deconstructing the Frame

An excercise that I often give people to identify truth in tricky situations involves playing a modified form of devil’s advocate. A perfect example of this is practical on the job. Almost every month, someone comes to me asking for advice. They’d like to know how they are performing on the job, and whether their job is at risk. As soon as their manager tells them anything positive, they jump to conclusions and assume that they are safe. As soon as they are in trouble for something minor, they assume they will shortly be fired. Sadly, when there is a lot of turnover on my job, these questions are asked more frequently than I would wish to admit. 

To identify the truth here, we need to ask ourselves not to look for evidence that our jobs are secure, but to look for evidence that our jobs aren’t. But it’s not necessarily quite the same as taking a negative viewpoint. It involves asking what the ideal outcome would actually look like. 

If, for example, my job isn’t at risk and I’m well received at work, I would expect a few things: 

  • Management would be actively invested in my development. 
  • Coworkers would get along with me well and collaborate and respect my experience.  
  • I would receive good feedback from management. 
  • Promotion opportunities would feel possibile and achievable. 
  • I would feel comfortable around management and around my peers. 

Management wouldn’t encourage the above behaviors towards an employee who was underperforming and not appreciated on the job. If those behaviors are absent, it’s a red flag, even without direct negative feedback. If those behaviors are (generally speaking) present, it is generally safe to assume that management values their employee, as they would not put forth this kind of effort into someone who was not well received. 

Asking these sorts of “what if” questions are extremely powerful methods of determining the truth in unknown situations. Ask “what would it look like if this viewpoint were true? What would I expect to happen or to be seen?” Afterwards, compare this outlook to the realistic facts in front of you. Often, you will realize the truth more quickly than you expected. 

We don’t know why we suffer

We spend our entire lives blissfully unaware that we will one day leave this world. And when we do, we cannot take anything with us. So many people pray for their eyes to be opened to the world around them. In reality, this is not something anyone should want. If our eyes were truly opened, we would be horrified of the world around us. We would wish for them to be closed and to unsee the world that we live in. Sadly, closing our eyes does not cause our problems to go away. 

It sounds dark, but it’s true. 

It’s humanity’s greatest question. Why are some blessed, and others cursed? What is the purpose of suffering? Why do so many people face trials so unfairly, punished for wrongs they have no idea they committed? Why are so many people homeless, dead, or out of a job from the Coronavirus pandemic? Why are so many people taken from this world too soon, without a chance to say goodbye? 

Perspective, my friend. Perspective. 

We fall folly to thinking that the universe revolves around us. We live in a huge existence  with galaxies, planets, stars, oceans, glaciers and volcanos, and great things that are unthinkable. We are but a speck, one out of billions, and only a single creature out of a plethora of life forms so large that we cannot name them all. How foolish we are, to think that anything truly revolves around us? 

And yet, in the midst of it all, we make our experiences about us, as if the universe revolves around ourselves. Perhaps it’s modern, western thinking. Perhaps it’s human instinct. Perhaps it’s simply the raw emotion that we were made with, where pain hurts us whether we feel it or whether someone we love does. 

But that’s not an answer. 

Life is meaningful. Nothing matters more than even a single life that we see on this world. Why then, does suffering continue? Why is it allowed in such a huge universe? 

I wish I had an answer. 

I’ve been through things that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I’ve been through experienced so traumatic that I have flashbacks to this day, leaving scars with me that I will carry throughout a lifetime. Boy, do I wish I knew the answer to this question. It would ease so many of my own concerns. 

Unfortunately, we simply aren’t promised an answer. 

We are a fly on the wall…

The understanding that we long for is not unexpected in a huge universe. I firmly believe in God. I also believe that even though we are highly intelligent as the human race, that our minds cannot outsmart God. We simply do not know why things happen as they do. 

We have two dogs in our apartment. We have rules and restrictions for them. They are not allowed to eat things off the ground. They are held on a leash if they are outside around other people. We don’t let them freely roam the earth with no supervision. We do so because we care about them. Of course, they don’t understand why we protect them with a leash, or restrict them from eating things off the earth. They simply trust us. And if they don’t trust us, we still protect them regardless. 

This is not an insult to a dog’s intelligence. They are, in fact, highly intelligent creatures. But they do not understand things as we do. They do not have the knowledge and wisdom that we do. We have a responsibility to protect them in ways that they would never understand. If they resent us, it is not out of a lack of our goodness. 

Of course, we cannot truly know what goes through the mind of a canine. But we do know that out of an entire universe, we are insignificant in our wisdom and knowledge. There are things that are beyond our understanding. We are the pet on the leash, or the fly on the wall. A higher power is the master. 

We are, in fact, not promised an answer to the suffering that we face. I would do anything to understand why we go through what we must face, but in the end, we cannot claim we know the answer. 

Until I know more, I simply pray, and I hope for the best. I simply trust that there is a reason beyond our understanding. I simply choose to be still and know that there is a God who will one day answer these questions for us, and who promises to care for us in our darkest hour. And in the end, that’s all that we can do.