In this week’s spotlight I’d like to discuss circularity through something known as hermeneutics, or the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss with a friend our recent show with Professor Patrick Grim. At one point in our conversation, Grim suggested that he was becoming more and more inclined towards perspectivism, the idea that perception, experience, and reason change according to the viewer’s relative perspective and interpretation.
I referred to the work of Nietzsche, in particularly his “Will to Power” essay and his view of perspectivism as a hermeneutical philosophy, or the idea that our understanding of the world is built in a loop. That is to say, we engage with a phenomena of the world, a part of life, and this challenges our understanding, which triggers reflection and/or reinterpretation aimed at a greater understanding, which raises the need for meaning, and this need for meaning is projected through our action or speech, which in turn leads to our engagement with that part of life again. In other words, much of our understanding of the world, and ourselves for that matter, is circular in nature.
This process creates our expectation which leads to our interpretation of our perceptions, and that confirms our understanding, and this circularity continues over and over again. Indeed, much of what we call confirmation bias originates and is reinforced by this sort of circular mechanism. We tend to hear or interpret information according to our bias and we build models of the world out of this.
All of our understanding is based on the models we have constructed or adopted. The models themselves are based on assumptions that may or may not be true. This is as true of much of science as it is of our personal beliefs. If our models are wrong, then so are our conclusions.
A recent spotlight was all about certainty. Bottom line, there is very little if anything that we can be absolutely certain of. Understanding the nature of hermeneutics informs us of just another way in which uncertainty is certain.
My friend rejected the idea of uncertainty and perspectivism for it makes the world too complicated. Perhaps Grim’s words regarding freewill prompted this rejection when he said, “I must believe in freewill in order to live.” I get that! What he did not say was that freewill actually existed—instead he admitted the importance we all place on believing that we have freewill. In fact, he went on to add the caveat that we might just need to redefine freewill for it wasn’t the same as most people think. It’s not simply a matter of choosing which piece of paper to write on or what amusement park to visit. It’s much more complicated than that. Decisions are often made in the unconscious and our act of conscious will is only a manifestation of what our unconscious has decided beforehand.
I am reminded of a recent discussion with Professor Joel Weinberger. Weinberger is a leading authority on the unconscious. In his words, paraphrased, “There is no such thing as conscious activity separate from unconscious processes.”
When we think of ourselves understanding the role the unconscious plays in our lives, and the nature of how we build models, or our personal hermeneutic philosophy, it’s reasonable to accept the idea that much of what we ‘know’, in quotation marks, may be entirely false. To that end, every week I implore that you be willing to be uncertain for an hour.
Thanks for the read,
Provocative Enlightenment Radio
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusion