The Denial of Objective Reality

The last thing most people want to do these days is to recognize reality.

The attempts to justify alternate “ways of knowing,” the politicization of science research and education, the preponderance of overemotional and manipulative rhetoric, the perversion of journalistic integrity and standards, the rise of religious fundamentalism over common sense—these are all expressions of the same impulse towards denying the existence and significance of an objective reality. Escapism isn’t a phenomenon unique to the 21st century, or even to the modern era, though the advent of truly global warfare and modern weapons technologies had a profound effect on the modern consciousness. Certainly scientific inquiry has always been a thing to fear for some, especially when it reaches unpleasant conclusions, conclusions that challenge the status quo and force us to adopt new ways of thinking about the world. Likewise, people have always felt the need to deal with the realities with which they’re confronted, to find some way to make fact compatible with mythology, prejudice, and preconception. So when I mention this impulse towards denying reality, I don’t mean to suggest that it is unique to 2006—I realize it has a longer history than that.

Nevertheless, it seems to have become increasingly widespread and increasingly relevant in recent years. Even as science and technology experience exponential levels of growth and development, even as we learn more and more about the world around us, most people maintain a belief that facts are to some degree malleable. Reality, within this mindset, is secondary to belief and emotion. The core of the fallacy here is that reality (by definition) actually exists independent of belief and emotion; denying reality doesn’t make it any less real, nor does it keep reality from affecting us. There is an objective, empirically knowable world out there, and while we can certainly entertain some interesting philosophical scenarios about our senses being deceived, we all rely on our senses to give us an experience of the world, and those who retreat to faux nihilism in order to justify ignoring specific parts (the objectionable ones) of the empirical world are being intellectually dishonest.

This tendency is a result of a number of things, but mostly it’s a result of dogma. Religious dogma, political dogma, cultural dogma—the common denominator is the steadfast reliance on ideas that don’t respond or correspond to reality. Most of it, I suppose, tends to be tied to religious/theistic dogma, given that speculation about metaphysics (not to mention many religions’ teachings that the material/corporeal world is not something to worry about and is only a means to an end) is likely to lead to a disdain for the material world, and therefore a disdain for empirical fact. Intelligent Design/creationism proponents tout their beliefs as science because they don’t like the implications of the available data and of the accepted scientific theories; politicians and corporations work to distort science to their own ends, filtering out the research that doesn’t support the “conclusions” that have been pre-chosen according to self-interest; blowhard pundits spout shameless nonsense day after day for the purpose of manipulating public opinion, since the facts are either too much of a hassle to analyze rationally or else not supportive of the pundits’ views; journalists and newscasters twist stories to meet their own largely commercial ends, now that “news” has bled into “entertainment.” In nearly every significant area of life, there is a central drive toward ignoring or outright rejecting facts that happen to be inconvenient. If this isn’t chronic denial in the psychological sense, I don’t know what is.

The bottom line is this: the world doesn’t go away when we close our eyes. It is something that needs to be viewed, studied, analyzed, and dealt with, regardless of how much easier it may be to cover our eyes at the parts that challenge us. Truth seems to have fallen by the wayside as something to strive for, as a noble and important value to hold up beside beauty, freedom, and love (although I suppose at least two of those three are also disintegrating as ideals). This is not as it should be. The limitations of what we know about the world are significant enough without people deliberately ignoring the things we do know for the sake of expediency. Without a steadfast pursuit of truth, those other cherished ideals—especially freedom—start to become trivial.

We should be dealing with the world, and with the social and political and scientific realities of that world. Choosing to arbitrarily ignore these things should be unthinkable. Life doesn’t stop being complicated because we pretend it’s simple. Anyone who advocates this “facts don’t matter” attitude should be openly and publicly criticized–the facts do matter. They always have, and they always will, no matter how many people choose to indulge their ridiculous preconceptions at the cost of things like truth, honesty, and accuracy.

Urizen

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8 Responses to The Denial of Objective Reality

  1. Filthy Habit says:

    This tendency is a result of a number of things, but mostly it’s a result of dogma…the common denominator is the steadfast reliance on ideas that don’t respond or correspond to reality….Intelligent Design/creationism proponents tout their beliefs as science because they don’t like the implications of the available data and of the accepted scientific theories; politicians and corporations work to distort science to their own ends, filtering out the research that doesn’t support the “conclusions” that have been pre-chosen according to self-interest; blowhard pundits spout shameless nonsense day after day for the purpose of manipulating public opinion, since the facts are either too much of a hassle to analyze rationally or else not supportive of the pundits’ views; journalists and newscasters twist stories to meet their own largely commercial ends, now that “news” has bled into “entertainment.” In nearly every significant area of life, there is a central drive toward ignoring or outright rejecting facts that happen to be inconvenient. If this isn’t chronic denial in the psychological sense, I don’t know what is.

    Well, I see two different ends of the spectrum here. On one end, you have the proponents, or those who are disseminating the information, and on the other end you have the adherents, or those that believe the information as disseminated from the proponents.

    From the side of the proponents, my concern is not so much that bad information is getting out there and proliferating, because people do make mistakes; the concern is whether proponents are deliberately spreading misinformation in the service of some agenda, be it personal gain or some ideological precept.

    I see no reason to doubt that this is the case in many of the instances you cite. In fact, this is a pervasive strategy that is being deployed dangerously across the spectrum, particularly in politics. The trend these days is to deliberately misinform in order to cloud the issues to such an extent that ordinary people (adherents) are no longer willing to spend the time necessary to weed fact from fiction, and I’d even go so fars as to suggest that the motivation is to create an overall atmosphere of apathy and helplessness among the masses, a form of Newspeak without the reduction of words. This, of course, is the strategy that has worked so well for Karl Rove and his ill-gained White House administration. From whisper campaigns to flip-floppery, the gullibility of people is clearly being exploited through misinformation by these people with an agenda.

    Unfortunately, this is nothing new, as you stated. People with agendas and specious facts that rely on popularity are always willing to employ this approach. But, this is also not unique to just the United States and it can be evidenced in many industrialized nations across Europe and Asia. I concede, however, that here in the United States, the tactic has been far more successful and proliferated far more quickly than in other well-developed and educated countries.

    As for the adherents, the common people who have to sift through this information overload in order to get at the truth, it is to them that I am sympathetic. It is a daunting task, in this day and age, to keep the facts straight, to cross-check, to really dig down deep to figure out what is going on. I don’t believe that people truly accept this stuff for any other reason than for comfort. They hear something outrageous from Michael Savage or Ann Coulter that rings true to them, and suddenly they begin to hang on every word they utter, feeling that they’ve found a sympathetic voice to fill their needs. It’s far simpler that way, to find an authority figure and stick with them through thick and thin. I can hold these people culpable for their own laziness, but in another sense, I simply can’t blame them.

    In the end, our common people are not consciously rejecting reality so much as glomming onto a far simpler reality. Their minds and motives extend no further than what gives them comfort and peace, and they become complacent for lack of any higher ideals.

    But, if we’re looking for a reason for peoples’ succeptibility to these tactics, we need look no further than our educational system. That is my big soapbox issue. The public school system tried to kill my intellect, though not intentionally, and now, with two young’uns myself, it is an even more important issue for me. In this era of information overload, it is critical that people be trained to think critically, starting from a very early age, and I think that our present system does not make that effort, consciously or not. From an institutional standpoint, critical thinking doesn’t even enter the picture until college for most people. Even I didn’t know what a logical fallacy was until my second year of college! (Though when I learned about them, it was like music to my ears!) Therefore, it is important for parents to step up and take the responsibility. While our current generation has probably had its goose cooked, I do see hope for future generations, if we start acting now!

  2. Urizen says:

    In this era of information overload, it is critical that people be trained to think critically, starting from a very early age, and I think that our present system does not make that effort, consciously or not. From an institutional standpoint, critical thinking doesn’t even enter the picture until college for most people.

    I agree so wholeheartedly it almost hurts. It’s deeply distressing that a majority of people make it through elementary school, middle school, high school, and even college without being taught even the rudiments of logic, critical thinking, and critical reading. One of the fundamental problems, as you say, is the fact that people lack these skills in a world in which there is such an excess of information (both accurate and inaccurate) and opinion (both justified and unjustified). A significant amount of responsibility, then, rests on those whose job it is to disseminate the information, and on those whose job it is to craft policy based on the credible bits of information. When the audience doesn’t have the tools to sift through and evaluate information, journalists and politicians and media figures and such should try that much harder to evaluate their sources and their arguments.

    I suppose the problem I wrote about is sort of the companion to the problem you suggest, and the reality is that for most people, there is a potent combination of intentional and unintentional ignorance. Not to underestimate the problems you bring up, but I would suggest that a vast majority of people do maintain some significant degree of denial about objective reality; even for the adherents, who are as you say “glomming onto a far simpler reality,” there is denial in a slightly less obstinate and slightly more subconscious sense, in that they choose the narrative that is simplest and most consistent with their views. I suppose this isn’t really an overt rejection of objective reality, and it likely has more to do with the information overload/lack of critical thinking problem than it does with the problem I suggest, but I think that impulse to only value truth in an instrumental sense (e.g. if it supports our views, rather than valuing it because it’s the way things really are) is present and active in most people, whether they consciously realize it or not.

    Belief, as it turns out, is a very powerful and seductive thing—and most people seem value it a lot more than they value knowledge.

  3. guile says:

    nice, cozy place you got here :)..

  4. […] To Holocaust deniers and others who choose to devalue and ignore objective reality, facts are secondary to ideology. When the facts aren’t on their side, they blindly attack the opposition. Usually this is confined to the realm of rhetoric and policy, which would be bad enough, but sometimes it gets more serious. […]

  5. ThinkingMeat says:

    Saturday Hodgepodge

    Courtesy of the Skeptics Circle, Urizen at Intelligent Party examines the ways in which the dogmatic mindset leads to the denial of objective reality.
    This tendency [towards denying the existence and significance of an objective reality] is a resul…

  6. curse of helen says:

    you are my hero!!!!!
    i’m writing an essay for my composition & rehtoric class about how reality is objective instead of subjective. i live in this bumhole town in new mexico w/ a crappy library and no college refrence center and im having trouble finding proof to support my paper.
    untell i found you! dont worry i always quote my sorces :)

  7. schizophelia says:

    Damn yes! This was an absolute (!) pleasure to read.

  8. Caio says:

    Hi.There is an outside world but it’s existence is conditioned to our perception of it.All we can do is use our senses to experience this world,so without our senses we cannot do it.You cannot say the world remains out there without your perception of it.This is a fact that can be proven by simple experiments.You hurt your finger and this is real cause you can sense the pain,but this is because tou are aware of what is going on.The pain is inside your brain and never in your skin.You must be conscious of it to feel it

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