Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 1)

Over the last few months, I’ve been bumping heads with the co-founders of my company.  Since I joined, the business has grown beyond their skill-set.  We’re now at the stage where we’re looking to clarify roles and responsibilities and it’s looking like I’ll receive the role of CEO after we close this capital raise.  In that transition though, it’s been challenging for the co-founders to navigate what it means to give up control of their business, for the sake of a better business.

A couple months ago, we brought in an executive coach to help sort things out.  Part of that process was a series of 1 on 1 interviews.  During mine, we touched on something that keeps coming up in my life.  Figured it was time to write about it.

One of the co-founders is a bit ‘woo woo’.  She’s an awesome person in so many ways and we get along far more than we butt heads… but we do butt heads.  As she would say, science and logic can’t explain everything.  As I would say, any true explanation is inherently scientific and logical.  I was hoping the executive coach would help bridge this gap.

When I did the 1 on 1 interview with the coach, I told her that I wished our co-founder would have a stronger appreciation for logic and my affinity for it.  I told her that logic in its purest form was the pursuit of truth.  She replied, “well that may be the case, but everyone lives their own truth.”  I paused for a moment, having heard that a few times before.  Something about living your own truth sounds noble, and righteous, and harmless.  But it didn’t sound very logical.  I asked her to elaborate.  She said, “My favorite color is blue.  That’s my truth.  No matter what you or anyone else may think or feel, that is true to me.”  Without thinking, I replied, “But if it’s only true for that person and nobody else, how true is it?”  She replied that this was going to become a very philosophical conversation very quickly and that we should probably get back on track.  I can’t help but think that we need to start making the time for these conversations.

I’ve given a considerable amount of thought to this idea of living your own truth and her example of someone’s favorite color.  I’ve always weighed it against the concept of truth from Plato’s Republic which behaves as a great illuminator.  One seems subjective while the other seems objective.  I was always under the impression that the truth was inherently objective…

When considering the example of someone’s favorite color, I think the word truth might be a misnomer.  Someone can say that their favorite color is yellow and for that to be a true statement, but does that make it a truth?  Maybe this is the difference between a true statement and a universal truth.  Or maybe there isn’t as much of a difference as I thought.  When someone declares that they have a favorite color, as long as it is in fact their favorite color, that’s not only a true statement but a universal truth.  No matter where you are in the universe or how you might look at it, that person has a singular preference towards a certain color.  I guess where I struggle is in suggesting an equivalency for the truth that is someone’s favorite color, and the truth that 1 + 1 = 2.  Technically speaking, both are true.  But one of these is a rather arbitrary statement of someone’s preference while the other is a fundamental building block of how we understand our shared reality.  I don’t think it’s fair to refer to them both as ‘truths’.

Many years ago, I was introduced to the idea of hallucinating your reality.  It was novel at first, but once I gave it more thought, it made so much sense.  Your body receives sensory input from our senses and our brain does its best to make sense of it.  It’s why certain types of brain damage can drastically change someone’s perception of reality.  It’s why hallucinogenics can change your perception of reality.  It’s how cognitive differences can change your perception of reality.  It’s why simple bias can change your perception of reality.  Your favorite color, in this context, has nothing to do with the qualities or value of that color, and everything to do with your perception of it.

I like the acknowledgement of everyone hallucinating their own reality because it really does remind us that our understanding of reality is only as good as our ability to perceive it.  It helps make sense of a wide range of perspectives and how cognitive differences can lead to honest, yet flawed interpretations.  There are several cognitive disorders which cause people to hallucinate things which only exist in their reality.  Is that a truth?  If that hallucination only exists in their reality and nobody else’s, is it fair to refer to this as a reality?  There’s a lot of validity to the old saying, ‘perception is reality’, but maybe this is where we need to work a bit more on understanding the difference between reality and our perception of it.

Perhaps truth and reality should be synonymous.  From my perspective, what’s true is  real and what’s real is true.  And that’s separate from perception.  What’s real is the shared reality we all perceive and look to understand.  That’s inclusive of what each individual’s interpretation of it may be.  But that doesn’t mean that someone’s interpretation of our shared reality creates our shared reality.  That would be like saying that because someone’s favorite color is blue, that blue is a superior color.  Yet I run into this all the time.

A few weeks ago, I was at our office with the co-founders and they brought in some special rocks.  They had talked about crystal therapy before and I was skeptical but never went out of my way to rain on their parade.  When they brought them out, they started talking about the energy they could feel from the rocks.  Then they asked if I would like to try.  I said sure, why not.  I followed their directions, tried to sense something, and got nothing.  I was told that I probably just didn’t have what it takes to sense that energy.  I laughed it off and we moved on.

Afterwards, I reflected on why I didn’t take crystal therapy seriously.  Generally speaking, it was because it wasn’t prevalent in western medicine.  I assumed that studies had been conducted and no verifiable evidence was found.  I had also seen more than one debunking show where someone went into a crystal healing session and came out rolling their eyes.  But in this day and age, it’s not enough to rely on the opinions of others.  For all the progress that western medicine has made, it’s deeply flawed in many ways.  It’s no longer reasonable to assume that something is without merit just because western doctors haven’t adopted it.  Reflecting on it now, that was probably never an intelligent assumption to make.

In this day and age, the world of information is at your finger-tips and it’s important to do the research ourselves.  So I did.

I found a study where a group was given crystals, were asked to meditate, and report back on any positive effects they may have experienced.  What they didn’t know is that some of the crystals were real and some were fake.  People reporting on things like tingling sensations, warmth from the rock, or a general improvement in their well-being had no correlation with whether they were holding a genuine crystal or a fake.  There was however a strong correlation between those who believed that crystal therapy was real and the perceived positive effects.  That strikes me as a rather simple, yet reasonable explanation.

Here’s where things get interesting though.  If perception is reality, and their bias towards the validity of crystal healing allowed them to perceive an improved well-being, is that not valid in some way?  Your state of mind can be one of the most powerful factors in promoting healing within the body.  If crystal therapy induces that positive state of mind, and that positive state of mind helps to heal the body, would it be fair to at least consider the crystals to be a catalyst?

This perspective seems to be the most reasonable of those that support this mode of healing but I can’t help but think that this also demonstrates the reality of crystal healing: its a practice designed to deliver placebo effects.  The scientific community and western medicine are quick to dismiss placebo effects when it comes to determining the efficacy of medicine.  Perhaps they’re right to do so.  I think it’s important to recognize the body’s ability to heal itself and to study this element of the human design to its furthest reaches.  That said, I don’t think that healing practices which have only demonstrated placebo effects under controlled conditions should be promoting themselves as ancient, mystical, new-age medicine.

I find it curious that everyone acknowledges snake oil as being a ‘fake medicine’ and that we should avoid recommending it to friends or family for its benefits.  If snake oil was able to act as a catalyst for the sake of delivering placebo effects, would that change things?  And if we can place crystal therapy in the same category as snake oil, why would the ‘woo woo’ crowd be so quick to embrace one yet so quick to condemn the other?

Yesterday, my co-founders showed up to our morning meeting and one of them brought out a pair of rocks which had been infused with ‘quantum energy’.  Admittedly, quantum physics seems to be beyond my intelligence so I hadn’t a clue what it meant.  That said, I was still skeptical that someone had ‘infused’ quantum energy into a pair of rocks that looked like they had been picked up at the beach.  They both held the rocks and said they didn’t feel anything from them, and joked that infusing rocks with quantum energy seemed a bit silly.  They offered the rocks over to me and I declined… something to the effect of “No… no… I”m good.”  And maybe that’s where I should’ve left it.  But I didn’t.

I told them about the study I had read after they brought those rocks out the last time.  I said that its very difficult for me to think that something like this is real when the science behind it would strongly suggest otherwise.  They reacted as if it was a personal attack.  Their responses included, “Not everything can be explained by science”, “I know what I know and nothing that you can say will change my mind”, “well how do you explain psychic mediums who talk to the dead?”, “well from my perspective, science and religion are the same thing.”   It was like being in the twilight zone.  Worse yet, I never seem to have a chance to actually have this conversation with them.  They’re always quick to say this is unproductive and we should get back to the meeting.  When I suggest setting some time aside to discuss this stuff, they tell me that they’re too busy for that right now.  Maybe I should just let them live in their reality while I live in mine?  That doesn’t seem right either.

“Not everything can be explained with science” is a curious perspective.  As far as I know, science is the practice of explaining things.  That’s not to say that science can explain everything here and now.  Our understanding of the universe is in its infancy.  So much so that every time we make a big discovery, we illuminate that much of the unknown.  But that doesn’t change that every true explanation of our reality is inherently scientific just as every true answer to the question ‘why’, is inherently logical.

“I know what I know and nothing can change my mind.”  I suppose this should’ve been a red flag.  Anytime someone says that their mind cannot be changed, you’re dealing with someone with a closed-mind.  I wish I knew how to open those minds.

“Well how do you explain psychic mediums who talk to the dead?” I responded with psychology.  I’ve seen mentalists break down the techniques that they use to work their craft and it’s absolutely fascinating.  Those who seem to be the best at this have a remarkable understanding for how the human mind works.  What I didn’t say though, is if someone had the ability to talk to the dead or read minds, why aren’t they putting those talents to better use?  If someone legitimately had those skills, it doesn’t make sense that they would be doing palm readings for $100 a pop or doing shows in Vegas.  If your intention was to make the world a better place, there are plenty of unsolved murders which the police could use a hand with.  If your intentions were to make money, the stock market would be low-hanging fruit.  This idea that psychics have applied their talents outside of these endeavors seems a bit convenient for me.

“Well from my perspective, science and religion are the same thing.”  She has a point.  In theory, science and religion are supposed to exist at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  In practice, it’s much less so.  I find that people often believe in science, that is, they accept it as true without understanding it.  Too often, I see scientific studies with poor methodology coming to questionable conclusions.  Yet to the untrained eye, this science is just as valid as any other.  That’s just not true, and I can’t help but think that this misunderstanding is a catastrophic failure of the educational system.  When you get people to believe in science the way they believe in religion, science becomes vulnerable to the same control mechanisms that exist in religion.

Earlier this week, a mining magnate from Australia was discovered to have been a primary source of funding for scientific studies aimed at denying climate change.  Last week a study funded by the dairy industry was released outlining that dairy was once again good for you.  We don’t have to go all that far back to remember the tobacco companies funding tobacco studies that suggested that tobacco was perfectly healthy.  Perhaps the individuals conducting these studies were scientists in title, but I have a hard time seeing them as scientists in spirit.  They were given a narrative to confirm and that’s not how science works.  Science comes from a place of skepticism.  You look to connect the dots to help explain how the universe works, and once you have a working theory, you do everything you can to disprove it.  Once you’ve done that, then your peers look for different and perhaps more creative ways to disprove it.  And if your theory is still standing after all that effort, the science community grants you a scientific consensus that says ‘yes, this is probably the best explanation available’.  But even then, your theories will be continue to be tested as our knowledge of that subject and the tools available to analyze it evolves.  The idea of this approach being applied to any religion seems absolutely foreign… as it should be.  Religion requires belief and faith.  Science requires understanding and skepticism.

I would be surprised if someone hadn’t come up with this before me, but I’m rather proud of it.  I can draw a rather simple line between science and religion.  Belief is to religion as understanding is to science.  To take that a step further, when you present new information to someone who believes something, they’ll adjust that information to fit their existing beliefs.  If you present new information to someone who looks to understand something, they’ll adjust their understanding to accommodate the new information.  When someone believes in something, there’s often nothing you can say or show them that will change their mind.  When someone looks to understand something, the only thing you need to show them to change their mind is evidence.

Sometimes I consider that belief is some sort of default of human cognition.  You have a certain perspective of the world, you feel more comfortable around information that confirms that perspective, so you seek it out and adopt it.  If your goal is to seek out information which confirms your view of the world, why would you apply the rigor of the scientific method? Why would you work so hard to prove your perspective to be untrue?  My answer is simple. it’s because truth and reality matter.  In part 2, I’ll try to answer why.

 

The Religion of Self-Help

A few weeks ago, I attended my first self-help seminar.  I resisted the invite but a good friend insisted that if I went in with an open-mind, I was bound to learn something.  I told him that with an open-mind, you’re bound to learn something no matter where you are.  He said there was a money-back guarantee.  He said that if nothing else, he was very interested to see how someone like me to would behave in an environment like that.  I agreed.

I went to PSI Seminars: Basic which was a 3 day seminar with about 70 other people at a middle-tier hotel in the burbs.  The group was diverse but seemed to be weighted more towards newer immigrants and the middle-class.  I also noticed that while many came in with a healthy dose of skepticism, they also came looking for help in facing their own personal challenges.

The curriculum introduced several valuable concepts like game theory, personality science, and why it helps to stray from your comfort zone.  It also included classics like the law of attraction and self-love.  The 3 days were largely a mix of lectures, group exercises, and personal exercises.  There was a lot of clapping.

When I wrapped up the weekend, I asked for my money back.  It just wasn’t for me.  I think that when you ask for your money back, they follow up to try and figure out why.  They sent my group’s ‘micro-leader’, a 20-something nice kid who I got along well with.  In our conversation, he asked me what I learned at the seminar.  I told him that I learned many things, but perhaps most significant, I learned a great deal about religion.  I don’t think that’s the answer he was expecting.

I grew up without religion.  Both my parents went to church when they were young but they had fallen out of it by the time they had children of their own.  My earliest understanding of religion was that it was unnecessary.  It was easy to see that you could be a good person without religion, and that you could be a bad person with religion.  I also knew that many religious teachings hadn’t aged well, leaving their supporters with out-dated values.  More than anything, it seemed like religion was holding back the natural progression of morality.

As I got older, I became more spiritual and started focusing more on the intangibles of the universe which connect us all.  On that journey, I started noticing that much of what I was discovering for myself already existed in religious texts.  These epiphanies of mine weren’t new ideas, they were ancient ideas.  They were ideas that resonated so strongly with their audience, that people built entire organizations around these ideas.  This was the root of religion.  Things started to make more sense.  Where I once resisted religion, I was now in a place where I could understand it.

When I was younger, I came up with an idea: The Church of Good.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever typed that out because I just saw the play on words.  Anyways… the church of good was simply a church without religion.  This would be a place where people would come to hear the inspiring stories of what real people have done to make the world a better place.  It would be a place where we could learn the ideas and practices which would help us be better to one another.  It would also be a place were people could find community among others who were motivated to be good people.  It was supposed to be the best of religion without the worst.

That idea has sat in the back of my mind for over a decade now.  For most of that time, I saw religion as toxic.  But then I kept meeting people whom I admired in many ways, who also happened to be religious.  How could I admire someone who lived their life according to something which I considered to be toxic?  There was a disconnect.  The people I admired were good, decent people.  They generous when they didn’t have much, they were kind to those who weren’t kind to them, and they seemed to be more motivated by a collective good than by personal gain.   Most of them looked at the organized side of religion as a formality, traditions within their tribe.  For many of them, it was the least interesting part.  What they all seemed to have in common though, was an appreciation for the greater good and and enjoying being part of a community that prioritized it.

For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why religion had such popularity and staying power in the face of such obvious flaws.  Why couldn’t people see that they were being lied to?  And manipulated?  And often, for the sake of those who clearly weren’t operating in the spirit of the teachings.  But then it clicked, they were learning things at church that they weren’t learning anywhere else – Important things.

When I was fired from the bank, I was forced to leave a career I had put my everything into.  My world came crashing down and I experienced suffering.  That experience offered me lessons about myself and my journey that would’ve been very challenging to grasp otherwise.  I became a much stronger and more capable person because of it.  The last time something happened like that, it was my dad who died.  I noticed a pattern: that my greatest moments of growth followed my greatest moments of suffering.  With that understanding, my perspective on suffering changed.  Suffering was no longer to be feared or avoided, but understood, appreciated, and embraced.  I mentioned this to a friend and he told me that this was a classic Buddhist teaching.  Well then.

If we were to look at all the lessons learned from all the religions, I suspect we would find patterns of morality and purpose.  I’m not saying that everything we’d find is something which should be taught today.   What I am saying that we would find a pattern of people trying to understand how to be better to one another and a pattern of people trying to understand their place within the universe.  I can’t help but think that this is the true value of religion… an opportunity to learn about the more philosophical side of the human experience.. A deeper understanding of who you are and your place in the universe.

I knew all this going into the PSI Seminar.  I had even made some connections between religion and self-help before going in.  Experiencing it first hand was something else.

I would imagine that for those who weren’t raised to be religious, turning to religion is an exercise in finding answers.  I think self-help serves that same purpose.  The people in that room were not there because everything was going well, they were in search of a better way.  But many still arrived skeptical, perhaps like you would on your first day of church.

The facilitator (who happened to be a former church minister), took the stage with all the enthusiasm of a motivational speaker (or preacher).  And after some icebreakers, he started getting into some very real teachings.  People learned.  There were ‘a-ha!’ moments.  People were making breakthroughs.  Trust was being earned.

There were various exercises where you were encouraged to build deep connections with those around you.  Almost all were strangers who you didn’t know 48 hours ago.  It was a valuable reminder that we’re more similar than we are different.  It also reminded us that connecting with one another is a rather natural experience when we don’t let our personal baggage get in the way.  A sense of community was being built.

A few rituals were introduced.  Things like a big ‘good morning!’ response, jumping up and down yelling ‘I’m excited’, or the awkward soul-train dance party.  Part of how I picked up on it was observing the volunteers.  These were individuals who had done the course previously, and were coming back to observe.  They were on-point with all the rituals.  Culture was being established.

On the third day, PSI showed how they approached the business side of self-help.  The 3 day seminar cost about $800.  People who have taken the seminar are then heavily encouraged to have their friends take it.  The general message seems to be, ‘look at how great it was for you and everyone else here, don’t you want this for your friends?’  The PSI: Basic seems to operate as a feeder for their second seminar, referred to as The Ranch.  The Ranch is a 7 day retreat (to a ranch), and about 10x the cost of the basic.  When they made the pitch for the ranch, they also made the pitch for the course after it.  Then they offered to bundle the two together for a discounted price (about  $9,000).  They said “If you think that’s a lot of money and you’re not sure, just sign up for it.  If you make the commitment, you’ll find the money.”  Then they said this deal is only available for the next 20 minutes.

You’re doing what now?

After two and a half days of learning, and appreciating, and building community… where did this come from?  At least the church focused on the collection plate.  I couldn’t sit there and do nothing.  So I piped up and asked if this was the kind of financial decision that people should probably think about for more than 20 minutes.  The facilitator agreed.

During that 20 minutes, the facilitator came back up to me and offered a different answer to my question.  I reminded him that regardless of what answer he wanted to provide, he knows that these are classic pressure-sales tactics.  He conceded.  I asked him why he went along with it.  He said that whether it was the church or PSI, there were always practices that he didn’t agree with.  That sounds about right.

When I was doing the follow-up interview with our micro-leader, I asked him what he thought about these tactics.  He said lots of other people do the same thing.  I told him he was right, that you see it everywhere from MLMs, to time-shares, to religious cults.  I asked why he wasn’t more interested in holding them accountable.  He spoke about all the good that PSI does for people.  That being manipulated into a self-help program that turns out to be really good for you isn’t really that bad.  I asked him if the end justified the means.  He said no, not really.

But he found his religion.. his tribe.. where he wants to search for answers.. and I wasn’t going to change his mind.