CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #34
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #34
There is a fancy philosophical term that refers to the ways that we come to ‘know’ reality: epistemology. Historically three major ways have been identified by which humans come to ‘know’: science (using our senses and brain to interpret and understand the world); philosophy (using our minds to contemplate the nature of reality); and religion (whereby eternal truths are revealed to us by a higher source such as God). Volumes have been written about each of these and I have discussed the nature of the scientific process in Article #5, ‘What is Science?’.
However, my article today is more practical than metaphysical. What are the ways familiar to each of us with respect to knowing?
The one with which we are most familiar is the one we have utilized since birth: feelings and emotion. As infants when we were hungry, we ‘knew’ that we needed nutrition, so we cried, and when we were scared, we ‘knew’ that we needed to be cuddled, so we also cried. As adults we may not respond with tears but we still have these feelings and emotions; they are powerful and near-instantaneous, as experiencing a sudden fright will confirm. The ‘knowing’ that the experiences of feeling and emotion provide don’t always make perfect sense in that our internal response may be quite out of proportion to the event that incites it. Our hearts may race, our may hands tremble and we may scream out as strongly when our friend jumps out and yells ‘boo’ as it does when we are in legitimate danger. Raw emotions and feelings have the potential to mislead because being located in the deepest, and from an evolutionary perspective, oldest parts of our brain, they are incredibly powerful and arise so quickly that we often have no time to even think about them before we react.
As we mature, our abilities to think logically and to reason, ones that reside more in the left hemisphere of our brain, improve. We are capable not just of concrete thinking but abstract thinking as well. A lot of knowing is derived from these skills; we refer to them as rational thought.
Unprocessed emotions and feelings are often referred to as irrational in that they are not arrived at by rational thought and as noted above can be contrary to rational thought. That does not mean that they are unhelpful and should be avoided; it just means that we have to be careful when relying on them. Reflecting upon them before acting on them is often wise. Sometimes they are best used to supply the fuel, so to speak, that drives our rational thought and our desire to understand the world better.
But there is another way of knowing that is not rational, but neither is it irrational. It resides usually in the right side of our brain and is non-rational: it is the more creative, qualitative and intuitive part of our brain. Although its content cannot be acquired through the use of rational thought alone, it is not irrational either; it is not contradictory to rational thought, but complementary. It is sometimes referred to as a sixth sense, a spider sense or gut feeling. Its existence is hinted at by the adage that ‘sometimes we know before we understand’. It does not tend to be accompanied by the strong physical sensations and reactions we experience with feelings and emotions, although it is often accompanied by a deep conviction despite the fact that it cannot always be reasoned to.
I would be willing to bet that some of the most important decisions you have ever made in your life, especially the ones that worked out well, were more guided by intuition than rational thought, although you likely included rational thought and emotion in the process.
All three ways of knowing are incomplete on their own. Our emotions can deceive us, rational thought can be limited by our ability to interpret sensory input, and intuition can mislead us as some things in the universe are counterintuitive. Some of us are more gifted with the ability to reason, while others have a greater gift for intuition. It is quite common in the western world to rely primarily, or completely, on rational thought. But perhaps we are best guided when we utilize all three in a balanced way, with emotion as the passion that fuels our search for truth.
During the pandemic we have relied on the rational thought of science to guide us, but we have also been very influenced by our emotions, especially fear. Have we tapped into our intuition enough? If you tend more towards intuition than pure logic alone, have you had any gut feeling that not everything made as much sense as was claimed, despite the data? Our gut feelings might inform us that not everyone responds in the same way to any human intervention; we are not all at the same risk of harm from any virus, and we don’t all experience the same harm or benefit from preventive strategies. Did it seem odd to you that many policies would produce some level of harm but nobody talked about that? That an experimental vaccine must be capable of producing harm in some people, yet that was never brought out into the open and actively monitored?
Data, experts and rational thought are all very important, but they are not the whole picture. When we sense that a picture is incomplete, that there is much we still do not logically ‘know’, it is often wise to honour our intuition. Doing so in a culture that relies so heavily on reason takes courage, because although intuition never has all of the answers either, it does help us to stay humble and reflect more deeply before we act and risk doing harm.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
Thanks for reading CAERS Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.