We can’t both be wrong
Humanity’s killer app is our intellect, our ability to analyze available data and make decisions based on that. At least that’s what it says in the brochure.
The reality is that we are not as far away from our caveman heritage as we would like to believe. Rather than arrive at conclusions from an objective view of the world we mostly make our decisions emotionally and then find the evidence to support it after the fact.
We are less objective scientists drawing conclusions from all the available data than we are lawyers selectively presenting facts to support a particular point of view.
The current political situation is a perfect example of this. We have two sides that are making very different choices. Each side thinks that their own judgement is correct and therefore that of the other side must be incorrect. There is mutual incomprehension as to how the other side can be so deluded.
The problem with this narrative is that it assumes that the shared goal is an objective, universal truth and that the reason for any disagreement is that one side has found this truth and the other side is just too stupid or evil to do so.
The root fallacy at the heart of this impasse is that we are not designed to understand the world, we are designed to explain it.
On the face of it they sound like the same thing but they are not.
Understanding is focused on reality as it is, it takes rigor and attention to nuance. It is a careful, exhaustive process that takes patience and time.
Explaining is focused on coming up with a plausible theory and then just stopping there. No need to dive into it because our goal is to come up with *an* explanation not *the* explanation.
Understanding is often unsatisfying because it can only ever be incomplete and uncertain. It is a theory that continually needs to be updated and sometimes discarded entirely in favor of a different theory that is more closely aligned with the latest facts.
The goal is to uncover the truth but since the degree to which we have determined the truth is the degree to which we have eliminated unknowns, we can never really know the truth completely. We can never eliminate the unknowns completely.
Understanding is a cyclical process that never ends and as such requires us to be okay with a certain amount of ambiguity.
The trouble is that at our core, we are designed to assume the worst until proven otherwise. It’s a defensive mechanism that makes us wary but we take it too far and it makes us afraid. This means that the lack of certainty inherent in trying to truly understand things makes us deeply uncomfortable.
Explanation feels great
Explanation, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the discomfort of not knowing. It’s not focused on our intellect, it’s focused on our feelings and emotions. In particular on our fear. We are merely trying to feel better about our fear of the unknown, not make it truly known.
We encounter something that doesn’t make sense to us but rather than using that to question our theory of how the world works, we seek to fit this novel situation into our existing framework.
We do not seek to expand our understanding but instead look for an explanation, of how this new thing really isn’t new but rather the inevitable result of what we already “know”.
Once we have come up with an explanation that addresses our emotions by eliminating an unknown we are done, regardless of whether or not what we “know” to be true is actually true.
The measure of success for understanding is how well it matches or predicts the real world. The measure of success for explanation is how good (or less bad really) it makes us feel.
Don’t open your mind…
At first blush it seems that the solution is open-mindedness, that is to say an intellectual honesty about the situation.
However that’s not solving the real problem because none of us think we are being dishonest with ourselves. It’s our opponents who are the hypocrites after all. Either that or they are just plain stupid.
We smugly pat ourselves on the back in congratulations or (at best) in gratitude for the superior discernment we have achieved/been blessed with. Unlike those poor/evil dumb bastards supporting the other side.
In fact this smugness is the sine qua non of an explanatory vs an understanding approach. The(false) sense of intellectual superiority of a good explanation feels so much better than the queasy feeling of uncertainty we get from understanding that the nature of reality is ever-changing and ambiguous.
…open your heart
The good news is that this realization of our true motivations points us to the actual solution: courage.
True understanding starts with courage. The courage to accept the discomfort of not knowing and that not being sure is the nature of reality.
When you let go of the childish comfort of false surety, let go of thinking that you can achieve complete understanding of everything, then you free yourself to deal with the world as it is rather than as you wish it to be.
Courage doesn’t mean eliminating fear, it means engaging with messy reality despite being afraid. There is nothing wrong with being scared of uncertainty and accepting that fear means that it can’t hold you back any longer.
You are able to give your ego the space to be humble. That is actually what allows you to really be open-minded to true reality, good and bad.
Approach the unknown with courage and understanding will follow.