It’s a Post-Fact Society

OK. I gotta get this off my chest. This is not a happy message, but I gotta say it.

We ARE living in a post-fact society.

What does that mean, and what are its implications?

Post Fact
We are exposed to more information today than ever in recognizable history. We have information coming at us from uncountable sources. The depth and detail of all this data is well beyond our ability to assimilate, process, and draw conclusions about.

Too much data. Too many facts. The scope of our information gathering apparatus is unfathomable, frankly, so the data gathered by that apparatus is, not surprisingly, manifestly more unfathomable. I could supply charts and graphs, but you know it’s true. Some studies suggest that a copy of one daily New York Times contains more information than the average 17th-century person encountered in a lifetime.

Our brains are powerful. We can encounter all this information, and at some level, we can absorb it. But when the trove of data contains conflicting information (or information that we perceive to be conflicting), what do we do?

We simply let it slide (cognitive dissonance), or we “pick” a side, and let that be the lens through which we view the world.

We can’t do it any other way. We have to continue to live our lives in the presence of conflicting information and perspectives. We can’t spend all our time ferreting out WHY we’re perceiving conflicting information. So we just pick a perspective.

And once we’ve picked it, we stick with it. That’s the essence of confirmation bias. And the longer we’ve stuck with it, the harder reality has to slap us before we’re willing to change it.

Post fact.

A Post-Fact Society
Which brings us to today. A post-fact society. We have, literally, gone beyond our capacity to absorb — and discern — the volume of information coming our way. And we have developed, long before this moment in history, social and cultural institutions that create the “right” perspective for us — the socially acceptable perspective for our family, community, and tribe — that stroke and stoke our confirmation bias.

This is where social and societal order comes from. Not intrinsically a bad thing.

In the days when human capacities were limited, and human populations were small, the complexities of the machinations of the planet were hidden from us. We didn’t really need to know how complex the systems were (although we were manifestly curious…). They just worked, and things remained pretty much in balance regardless of what humans did.

Now, the story is quite different. With the powers at our disposal, we ARE affecting the world around us, and its complexities are revealed.

And the consequences of our actions are also being revealed.

UNLESS, of course, those complexities and consequences fly in the face of our confirmation bias.

In these situations, we simply choose to absorb the information that confirms our existing perspective.

When humans were less powerful, this was no big deal. If you didn’t (or couldn’t) understand the reality of your situation (and even, sometimes, if you did), you got steam-rolled by that reality.

Now, however, we can put off, and put off, and put off again, the immediate, personal consequences of our individual and collective actions through the magic of technology, and the insulation of wealth (which means, in this case, the power to protect ourselves or distance ourselves from — or delude ourselves about — the consequences of our choices).

We can select the information we want, and promote it to the level of “fact”. We present it to ourselves (at least) — and with passion to those with whom we disagree — this collection of information as the reasons for why we act the way we do, for why we vote the way we do, for why we believe the way we do.

It’s not that we are disregarding facts, per se. Its that we have no way of absorbing the complexities of the systems we’ve created (and inherited, both organic and man-made), and their even more complex interactions with one another.

A post-fact society.

In God We Trust (who is that, BTW…?)
In this environment, social and cultural institutions cannot save us, because they can not rally enough of us. Any of us can select a data set that confirms our bias that said institution is either functioning well or completely broken. So we are guided by said institution, or we reject it as false.

This is the essence of our “culture wars”. We no longer trust our institutions.

Why can’t we agree? Why can’t we “get to the bottom of it”?

Because we have to cook dinner, and pay the rent, and court one another, and have a life.

So we invite others to do that work for us.

And of course, they must be trusted. Unfortunately, no matter how diligent these others are (for example, academics, journalists, priests), they, in turn, limit their absorption of data based on their own cognitive and cultural limitations.

So NOBODY will know the full truth. Even in the “hard sciences”, it’s difficult. But in public policy? Social and psychological studies? Economics? Forget it.

How do we proceed in this circumstance?

It should be obvious to all of us that we are condemned to “not know”. In the presence of all this data, all these facts, we still don’t know. Can’t know.

So we pick the lens, and we select the facts that allow that lens to bring into focus a picture we can understand. And we live the experiment of whether reality will align with us, or steam-roll over us. And we do our damnedest to insulate ourselves all along the way.

Living in intimate harmony with the environment went out of style with humankind’s mastery of fire and agriculture. We are where we are. So really, it comes down to something very simple.

Through what lens will we choose to view and interact with the world?

This question is really timeless. Back in the olden days, when we didn’t have the capacities we had now, we were really pretty helpless in the face of forces we couldn’t control or understand. Back then, we had mystics and holy people and the priestly class, and shamans to whom we turned for guidance.

And they offered counsel that made things simple for us. Like, for instance,

“Love one another”,
and
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”
and, perhaps more recently,
“Karma’s a bitch”

Why?

Because in the end, the systems are too complex for an individual human ego to master, and the consequences of our choices are not directly discernible in toto. So we have been counseled to “be nice”, because trying to “be God” doesn’t work very well.

And the mystics understood that.

A Guiding Perspective
It’s the Age of Aquarius. The Age of Gnosis.

We’re leaving behind the age of Pisces, which was the Age of Belief. We have to recognize that today, any set of facts you choose represents a choice, based in belief, about the trustworthiness of those who are presenting the facts to you.

Because, YOU haven’t experienced global warming, or coral reef die-off, or an increase in the rate of juvenile diabetes.

You either believe these sources, or you don’t.

And humans being humans, all human sources have a bias (see the allegory of the wise men and the elephant), and many sources have an agenda that seeks to enlist your support (energetic, financial, and otherwise) in supporting that agenda.

So we’re wise to attempt to be discerning about the reliability of our sources.

But that very act of discerning happens in the context of the lens through which we’ve already been conditioned to see the world.

So… it’s a choice based in belief about “what’s right and good”, including what social inputs, both implicit (like, say, your kindergarten teacher), and explicit (like, say, the New York Times), we’re willing to trust.

In a post-fact society, that’s not going to work very well. We’ve divorced ourselves from intimate contact with the systems of the planet that sustain us to such a great extent that generations of humans have been living in ways that are ultimately unsustainable, at the expense of the planet (and one-another), that reality doesn’t slap us (or at least enough of us) in the face hard enough to get our attention.

Yet.

Those who have power are, frankly, too powerful to get slapped in the face. Their reality is that they ARE gods — in the implicit sense that they can do whatever they want (although they might not realize that’s how they’re acting).

So, what’s a poor, hapless, sentient species to do? The Age of Aquarius provides a glimmer (and I feel like it’s just a glimmer) of hope.

When the outside world is so dauntingly complex, we do have an option. In the age of gnosis, we look inside to find the truth.

(That’s why it’s just a glimmer of hope. Most of us have no idea how to look inside, because we’re never taught how to — in fact, we’re taught NOT to…).

Which brings us back to the mystics, and the timeless words of wisdom. When we look inside, we have to start way back at the beginnings of our ego, our psyche.

Love one another.

What does that look like? What does that feel like?

Maybe you know. Maybe you don’t think you do. But it’s the best — and only — place to start.

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