How to see past your own perspective and find truth | Michael Patrick Lynch


So, imagine that you had
your smartphone miniaturized and hooked up directly to your brain. If you had this sort of brain chip, you’d be able to upload
and download to the internet at the speed of thought. Accessing social media or Wikipedia
would be a lot like — well, from the inside at least — like consulting your own memory. It would be as easy
and as intimate as thinking. But would it make it easier
for you to know what’s true? Just because a way
of accessing information is faster it doesn’t mean it’s more
reliable, of course, and it doesn’t mean that we would all
interpret it the same way. And it doesn’t mean that you would be
any better at evaluating it. In fact, you might even be worse, because, you know, more data,
less time for evaluation. Something like this is already
happening to us right now. We already carry a world of information
around in our pockets, but it seems as if the more information
we share and access online, the more difficult it can be for us
to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake. It’s as if we know more
but understand less. Now, it’s a feature
of modern life, I suppose, that large swaths of the public
live in isolated information bubbles. We’re polarized: not just over values,
but over the facts. One reason for that is, the data
analytics that drive the internet get us not just more information, but more of the information that we want. Our online life is personalized; everything from the ads we read to the news that comes down
our Facebook feed is tailored to satisfy our preferences. And so while we get more information, a lot of that information ends up
reflecting ourselves as much as it does reality. It ends up, I suppose, inflating our bubbles
rather than bursting them. And so maybe it’s no surprise that we’re in a situation,
a paradoxical situation, of thinking that we know so much more, and yet not agreeing
on what it is we know. So how are we going to solve
this problem of knowledge polarization? One obvious tactic is to try
to fix our technology, to redesign our digital platforms, so as to make them less
susceptible to polarization. And I’m happy to report that many smart people at Google
and Facebook are working on just that. And these projects are vital. I think that fixing technology
is obviously really important, but I don’t think technology alone,
fixing it, is going to solve the problem of knowledge polarization. I don’t think that because I don’t think,
at the end of the day, it is a technological problem. I think it’s a human problem, having to do with how we think
and what we value. In order to solve it, I think
we’re going to need help. We’re going to need help
from psychology and political science. But we’re also going to need help,
I think, from philosophy. Because to solve the problem
of knowledge polarization, we’re going to need to reconnect with one fundamental, philosophical idea: that we live in a common reality. The idea of a common reality
is like, I suppose, a lot of philosophical concepts: easy to state but mysteriously difficult
to put into practice. To really accept it, I think we need to do three things, each of which is a challenge right now. First, we need to believe in truth. You might have noticed that our culture is having
something of a troubled relationship with that concept right now. It seems as if we disagree so much that, as one political commentator
put it not long ago, it’s as if there are no facts anymore. But that thought is actually an expression of a sort of seductive line
of argument that’s in the air. It goes like this: we just can’t step outside
of our own perspectives; we can’t step outside of our biases. Every time we try, we just get more information
from our perspective. So, this line of thought goes, we might as well admit
that objective truth is an illusion, or it doesn’t matter, because either we’ll never
know what it is, or it doesn’t exist in the first place. That’s not a new philosophical thought — skepticism about truth. During the end of the last century,
as some of you know, it was very popular in certain
academic circles. But it really goes back all the way
to the Greek philosopher Protagoras, if not farther back. Protagoras said that objective
truth was an illusion because “man is the measure
of all things.” Man is the measure of all things. That can seem like a bracing bit
of realpolitik to people, or liberating, because it allows each of us
to discover or make our own truth. But actually, I think it’s a bit
of self-serving rationalization disguised as philosophy. It confuses the difficulty
of being certain with the impossibility of truth. Look — of course it’s difficult
to be certain about anything; we might all be living in “The Matrix.” You might have a brain chip in your head feeding you all the wrong information. But in practice, we do agree
on all sorts of facts. We agree that bullets can kill people. We agree that you can’t flap
your arms and fly. We agree — or we should — that there is an external reality and ignoring it can get you hurt. Nonetheless, skepticism
about truth can be tempting, because it allows us to rationalize
away our own biases. When we do that, we’re sort of like
the guy in the movie who knew he was living in “The Matrix” but decided he liked it there, anyway. After all, getting what you
want feels good. Being right all the time feels good. So, often it’s easier for us to wrap ourselves in our cozy
information bubbles, live in bad faith, and take those bubbles
as the measure of reality. An example, I think, of how
this bad faith gets into our action is our reaction
to the phenomenon of fake news. The fake news that spread on the internet during the American
presidential election of 2016 was designed to feed into our biases, designed to inflate our bubbles. But what was really striking about it was not just that it fooled
so many people. What was really striking to me
about fake news, the phenomenon, is how quickly it itself became
the subject of knowledge polarization; so much so, that the very term —
the very term — “fake news” now just means: “news story I don’t like.” That’s an example of the bad faith
towards the truth that I’m talking about. But the really, I think, dangerous thing about skepticism with regard to truth is that it leads to despotism. “Man is the measure of all things” inevitably becomes “The Man
is the measure of all things.” Just as “every man for himself” always seems to turn out to be
“only the strong survive.” At the end of Orwell’s “1984,” the thought policeman O’Brien is torturing
the protagonist Winston Smith into believing two plus two equals five. What O’Brien says is the point, is that he wants to convince Smith
that whatever the party says is the truth, and the truth is whatever the party says. And what O’Brien knows
is that once this thought is accepted, critical dissent is impossible. You can’t speak truth to power if the power speaks truth by definition. I said that in order to accept
that we really live in a common reality, we have to do three things. The first thing is to believe in truth. The second thing can be summed up by the Latin phrase that Kant took
as the motto for the Enlightenment: “Sapere aude,” or “dare to know.” Or as Kant wants,
“to dare to know for yourself.” I think in the early days of the internet, a lot of us thought that information technology
was always going to make it easier for us to know for ourselves, and of course in many ways, it has. But as the internet has become
more and more a part of our lives, our reliance on it, our use of it, has become often more passive. Much of what we know today we Google-know. We download prepackaged sets of facts and sort of shuffle them along
the assembly line of social media. Now, Google-knowing is useful precisely because it involves
a sort of intellectual outsourcing. We offload our effort onto a network
of others and algorithms. And that allows us, of course,
to not clutter our minds with all sorts of facts. We can just download them
when we need them. And that’s awesome. But there’s a difference
between downloading a set of facts and really understanding how or why
those facts are as they are. Understanding why
a particular disease spreads, or how a mathematical proof works, or why your friend is depressed, involves more than just downloading. It’s going to require, most likely, doing some work for yourself: having a little creative insight; using your imagination; getting out into the field; doing the experiment; working through the proof; talking to someone. Now, I’m not saying, of course,
that we should stop Google-knowing. I’m just saying we shouldn’t overvalue it, either. We need to find ways of encouraging
forms of knowing that are more active, and don’t always involve passing off
our effort into our bubble. Because the thing about Google-knowing
is that too often it ends up being bubble-knowing. And bubble-knowing means
always being right. But daring to know, daring to understand, means risking the possibility
that you could be wrong. It means risking the possibility that what you want and what’s true
are different things. Which brings me to the third thing
that I think we need to do if we want to accept that we live
in a common reality. That third thing is:
have a little humility. By humility here, I mean
epistemic humility, which means, in a sense, knowing that you don’t know it all. But it also means something
more than that. It means seeing your worldview
as open to improvement by the evidence and experience of others. Seeing your worldview
as open to improvement by the evidence and experience of others. That’s more than just
being open to change. It’s more than just being open
to self-improvement. It means seeing your knowledge
as capable of enhancing or being enriched
by what others contribute. That’s part of what is involved in recognizing there’s a common reality that you, too, are responsible to. I don’t think it’s much
of a stretch to say that our society is not particularly great
at enhancing or encouraging that sort of humility. That’s partly because, well, we tend to confuse
arrogance and confidence. And it’s partly because, well, you know, arrogance is just easier. It’s just easier to think of yourself
as knowing it all. It’s just easier to think of yourself
as having it all figured out. But that’s another example
of the bad faith towards the truth that I’ve been talking about. So the concept of a common reality, like a lot of philosophical concepts, can seem so obvious, that we can look right past it and forget why it’s important. Democracies can’t function
if their citizens don’t strive, at least some of the time, to inhabit a common space, a space where they can pass
ideas back and forth when — and especially when — they disagree. But you can’t strive to inhabit that space if you don’t already accept
that you live in the same reality. To accept that, we’ve got
to believe in truth, we’ve got to encourage
more active ways of knowing. And we’ve got to have the humility to realize that we’re not
the measure of all things. We may yet one day realize the vision of having the internet in our brains. But if we want that to be liberating
and not terrifying, if we want it to expand our understanding and not just our passive knowing, we need to remember that our perspectives, as wondrous, as beautiful as they are, are just that — perspectives on one reality. Thank you. (Applause)

61 thoughts on “How to see past your own perspective and find truth | Michael Patrick Lynch”

  1. Liberals please watch this, you're not seeing reality while you picture everything when everything Trump does is wrong

  2. ANYONE READING THIS COMMENT SHOW ME ANYTHING FROM THE LEFT AS AN EXAMPLE OF PART 3 FROM NOVEMBER 2016 TO TODAY PLEASE JUST ONE LINK OR COMMENT OR NEWS ARTICLE UNBIASED

  3. arrogance is the origin of everything i dispise. If you have arrogant features, then you have ignorant, ineffective values that makes it neccesary to be arrogant to have reason to be arrogant. Its a downwards spiral that is a motor feeding itself. Get rid of it.

  4. "Do I care about truth or just my own comforting opinion?" is the single question he's basically asking everyone to ask themselves. If you don't care about reason and confronting your beliefs through healthy skepticism, and are not willing to change those beliefs based on new objectively true information, then you may very well be harming more people than just yourself.

  5. Possibly I'll have to watch this again not so late or perhaps take notes, but I found watching this kind of erratic. A lot of very good points I was able to enjoy, but then a lot of times it seems certain concepts were thrown out as assumptions or with correlation to matters not necessarily agreed upon by others. comes across to me as if the idea of a common reality he keeps repeating may not be so, or in the least he should define what it is he feels that means.

  6. Being shorn of a closeted world view and having the humility of being open to and interpret a differing perspective objectively…that's the only way to rid ourselves of the constructed biases in the information freeflow that we have today.

  7. what a great, great speech. very true in my opinion. what he says is the only truth and i will not accept any contradictions!

  8. You can't have confidence in truth in most social settings unless you have the truth about ultimate metaphysical questions (who or what is man ? who is God ? what is the purpose of life?) which are reliably given only in one place – the Bible.

    Society will not have a "common reality" because it has rejected to one authoritative source for any such "common reality". What is after all this "common reality" ? Is it what Trump tells you ? Or is it what the liberals tell you ? Or maybe it's what Putin tells you ?

    The Christian Reformation made the West a thinking civilisation because it went back to the Bible and gave Western society bedrock confidence in the Truth because God is the only person perfectly qualified to tell everyone what "common reality" is. Otherwise, you have people like this TED talker making weak appeals for people "not to be arrogant" or "to be humble".

    The West is in the mess it is now because it has amputated it's soul by rejecting the Bible. I would encourage you to read Dr.Vishal Mangalwadi's book.

  9. I don't understand his solution. How can we have a common reality if we can not agree on truth and if you have anyone in authority (Google, Facebook, Government) tell you what is truth, it rightly causes distrust. This problem is like poverty, there will always be people that choose it.

  10. Great talk, thanks to all involved!

    I'd say on the notion of humility – that our culture has a problem of associating status with being correct. Hence, people often choose to believe or present themselves as always being right, in order to preserve status. We need a culture in which acknowledging that our understanding can be improved by others is considered a more status-worthy trait.

  11. Lots of people genuinely think the earth is flat. If we can't agree on the curvature of the earth, or even that lizard people aren't real, then we can't have a common reality. There are massive amounts of people dismissing scientific evidence as evidence at all, instead opting for belief and mistrust of those that disagree. Uniformed logic and perspectives have become reality. We don't really have common ground on anything anymore. We can't all (or even mostly ) agree on anything.

    I can only see this getting much worse. I'd be a fool to have hope for peace within humanity. Kms.

  12. This guy is just preaching to the choir. The people who treasure the truth play by the rules. The ones who win don't care about the truth. They only care about winning and using underhanded tactics.

  13. Oh my! that's THE Michael P. Lynch that defends alethic realism and ontological pluralism at once. Great to see him on TED.

  14. Not trying to be rude, but these Ted Talks are repeating the same theme over and over again, its the 4th talk come across saying the same thing "Technology advancement is bad, social media is bad, internet is bad, convenience is bad, more information is bad, you should just go back and live a primitive life and stick with old fashioned farming stuff, stop improving technologically since we should go backwards and live in 60's and 80's again." Wtf.

  15. I usually like TED talks, but this talk is pretty meh. I mean I get the point hes making, and agree, but in no way does he really provided a way for us to overcome it. He just kind of says we have to and why it is bad to not try to see the other point of view.

  16. to the future enlightened people : ignore the comments. they will not set you free. and if you are reading mine, make it the last comment you read.

  17. So to see the truth you just have to try hard to see the truth, and accept that maybe what you thought was true isn't true? Doesn't seem really different from believing is impossible to know the truth… Not trying to trash the guy…

    I don't think he ends up making an argument very well to back up his idea of common reality, he just says that the idea of unreachable truth is old and impossible to prove itself and that people use this idea to argument whatever they think and feel good about themselves but that doesn't make the philosophical theory false.

    What I think is that the question itself is outdated, we cannot be sure if we know or not know the truth but either way we will have the irrational feeling that will make us believe we do know in some moments. And that idea can bring horrible consequences or not. The problem with his theory is that it seems to come from a moral philosophy not a metaphysical one. In my opinion horrible consequences are unavoidable that doesn't mean I won't try and not having them happening but this universal moral idea that says it should work the same way everywhere all te time is an inhuman one. Any idea end ups being false in some cases so holding to one forever is impossible. And he said something like that in the third rule with humility which for me seems like a religious promise in which if you are a good kid you'll be shown the truth, but for me I gotta say is not certain, and that's okey.

    Pragmatism has a problem and it is that they accept that they will never get to the "truth" truth and never really gets to prove that there is a solid truth but at the same time assure you'll get close to it… How can you get close to something you don't even know exists? You'll always have the same question in your mind – Where am I going really? – Just like people that don't believe that there's truth. They are left wondering by themselves.

  18. if we use our rational mind to find the truth in a univers that is somewhere sometime in the infinit something that is inside nothing and that is next to an infinit things or nothings with crazy dimentions and components and alien Characteristics you'llprobably never find any thing that you can call 'the truth'
    I am somthing that exists and think
    I have a nose, I can smell
    eyes i can see with
    a mind that i can trust in my dimention and with the Characteristics of the matter that contitute my envirement
    the evolution of spicies would have never produced me if it was completey random.
    with no truth I am just a machine that eat poo work buy sell reproduce walk run sit and from time to time it does something that it calls thinking and that has sometnig, that it calls value and it has a language a limited laguage with limited word and a limited concepts in a limited space and time witch makes it a thing and no everything this machine always wants to expand out of its limited space, time, dimention, understanding, so it can be able to be every where, uderstanding everything, and being always. this is just the image of god that we all have in mind and that we may become one day and if not nothigness may be better in my human 3d very limited persspective

  19. Wonderful, Prof.Lynch. Have you also considered the role of SALESPEOPLE in our lack of agreement, today?
    In 1949, Arthur Miller came out with "Death of a Salesman" . It was a depressing play. Why was such a depressing play given a Pulitzer Prize? Perhaps it was because it predicted that the loss of salespeople might help our society. Jobs would be lost, to advertising, merchandizing, etc. But, perhaps we need SALESPEOPLE to help us CHANGE our minds. (See more, below)
    Now we have Trump, who is a salesperson, though not honest. Maybe we need to actually invite salespeople, to help to WISE UP, in our lives. THANKS What do you think? Pearle (at) writeme.com GREAT!

  20. Be careful because people will try to use propaganda as a scare tactic to black mailing. I'm not scared of no one. Especially if you not supposed to be at my house. thanks

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