Cultivating Realism

(About a 5 minute read)

Human diversity being what it is, I take it as evident that some folks are more realistic than other folks — just like some folks are more athletic than other folks.   But the fact some folks are more realistic than other folks does not mean that anyone is completely realistic.  For better or worse, we humans have not evolved a completely realistic brain.

If we had evolved a completely realistic brain, we would not need science.  That’s because science is basically a group of methods or procedures that have been developed over the ages to compensate for the human tendency towards a lack of realism in thought and belief.  In short, science is a crutch.   It’s a tool for a non-realistic brain (or at least a partly non-realistic brain) to use so that it can function as a realistic brain.  At least that’s one way to look at science.

It’s a great puzzle to me why the human brain is not entirely realistic — given that it’s had several million years to evolve into a purely realistic brain.  It must be that during the entire multi-million year history of brain growth and expansion, selective mechanisms for a realistic brain were never sufficient to produce a wholly realistic brain — despite that there would seem to be great advantages to being wholly realistic.

Either that, or the mutations necessary for pure realism never came about.

On the surface, given millions of years, it seems almost impossible that it has turned out the way it has turned out.  But perhaps it  seems impossible to me largely because I simply don’t understand the odds.

Some days, I think most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming to realism.   We just don’t like being realistic — we don’t enjoy it — and so, there must be great incentives for us to practice realistic thought, or great disincentives not to practice it.   Hence, I usually think we limit our realistic thinking to only those areas of our lives in which it matters the most to us to think realistically.

I know an automobile mechanic, for instance, who is almost wholly realistic in his role as a mechanic.  But get him in his fundamentalist church on a Sunday morning and he will swallow with childlike trust any and all sorts of quackery from his pastor’s mouth.  Life has face-slapped my friend the mechanic into being realistic in his work.  That is, automobile mechanics has served as a discipline that’s punished him whenever he has departed from realism while engaged in it.  But life has not done him the same favor in his religion.  Hence, he’s a realistic man in his work and a quite fantastic man in his religion.

Some days, as I’ve said, I think we as a species are only as realistic as it is absolutely necessary for us to be.  Wherever life cuts us a little slack, we depart from realism into fantasy.

Over a hundred years ago, Nietzsche pointed out that very few, if any, of us had a strong will to truth.   For most of us, our other wills, interests, passions, etc were much stronger than any will to truth we might possess.  It was a revolutionary thought for its time.  Today, we might not use precisely his language when speaking of the issue, but regardless of whatever words we use to express the idea, the notion that humans are quite often less than realistic is established by modern psychology beyond any serious doubt.

That fact — the fact we are not a realistic species — presents all sorts of problems.  For instance, I do not believe you can understand human politics if you think of humans as an essentially realistic species.  (Perhaps the real question in politics — or in any study of human nature — is not whether humans are unrealistic, but what patterns are there to human unrealism?)

I think it is important — crucially important — to one’s health and happiness for a person to practice a discipline.  When it comes to practicing a discipline, the exact nature of the discipline — the kind of discipline — almost does not matter.  What matters is that one practices a discipline.  Any discipline.

A “discipline”, as I’m using the term here, is an art, science, or craft that to be successfully practiced requires one to be realistic.   It can be nearly anything so long as it requires substantial realism to succeed in it.   The absolute need for realism is what makes it a discipline.

Why should we practice a discipline?  Well, realism is not a side of human nature that comes all that easy to us.  I think we must cultivate it.  Hence, the need for a discipline.  Beyond that, realism seems to be like a crucial nutrient.  Without it, we grow sick, malnourished, or unbalanced.  We might not enjoy its taste, but on some level we need it.

We have all heard over and over again this or that person admonish us to “cultivate our imaginations” or to “dream big, dream often”.   Well, those things are important, but so is realism.  And, so far as I can see, realism does not come easily to our species.  It comes with effort.  So it must be cultivated.  Yet, I believe its cultivation is usually neglected.

T.S. Eliot somewhere said the average person can stand reality for no more than ten minutes at a time.   That might sound extreme until you really start thinking about it.


Originally posted October 9,  2010.

12 thoughts on “Cultivating Realism

  1. “Perhaps the real question in politics — or in any study of human nature — is not whether humans are unrealistic, but what patterns are there to human unrealism?”

    Indeed, and anyone in the persuasion business (politicians, advocates, activists, salesmen, teachers) needs to be aware of this and build their tactics accordingly.

    But I think you are wrong to be surprised by human irrationality. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out a long time ago, one major function of beliefs is to supply group identity, which is vital to survival in a highly social species such as ours. Indeed, your mechanic’s religion increases his biological fitness, by keeping him happy, motivated, socially supported, and in an environment where he can find a mate. And other defects of reason, such as the search for confirmatory evidence and the distorting effects of the immediate and dramatic (how many Americans are aware that the number murdered at 9/11 is comparable with the “normal” monthly US murder rate?) make perfect sense for small bands of primates in a world full of perils and predators.

    The problem, as I see it, is not so much how to get people to be rational, which we all can do to some extent when we know it to be necessary, but how to get people to want to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points, Paul. The thought occurs to me that the most effective ways to motivate people to be more rational are most likely themselves irrational. “Learn logic to increase your sex appeal!” Crazy as it sounds, there might be no more effective means than the tried and true ways of persuasion.

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  2. Interesting re-post that makes me wonder what the comments were the first time through.
    For me personally, I get sad when I live too much in the reality. Honestly, it’s not all that pretty, so why would I want to hangout there? (And this is coming from someone who is generally positive.) My feet are pretty firmly planted on the ground of reality, but I much prefer the hope of flying, at least on the days it’s not too windy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a fascinating take on it, Deanna! I believe I can see your point, too. I tend to see reality as more of a mixed bag, though.

      To be sure, I’m not advocating that one live in reality 24/7. I don’t think that’s possible for most of us.

      I’m just advocating that one spend some time there most days of the week, so to speak, and I don’t see that as very likely unless one has some kind of discipline — such as a job, hobby, meditative practice, etc — that more or less compels one to be realistic, because in my view, reality is what most of us are always trying to escape from. Of course, I’m probably wrong about all of that. Just ask my ex-wives if I’ve ever been right!

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  3. Excellent questions! I wouldn’t dare hazard a guess about the differences between realism and pragmatism without some very serious thinking about it. But I will say that the sciences do a fairly good job at creating consensuses about what’s real. Now, if only we could extend that to politics!

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  4. This is interesting to me as a current life topic. I’ve recently starting conversations via FB with a member of an Israeli infantry brigade, and a very young man who is a Muslim. The Israeli doesn’t want to talk religion, he is just lonely on the front lines. The Muslim fellow is fascinated by meeting an atheist. I think my Israeli friend needs to find a different discipline other than military. He is so in his own head, and it seems to be painful in there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s sad about your Israeli friend. Do you have any sense or feel what sort of occupation would make him happier?

      I’ve met Muslims who were fascinated like your friend with atheists. I think it might be fairly common, in part I suppose because so few Muslims are from communities where atheism is tolerated.

      Don’t you find it wonderful that the internet allows us to get to know people we’d never meet in offline life?

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      • I do. I’ve come to distrust the Muslim fellow, as the blog he claimed is all his has email addresses that have female names. Oh well.

        I do trust the Jewish lad, however. He has nothing to gain by telling me porkies. I’m still trying to help him, mostly by showing he isn’t alone. I think he has great rapport with young people, so I think I might suggest he looks that direction.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t know if this applies to you or not, but I have noticed that, as I get older, I tend to lose sight of just how important it can be to a young person for an older person to help them understand themselves, understand where their talents and strengths lay. I think you would be doing your Israeli friend a huge favor by pointing out to him his rapport with young people, and suggesting that he build on that. That could be quite positive for him.

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  5. It is worth remembering that the Israeli has almost certainly do military service, and may well be painfully at Lord’s with his Society, although it would be unwise to broach this aspect of things without invitation

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