reconciling TRUTH and REALITY


The heart of man is made to reconcile the most glaring contradictions

David Hume


“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep”

Saul Bellow

Mismatches between the external world and one’s internal model of it occur at every level of organization.  Action monitoring and error-detection are basic features of the brain and essential aspects of its effectiveness (see for example, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/343/6173/888) –often corrections are made before we are (consciously) aware there was an error.  But it is in cognition, that errors are most interesting.   (See A&O notes on ERROR DETECTION)



When confronted with a mismatch or conflict between  ideas, cognitive dissonance, in Leon Festinger’s term, develops.  Festinger  has demonstrated that people are highly motivated to reduce cognitive conflict  or psychological inconsistencies.  This is regarded by linguists as one of the  principal motives for thinking (e.g., Carroll, 1964).  Among the examples  Festinger (1962) provides are finding what one possesses or attains more  attractive than the unavailable alternative, the “sour grapes” phenomenon, and  changing one’s private opinion when you are unable to retreat from a lie.  Challenges to one’s beliefs are physiologically stressful; cognitive dissonance helps defend the organism from such stresses [more needs repair].   NOVELTY that cannot be easily accommodated is a classic stressor, driving the deepest forms of learning (see “Learning is Adaptive Change”) and read about “Our Aversion to the Unfamiliar”  


Recalling two frequent catchphrases, We pursue “The Best Story You Can Tell With The Best Evidence You Have”  and remember that “Science is Objective, But Scientists are Not”

– The individual, based on disposition and experience, appears guided by  SATISFACTION, a state of having “minimized dissonance.”  So, CAN WE SAY that an emotional or cognitive response to the fulfillment of wants or expectations or needs is the (necessary and sufficient) criterion for judgement of the validity of an aesthetic or scientific conception?”  (from A&O notes on STORIES).  “expectations” are connected to “error detection,” a process at many levels of organization: see A&O notes.


Examples of coping responses evoked by cognitive dissonance:


1Attractive alternatives:  Select 1 of 2 equally attractive alternatives:  the fact of attraction and  the fact of rejection creates a dissonance that is resolved by exaggerating  the flaws/minimizing the virtues of the rejected alternative


2Lying: when private beliefs disagree with public statements:

dissonance depends on

a. The amount of mismatch between public & private and

b. how much  justification for creating mismatch (e.g.: “the ends justify the means”)


3.  Resisting temptation: When you do not get something you want, sometimes  there is

a. a “sour grapes” phenomenon;  or

b. the attractiveness of the goal is enhanced instead of degraded:  why?: if  the target is difficult or impossible there is little devaluation of it when  it isn’t attained –there may even be enhancement of its value or difficulty.   Also, if the justification for attaining it is not sufficient, it may be  devalued.



Matching internal conceptions and external phenomena is a powerful motive in human affairs:  the tension and balances between internalization and externalization, particularization and generalization, and the real and ideal reverberate with this need. 

Challenges to deep organizing beliefs about the nature of the world can be amongst the most stressful:  See FREUD on the Three Blows to the Ego


“The past forms the present, the present reforms the past”  (Lee Humphrey)


“Make the best of a bad situation!”


“Humans are the  story-telling animals”  Humans hook up isolated events in their lives with stories.  And stories must have a smooth flow . . . the mind seeks to reconcile inconsistencies.



Quod enim mavult homo verum esse, id potius credit.

(For what a man would like to be true, that he more readily believes.)

(Sir Francis Bacon. Novum Organum (1620) bk. 1, Aphorism 49 -translated by J. Spedding)


in other words,

There is strong disposition to ignore inconsistencies — if they  [what Darwin said]


selective attention to supportive memories or potential challenges to a belief: confirmation bias


Matching, Harmony


     Harmony with your colleague in the chorus, God, nature, even yourself,  echoes the need to transcend, join, unify, incorporate.  And we are pleased by  exemplars of harmony in art, science and faith:  those who have attained some  measure of success in their search for it and tell us in their works, guide us  in the principles we might employ as empathy is engendered by our resonance  with their message. 


The harmony sought is a unifying element in all endeavors if we believe  that the need to progressively perfect the matching of belief with fact,  ambition with potential, or events with our expectations, is a profound motive  to thought.


 T.H. Huxley, perhaps converging with Alexander Pope (“All  discord, harmony not understood(An Essay on Man, Ep. i, 1734)) had a vivid sense of the importance of “harmony” :

Education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under  which name I include not merely things and their forces but men and their  ways, and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and  loving desire to move in harmony with these laws.   (Science and Education,  Ch. 4, 1868).



Cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1962) as a strategy for coping with apparent  contradiction prevents paralysis by indecision.  It also allows us to protect  and nurture young and vulnerable ideas until they can stand testing on their  own.  In that sense it is indispensable in creative work, not least science (Boring, 1964).  Recalling the internal and external frontiers of science.  





DISSONANCE and LAUGHTER:   Cognitive dissonance is another way of referring to INCONGRUETY: a prominent theory of the evolution of laughter:  from Jim Holt:

“And how about laughter? Perhaps the best way to gauge future humor is to look at other primates: What do chimps find funny? The Central Washington University researcher Roger Fouts reported that Washoe, a chimpanzee who was taught sign language, once urinated on him while riding on his shoulders. The chimp snorted and made the sign for “funny.” Washoe was also observed playfully wielding a toothbrush as if it were a hairbrush. Moja, another of Fouts’s signing chimps, called a purse a “shoe” and wore it on her foot. A signing gorilla trained by another researcher appeared to derive amusement from offering rocks to people as “food.” Such supposed instances of simian humor (similar to the jokes of preschool children) involve the deliberate misnaming or misuse of things. They thus fit nicely under one of the three classic theories of humor, the incongruity theory, which holds that mirth results when two things normally kept in separate compartments of the mind are abruptly and surprisingly yanked together.

But why should the perception of incongruity cause a spasm of noisy chest-heaving? Laughter has long been viewed as a so-called luxury reflex, one that serves no obvious evolutionary purpose. In recent years, though, practitioners of the art of evolutionary psychology have been more imaginative in coming up with Darwinian rationales. One of the more seductive comes from the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego, who has advanced what might be called the false-alarm theory of laughter. A seemingly threatening situation presents itself; you go into fight-or-flight mode; the threat proves spurious; you alert your (genetically close-knit) social group to the absence of actual danger by emitting a stereotyped vocalization —one that is amplified as it passes contagiously from member to member.

Once the mechanism of laughter was set in place by evolution, the theory goes, it could be hijacked for other purposes: the expression of contempt for out-groups (as the superiority theory of humor claims) or the ventilation of forbidden sexual impulses (the relief theory of humor). But at the core of the original false-alarm mechanism of laughter is incongruity: the incongruity of a grave threat revealing itself to be trivial—­or, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant (an advocate of the incongruity theory) put it, “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” Incongruity is arguably the primeval kernel of laughter.”   From “Laughter may Outlive Humans…”  in Discover Magazine July 2008, Adapted from Jim Holt’s essay, “The Laughter of Copernicus,” in Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge, edited by Damien Broderick (Atlas and Company). complete essay [needs repair]


from A&O notes on Cognitive Dissonance  and see A&O notes on “getting it”  [needs repair]

Ultimately, Cognitive Dissonance is a form of error detection: a crucial neurobehavioral process.






ERROR-DETECTION AND MITIGATION. (also in A&O notes on BIAS and ERROR DETECTION within  and between individuals

Arguably, Bias is energized by nonconscious efforts to minimize cognitive dissonance—the discomfort that comes from a mismatch between internal expectations and the world as it is experienced.  Outside one’s body, whether person-to-person or via computers, it is critical that transmitted and received information match each other. (read about “error-detection” in computer systems).  At a very deep level of organization, the brain automatically invokes a process called “error detection,”  and makes tiny adjustments to minimize it.  (Any effort to minimize “cognitive effort” is considered an advantage—adaptive if its cost of errors does not exceed the benefits of rapid, automatic responses.) In the brain, error can evoke a unique signature (an “error-related negativity” wave) that can be detected and sometimes elicits a “feeling” that something is wrong (read a Spiegel essay on a possible source of “intuition”)[i]. 

Ethologists studying an unfamiliar species (or a psychologist studying a person with unfamiliar behavior) work at minimizing the influence of bias on what they observe and how they interpret it. (the most obvious biases to ethologists are unwarrented extrapolation from other species (not least our selves) with which they are more familiar).

In other words, WHILE BIAS seeps or penetrates into every aspect of our lives, we should all be on guard, particularly when taking action. The essential comparative dimension of ethology, with its strong grounding in evolutionary biology, automatically emphasizes the similarities and differences of species has done much to make this discipline particularly aware.  Similarly, the comparative aspects within phenomenology makes much of the urgency (and difficulty) of purging one’s self of bias.  It is part of enabling new ways of being in the world.

The Challenge of ABSURDITY.  “Clues to the appeal of this kind of art come from recent work by psychologists, who are beginning to understand the strange effects it can have on the brain. According to research on the ‘meaning maintenance model’ of human reasoning, surreal and absurd art can be so unsettling that the brain reacts as if it is feeling physical pain, yet it ultimately leads us to reaffirm who we are, and sharpens the mind as we look for new ways to make sense of the world. The findings also suggest new ways to improve education, and even help to explain our responses to some of the more absurd political events of recent years.

The meaning maintenance model was first proposed by three psychologists – Steven Heine, Travis Proulx and Kathleen Vohs – in 2006. They were inspired by the French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, who argued that the human mind continuously attempts to construct a view of reality as a single, coherent whole – an urge he described in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) as ‘nostalgia for unity’.

Heine and his team proposed that our mental representation of the world is like a delicate web of interconnected beliefs, documenting the relations between ourselves and the people, places and objects around us. When we are confronted with an apparently inexplicable event that appears to break that framework, we feel profound uncertainty – the ‘feeling of the absurd’.

Using these ideas as a launch board, the psychologists described three ways in which the mind might mitigate that feeling. The most drastic would involve building a new mental representation to incorporate the inexplicable event. Alternatively, we could reinterpret the event so that it fits our existing mental model. Or we could strengthen other beliefs and values, even those relating to a completely unconnected domain – a phenomenon that the psychologists described as ‘fluid compensation’. This involves ‘retreating to a safe place where the world makes sense again’, Heine told me.”  (Robson 2020)[i]   (boldface emphasis, mine.  The resonance with Piaget’s assimilation / acommodation model is obvious. look in on A&O notes on Development and Learning)


[i] David Robson (2020) A touch of absurdity can help to wrap your mind around reality.  PSYCHE 17May2020 (https://psyche.co/ideas/a-touch-of-absurdity-can-help-to-wrap-your-mind-around-reality?)