Assumption, Perception, and Opinion: The Art of Discernment

“Man will begin to recover the moment he takes art as seriously as physics, chemistry, or money.
– Ernst Levy, Swiss pianist     

An artist’s confession

Decades ago, I was a sixteen-year-old student sitting in an outdoor café in Jerusalem on a beautiful sunny day. I found myself observing a diverse crowd of people, including a few artist friends, who were tossing around an array of unsubstantiated opinions on the subject of an imminent election. They were uninformed, but at the same time confident and utterly certain in their convictions.

Well, things haven’t changed much since then. Human beings still toss around unsubstantiated opinions with impunity. One of our unfortunate habits is the inability to free ourselves from established patterns of belief—and this includes moral and esthetic judgment. As a result, we relegate ourselves to a somewhat illusory existence. In terms of verifiable information, the importance of going to the source tends to be overlooked by most people, who seem content with deeply insufficient knowledge of the foundations of their most vociferous opinions. Ask yourself: How did you come to know what you know? Do you have enough information to defend your assumptions?

“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become a reality.” – Earl Nightingale

The Root of Judgement

In Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodinow states that most of what we do every minute of every day—our decisions, emotions, and behavior—is, for the most part, derived from unconscious knowledge. The human brain absorbs and stores ideas that happen to be floating around in close proximity. As we assimilate them, we adopt them as our own. As a result, most of our decisions do not stem from conscious or deliberate reasoning. Rather, they are mental sensations that happen to us, but we still cling to the belief that we, as unique individuals, are calling the shots.

In reality, myriad activities in the brain happen automatically, without our awareness. Two studies carried out by Yale University cognitive psychologists illuminate the ways in which subconscious knowledge affects our decisions: subjects holding a warm cup of coffee judged others more favorably than participants holding a cold cup of coffee, but remained unaware of that influence. This stands as an example of the common phenomenon of priming.  

A separate study demonstrated that a group of judges handed out harsher sentences before lunch than after a meal. The idea was that their mental resources depleted over time, and at a certain point, they ceased careful deliberation—until a bite to eat replenished their resources. Similarly, the smell of baked goods increased the likelihood of acts of generosity.

Scientists are currently identifying neural correlates that explain how these processes actually work, allowing us to understand that our actions and choices may not arise exclusively from high-level reasoning. In fact, morals and esthetic judgments are heavily influenced by evolutionary history, the viewpoints of others, and the endless stream of unfiltered information gushing into our minds every waking minute. This tendency becomes even more pronounced in survival situations, where knowledge is paramount.


Scientists studied the brains of expert board game players and found that they were able to retrieve important information with little attentional effort. Amateur players, on the other hand, failed to employ the same strategy. In expert board game players, the area of the brain involved in acquisition of expertise becomes enlarged. Advanced players make lightning-fast decisions about which move or combination of moves will produce the most favorable outcome. In this case, the immediacy of what we call intuition is a product of information already stored in the brain. Instant retrieval just makes it seem intuitive.

Conscious Decision-making

Our choices are shaped by environment: the biological, psychological, social, cultural, and evolutionary influences that form each and every one of us. In his talk “Are We in Control of Our Decisions?”, Dan Ariely addresses research that shows we’re not as rational as we think when making decisions. Why do we prefer specific colors, a certain cuisine, or a pretty face? Most of the time, we ignore these questions, believing there is no need to know why we like some things and not others. We have become accustomed to believing that our feelings are the best guide to knowing, but gut feelings stand on equal footing with information stored in the brain.

Art and Beauty

When making art, for example, we tend to act automatically; there is no need to know why. Knowing becomes almost taboo. Many people even believe that knowledge impinges upon their creativity. The physicist Richard Feynman put it beautifully: “I have a friend who’s an artist…. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. Then he says, ‘I, as an artist, can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, take this all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.’ And I think he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty he sees is available to other people—and to me, too. I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension….”

“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.” — Emo Philips

True Knowledge

Like it or not, we cannot free ourselves from the shackles of evolution. We need a new level of awareness to dislodge misconceptions from our consciousness. Without it, even experts, researchers, discoverers, innovators, artists, and philosophers would be vulnerable to fragmented knowledge and a distorted view of the world. To truly understand ourselves in the universe, we need knowledge that is derived from the totality of data available to us. And to the skeptics, I invite you: take a look at the state of affairs in which we find ourselves today. Where has it gotten us?

 “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
— Benjamin Franklin

By David Zaig

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2 thoughts on “Assumption, Perception, and Opinion: The Art of Discernment”

  1. Excellent piece. Reflects the Naturalistic philosophy fictionalized by Norris, Crane, Drieser. It particularly makes me think of Crane in light of the soldier’s self-delusion in ‘Red Badge of Courage’, which, ironically, many readers delude themselves into thinking is a tribute to soldierly bravery in war. Look at the South, the monstrous confederate flags, the political posters in the yards of trailers and run-down homes. So powerful is the impact of poverty, lack of education, race on the Southern white blue -collar mind, telling the white male stand against his own rational self-interest–and telling the female, lacking in self-worth, that her husband is right.