“No journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith
When people ask me what I do for a living, I answer that I direct the research program at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. What follows are a range of responses. For some, a light of recognition is ignited in their eyes: “Oh, I love that place…cool!” For a few, there is the “Never-heard-of-it” glaze. And for many, there is a musing look as they search their memory for some reference to “noetic,” come up blank, and with a knowing nod, say “Ah, yes.” Then quizzically, “What is that?”
There have been many conversations at IONS over the years about whether we should change the name to something more recognizable, something less obscure. I’ve always voted against it because the word “noetic” is such a conversation starter. For the most part, people hear the word and are curious about what it means. The closest they can come up with is “know” or “poetic” – which aren’t that far from the true meaning of the word. In some ways, you could describe the word “noetic” as the poetic way of knowing. More accurately, it is the subjective form of knowledge, a way of knowing that arises from deep inside – gut feelings, hunches, intuition, that “I have a feeling” feeling. Often, it is accompanied by a sense of certainty, of absolute clarity, the undeniable-ness of knowing that something is “so” without any need for proof. In a recent conversation, a woman asked, “What is the value of studying things that we already know to be true?”
But therein lies the rub. Subjective knowledge is notoriously prone to inaccuracy due to incomplete information (such as the once widely-held belief that the earth was flat) and perceptual limitations like inattentional blindness. We hold biases that we sometimes aren’t even aware of and that are not in alignment with our “conscious” values. And we can be quite chagrined when we find at some level that we do hold these biases (try some of the games at Harvard’s Project Implicit to see what I mean). Furthermore, what we think we believe is easily influenced by factors completely out of our awareness, like expectancy effects (where we tend to be influenced by what we expect to happen than by what has actually happened –à la the placebo effect) or subconscious priming (where even the flash of a picture or word that we don’t consciously perceive can change the way we feel and react to what is happening).
Recent research shows that even cherished beliefs and moral certainties can be easily influenced by simply being exposed to a brief paragraph or story. For example, reading a passage stating that free will doesn’t exist has been shown to increase cheating behavior on a laboratory task (Vohs and Schooler, 2008). Listening to a story about a person in our lives for whom we have a feeling of safety and security increases our tendency to endorse peaceful solutions to a conflict (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2001). We are being influenced all the time by our biases, expectations, and limited perceptions.
So does this mean that subjective experience should be thrown out as a valid way of knowing? Well, in some very real ways it has been, and originally for good reason. Overreliance on irrational belief and blind faith in dogma took us as a human species to some very dark places, for a very long time. The “Age of Enlightenment” in the 1600s was a much-needed movement away from blind superstition and the arbitrary edicts handed down from religious authorities, toward reason and the use of science to validate truth claims. Unfortunately, the current dominance of “istic” worldviews – mechanistic, reductionistic, deterministic – has perhaps taken us too far in the direction of technological solutions to societal problems without accompanying wisdom and ethics. Social, emotional, and spiritual dimensions have been undervalued and left unattended in such institutional settings as business, healthcare, and education.
This is why the noetic sciences mean so much to me. I believe with great certainty (on a noetic level, embracing all the biases that accompany it) that all great innovations are born at the intersection of science—which strives to eliminate bias and inaccuracy—and the wisdom of deep subjective experience. It is when both ways of knowing are equally valued that we’ll find solutions for enhancing the flourishing of humanity and the planet.