The Myth of the Given – or – Marooned on Mount Assumption

We all believe in an outdated myth. It is the unconscious belief that something is given – that we are standing on some solid ground of truth from which the rest of our understanding of reality is built. This belief gives us a sense of security in what we think, because underneath it we believe that it is fundamentally based on something true.

I have mentioned this idea a few times in recent posts. The American philosopher Wilfred Sellers gave a series of lectures about “The Myth of the Given” in the 1950’s that were later collected into a book. The book, called “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” is short and technical in tone. Luckily Sellers uses some illustrative examples that I believe conveyed to me at least some of the basic sense of what he was trying to get across.

First of all it seems that there is not just one ‘myth of the given’ there are several forms of it that apply in different ways. Fundamentally though it is a belief that, underneath our perceptions, conceptions, derivations and interpretations about reality, there is something that is ‘objectively’ true serving as the foundation of it all.

Most of us first encountered the idea of ‘the given’ in our high school physics classes. Remember? You start a physics problem with a list of givens as in… given that the rock starts at a height 100 meters from the ground, and given that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 meters per second squared, then you can calculate how long it will take for the rock, when dropped, to strike the ground. The basic idea is that as long as we know a sufficient number of facts then we can safely use the rules of logic to derive new facts. These new facts will be true because they are based on sound logic and previously known ‘givens.’

 The ‘givens’ are not themselves derived. They are just self evident facts. In our physics classes that means physical properties – mass, height, density, etc. – that can be directly observed AND physical laws and relationships which are known to be accurate. When you are doing physics problems in high school the ‘givens’ really help – but you are working within a very limited context. As the idea of their being something ‘given’ drifts out of ninth grade physics class and into the rest of life you can run into problems.

The beautiful thing about physics is that you are explicit about what your ‘givens’ are. I remember those physics tests that instructed you to ‘list your givens.’ You had to show what you were assuming as ‘given’ and then show how you were manipulating those givens to produce new facts.

In our everyday thinking we seldom have to ‘show all of our work’ or ‘list our givens.’ The result is that our ideas about what is real and true are based on assumptions that we are often not even aware of and might not ultimately be true. The layer of ideas and concepts that we are usually working with is the tip of the iceberg. Imagine it as an island. An island in the ocean is the little tip of a huge mountain that climbs up from the depths of the ocean floor. Our consciously held ideas are like this island. They are the little tip of thought that we are consciously aware of but they are connected to a mountain of ideas that have built up over time.

The earliest beliefs about reality became the first givens and based on those new layers of understanding were built. Those new – derived – ideas became the givens for the next layers of understanding. On and on and on it goes until we get to the little island of consciously held ideas in our head. You are probably often not even aware of the mountain of derived givens that your ideas rest on. Once we start digging into that mountain of givens we start to realize – as I believe Sellers did – that we are assuming that there is something un-derived and rock-solid true underneath it all – and it might not actually be there. Maybe we are sitting on a mountain of assumptions built on other assumptions built on other assumptions – Mount Assumption we might call it.

So the next time you look at anything – or think anything – and catch yourself assuming that it is true, you have to ask yourself, “true based on what?” What is the mountain of assumptions that my current thinking is resting on right now. And as we extend our analogy further we see that the mountain of assumptions that we are the tip of is connected at its base to all the other mountains of all the other islands of ideas that we see in other people’s heads. In fact we are all part of one intellectual planet of assumptions that has grown separate mountains that pop out into conscious awareness through the islands of intellect that we call other human beings.