Today I would like to talk about the problem of mental filters. Why is it that we fail to see what is right in front of us, what someone is telling us, and make all kinds of false judgments and show all kinds of errors in discernment and perception? The problem is that we see things not how they are, but how we are, and most of us have not undertaken the mental discipline to examine our filters and how we see the world, to test them for accuracy and to admit the possibility of fallibility.
If you have ever watched the film Traffic, you will understand the subtle but profound nature of the problem of filters. It isn’t a great film, but it tries to be. Nonetheless, the way it shows the problem of filters is a very profound one. The scenes shot of the drug lords in northern Mexico in the border towns with the United States or in the deserts are shot with a yellow filter, making everything appear to be dirty and grainy. The shots of the president of the United States and his family in Washington DC or Ohio are shot with a blue filter, making everything appear to be at home and comfortable. Instead of the film shooting both scenes the way they are, the use of filters increases the emotional distance between the drug lords assassinating rivals or those who turn them in to the authorities and between upstanding American citizens caught up in recreational drug use. The difference in mental filters corresponds to a difference in perception about them, a stubborn refusal to see things as they are.
These filters are more ominous when they inhibit our ability to see what is actually present around us, especially what other people are telling us, and especially when there is debate and disagreement involved. There are a few mental filters that can serve to prevent us from really understanding what is going on because we refuse to see it. Among these filters that I wish to discuss in turn is the problem of the message and the messenger, the problem in accepting common universally valid standards or definitions, and the question of authorities and credibility.
Among the biggest problems we have in debates or controversies is the problem of separating the message and the messenger. Due to our personal preference either for or against the messenger, we are prone to hastily disregard or uncritically accept the message. To regard the person of the messenger is a serious mistake when trying to understand the message they are giving. Is that message true? That requires verification, an act of respect shown by taking the message seriously enough to check out. If we do not like a messenger or find their message unpleasant, that does not mean the message is inaccurate. We can learn even from our enemies–and if our enemies have given us the honor of being honest with us, we can especially learn from them thanks to that honor and respect.
A second problem with mental filters comes as a result of the problem of definitions. If two people are talking about a subject and cannot agree on what it means, the likelihood of them agreeing is slim to nonexistent. When people cannot define their terms and say what they mean (often because they do not know what they are about), they cannot rationally engage in discourse with other people. Oftentimes disagreement is not a matter of fundamental differences, but a matter of defining terms and concepts in a particular fashion, or meaning one meaning while someone else, for valid reasons, uses such term in a different context and with a different meaning. When there is enough respect to examine what is being meant on both sides, there can be a meeting of minds, but if definitions and standards are purely arbitrary, there can only be disagreement.
A third problem is the issue of credibility and authority. If there is a dispute between two people, what authority do the two sides both recognize that can serve as an arbiter in the dispute. If the two parties recognize a common standard and a common authority (in other words, if the two parties share a common worldview), then the dispute can be resolved to mutual satisfaction by appealing to that authority. If, however (as is often the case), the question of authority is itself in dispute, then there can be no appeal to common ground because no such common ground exists. A situation can only be resolved by authorities that are shared by all parties involved (ultimately, God). Often these conflicts between worldviews may be latent for a long time (years, or even decades) but when they flare up they cannot be resolved because the two sides lack “credibility” with the other because the question of “authority” means that the two sides stand on separate ground and consider the other as inconsistent, unreliable, and untrustworthy.
The problems are all part of the same underlying problem, the question of subjectivity versus objectivity, that serves as a fundamental block to human relations throughout history. The absence of recognition of an objective authority and standard prevents objective consideration of what someone is saying, since there is only subjective preference to judge by. When we reject the message because of our hostility to the messenger, or when we accept a fallacious and deceptive claim because of our support of the messenger, we are showing improper subjectivity rather than an objective concern for truth. When we prefer our own definitions that vary on the situation and the person rather than an objective standard, we show ourselves being improperly subjective rather than properly objective in our approach. We are to show mercy after establishing an objective standard, not to enshrine our subjective preferences into our standard.
We cannot expect to remove our mental filters, as they are a part of who we are. Nonetheless, if we are wise and competent judges of what is going on around us, we will see our filters and therefore know what our blind spots are, and act accordingly. If we seek to see the world around us and respond to it accurately and correctly, we need to be aware of what filters we have and to counteract that bias if possible so as to give a fair hearing to the evidence before we pronounce final judgment. At least then we may be able to see things as they are and respond accordingly, rather than seeing things merely as we wish them to be inside of our own minds and hearts.