Feelings Care About Your Facts

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

Ben Shapiro tweets the regular reminder “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” The relationship between feelings and facts is a lot more intimate than this catchphrase would lead us to believe.

What I think Shapiro means by this line is something like: The superior person does not let emotion blind them to the existence observable and verifiable facts, and one must be extra vigilant in the case of encountering data that runs contrary to our desires. Now I’m not sure I agree with Shapiro on much (truly, I don’t know—I haven’t taken the time to watch his show), but I’d like to take the time respond to this catchphrase. I think it is a good start, but inadequate.

To begin with the good start: I can definitely handle being reminded, now and then, that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” It is helpful for me, because sometimes I forget it--or I think I know it too well, and then overlook it.

This reminder is helpful to me not because I openly detest reality and prefer to live in a world explicitly composed of fantasies, but because I think of myself as someone who can get in touch with “the facts” of a given situation pretty clearly. In fact, learning to become aware of, and see through, the many subjective layers of my own interpretations of “the facts” has been, perhaps, the major task of my entire adult life. I expect I will be working at that until the day I die, for I am of the opinion that a purely objective view cannot actually be reached by a human mind. Not in a clean laboratory setting, and certainly not out in the mud of the world. Working toward an objective view, however, is extremely valuable. I consider this working toward process, of gaining awareness of one’s own subjectivities, to be the means by which a human being can come closer to an immediate experience of reality. It develops the capacity to perceive something close to (but definitely not identical with) the “objective facts”. Awareness of the process itself, as well as the fact that it is never “finished”--these keep me grounded and humble. Not that it always works--I can get easily carried away on my own intellect, and fool myself for a little while into thinking I’ve got it all figured out. I am decidedly un-humble at these times.

And this is why “facts don’t care about your feelings” is a meaningful reminder for me. My words might suggest I already “get it”; I really only get it sometimes. When I start to think I’ve got it figured out, case closed, I close myself off to new facts. Something I’ve observed is that “getting it” comes and goes with most people; we can be enthusiastic fans of the facts right up until the facts aren't what we want them to be. The history of science is rife with those who considered themselves really, really objective, and who nevertheless produced work that really, really reeks of subjectivity. As a single example, the psychologist James Hillman(1) cites many “reasonable scientific men (Dalepatius, Hartsoeker, Garden, Bourget, Leeuwenhoek, Andry)” of the 17th and 18th centuries who, despite their commitment to objectivity, somehow were able to see in their examinations of spermatozoa under the microscope, “exceedingly minute forms of men, with arms, heads, and legs complete”. (Other scientists saw tiny horses in horse semen, and tiny roosters in rooster semen). Even the most objective eye, to an extent, sees what it is conditioned to see; what it is open to seeing. Science itself, thanks to its continual regeneration and course-correction (similar to the “working toward” process), has probably become a great deal more objective since then; whether the individual scientist’s perspective is any different is by no means settled, and depends entirely on the individual scientist.

Something else that can blind me is that my own intuition is, a lot of the time, a terrific tool that I put a lot of faith in. I find that it often helps me to grasp the nature of situations quite quickly. In particular, I often intuitively know when something is wrong or missing in an argument, a work of art, a personal interaction. I don’t know what it is until I think about it, but I intuit that it’s there. (As a result, I often find myself in the role of a critic or skeptic. This very post is the result of an intuition that I am trying to sort out and refine with thought.) The strength of my intuition can also be a serious obstacle. Because it has served me so well, it can be very difficult for me to tell when it is wrong. And believe me, I could fill a swimming pool with situations in which my intuition was wrong (or, more likely, incomplete). This is why I find it so useful to be reminded, now and then, of the value of cold hard data. Data can cut through the false certainty of intuition (which usually appears most certain when it is compensating for the truly certain knowledge it has of itself: that it is only a partial understanding of the situation.)

And yet, I think Shapiro’s formulation is inadequate. I know it’s primarily a catchphrase, but it’s a good one, and a widely shared one, so it deserves attention. A fuller conception, which would admittedly make for less punchy memes, might be: Facts don’t care about your feelings, but feelings care about your facts. The second part might seem obvious, but there is value in including it. Just as a purely feeling-based response can be incomplete, a one-sided take like “facts don’t care about your feelings” is also incomplete. They need each other to be rounded out.

Objective facts are generated by subjective beings-. Remember the tiny sperm-horses here, which we can say, today, with a fair bit of certainty, did not exist independently of their observers. Facts are inherently partly feeling, as well as partly intuition, thought, and sensation. At the same time, feelings, intuitions, thoughts, and sensations are facts. Though they do not necessarily tell literal truths about other objects (as we might erroneously assume a fact should), they tell the truth about themselves. They themselves are observable and verifiable phenomena, and though they are sometimes only verifiable by the person experiencing them; this does not make them less real. When you are trying to make a decision, and someone suggests that you focus on the facts, it can be easy to overlook the facts of our own personal involvement.

These four functions that I’ve mentioned--feeling, thought, intuition, and sensation--are what C. G. Jung saw as the four psychic functions which perceive data in the world. In science, we mostly rely on thought and sensation (being that which is received by the senses), but the others don’t go away. Yes, they can at times be irrational or even maladaptive; they are still there. And as I have written in a previous post, it doesn’t matter what our opinions about intuition and feeling are, anyway, because we cannot just do away with things we don’t like. Not morally, but literally, we can't get rid of them. What we try to kick out the front door comes in again through the window. This too is a fact--a psychological principle--and like other facts, it doesn't really care about what you want.

(Thought and sensation can just as easily be maladaptive, anyway. Ever try having an argument with someone who can think more quickly than you, but is unwilling to acknowledge their [or your] feelings? It might help them “win”, but it definitely doesn’t make them right.)

An example may help here: Let’s imagine that there is a psychological study that I don’t like the results of. These results go against my intuitions, and my carefully refined opinions, which are grounded in experience and research, about the way some aspect of the human psyche behaves. I read this study, and I become upset. I am angry at the study, and the researcher too. We can parse this three ways: Firstly, and there is probably no argument here, it is clear that the facts don’t care about my feelings. My anger will not change the results that the researcher recorded, not in the slightest. Furthermore, if these results point to an important insight, my anger will not nullify the insight. Maybe if I throw a fit, or threaten the researcher (or his or her funders), the study could get buried somehow, but even that doesn’t change the fact of the research having happened. Secondly, my feelings obviously care about the facts. They care so much that I am unable to view the facts dispassionately; I may be unable to accept the facts and spend my nights lying awake and coming up with ways to refute and discredit them. Thirdly, my feelings are facts. The anger I feel is there; it is an emotional data point, a source of information for me in understanding my own relationship to the thing that I am angry about. (Incidentally, anger is also a physical sensation; I would argue that it is a sensation before we are aware of it as emotion; that is definitely beyond the scope of this post, though, so I’ll leave it there.)

Again, I know little about Shapiro at the moment. What I hear about him is that he is uncommonly intelligent and self-reflective, and so it seems entirely likely that he is aware of everything I’m saying, and is just using the catchphrase for fun. What I’ve written here is to try and balance the one-sided punchiness of the catchphrase, and offer a bit more space for reflection. Let me see if I can come up with an improvement, at least a temporary one:

This doesn't fit quite as well, does it?