Fear vs Terror

Sometimes it is ok to be afraid

gk on October 16, 2014 in Misc About a 2 minute read.

There is an entire branch of Philosophy devoted to trying to understand how it is that we can know something (epistemology). It turn out that this is a tricky problem, and has spawned everything from empiricism to idealism to the philosophy of science. Anyway... after 2000+ years of thinking about this stuff the best we’ve been able to come up with is that knowledge is: ‘justified true belief’. So, it is not enough to believe something, it is not even enough to believe something that actually is true....  It must be true and you must have appropriate justification for it.

Belief without justification, validation, evidence can be dangerous, while belief paired with evidence becomes knowledge, understanding, progress. I’ve often noticed a parallel relationship between fear and terror.

We know that fear is the enemy. Just like untempered belief, raw fear is corrosive, gnawing, irrational. Fear can be one of the most primal subconscious motivators of irrational behavior. Fear is perhaps the most destructive force humans face in our modern world: fear of each other, fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear of progress.  

But here is a distinction that I think is helpful... There is a difference between fear and terror, and this distinction mirrors the epistemological distinction between belief and knowledge. 

Fear is a generalized foreboding, an anxiety... literally dis-ease. On the other hand, terror is justified true fear. 

Here’s an example...

I love to surf. People from land-locked areas have sometimes asked me “aren’t you afraid of sharks?”. Well, I believe that there are in fact large sharks in the ocean, and I believe that sharks do attack and kill surfers from time-to-time. These beliefs can lead to fear. But ultimately, that fear is baseless. On the other hand, if I am surfing and I see a large fin in the lineup... that is terror. At that point, I have some real evidence to apply -- my general beliefs have been justified (to some extent) by real evidence. And I am well-advised to perhaps paddle in to shore as gracefully as circumstances allow.

So, just as I may believe that homeopathy cures illness but should not act on that belief in the absence of any good evidence. I may feel fear, but should never act on that feeling without some good justification(s). On the other hand, a visceral fear in the face of a present threat (i.e. Terror) is in fact an extremely valuable and healthy reason to take action.

Generally speaking, you should never, ever, act or decide based only upon fear. You should try to be aware of the times you are under the influence of fear.

When feeling fear, the best strategy is to attempt to justify (or falsify) it. This usually involves: 

1. A Diagnosis... What am I really afraid of? What are the real stakes? The stoics framed this as "What's the worst that could happen?". The supreme court applied the appropriately named standard of "clear and present danger".

2. A Test... The appropriate reaction to mere fear is to confront it, rather than avoid it. Go headlong into it, particularly in ‘hedged’ or ‘controlled’ ways, probe it, and measure the validity of it. These engagements may yield justifying data and lead to terror. But most often, they will serve to dissolve the illusory fear itself.

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