The four great errors
§5 The psychological explanation: to extract something familiar from something unknown relieves, comforts, and satisfies us, besides giving us a feeling of power. With the unknown, one is confronted with danger, discomfort, and care; the first instinct is to abolish these painful states. First principle: any explanation is better than none. Because it is fundamentally just our desire to be rid of an unpleasant uncertainty, we are not very particular about how we get rid of it: the first interpretation that explains the unknown in familiar terms feels so good that one “accepts it as true.” We use the feeling of pleasure (“of strength”) as our criterion for truth.
A causal explanation is thus contingent on (and aroused by) a feeling of fear. The “why?” shall, if at all possible, result not in identifying the cause for its own sake, but in identifying a cause that is comforting, liberating, and relieving. A second consequence of this need is that we identify as a cause something already familiar or experienced, something already inscribed in memory. Whatever is novel or strange or never before experienced is excluded. Thus one searches not just for any explanation to serve as a cause, but for a specific and preferred type of explanation: that which has most quickly and most frequently abolished the feeling of the strange, new, and hitherto unexperienced in the past — our most habitual explanations. Result: one type of causal explanation predominates more and more, is concentrated into a system and finally emerges as dominant — that is, as simply precluding other causes and explanations. The banker immediately thinks of “business,” the Christian of “sin,” and the girl of her love.