Up in the Sky

Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way.  Or least he did when I was a kid.  One out of three ain’t bad.  Considering the many exposés that have come out about Trump in the last few weeks, many of them by intimate family or very close friends he’s recently betrayed, are a pretty amazing example of a liberal hoax, I guess.  Witness after witness after witness comes out saying that truth, justice, and the American way simply aren’t important to 45, and yet the evangelical bloc insists differently.  They can’t seem to see that those who like Superman don’t object to your garden variety Republican (although we prefer the other alternative), we object to Duperman saying he’s Superman.  When in history have we had several party members advocating that people not vote for their own party’s candidate?  And yet the true follower can’t accept the witness of closest friends and fixers that they’ve been lied to for four years.

Like many people I would rather not be political.  When it becomes an issue of destroying democracy, however, it suddenly seems like I have to add yet another thing to my already full plate.  For four years now I haven’t been able to trust the government to do its job.  Trump admits that he ignored how serious he knew the Covid-19 crisis to be back in the spring.  Six months later and we’re all still confined to our houses and businesses are suffering, and his supporters say he read this one just right.  Over 200,000 of our fellow Americans have died from a virus that our “president” won’t admit is a problem, even as the White House has taken over writing guidelines for the CDC.  Boy, are we ever great hoaxers over here on the left!

I recall Superman flying around Metropolis actually fighting crime.  Ensuring that the truth was upheld.  Justice was essential.  People adored him.  What happened on the way from Super to Duper?  We’ve come to praise a man who is a sworn enemy to justice unless there’s something in it for him.  Whose number of documented lies by any measure staggers the imagination, and yet whom “true Christians” support.  The Superman of the New Testament had quite a bit to say about truth and justice (the American way was a bit beyond his experience).  Those who lived in lies were considered friends of the Devil.  But times have changed since then.  Heck, they’ve changed since I was a kid.  We used to look up to Superman in those days.  Now we apparently prefer lies, injustice and what is apparently becoming the American way.

Documentary

It all comes down to people and honesty.  Given the bald-faced lies that come from the White House these days, honesty is at a premium.  There are, however, always people involved.  And with people you never know.  This issue arises because I’ve been watching documentaries.  A documentary is classified as a nonfiction genre, but it will nevertheless have a point of view.  You need to question yourself about the motives of the writers and directors.  What are they trying to say?  Are they slanting the narrative a little too much in their own direction?  In cases like Ken Burns’ works, there’s little doubt everything is well researched and well funded.  They inspire confidence.  But I also watch more questionable films.

Recently I saw My Amityville Horror, a prolonged interview with Danny Lutz, the oldest child featured in the book and film.  In true documentary style, others are interviewed, some of them skeptics.  The film pointed notes that Lutz’s brother and sister declined to be part of it.  Lutz makes the case throughout that these things really did happen.  He’s obviously not a rich man—he drives truck for UPS—but he’s sincere.  Others interviewed cast doubts on the memories of over three decades’ fermentation.  The point of view here is one that seems to believe Lutz, who is a no-nonsense kind of guy.  At the very end when asked if he’d take a lie detector test, however, the subject seizes up.  It leaves the viewer wondering if we’ve all be taken down the garden path.  Is he an honest man or is he hoping to supplement his income?

A couple weeks later I watched Hostage to the Devil, a documentary on the life of Malachi Martin.  Martin was never a figure without controversy, and it seems that he enjoyed it.  Interviews with friends, and even the agent who did quite well from his book that shares the title of the documentary, argue for his sincerity.  The major players in the field, those who are still living, in any case, all make appearances.  The question that hangs in the air, although the documentary seems to lean towards his validation, is whether Martin was an honest man.  We always have to ask that question when money is involved.  Martin’s book, Hostage to the Devil, has sold over a million copies.  It made a living for an ex-Jesuit who then became part of the media circuit.  It leaves more questions than answers.  I wonder how Ken Burns would handle such topics.

Naming Rainbows

Living in the area around Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton (ABE, in airport parlance), one can’t help but be aware that Crayola is based in the E sector.  We visited the Crayola Experience while still residents of New Jersey and if there’s any place that smells like childhood this was it.  One of the truly interesting aspect of Crayola is that it defined specific shades of color.  Or at least Crayola’s version of it.  Many of us have pretty clear ideas about the basic six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.  Sure, they added “indigo” to make it into a pronounceable name, and changed purple to “violet” to give us the standard seven, but this illustrates the point that I’m making—colors are somewhat relative.  Try to get anyone to describe, famously, puce (which I’ve learned is French for “fleas”).

A friend has recently been sharing stories from a book on the origins of color names (Secret Lives of Colors by Kassia St Clair), from which I learned about puce.  Although I haven’t read the book myself, it has become clear that colors indicate different things to different people.  All of this reminded me of a crisis I faced in my youth.  One of my teachers in middle school, in physics class, mentioned that not all people perceived the same color in the same way.  Or at least there’s no way to know whether they do or not.  Perhaps, he suggested, everyone has the same favorite color, but what they call it is different.  While the latter point seems unlikely, I took to heart that not everyone sees things the same way.  The same dilemma came back to me as my friend showed me various colors and said that her idea of what that color name designated was something quite different.

As in much of what I write, there are metaphors and analogies active here.  A paradox of religions is the great variety among them combined with the certainty that one’s own alone is “the truth.”  And all religious believers tend to be certain that theirs is true.  Like the color names we learn as children, we seldom grow up to question what we were told in our youth.  Some religions appeal to adult converts, but most people stay close to the orthodoxies of their youth.  Religions, like colors names, are a matter of consensus, for there are any number of shades and hues, and what we decide to name them is not revealed from on high.  They do, however, give the world considerable color.

 

Self-Convinced

Like many people, I suppose that my own views are right.  All people think this, I suspect, otherwise they’d change their point of view.  Unless they’ve been brainwashed, of course.  Religion has a way of convincing people that they alone are right.  (And perhaps also those who believe just like them.)  I have plenty of experience with this.  Seemingly normal, friendly people suddenly turn on you when you’re not there to defend yourself.  All in the name of religion.  The place, unfortunately, that it’s most found is in “conservative” religions.  With preachers braying about righteousness and being washed in the blood of the lamb the human element is often sacrificed.  Anyone who dares to think differently is going to Hell, and, in most of these traditions, you wish them godspeed.  Then there are those who wish for true dialogue.

Dialogue means, however, that you have to admit you may be wrong.  That’s one of the features the self-convinced fear most.  Ironically, even those who think they’re right can admit that they could be wrong.  Otherwise what’s the point of discussing anything at all?  As Tom Nichols points out in The Death of Expertise, many are offended that someone has greater knowledge of any area than they.  Like it or not, some of us have studied religion, the Bible, and spirituality for our entire lives.  You might not agree with everything such a person says—we often disagree among ourselves—but at least one might admit that a mere Ph.D. counts for something.  Even if on the stock market it simply won’t trade.

Ironically, as a young man I too was self-convinced.  For some reason that I can’t fathom, I decided that if my beliefs were solid they would stand up to the challenge of higher education.  As an undergrad I majored in religion at a conservative college and graduated summa cum laude.  I chose a liberal seminary to challenge further what I believed and came away magna cum laude.  Then the doctorate.  (Edinburgh didn’t offer such trifles as honors; if you made it through the program you should be so thankful.)  Tolerance became a massive part of my outlook, even as I ended up on the faculty of a very conservative seminary.  I was willing to listen, but the same could not be said for those who saw things differently.  Many of whom were far less educated, I say with all due self-abasement, than yours truly, in such things.  As time goes on I can’t help but reflect on this.  Even as I do I know others are completely convinced I’m wrong.

Slight Reading

It will soon be time to turn to holiday-oriented posts, but if you’re like me you’ve been seeing the decorations and hearing the music for some time now already.  Given that, at least in name, Christmas is a religious holiday it fits naturally into this blog.  So does the supernatural in itself.  This year I have read most—there’s one book unavailable—of the book-length work of/about Ed and Lorraine Warren.  The latest, some five years after Ed died, was Conversations with Ed and Lorrain Warren by T. Sealyham.  My copy, which came used from a library, has all the marks of self-publication.  It really needed an editor to go over it.  The transcribed radio interviews with Tony Spera, the Warrens’ son-in-law, the accounts told are familiar to those who know the Warrens’ other work, with a few new ones thrown in.

What is immediately striking here, apart from the factual errors (the Isle of Skye is not in the North Sea and Loch Ness is not between Edinburgh and Jedburgh) is the strong desire for credibility.  Personal anecdotes are offered as proof.  Even on the radio claims are made to having photographs (which can’t be seen in that medium) that aren’t shown because of various restrictions.  There’s no doubt that Ed and Lorraine were completely sincere in that they believed in the reality of the phenomena they studied.  They have to be credited with taking seriously what mainstream science simply cannot study.  I often found myself wondering why there can’t be any middle ground here.  The truth only appears when all the hands are face-up on the table.

Volumes like this, that preserve misstatements of a clearly aging Ed, do not help the cause of credibility.  Yes, people get forgetful with age.  Yes, people sometimes misspeak.  Credulity, however, doesn’t lead to credibility.  Many times Tony, after receiving an intriguing answer to a question, would immediately switch the subject instead of following up with a probing request for more detail.  The interview becomes a pastiche of friends remembering old times and claiming this is the truth because they all agree that it is.  Perhaps my negative response comes from the fact that truth itself is under attack by the United States government even as I write.  The world has lost the ability to judge objective evidence and come out with a reasoned assessment.  Are there ghosts?  Perhaps so, but to get to the truth of the matter will require more than the insistence that we believe “because I told you so.”

Shepherding Lies

They’re going to look pretty ridiculous when this is all over.  Like sheep without a shepherd.  Evangelicals, I mean.  The fact is they’ve jettisoned everything they stood for to support a pseudo-president constitutionally incapable of telling the truth and now they must be wondering about what they’ve lost along the way.  Stories in “liberal” sources such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic have raised the question repeatedly—why don’t Evangelicals hold Trump to the same standard they hold all other people?  His backing and filling have been obvious to anyone capable of thought, and yet the bestselling books in America for the past two weeks have been tomes about how the liberals are lying.  What’s an Evangelical to do when truth has lost its meaning?

While I was still an Evangelical, in college, we debated endlessly how to get at Truth with a capital “T.”  No matter how you sliced it, diced it, or even julienned it, Truth had to come from the Bible somehow.  Two things the Good Book was against unequivocally were lying and adultery.  Who’d have thought Southern Baptists would be standing in line to change divine law, by their own definition?  And for what purpose?  To support a man who clearly doesn’t share their values, and shows it daily.  These former Communist-haters now cozy up to Russia with a familiarity that suggests Trump isn’t the only one sleeping around.  As a former Evangelical, I have to wonder whatever happened to the concept of the double standard.  This was never considered right or fair or biblical.  Now it’s all three.

Just this past week the Washington Post ran a story about an Evangelical pastor preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments.  Somehow they’ve made their way from courthouse lawns into churches, it seems.  The week he reached adultery, he didn’t know what to say to his Trump-supporting flock.  He himself supports a leader whose told an average of hundreds of lies per day since January of last year.  Among them allegations that he didn’t commit adultery.  Or pay to have it covered up.  Or know that his lawyer had paid to cover it up.  But when said lawyer realizes that the shepherd doesn’t care about sheep—can’t even find one in a paddock—he suddenly remembers that there is Truth with a capital “T.”  But Evangelicals don’t have to listen to anyone named Cohen.  After all, they have wool in their ears.  Just don’t read what the Good Book says about hearing what you want to hear.  What’ve they lost?  Not just their shepherd, but their very souls.

Experimental Truth

Only the truly naive suppose that the government doesn’t lie. I just miss the days when they lied for what could be construed as good reasons. Now you can tell if the president’s lying simply by observing if he’s talking. In nostalgia for the days of defensible lies, and also my own youth, I picked up The Philadelphia Experiment by William L. Moore and Charles Berlitz. Before you roll your eyes too much, please bear with me. I was aware of this book when it first came out, but I never read it. My brother did and his interest has stayed with me all these decades until I finally got around to a bit of guilty pleasure reading myself. In case you don’t know the story, it goes like this:

In 1943 the U.S. Navy was experimenting with invisibility. At or near a naval yard around Philadelphia, the U. S. S. Eldridge was subjected to intense electro-magnetic fields that made it vanish. It showed up moments later in Chesapeake Bay, and then reappeared in Philadelphia. The crew aboard the ship went mad, although the experiment had been successful. Now, of course the story was denied, and still is, by the military. Moore and Berlitz track down enough clues in this book to make the event plausible. Nothing can be proven, and according to physics, this kind of thing can’t happen. Reading the account is a spot of fun amid the daily lies spewing from Pennsylvania Avenue.

There is a personal element involved in this story as well. One of the characters (at least one) uses a pseudonym. (Although the event was decades earlier than the book was written, the military has a long memory.) The pseudonym stuck out because it was Reno Franklin. The name was gleaned from a road sign from Oil City, where I went to high school. It gives the mileage to Reno, and then, Franklin (the town where I was born). Seeing my little town in a book that was a bestseller in it’s day was a strange kind of validation. Did the Eldridge really disappear one fine day in 1943? Most of us will never know. In the name of national security the truth, if there is anything actually to hide, has been classified. But that’s where guilty pleasures come in. Books like this, although they can’t be considered unvarnished truth, are enjoyable to read and vanish into a haze of a world where the Nazis ruled on the other side of the Atlantic, not over here.

Trained Witnesses

The problem with lying is that it generally doesn’t hold up. Eventually people will figure out that a falsehood is exactly that and the liar will be scorned. In other words, truth is determined by witnesses. This is tested and confirmed every day in our legal system. The witness is invaluable (except in the hands of lawyers). Since no one person can see everything, we rely on others to help us fill in the blanks. Think of it; when you see something unusual don’t you ask whoever’s with you “did you see that?” We witness the world around us, and unless we’re untruthful that observation becomes part of the collective narrative of what the world is like.

A story from IFL Science! sent by a friend describes “Ancient Legends And Myths That Were Later Proven True By Science.” Apparently this is part of an annual series. What the article lays out are recorded myths later confirmed by science. Scientists are trained witnesses. Taught to silo information, they separate belief (so they say) and eschew non-natural causation. They peer into the mirror each morning with Occam’s razor firmly in hand. Then everybody seems to be surprised when non-scientists have actually observed something correctly. This is the ancient bickering between religion and science—you can’t have it both ways, the reasoning goes. This is a zero-sum game. The winner takes it all. Reality, we observe, is seldom so simple. Articles like this one express surprise that non-scientists can get it right once in a while. The fact is, we’re all witnesses to what happens on this planet. Some of us are just taken more seriously than others.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating religion and science. Nor am I suggesting that all people are equally good observers. It’s just that sometimes things happen when there’s no scientist in the room. Or if there is there’s no time to wire everything up appropriately. The events in the IFL Science! piece are all like this. Observed by people before science was invented—some of them before civilization was invented—events were called myths until scientists came round with their notebooks and validated the long-departed witnesses. The problem with occasional phenomena is that they don’t come on cue. The universe isn’t here to please us or satisfy our curiosity. It’s just that sometimes we see things that don’t match up with the textbook. Whether you call an exorcist or a scientist depends entirely on your point of view.

Big Shoes

Belief in the supernatural seems to be alive here in the northwest. At least if the culture at Sea-Tac Airport is anything to go by. I’d noticed, last year, that a sasquatch graces a restaurant in the N terminal, where jets from Newark tend to land. This year we had a bit of a layover, so we strolled through the C concourse. There I found sasquatch approved salmon in the somewhat anomalous Hudson News. Then, as I sat in one of the stylish, Seattle seats, a young woman came up next to us and sat down wearing a Sasquatch Volleyball shirt. I’m past the age when I can get away with innocently asking young ladies if I can take a photo of their shirts, so you’ll just have to use your imagination for the latter. The point is, bigfoot has been mainstreamed.

When I was growing up you got pretty mercilessly teased if you expressed any interest in such things. Now that I’ve got a respectable career others can get away with what captured my imagination as a young man. I’ve never thought of myself as being ahead of the curve. Or really ahead of anything, for that matter. Still, I trust my instincts. Maybe religion will come back into vogue some day. Or maybe it will simply be called something else. A tainted name is difficult to live down. The supernatural—or paranormal—often shares conceptual territory with religion, and although the pews aren’t getting any fuller, the number of those looking for some kind of meaning in the unusual seems to be holding steady. Physics can take us only so far in understanding what it is to be human.

Times change. Yesterday’s jokes are today’s orthodoxies. Those who spend a great deal of time peering back into history won’t be surprised by this. What is true today is true for today. New facts will be discovered and if we lived long enough we’d find that the future world will believe quite differently than we do. Not that the truth is relative. It is, however, temporary. Massive religious wars have been fought over trying to keep truths timeless. The sad irony is that the truths had already changed by the time such wars had been waged. The more rational we become, it seems, the more we open the door for the supernatural. I won’t presume to be one declaring such truth. That would take more weight than I have to offer. And anyone making such a claim would have some awfully big shoes to fill.

Trusting Truth

How do we know what’s true? For many the answer is what your experience reveals. If that experience involves being raised as a Bible-believer, that complicates things. A friend recently sent me a New York Times piece entitled “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” by Molly Worthen. For those of us raised in Fundamentalist conditions, this isn’t news. Then again, those raised Fundamentalist assume that everyone knows the truth but others have blatantly decided to reject it. It’s a strange idea, inerrancy. It’s clearly a form of idolatry and its roots can be traced if anyone wishes to take the time to do it. Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is correct, tout court. It’s right about everything. If it contains one error, so the thinking goes, it topples like a house of cards. (Cards are sinful by the way, so get your hands off that deck!) If that’s your starting point, then the rest of the facts have to fall into place.

As much as I wish I could say that this simplistic outlook may be corrected by education, that’s not always the case. Many children of inerrantists are raised to question what they learn in school. Worse, many are home schooled so that they never have to be exposed to the sinful machinations of others until they try to enter the job market and are utterly perplexed by the fact that they don’t even speak a common language with the rest of society. Key code words don’t mean the same things outside that safe, withdrawn community where everyone knows the Bible and understands that to know it is to love it. Science doesn’t love the Bible, they’re taught. So science is wrong. It’s quite simple really. You already have all the information you need in one book. If science disagrees, then, well, you already have all the information you need.

There’s an internal logic to all of this, and dismissing the heartfelt beliefs of Fundamentalists only gets their backs up. It’s not about logic, but the emotion of belief. Some neuroscientists have been suggesting that we reason not only by logic but also with emotion. That complicates things, for sure, but it also explains a lot. For example, in a world where religion drives nearly all the major issues facing society, logic would dictate that universities would build up religion departments to try to understand this very real danger. Instead we find the exact opposite. Withdrawing into your own little world occurs on both ends of the spectrum. Dr. Worthen is to be applauded for bringing this out into the light. If society wants to benefit from this knowledge, it will need to stop and think about what it really means to be human. Fundamentalists, for all their foibles, illustrate that nicely.

On the Ground 2

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Don’t believe the lies. Your government is lying to you already on day 1. I watched in disbelief as Trump’s press secretary for the White House, Sean Spicer, told bald-face lies the very first day of Trump’s reign of terror. I was in Washington, DC. My niece attended the inauguration. My extended family attended the Women’s March on Washington the next day. Spicer, clearly comfortable with untruth, lied through his teeth mere minutes after I myself stood outside the White House, saying that Trump’s inauguration was the best attended in history, far outstripping the paltry women’s march. Pure, unadulterated lies from the White House. My niece, and many others, noted how poorly attended the inauguration was. The evidence was in the white plastic matting, unbesmirched by mud on Saturday morning. The federal government disallowed the use of the Mall for the Women’s March. The unused matting was very clearly white the next morning. Around 8:30 on Saturday morning I saw for myself.

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The Women’s March may have been the most significant event of my life. I was part of something much bigger than myself. Along with thousands of others, I stood for three hours while celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Michael Moore, and Madonna, appeared on stage to cheering crowds. There was barely room to stand. We marched past the Washington Monument to the White House. A US Security guard told us there were an estimated 1.2 million people there, making this one of the largest marches on Washington in history. Just inside that white-washed tomb Spicer was lying his face off. He castigated the press for telling lies. Wake up, my fellow Americans. On day one our new government has shown that it intends to lie and smirk its way through every attempt at honesty. My eyes did not deceive me. I was there, on the ground.

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I work in Manhattan. New York City is a community of some 8 million people. I’ve never in my life been in a crowd as large as yesterday’s in Washington. The Women’s March was peaceful and perhaps the largest protest in our nation’s history. Protests in over 600 cities around the world joined it. An administration of the people, by the people, and for the people would acknowledge that. The smug, implacable—and I use this word sparingly—evil administration that insists on lying to its citizens is already spinning a false narrative. I was there, on the ground. This March may have been the best use of time in my life. Beware, Americans, your government will regularly be lying to you until future notice.

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What Democrats Don’t Understand

Human evolution (while it still legally exists) tells us a considerable amount about belief. Brain science (while we still have it) has long indicated that our noggins evolved to help us survive, not “to figure out” the world. Along its long and torturous path to modernity, the human brain has developed the ability to believe what it knows not to be true. This doesn’t just apply to the study of religions, but, in reality, primarily to psychology. Patients with split brains have shown a mastery of rationalization that should make any Republican jealous. So far the Dems are with me. What Democrats don’t understand is that you can’t change beliefs with reason. I grew up a Fundamentalist. That past still continually haunts me. What brought me out of it wasn’t thinking. It was experiencing. Specifically, experiencing in the course of education.

Recent polls show that well over 50 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. You could show this 50 percent as many statistics as you like and you won’t be able to convince them. Belief doesn’t work that way. In my experience, higher education (typically characterized as liberal) doesn’t really care about understanding belief. They hire professors recommended by establishment friends, very much like cabinet posts are now being filled. They still believe if you talk at someone long enough with reason, they will change their minds. I can’t change that belief of theirs—I have an idea how belief functions. We’ve all seen how the system works. Not every 1930s German was a Nazi.

In other words, it is very easy to believe a lie is the truth. In the words of Jim Steinman, “everything’s a lie and that’s a fact.” Education may help you spot the contradiction there, but it won’t help you unbelieve it. The truth is power can’t be taken, it must be given. If people do not believe what the media tells them, it isn’t true. As someone who’s spend a half-century trying to figure this out, I’m always amazed that my own party can’t see what’s so obvious to a reformed Fundamentalist. Until the day comes when avowed rationalists admit that emotions matter just as much as orthodox reason we will all be at a loss to explain how otherwise intelligent people will insist that what they know to be lies are indeed the truth.

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Post Post-Truth

One of the benefits of working with words is that you get to participate in reality. George Orwell famously wrote that if people didn’t have the words to express concepts the government didn’t like, those concepts would cease to exist. At least as long as they allow us to have the internet, concepts may survive. Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year reflects just this. The word is “post-truth.” Post-truth is a word of hard currency in the political marketplace. It essentially means that objective facts no longer outweigh emotion and personal belief in establishing reality. Think “global warming isn’t happening because it cuts into my bottom line.” Think “humans didn’t evolve from a common ancestor apes because an outdated book doesn’t say they did.” Think “Donald Trump won the election.” Truth is no longer truth without “post” in front of it. Believe what you will. No, I mean that. I choose to believe Trump was not elected. Post-truth cuts both ways.

In a world where reaction has replaced dialogue and where you win arguments by revealing your NRA card, truth is merely the first casualty. Already mainstream media, who told us the post-truth that Trump, according to the polls, couldn’t win, are now telling us it’s all politics as normal. This will be a simple transition of power. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. There is no wizard in Oz. Politicians lie. Only those born without a brain stem don’t realize that objective fact. We can be sure that even George Washington lied from time to time. There was no cherry tree-gate. Unless you choose to believe there was, then I guess it has to be okay. Your truth’s as good as mine.

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Over the past several years some prominent scientists have been saying philosophy is but misguided navel-gazing. It tells us nothing of reality. Truth, however, is a philosophical concept. Post is something to which you tie people before a firing squad. Truth has, until recent days, been considered that upon which all reasonable people could agree. The earth is not flat. We are flying around the sun so fast that it makes me earth-sick. We were able to put people on the moon. All of these are now post-truths. Along with the fact that every vote counts. In this slurry of fear, hatred, and distrust, who has time to worry about objective facts? Lexicographers do. And I praise them for giving us the most relevant word since Moses stumbled down the mountain with a tablet that read, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

The Whole Truth

In a thoughtful piece on NPR, Adam Frank discusses “Are Scientific Truths Better Than Other Truths?(.)” He describes a Ivy League conference called to discuss this point, and although I get about as much attention as adults give Barney, I’ve been blogging about this topic for years now. If only I had an institution. Or an ivy leaf. But never mind that. The topic’s the thing, and indeed it is long overdue. Science works (at least most of the time) and so we don’t require any convincing on that point. The very title of the article, however, raises the specter of the question: are scientific truths better? There’s a lot of unpacking to do and I haven’t even left home yet. First of all, “truths.” Science provides the best explanation of phenomena that we have, given the data at the moment. Since science is, by definition, falsifiable, it doesn’t provide truths. As much as scientists must begrudgingly admit it, truths are spun out by philosophers and—God help us!—theologians. The scientists who want to give us truths should probably take philosophy 101.

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Then there’s that surprisingly difficult adverb “better.” Good, better, best. These are value words. Science cannot assess value. Gold is “worth” more than the lint in my pockets because humans have agreed that it is. Inherently, both substances are made of the same thing: atoms. The lint in my pocket may have more exotic elements than pure gold, but nobody’s going to pay anything for it. Value, as has been endlessly demonstrated, is in the purview of religion, ethics, and philosophy. If you have to you can add the dismal science to the mix, but even that is just a social science. No physicist can tell you if this meal is better than that. It’s a matter of perspective. If I value my beans enough, not even your pâté will tempt me.

I want to stick with this latter word “better” just a little longer. Perhaps because as an underemployed thinker I’m especially sensitive to the subject. In what sense is science “better” than humanities? Show me a scientist who’s never listened to music and I’ll show you a sad individual. When we come home from the lab we still want the creature comforts that people have devised whether through science, culture, or even religion. If you value that weekend, be sure to thank a monotheist. Science tells us no day of the week is any different than any other. In my experience there’s a world of difference between Saturday and Monday. For this inveterate and unrepentant humanities student, that’s the truth.

Biblical Literature

HB as LitIt must be difficult to write a Very Short Introduction. Although the series is published by Oxford University Press, I’m not being a shill. As someone who writes the equivalent of several of these little books a year, I imagine it must be nearly impossible to confine what you need to say to such a small space. I recently read The Hebrew Bible as Literature: A Very Short Introduction, by Tod Linafelt, and I imagined the anguish of my colleague as he had to decide what to leave out. Professors these days appreciate short books because there is an actual chance that students might read them. The Bible itself is intimidating as a textbook—massive and brooding as it is. Then, in addition to the Ding an Sich, the instructor also has to provide interpretive tools. One of the most common these days is that of the Bible as literature.

This obvious assignment is not without dispute, however. Literature is defined by some as a secular category. The Bible, as a set of one, is a holy book. That is to say, it can’t be considered literature at all. As a collection of written texts, however, the Bible can be understood as a literary venture as well as a sacerdotal one, and for many schools this is the only way the Bible can be legally taught. Not only that, but almost all scholars now realize that, protestations aside, the Bible is literature. It is one of the great books of the western canon. Civilization for huge swaths of the planet was based, in some way, on this book (the Bible, that is). Understanding it as literature is the venture of a lifetime, and condensing that down to an easily digestible Very Short Introduction is no mean task. Linafelt performs his duty admirably. The basics of prose and poetry are covered, as well as their interaction. The examples he chooses are compelling and I learned quite a bit myself, even having taught the Bible many years.

As I read, it struck me that the main objection to the Bible as literature revolves around the concept of truth. Linafelt raises this question early, and it stayed with me throughout the book. In a kind of sacred exceptionalism, “Bible believers” treat literature literally. Ironically, this can lead to grave misunderstandings. Truth, however, is a difficult concept to pin down. Many people equate literature with fiction and truth with fact. Truth is actually a bit more fluid than that. As any poet knows, some truths can’t be expressed in prose. Or history. Or philosophy. And some truths are best expressed in fiction. That brings us back to literature as a form of truth. I suppose that’s a good thing too, because were I to write much more I might be in danger of accidentally composing a Very Short Introduction. As long as I’m being a shill, just consider this a very short introduction to a Very Short Introduction.