Tag Archives: truth

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.