Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Is this a Real Project? Or What?

Whenever someone charges at the world waving the flag of truth, they almost never mean truth in and of itself; they mean some particular claim that for them burns so bright as to blot out everything else. 
Trying to get a handle on truth in and of itself seems to me a lot like wrestling Proteus, or the "Old Man of the Sea", as described by Menelaus in the Odyssey. The Old Man can answer any questions if captured, but capturing him means holding on as he changes shapes from a horse to a serpent to water to fire to whatever until he is worn out if one has the strength to wear him out.

"The One (All-Important) Truth" comes in many flavours: Christian (Believe and You Will Receive Eternal Salvation), anti-christian version (Nietzsche's  Zarathustra running down from the mountaintop to tell us God is Dead), or the Truth of some massive conspiracy that will account for all that is wrong with the world.  The "down from the mountaintop" image harks back to Moses delivering the Truth of the Ten Commandments.  It's as if we have some (human) racial memory in which "the truth" can take as many unlike forms as Proteus, but they all are able to set someone or more likely some group on fire with devotion.
I am fascinated and deeply worried about how difficult it is to ensure that we really know very important things about the world around us, and how deeply this difficulty affects us.  I want to explore what there is to do about it.  I am also fascinated by how easily satisfied we humans tend to be with our own grasp the essential truths, untroubled, it seems by the fact that so many people have such different views of reality.

How confident should we be of even the simplest kinds of truth? I'm talking not about "God is dead" or "America is a Christian nation" but about questions most of us could agree on if only we could see the evidence, and somehow know that it's real, not forged or photoshopped or staged.  Consider the controversies over questions like
  • Was X really born where he says he was born?
  • Were there any Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq when the U.S. invaded?
  • Who is a good and reasonable plumber or car mechanic?
  • Did X really say ___?___ on her blog (esp. supposing it was erased and denied)?
  • Was there really a political ad showing Gabby Giffords in the crosshairs of a rifle?
  • Did the US Post Office really issue a stamp celebrating a Muslim holiday?
  • Did the US really send men to the moon?
  • How many slaves died on their way from Africa to the Americas?
  • Does any vaccine cause autism?
These are all basically questions of unambiguous fact, yet we are a long way from a world where the vast majority of people would agree on the answers.

So where is the "project" in all of this?
I am convinced that far more is called for than just you or me learning better "rationality" or "critical thinking".  How many times has some "vanguard" become euphoric over the idea that
"Now we know how to think rationally and we just have to get rid of all the old biases and learn the new ways of thinking?"
As a serious student of history I would suggest on the order of once every couple of decades starting with the Enlightenment (about 1700) or maybe earlier.

No, we must actually reshape the world if we expect the truth to be there for us to see, and for it to occur to, and be persuasive for others, so as to guide the world's responses to problems.

So what sort of "project" could possibly do anything about such matters?
My ideal outcome would look something like a viral spread of people
  • finding ways to advance standards of seriousness and accuracy from those who want to get our attention for whatever purpose.  People can take a stand to demand, in effect "Speak to me with respect".  Stop the circus.
  • implementing tools for checking and better understanding what we read and hear
  • insisting on archival record keeping structures with a credible transparency that would not allow facts, events, people, to simply disappear or become inaccessible "old news".
 However impossible all of that might sound, I suggest we keep some such vision in mind, refining it from time to time, as we do what is possible today to try to get one baby step closer, even if only in one little place.

If large numbers of people got committed to, and got satisfaction from seeing some little improvement -- maybe just an improvement in understanding how an improvement in substance might be possible -- that could be very powerful.

Many people are out there, I'm sure, thinking along similar lines.  I think I have a few unusual and powerful insights, but it may turn out that someone else has developed them more effectively than I have ... still they are not in the mainstream and whether as a leader or follower or partner, I'd like to see them made clearer and put out into the world.  Much of my undertaking will be to find people with whom I can share a productive conversation.

I have been thinking about this for many years and making many false starts, and haven't got much of a snowball to show for it -- just "telling the world" there needs to be something like this; sometimes going off on tangents to try to confront sources of misinformation I run up against, sometimes learning about new disciplines like Social Epistemology.  But I do think this can start to get more systematic now.

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