Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Truths We Have Forgotten about Truth

Our government has decided that we, the voters, are incapable of discerning truth for ourselves.  They have decided that we cannot hear both sides of the climate change issue and determine for ourselves which to believe.  They have decided to make the decision for us.  What is worse, they have decided not to debate the information, or to disprove it, but to silence it.  They have decided not to affirm their stance, but to remove the opposition.  That is not the position taken by those seeking the truth, but those seeking to shield themselves from it.  After silencing scientists and whistleblowers and proposing to cut funding to public, educational media, it is no huge stretch to believe that our government will go after the mass media that the president has already been speaking (or tweeting) out against.

For a country founded on the principles of the self-evident truths of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all, we have certainly strayed far from our roots.

The nature of truth has long been lost — neglected and abandoned, even — in the quagmire of noise of each side of every issue trying to shout above the other, insulting the opposition and bolstering their own side with propaganda.  The nature of social and mass media has given each of us a soapbox, and so every one of us is standing tall and shouting — often merely echoing the words of peers and pundits alike — until we barely have time to listen, especially to any opposing views.  And as moderate views gain moderate responses, the polarized and polarizing responses bubble to the list of top comments and viral posts.  Affronted by the polar opposites, we rally to our side and against the other, worsening the noise and widening the gap.

Undoubtedly, there is plenty to be said about the issues that inspire such noise, but I think it would benefit us all to wade into this quagmire, venturing off our usual paths for a moment, to recover some truths about truth itself.  Foremost, truth does not cower away from efforts to disprove it, nor does it lash out at alternative viewpoints.  Truth survives such trials by fire, tempered and honed by it, and becomes stronger and more refined for it.  If you believe something that you do not yourself try with all your might to disprove or explain with alternative theories, then you have no right to say you fully believe it.  If you attack opposing beliefs or dodge efforts to disprove your beliefs, you either misunderstand the nature of truth or already fear your beliefs are untrue.  This does not mean that, when confronted with opposing or alternative explanations, that you should twist the words and statistics to fit your truth.  If such actions are necessary, it is not truth you are forging but a work of fiction.  The truth will survive the attacks by its own merit and does not need protected.

Because the truth need not shy away from efforts to disprove or debate it, it has no reason to fear falsehoods and misinformation.  The truth can indeed seem lost at times in the quagmire of noise, but if we remove contrary evidence instead of rightly considering it, or if we silence opposition instead of meeting them in the arena of reason and fact, then what we are left with, more often than not, is not the truth.  We are imperfect agents of incomplete knowledge — error is inevitable.  As such, if we do not proceed forward with a mind to correct our errors, we will remain in error.  If we do not learn from others and teach what we have learned, then we stifle ourselves further.

Certainly, there will be those who refuse to see the truth, busy protecting their own views and beliefs, unwilling to face the fire.  They will continue to attack the truths they disagree with.  They will continue to fail to understand the truth.  This is no fault of truth, that some fail so completely to recognize it.  Those who thus fail seek their own pride before truth.  If you, then, in turn, retaliate and attack their beliefs, you are doing the truth a disservice, forcing them to rally in defense of their own cause.  If your views are, indeed, true, then you have nothing to fear from the attacks of opposition.  Seek to find understanding.  Meet them where they are so you can guide them to where they should be.

Sometimes it seems that the truth is being held hostage, and we must rush to its rescue.  Yet, every hostage negotiator is taught that the best way to save the hostages is to calm down the hostage taker. First, we reach common ground: In a real hostage situation, this often involves commending them for not hurting any hostages or otherwise making the situation worse.  Similarly, in arguments, we need to find a little piece of something we both agree on.  Next, we hear them out.  This does not usually mean we have them list their demands, but instead we usually inquire why they are doing what they are doing:  What made you take people hostage?  What made you believe what you believe?  Concessions can be made without giving into their less reasonable demands: In hostage situations, this may require arranging food to be delivered.  In other debates, it may be buying them a coffee or a beer.  All the while, it is important to treat them respectfully, to remain calm, and nevertheless to remain in control, not conceding to their every wish — remembering, though, that in any such discourse we may be the one who is wrong, being always careful that we are not the ones holding truth hostage.  Often, it is best to remind them that both sides want to find the best solution for everyone, and, if we hold true to this, we can convince them to meet us somewhere in the middle.  With respect, understanding, a little effort, and a little time, we can free truth from even the most stubborn of hostage situations.
Although he may have gotten his daughter back safely, he would have made a lousy hostage negotiator.  Really, he is more the person you send in when all hostage negotiations have failed.  Sadly, this does not translate to an effective debate tactic.

Note, though, that facing opposition and attacks is not indicative that you, yourself have found truth.  All beliefs, true or otherwise, will inevitably face attacks if they are not squirreled away and hidden from the opposition.  Seek to understand the opposition and alternatives, to try to prove their views and disprove your beliefs, and to see that the truth remains despite your best efforts — it is only then that you can find what is true.  It is only when you challenge your own biases, check and double check your own logic and reasoning, and understand the contrary evidence presented that you can hold your beliefs to be true.

And if, along the way, you find that your beliefs do not hold against the tides of opposition and competing evidence, then change your beliefs.  There is no fault in changing your mind, but there is fault in stubbornly and pridefully adhering to beliefs against all evidence.  You must not put your own pride in the beliefs you have held before the pursuit of truth, but must instead let truth come before your pride.  Ultimately you should take pride in finding the truth, not in having it all along.

It seems we have collectively forgotten the nature of truth.  It seems that we have buried rationality and fact below mountains of ego and emotion.  We quote bad arguments because they support what we believe.  We fail to examine statistics or sources if we like the conclusions that have already been made.  We protect ourselves and believe we are protecting truths.  We attack others and believe we are attacking falsehoods.  We grow comfortable with our answers and stop asking questions.

Lost in quagmires and buried under mountains: If Lord of the Rings has taught me anything, it is that the truth is probably lost somewhere in New Zealand.  (Image: Zach Hodgson, Creative Commons)

These falsified and flimsy arguments we lazily fall back on can even hurt causes otherwise founded on the truth.  They create weak points and strawmen for our opponents to attack (which they usually invent enough of on their own).  They can convince more rational opponents that our arguments are flawed and unfounded.  Perhaps worst of all, they reinforce the fallacies and biases of both sides, reassuring us that there is nothing wrong with twisted statistics, shaky logic, or attractive fictions.  If we truly seek the truth, we must not undermine it with fallacies.

René Descartes said, "If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things."  Truths are not subject to our beliefs.  If we are doing things right, our beliefs should be instead subject to truths.  If we try to challenge truths "as far as possible", and they yet hold, then we can accept them as truths.  Yet the most important truths — the truths that guide our society, government, economy, and religion — should not be examined only once in our lives.  These should be held against all new evidence and alternatives as they arise.  We should moreover seek to hone our own tools of examination — our abilities to rationalize, our understanding of statistics, and even our knowledge of common biases and fallacies — to make sure that our methods of holding truth to scrutiny themselves can be held to the same scrutiny.

This is not the first time I have used this image.  This will likely not be the last.

Keep asking questions.  Keep doubting the important things.  Go so far as to question your doubts and doubt your questions.  Change your mind.  Try to argue for the opposition once in a while, at least in your own head.  It sounds like a recipe for unending uncertainty but, truly, it is the only way we can be certain in the end.

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