Friday, February 24, 2017

Truth or Consequences

In the current environment of “alternative facts”, I am beginning to suspect that the real cultural divide is not between political affiliations, but an epistemological argument.

Friendship is based upon trust. You must be able to trust what your friends say, without resorting to fact checking. If you cannot trust what they say, their is no basis for friendship. This is not just a matter of knowledge, but of judgement: we must not only trust what they read, but their ability to discern the truth. If they are ignorant, they must confess their ignorance, or remain silent. If they make strong claims that later turn out to be false, and they do so repeatedly, time spent with them becomes a cognitive drain, rather than an easy-going exchange. Vigilance should only be required for enemies, not for friends.

People may have their own opinions. But if they have their own facts, they are not merely different. They are mad.

Internet silos offering politically convenient lies first appeared in the nineties, and have proliferated ever since, to the point that they should now be considered main stream media. The effect on society has been devastating, splitting our society into angry factions. All of this is represented to be the result of diverging political views, but liberals and conservatives used to work together. The dividing line is not opinion or political inclination, but a dispute about basic facts. This should never happen, as there is a method for resolving such disputes. It is usually called the scientific method, but it predates modern science. It is a regimented approach to evidence and sound reason, which, if pursued earnestly, will converge upon a single point of fact. Artistic pursuits diverge and proliferate. Scientific truths converge to a single point. If you destroyed all art, literature, and religion, something entirely different would eventually emerge. If you erased all science and it came back, it would ultimately be the same as it was before it was lost.

This is why mistakes about the facts are failures of judgement—there is a way to establish the truth, but the person doesn’t know this, or can’t be bothered. There is more involved here than bad evidence; there is a proclivity to accept bad arguments—logical fallacies, bald appeals to emotion or identity, and the like. A common strategy is an appeal to vanity. People are convinced by what is flattering. On the right, most of this flattery is directed at those who are white, male, and intelligent, but note that all of these are things are something they are born with, rather than anything they have achieved. What you find flattering, what you want to believe, should immediately be suspect. 

We do not live in the world of fact or objectivity, but in the world of dreams. Only with great effort can we achieve a glimpse of truth. Science and philosophy are hard, and they are not our first home. So, though I am an atheist, I will tell you that it is possible to sell your soul to the devil, and have the devil show up to collect. You can be a servant of lies, and more than that—as such, you can be damned. This sounds extreme, but I know people who are damned, who have no contact with other human beings, who spend all of their time screaming into their computer to people who have long ago ceased to listen or care. Who will befriend you when nothing you say can be trusted? I cannot imagine anything closer to banishment to the lower planes of hell than this.

And this makes me wonder, when we encounter internet trolls, whether we are hearing the screams of the damned, the lost souls who have alienated all human contact, and are now adrift, raging in the abyss for all that they have lost and cannot seem to regain.

If you love anything other than the truth, then the truth may hurt you. It will keep you from what you love, if what you love is less than worthy, like your own pride and prejudices. It will destroy your idols. It will make your gods and heroes human. But if you love the truth, it will not hurt you. This is why we must pledge allegiance to the truth, and why we must love each other with all our failures and frailties. The truth does not falsify the love of others, for that is a love of not just what is, but what could be, and the numinous space between. 

The love of ego is always at war with the truth. The love of others is not.