Tuesday, January 04, 2011

We Hold These Truths . . .

Everything in the cosmos is self-evident - it is what it is to anyone with eyes to see it - but not to us. We do not have such eyes.

The human mind is not only capable of deceit and self-deceit, it is rarely capable of anything else. Unlike the inherent truth of everything in the cosmos, everything we believe is flawed by our Midas touch, which sucks the truth out of our every idea and replaces it with what we want to believe or have. The philosopher Heraclitus was right to warn us about the things we want.

The same passions and ideologies that lead us to engage dishonestly with the honest world also lead us to misunderstand everything about it, to project our priorities upon it. Those interpretations and meanings we project do not directly change the real world. They change the picture of the world - the map - we carry around in our heads. They create inaccuracies in that map, flattering the things we like, insulting the things we don't, and generally omitting everything we fail to recognize.

The picture of the cosmos in our heads is the only one we really perceive most of the time, which is why human beings repeatedly do the wrong things - they would have been the right things to do if their picture of the world represented reality, but it doesn't.

So as bad as the problem of truth is for human beings when we just consider the ways in which the surface appearances of things can deceive, the problem reveals itself to be shockingly, confoundingly worse when we realize that we rarely perceive even the true appearances of things because we're too busy reacting to the imaginary appearances of things in our heads, the ones overlaid with years and decades of assumptions, desires, prejudices, and defense mechanisms.

Clearly put, if we were such fools as to treat the appearances of things as though they held the truth, we would still be vastly wiser than we are, because we are a step further removed from the truth than that, treating instead our mental pictures of the appearances of things as though they held the truth.

But the problem is far worse than that. Each of us holds our own picture of the world, with our own idiosyncratic prejudices standing between us and reality. It is not one labyrinth of assumptions we have to navigate to reach to the true appearances of things. It is six billion competing labyrinths.

Then it gets worse, because in any modern culture the political process takes us further from reality. As history shows repeatedly, compromising between those labyrinths suppresses the vestigial truths left in them, because the average human delusion - the things we can all agree on - is what is least likely to be true because it's most likely to be what we want. Instead of correcting for our labyrinths, we build a new one that takes as its bricks and mortar not even the appearance of the truth but instead our manifold delusions.

The idea that anything can be truly evident to us as a species is refuted by the human condition. The idea that any "truth" can or should be "self-evident" to humanity, that we do not even need to work for certain truths because it's obvious that they're true - that's trying to make a virtue out of a human defect so vast it is the very wailing abyss where our respect for the truth ought to be.

The most certain thing you can say about the sef-evidence of truths is that the actual truths of the cosmos are indeed inherently self-evident, but never to human beings. We are indeed special among animals in the profundity of our benightedness.


Brian said...

Some of your insights are magnificent, but I would point out that there is an underlying flaw. You assume that many humans believe or want to believe their truths. However as population density increases, and society becomes more and more complex, what ever the truth may be, is left to others to decide. One persons individual priorities have nothing to do with truth, or anything like introspection. They become the priorities of survival. Today anti-depressants are at an all time high, both in volume and per capita, crime perpetrated by first time offenders with families is also at an all time high, in countries like ours where the expectation of being cared for is different than the reality, the priority of survival out weighs anything like truth or unifying our versions of reality. I do not disagree that we do not all see the same reality, but for most these days, they have stopped looking and are hoping that their actions will help them survive another day without losing what they have.
There are ways in which humans can be brought together. Our symbolic language has slipped (once again) from its ability to accurately describe both the external and internal universes. The elegance of Latin, and scientific terms have fallen out of use within the normal conversation. Terms that describe not only an event, or situation, but its intensity, and relationship to others. If our language does not have the proper words to describe a situation then our ability to relate that situation to others is flawed and will fail. (not withstanding our own internal inaccuracies, which you pointed out so elegantly).
"truth is a three edged sword. Your Truth, My Truth, and the Real Truth." Kosh from Babylon 5

Rick Marshall said...

This was posted by my father, Rick Saling, at 2:37, but blogger has inexplicably deleted it, so I'm reposting it for him:

Two points, and then I'll blather on in more detail.

1. Radical skeptics, which I believe you are, usually exempt themselves from that skepticism; and,
2. If humans are truly the most benighted of animals, one wonders how we ever managed to evolve.

My own view: Roman citizens around 400 CE had every reason to be pessimistic about human nature, the gods, society, whatever. Our own feelings as US-ians are shaped by our own impending dethronement from being "Masters of the Universe". (I am not going to try to elaborate on this assertion, I'm just throwing it out as an alternative possible perspective)

OK, more detail about 2 more points...

1. I'm an engineer, so I'm going to get real literal here. I do not believe the theory of relativity, or string theory, or the theory of evolution, or the theory of gravity, or many other scientific theories are self-evident.

2. On a philosophical level, the referents in this sentence are very unclear: "Everything in the cosmos is self-evident - it is what it is to anyone with eyes to see it - but not to us. We do not have such eyes."

Who is the "anyone with eyes to see it", "Not to us", and "We do not have such eyes". If "we" do not have such eyes, then who is the "anyone with eyes to see"? Obviously not us! Then who are "you" who is making these assertions? Some horror movies come to mind, but I won't pursue that thread of reasoning...

Trying to parse these words is like having a discussion with a solipsist: the person denies the ability of reason to penetrate the world, yet makes assertions about the real world anyway. A consistent solipsist would simply maintain silence. Well, they might be arguing simply to amuse themselves...

The only out I can see is a somewhat elitist one: one could maintain that most people are blind, but not enlightened ones such as ourselves. But then we get back to your assertion that the cosmos is "self-evident"...

What you describe as aspects of human nature I would describe as features of a social order in terminal decline. Whether people can replace it with a saner system is open to question, but that is not a question you see debated much in the mainstream media. Instead, the fault for everything is dumped onto the individual, or human nature.

I can crystal ball gaze and project several outcomes of this situation:
we manage to get it together, and utopia arrives; we fail, and either global warming extinguishes itself or Brave New World arrives (more likely 1984); or, the US people manage to get it together, and elect a new FDR, who reforms things to the point that the social order maintains itself for another few generations (I was hoping we'd elected FDR in 2008, but I'm worried we've got Herbert Hoover instead!)

Anyway, that's me: I look at history of revolutions and upheavals and reforms, and try to improve my crystal ball.

But what about you? I cannot for the life of me figure out what you think is going to happen. Is there any historical track record of "making better people" in a way that lasted? Or are we all just doomed to extinction? In which case Nature has another 4 billion years to evolve a species that manages to avoid the sun's transformation into a Red Giant that engulfs the Earth... That's probably enough time: what should Nature do different next time?

Rick Marshall said...

Brian, thanks for posting. I think you're quite right.

As Upton Sinclair wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."

The same applies to his survival.

Rick Marshall said...

Dad, thanks for posting. I'll touch briefly on some of your points in this response. Others will be addressed by future posts I have planned. Unfortunately, a side effect of my new approach to blogging short pieces is that my posts lack some context that would help to fully describe my position. As I discovered, though, if I try to write longer posts that capture my position more fully nuanced, they're too long to read. Oh well.

I don't exempt myself from anything I'm writing in this blog as I attempt to describe human nature. I'm as fundamentally irrational as anyone else.

And that's really my fundamental point here. I'm not denying the ability of reason to bring us closer to the truth. I'm denying the ability of human beings to be adequately rational.

For example, like you I'm an engineer and I depend upon reason and experimentation to distinguish true from false as I troubleshoot complex systems. There can be no doubt that empiricism and reason are crucial tools in the search for the truth.

But for example in my work I, like you, have observed that temptation in myself and others to confuse our theories with reality. As Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, even scientists are more often than not irrationally attached to their theories to the point of fighting scientific progress if it overturns their cherished beliefs. The less scientifically oriented among us show no less attachment to their own beliefs.

Descriptivists, people opposed to holding human behavior to standards, because they refuse to make judgments are left having to argue that whatever people do is good enough by definition. The problem is that the cosmos does judge us - with extinction - if we're not good enough. Those who care about the future of the human species have little choice but to become prescriptivists, to try to figure out how we would have to behave if we are to survive.

To try to save humanity from extinction means becoming a critic of humanity and our limitations, to search for better ways for us to behave and organize ourselves. If we call that criticism radical skepticism or solipsism, we trample the nuances that distinguish self-satisfied cynicism from an honest quest to make things better.

Rick Marshall said...

Dad, my second point in response would be that reason is necessary but not sufficient.

Reason can only at best establish validity, not truth. Unless our initial premises are correct, we can and do validly conclude any number of falsehoods. Many of history's heinous crimes were perfectly valid, if you accepted the racists, sexist, or otherwise deranged premises of the perpetrators. Reason is not a perfect instrument for finding our way to the truth.

Empiricism, for example. Without empiricism, reason lacks the necessary reality checks. Empiricism has a lovely way of disproving bad premises and theories through direct contradiction. Unfortunately, in the modern world we usually practice empiricism in a profit-oriented context, which corrupts science in two ways.

First, as drug trials show, empirical processes can be and often are distorted in myriad ways to produce the most profitable results, even when that contradicts the truth.

Second, since very little science is allowed to take place without direct or indirect corporate sponsorship, pure scientific research usually goes unfunded so that researched aimed at discovering new intellectual property can be funded.

The scientific distortions introduced by both forms of corruption are profound.

Setting aside the cases where empiricism is corrupted, even at its best empiricism can only reveal certain kinds of truth - things that are replicable and measurable. Much of the cosmos is too resistant to measurement, since we can only measure those things we understand well enough have developed concepts and technologies adequate to measure. Everything else is out of our reach until then.

Further, at high levels of complexity, systems consistently produce inconsistent results that defy replication and thus defy empirical exploration. This is the fundamental reason that we're so much better at scientifically exploring materials and forces than we are at exploring psychology and history, because the fields empiricism succeeds best at are those trivial enough to be measurable.

I know this is true from direct observation. I have written some extremely complex systems for VISTA, including systems that contain the homeostatic feedback mechanisms one normally finds in living systems. When people try to troubleshoot those systems using only rational empiricism, their success rate is only about 50%. About half the time, even highly experienced troubleshooters come to the wrong conclusions about these systems. Unless you understand the precise details of how these different algorithms interact, you cannot possibly come to the right conclusions by reason and empiricism alone.

If that's true of something as simple as software I could write, it's certainly true of the much higher levels of complexity found in the human mind, in communities, in ecosystems, and so on. That's why human languages resort to metaphor and approximation - because precision and reason are incapable of doing justice to subjects that complex.

It's no coincidence that when rational-empirical techniques are used to try to understand issues like psychology, the results tend to be mixed, sometimes yielding valuable information, sometimes foolishly trying to reduce psychology to chemistry, math, or some other simplistic discipline.

Reason, empiricism, and other human cognitive tools are crucial in our search for the truth, but if we blind ourselves to their limitations then we will overestimate our command of reality - which we in fact tend to do.

Knowing and accepting our limitations can only improve our search for the truth

Rick Marshall said...

"Benighted" is not an insult. It is a precise term meaning far from enlightenment, far from truth and wisdom. That is the literal truth about human nature as far as I can tell.

As Brian posted, most people don't care at all about the truth - they're too busy trying to survive - but that doesn't stop them from filling their heads with ideas, even though those ideas are false.

To believe false things is to be further from the truth than not to have opinions about those things. Other animals have fewer opinions about the world because they think more concretely, less abstractly, so they don't tend to fill their minds with a lot of false ideas - because they don't tend to fill their minds with ideas. A cat could never think that all Muslims are terrorists because they keep their thinking focused on their direct experiences; that is a kind of error in reasoning that only a human could make.

Ideation and abstraction may not be unique to human beings - I'm not saying other animals are incapable of those things - but judging by outward behavior most animals tend to focus on a smaller pool of things that are of direct interest to them, and they tend to be more accurate about the things they do think about judging by their higher behavioral success rates.

More specifically, human beings are more likely to think about things outside their immediate expertise. Those thoughts are by definition less specific, less concrete, more speculative, and more inaccurate than when they stick to acting within their direct experience.

The evolutionary advantages of such uncertain reasoning should be obvious. Human beings are far more flexible than most animals, often able to adapt themselves to situations even far outside their day-to-day experience.

But as the Greeks noted (and Hegel, Marx, and others also agreed), every strength is also a weakness. Abstract reasoning is less likely to be correct than concrete thought. Human thinking is liberated from reality, which allows for both speculation and delusion.

Human beings have demonstrated that sometimes they are capable of treating their own ideas with the detachment and skepticism required to be able to give up false ideas when they're proven wrong, but most of the time people struggle to hang onto even the most patently false of ideas and react with anger if confronted by contrary information.

We are benighted because we believe vastly more false things than other animals do, placing us further from the light of the truth and further into the darkness of ignorance and error. That's what makes us the most benighted of animals.

It's also what makes us among the most flexible of animals.

Rick Marshall said...

Regarding the quote "Everything in the cosmos is self-evident - it is what it is to anyone with eyes to see it - but not to us. We do not have such eyes."

about self-evidence:

Self-evidence implies that ideas normally require evidence to be accepted as valid. That is true where human beings are concerned - in the realm of our ideas about the world - but before we existed the world was still there, the forces and principles at work in the world were still at work.

Such things don't require evidence to be valid or true. They are truly self-evident because their inherent reality is all the evidence they need in order to be true - they certainly don't need us to understand them or accept them for them to be real and true.

Sometimes we forget that and convince ourselves that the only true things are those we have decided are true, which of course is nonsense.

about eyes to see:

Literally, we don't have eyes to see part of what's right in front of us all day long. We see the visible things, the surfaces and appearances of things, but fluxus quo, dialectics, homeostasis, the nature of living systems, human nature, the flaws in our own reasoning - these and many other things are also true and at work all day long all around us but we still can't directly perceive them. Human beings lack a sensory organ capable of directly perceiving truth.

Nevertheless - and this is the reason for the language I used in that sentence - just because we cannot perceive something does not mean that it is inherently imperceptible.

Our limitations are not characteristics of the things we cannot perceive as a result of those limitations. If I'm blind it does not mean the world is invisible. In precisely the same way, just because we cannot directly perceive cosmic principles like fluxus quo, it does not follow that they are imperceptible. Man is not after all the measure of all things, contrary to the sophist Protagoras.

I don't believe there's anything solipsistic, radically skeptical, or obscurantist about this position. It only means that our approach to much of the truth must be through indirect means, as blind men might try to characterize an elephant based on the parts they can feel. As long as we recognize that the results of our explorations are inherently flawed, and that they are only models of the truth and not reality itself, we can successfully creep along and improve our grasp of the truth over time.

Of course, if we instead choose to exalt ourselves as though we were angles of reason with access to absolute truths, we reap the consequences of our hubris.

Rick Marshall said...

Finally, you also raise two questions, first about blaming the individual for social conditions beyond their control, second about the fate of humanity.

As to the first, the relationship between the individual and society is complex. I believe it is an oversimplification to say that social conditions happen to individuals, who are passively shaped by them. You can't make a wise society out of individual fools. You can't make a just society out of selfish louts. You can't make an informed society out of the ignorant. You can't make a law-abiding society out of criminals.

Societies shape individuals, but they are also composed of individuals and their relationships. To change the society, you have to do more than change their conditions; you have to change the individuals too - otherwise, what is individual education for? Only when enough individuals become informed can you create an informed society. If we want a better society, we are going to need better people.

I don't think that's an unfair burden on the individual. It is a responsibility of the individual. A passive individual, someone who self-identifies as a victim, will surely read responsibility as blame and resent it. But an active individual can understand that responsibility is a form of power to shape the world. Individuals who wait for the forces of history to fix things for them are too passive to change the world. I think it's entirely reasonable to critique the state of individual human beings with an eye toward figuring out how we can all become better.

That leads to your second query, about the fate of humanity.

The more I learn, the surer I am that we will extinguish ourselves as a species - and take many many other species into extinction with us - unless we drastically change our behavior and social relations. I could be wrong of course - I'm just a flawed human being blindly feeling my way toward the truth after all - but that's my best guess.

However, that is not to say I think that's what will happen. The open question is whether we will make the changes needed to prevent that outcome, to instead extend the longevity of our species and of our fellow creatures.

Answering that question accurately requires that we come to a clear understanding about what is wrong with us, about why we're so hellbent on self-destruction in ways few other species have been (the anaerobic bacteria being an illuminating exception). It also requires understanding what our strengths and resources are, what we have to work with if we are to somehow change directions away from species-suicide.

That's what I'm up to. That's my purpose in life - to try to advance our chances of making things better by improving our understanding of our strengths and weaknesses.

I don't pretend I know the answers, or that I'll ever find any, but I do know if I don't try I certainly won't succeed, so I try. Even if I crack the human dilemma somehow and come up with enough essential insight into human nature to formulate a plan to turn things around, the vast scales of the modern world are generally immune to the influence of individuals, so I doubt I could have any effect except by spreading my insights to those willing to hear them.

In the meantime, all I can do is study the human condition and speculate out loud on forums like this about what I'm learning.

As for what I think is going to happen, I think I don't know. Embracing our own ignorance is the first step in the search for the truth.

But I do know that paradoxically sometimes it's easier to change the future than it is to predict it.

Anonymous said...

And even if we could grasp some small part of the universe's self-evident truth, we'd never be able to explain it properly to anybody else.

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken."
Jane Austen

Rick Marshall said...

Beverly, yes, for several reasons.

When we move outside the usual circles of life, either physically or in thought, we leave the realms for which our language is optimized. Language itself becomes an impediment to expressing our experience.

When we try to change minds or behavior, we come against the well-documented inertia of human cultures and mentalities. Many people would rather die than change, so they fight you when you bring them new insights. More typically, many people would rather hurt you than let you tell them something they don't want to hear. It is dangerous to be perceived by the herd as not part of the herd.

When we make an observation in one frame of reference and then try to express it in an unrelated frame of reference, we strip that thing of the context that gives it meaning. Many important and meaningful things cannot be expressed to those who have not experienced them, because all the listener hears is blah blah blah, information out of context, that is, noise. Shared experience is a prerequisite for true communication, which is why the old mystery religions were all immersive so neophytes underwent the same experience and thereby gained the ability to comprehend the lessons.

As Brian wrote, many people, maybe most people, will believe whatever they think they need to believe in order to survive regardless of whether it's true. Many people believe their survival is at stake even when it's not. In either case, the atypical idea you want to convey may be perceived as a threat to their existence and will thus provoke a limbic response.

Many people are so uncomfortable with thinking that they do so as little as possible. While you're trying to use your words to describe a line of thought, they're ignoring most of what you say and instead scanning your words for symbols and omens they can use to skip to a conclusion - are you a good guy or a bad guy. You could even be their idea of a good guy, but if you use enough of the words they interpret as evil omens, you get classed as a bad guy, and nothing you say after that can change their interpretation of you.

For many people words are something you deploy, like fists or guns, in order to get what you want. Trying to communicate with such people is an exercise in futility, because when each of you appears to do the same thing by speaking you are actually engaging in radically different activities. There cannot possibly be communication in such a situation.

The more you care about the truth and communication, the lonelier you will be.