August, 2009

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Knowledge and its discontents

by Jonathan Wallace

           I will never forget  Mr.Natoli, my charismatic seventh grade teacher (the same one who told me I was “riding for a fall”) writing the words on the board “He who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it,” underlining “doomed” three times, then looking at the class with his trademark expression of serene self-satisfaction, as if to ask, how clever am I?

           This quote, always assigned to Santayana without being cited to a specific work, has probably been written on a blackboard in the classrooms of every American student in the last fifty years, while our leaders unerringly, determinedly, with a narrowness and doggedness remarkable outside of a religious crusade, put the past aside and make the same mistakes, over and over.

           How is it possible that a reasonably intelligent species, capable of organizing a moon landing, could be foolish enough for example to fight two land wars in third world countries against ideological guerilla insurgencies barely thirty years apart? What is it that ensures that we will learn no lesson, will always assume that the passage of time downgrades even quite recent knowledge into mere information?

(Note: Google, a tool not available to Mr. Natoli in 1967, confirms that the actual Santayana quote, so often paraphrased, is “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, from Reason in Society (1905). )

Some proposed definitions

           In this essay, words will be used the following way. (“’When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' “)

           Data is the raw, unprocessed fruit of observation. It may consist of items which are nonsense,  or immaterial to the matter we are analyzing.

           Information is what results when data is evaluated and determined not to be nonsense and to be relevant to a matter under consideration.

           Knowledge  is a human arrangement of information modeling a truth.

           Truth, regardless of human ability to perceive or formulate knowledge about it, is an absolute value, based on the premise (pace, Schrodinger) that anything which occurs or exists does so in a specific and detailed way excluding any inconsistent states.

What is truth?

           From high school through college, I delighted in debating issues which became extremely tedious a few years later and which I refused to discuss ever again. I have largely kept that promise. Still, I somewhat fondly remember conversations, in the back of a Greyhound bus and in a college dorm,   at 4 in the morning, when the world was new and all topics were fresh, about the nature of truth.

           I was astonished to discover that the world was full of reasonably intelligent and well-educated people whose thinking was fuzzy enough that they were capable of uttering the following sentence: “One thing may be true for me and another may be true for you.”

           This is one of those sentences which is grammatical, but doesn’t mean anything. Or at least does not mean what it purports to say. To save this sentence, we must substitute for “true for” the words “believed by”. But truth is not always, or even usually, what we believe.

           My favorite rejoinder was: Suppose we are both sailors on one of Christopher Colombus’ ships, say the Pinta. I am a fervent flat earth believer who came along for suicidal reasons. You are as committed to the idea of a round planet. What happens to the Pinta? Since we have separate and contradictory beliefs, does the Pinta sail off the edge of the world, or circumnavigate it? Would it matter if I believe more fervently in a flat earth than you do in a round one? Or if more people on board were round earthers than flat earthers? Is reality a democracy?

           Perhaps “my” Pinta falls off the world’s edge, and “yours” sails to America?

           Outside of Schrodinger’s cat-box, I assert that all events have a single true description or explanation, in other words a particular, definite outcome which we may or may not know. Judge Crater and Amelia Earhart did not simply evaporate, but met a specific fate unknown to the rest of us.

            There is always truth, but sometimes we just don’t have the information and therefore can’t formulate knowledge about it. In some cases, it hasn’t reached us, like the information beyond the event horizon of a black hole; something happened to Amelia Earhart but we don’t know what. In other cases, our minds may not be adequate to understand the information; we have some ideas about black holes but are unable to make one, or take one apart.  In less dramatic cases, interpretation of the information has not stabilized, has not reached the practical consensus which knights it as “knowledge”.

           The concept that there is always a single, unitary truth is not a popular one in “postmodern” literature or political thought. (I hate the word “postmodern” because like Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, it closes the debate by assuming nothing interesting can come after. What do we name the period or trend after postmodernism?) I have been as guilty as anyone of finding Schrodinger’s Cat to be a fascinating metaphor for life—taking an interesting scientific concept and running it through the goalposts, off the field and into the next city. In Schrodinger’s little parable, the cat can be simultaneously alive and dead at once.  Much of the metaphornication which has resulted, mine included, really toys with the idea that the truth is awfully damned hard to determine, not that it doesn’t exist. In our world, which has its own unitary reality despite the fact it is composed of atoms or inhabited by quantum particles, the cat is always alive or dead and never both.

           The utility of “post-Schrodingerism” to twentieth and twenty-first century literature is that stories can be structured more like life itself, more messy, less linear. In one novel of mine, two teenage girls are in a four car crash. One is knocked out, the other runs from the vehicle and is struck and killed by another car. For the rest of her life, the survivor is haunted by the question of why her friend exited their vehicle.  By the end of the novel, she still hasn’t learned anything.

           When Desiree, the friend, ran from the car and was hit,  she had an intention. She either was trying to save herself with complete disregard of the fate of Charlotte, the unconscious girl, or she had some more salutary plan (going for help, or running around the vehicle to extricate Charlotte from the other side). Unfortunately, the thought in Desiree’s brain at the moment of her death was not communicated to anyone else or recorded anywhere and can never be recaptured, so that only theories and suppositions are possible.

           Antonioni’s “L’Aventura” was a “post-Schrodinger” work. A woman vanishes, and her friends spend the rest of the movie searching for her, but at the end she is never found, nor is her disappearance explained. In a “post-Schrodinger” “Moby-Dick”, Ahab would never find the White Whale.

           The interest for me of this kind of story-telling is that by freeing us from the linear, it frees us from kitsch, from the unlikely coincidences which are so popular in the plays of Shakespeare, in Dickens, etc. to bring the story back into symmetry by the end. These new kinds of stories allow us to concentrate on things more valuable than facile plotting: uncertainty, dread, loneliness, God, and the meaning we make for ourselves when the universe refuses to behave as kitsch and provide the meaning for us.

           Literature is not the only force today militating against a belief in a truth. Conservative politics is also anti-truth. Although rightists believe in absolutes—any kind of “post-Schrodingerism” would be anathema to them—they also take a militant, authoritarian view of the world which is quickly inconsistent with skepticism and truth-seeking. Conservatives delight in putting up signs which say, “No questions beyond this point”. In fact, all conservative or fundamentalist religions—in other words, all religions in their original form, before being infected with “post-Schrodingerism” or liberal thought—use God as a giant stop-sign, the point at which the conversation ends.

           Liberal politics unfortunately also has its short-comings when it comes to a commitment to truth. “Post-Schrodingerism” is more popular among liberals than conservatives, as they are more artsy and sensitive. Add to that a love of diversity which eventually topples over into moral  relativism. While conservatives believe in One True Religion (but don’t want inquiries into truth to go beyond), liberals tend to believe that all religions are equally valid (including those calling for the murder of infidels, or homosexuals, or adulterers, because They Don’t Really Mean It or if they do, Are Capable of Growth).  Liberals believe, with Yeats, that no soul in the world lacks “a sweet crystalline cry”. “One thing may be true for you, another for me” is a product of liberal thought.  

           There are also subject matters in which there is no one truth, because they are products of human imagination. Religion is an example, contrary to what the fundamentalists believe. There is change in religion but there is no clear progress; no premises about the Holy Ghost which we believed thirty years ago which have since been proved false. Change in religion is like change in fashionl a swaying of human preferences, dreams and aspirations.

           Here we finally arrive at the concept of “falsifiability”.  “Human-caused emissions are affecting the atmosphere” is a falsifiable proposition. Either they are or are not. So is “the Gramm Rudman legislation will force all future federal governments to balance the budget” (it didn’t). “The Bush Administration disaster relief effort was adequate to deal with the consequences of Hurricane Katrina”.  “The United States won the war in Iraq.” Propositions which are not falsifiable include “Gay sex is immoral”, “Democrats are more compassionate” (how do we measure compassion?) and “At the Rapture, only Pentecostals will be saved and everyone else will spend eternity in a lake of fire”. 

           (By the way, I am making the somewhat arbitrary assumption that an assertion is only falsifiable if it can be disproved while we are alive. Otherwise, if the Rapture occurs and I find myself in heaven I will know the Pentecostals were wrong. )

           Much political debate involves the fuzzy concept of which solutions or approaches are “better”, in other words more moral, more laudable, etc.  When Scrooge is confronted by the men asking for a donation to help the poor at Christmas, his reply, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Then let them die, and decrease the surplus population!” is not “untruthful” in any sense. It is instead a sincerely uttered vision of a society which can only be tested by asking quite different questions than the ones his interlocutors raise. Scrooge’s world may for example, include more crime or more revolutions than one in which the poor all receive handouts at Christmas. But the conversation is not taking place on that level.

           However, it is a hallmark both of fuzzy thinking and argumentative dishonesty that debaters usually claim that the most moral system happens by wild coincidence also to be the most effective. You would think this concept was definitely exploded by the Nazis, who created systems like Auschwitz which were horrifyingly effective to produce their stated goals. The very insistent correlation of the “good” and the “effective” transgresses the “is/ought” separation perceived by Hume:

In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a god, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulation of propositions is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason ought to be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it.

           More than 230 years after Hume’s death, we still conflate the “is” and “ought” in every day political debate. Here are two examples (my own wording, but in a few minutes searching you will easily find writing which makes these assertions):

           “Human induced global warming does not exist. Therefore, we should proceed as rapidly as possible with development utilizing energy resources without concern these activities will affect the environment.”

           “Unregulated speculation in mortgage backed securities did not cause the recession. Therefore, we should oppose all further regulation of securitization activities.”

           In each of these cases, there is a hidden agenda in the second sentence. The assertion that activity A did not cause consequence B does not mean that we should  continue Activity A. There may be other reasons not to. In each case, the speaker wants to promote activity A (drilling for oil, or the securitization of mortgages). In advancing that agenda, she wants you to believe simultaneously that Activity A will slim your waist and is beloved of Jesus.

           It is not hard to invent more scrupulous versions of both assertions:

           “Human industrial and technological development should proceed as rapidly as possible regardless of the consequences to the environment.”

           “Securitization of mortgages should be permitted regardless of the impact on the economy.”

           Unlike Scrooge, most speakers are not honest enough to make such statements. They would then be called upon to explain that “regardless” and we would learn a lot more about what they really think:

           “The most grievance consequences of global warming will come after my own lifetime, so who cares?”

           “Let the buyer beware—anyone who loses their money by investing in a bad security deserves what happens to them.”

           In most cases of assertions made in public debate, we never get to that next assertion because the speaker claims there cannot be any negative real world consequences of the “moral” action he advocates.

           As an important sidelight to this essay, the purely moral component of any political debate, considered unlinked to any assertion of objective efficacy, is highly problematic. One of the most revelatory works I ever read was A.J. Ayers' Language, Truth and Logic :

[F]undamental ethical conceptions are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgments in which they occur....[T]hey are mere pseudoconcepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money," I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money." In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money,", in a particular tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks.

           I have written elsewhere that the only moral codes which mean anything to me are human rulebooks established by consensus, not the imaginary concepts of religious or natural morality Ayers is targeting.

           While there may exist  other effective paths to the truth, I have most confidence in only two, scientific double-blind testing and the sometimes overwhelming weight of experience across sufficiently long periods of time. Most Presidential administrations since Gramm Rudman have not balanced the budget, so Gramm Rudman was a failure. We have achieved in the last few years  a world wide scientific majority consensus that human-induced climate change is really happening. 

           An increasing tendency on the part of even Libertarians to grant there are cliimatic consequences to development is highly significant. It means the public debate can now concentrate on getting real work done: Is there anything we can do about the problem? If yes, is it cost effective or does it create more problems (hunger, unemployment, etc) than it solves? By contrast, each year that we continue debating which way to set the switch (climate change exists, yes/no), is a year when we are not effectively discussing solutions.

           Many assertions regarding falsifiable subject matter in political debates are only tenable because of the expanse of time between the commencement of an activity and knowledge of its consequences. I can conclude in 2009 that the Gramm Rudman act of 1986 did not cause balanced federal budgets, but almost a quarter century has elapsed. We are still living in what I will call the “falsification period” of the war in Iraq; what will we be able to say definitely about it a quarter century from now?

           In general, a lot of loose, illogical and deliberately dishonest debate is possible because the falsification period of many historical events is extremely long in human terms. The Russian revolution of 1917 definitively failed in 1989; in the interim, megatons of books and breath, not to mention human lives, were wasted in its justification (Lincoln Steffens: “I have been over into the future, and it works.”)

           There are some startling (and refreshing) exceptions to that rule. President Bush’s commendation to his FEMA administrator, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”, was proved false immediately. In the spectrum of human battlefields, from the merely semantic to the heart-renderingly external, a hurricane is about as good an example as you can find of the latter. You can’t spin a hurricane; the hurricane spins you.

           There will always be a contingent fighting the acceptance of any assertion, even after it has survived rigorous blind testing or acquired the crushing weight of historical experience. The Flat Earth Society persisted into modern times. Darwin is controversial almost two centuries later.

           When such groups exist as a lunatic fringe (the Flat Earthers) they can do little harm. I am more concerned with the impacts on human well-being and progress of more mainstream assaults on knowledge. For example, the anti-evolution movement in the US today has implications for education, science and for our basic commitment to truth.

           Consensus doesn’t establish truth, however,  except in post-Schrodinger world. Like the audience clapping for Tinkerbelle in “Peter Pan”, Schrodinger’s cat is not alive or dead based on what most people believe. Scientific and general human history is replete with examples of mass consensus which was dead wrong.

           One approach to truth I don’t trust, by the way, is soft or sociological experimentation. While game theory is highly interesting as a metaphor or a tool for modeling life, it loses its interest when experiments are conducted in which the subjects are supposedly persuaded the game is a reality. The environment is too artificial, and the possibility the subjects know, even if unconsciously, that the stakes are not real, can never be eliminated. Thus Milgram’s experiments reported in Obedience to Authority should not, in my opinion, receive the weight which a historical inquiry like Ordinary Men has. The latter concerns people who were actually ordered to murder and did so, as opposed to graduate students who delivered a fake shock they were told was a real one.

           In behavioral studies, everything is by definition a placebo, and therefore there is no real opportunity for a rigorous, double-blind approach.

           A case study

           I just finished reading Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty, an excellent history of the famous mutiny. It also makes a fine case study of the principles we are examining because:

1.      Something happened.

2.      Incomplete information about the event was communicated to the rest of the world.

3.      Competing groups of people began offering inconsistent interpretations of the information (offering competing candidates for a dominant “knowledge” of the mutiny). 

4.      Some additional information was offered about the event, most but not all of it incorrect.

5.      Some or all of the people offering new information about it also had hidden agendas.

           Note that almost any historical event and the subsequent analysis, and in fact almost any human initiative or project, would meet these criteria and would therefore furnish an interesting case study of our respect for truth.

           Historical events must be fairly broad-based to permit useful scientific or statistical analysis. Hurricane Katrina does, as we can compare to other such disasters its severity, the number of casualties, the amount of time it took to rescue, house, feed and protect victims, etc. On the other hand, the Bounty mutiny, like most smaller, more subjective events, admits only of the other type of analysis, the experiential. In the useful discipline of history (when unmixed with too much sociology), the quasi-scientific approach involves a two stage determination: What are the facts? What explanation best fits those facts, once we ascertain them?

           Any debater instinctively knows that persuading the audience to believe only the facts most sympathetic to your interpretation is more than half the battle. Whenever winning the debate is more important, for whatever reason, then establishing truth, hideous battles will ensue as to what is or is not factual. To revert to the words I defined at the outset, the first  conflict of a debate concerns whether particular items of data are information or not. The subsequent conflict is fought over the proper place of the surviving information in a knowledge structure. 

           The Bounty was a British Navy ship operating under an ancient legal code which said, simply, that mutiny must never occur. If it does, it is punishable by death. It is irrelevant whether the mutineers were provoked; in fact, their motives are not of interest in a court-martial. “Never” means “never”.

           The only fact on which there is complete agreement in the Bounty saga is that Fletcher Christian, a master’s mate, took the ship at gunpoint from his commanding officer, Lieutenant Bligh. At first, Bligh’s account was the predominant one back home in England, as the mutineers had vanished. A couple of years later, when five of them were apprehended in Tahiti and brought back to England for trial, their countervailing accounts received attention. Christian was never seen again and his fate remains highly uncertain (like Judge Crater’s or Amelia Earhart’s). Later, however, his brother, an attorney, mounted a highly successful campaign to clear Christian’s name, which was aided by Peter Heywood, a young mutineer who had been sentenced to death, then pardoned by the King.

           This campaign centered on discrediting Bligh and presenting him as an abusive tyrant. Though Heywood and the Christian family were motivated by self interest, their efforts took place in a sympathetic cultural environment oriented to personal liberty and fighting the cruel dispositions of autocracy as exemplified by the British Navy where impressment and flogging were still the order of the day. In the public imagination., Fletcher Christian became a sort of dashing Byronic hero. The public forgave him for what the Navy would not, based on a new image of Bligh as the quintessential brutal dictator. Some of the accounts of disciplinary actions taken by Bligh are verifiably false, while others can easily be misinterpreted by those who don’t understand the naval background. Bligh never had Christian flogged; Bligh’s fury over the theft of fruit from the ship’s stores is justifiable given the dangers of scurvy and the breakdown of discipline aboard Bounty, not trivial in the same sense as the fictional Captain Queeg’s obsession with the stolen strawberries in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.

           Caroline Alexander rehabilitates Bligh’s image by illustrating, based on substantial contemporary testimony of the men who served with him on this and other excursions, that he used flogging and other corporal punishments less than other contemporary captains and was more concerned with the physical and emotional well-being of his men, to the point of losing their respect and being perceived as soft. Combine that with the Navy’s decision to send him in a ship so small there was no room for the usual contingent of Marines (who acted as cops and enforcers for the captain), and the paradise of warmth, rich food, friendship and easily available women which was Tahiti, and it is not remarkable that Bligh experienced disciplinary problems when he wanted to leave. Remarkably, when Bligh at the end of his career was appointed Governor of New South Wales, he was overthrown a second time, suggesting that he may have had psychological defaults which made it hard for him to exercise unchallenged authority. Bligh was vindicated a second time, and died at the end of a reasonably good career, not wholly respected by his peers.

           The view of Bligh presented by Heywood and Christian found its way into the popular twentieth century novel Mutiny on the Bounty and the three movies which have so far been based on it. Alexander does useful and well-reasoned work countering this view in her enjoyable, sympathetic book.

           A fascinating coda involves the discovery thirty years later of a single survivor of the mutineers on Pitcairn Island. This man, now the sole source for events after the remaining mutineers sailed away from Tahiti for the last time (leaving behind the five men later brought back to England for court-martial) is the very model of a Post-Schrodinger figure. He gave a number of conflicting accounts of Christian’s death in later years when he was visited by various sea captains and plied with drink: Christian was murdered soon after the mutiny; he was murdered years later; he committed suicide and died of disease. This man was thought by some to be Christian himself.  The truth has never been ascertained. The Tahitian wives of Christian and others also survived, but being women and foreign, were never interviewed.

           The Bounty story illustrates neatly the tension between truth and interest in public discussions. The basic underlying facts were really quite simple and never in dispute: Fletcher Christian pointed a gun at his commanding officer and took his ship., an unforgivable act under the law. Two types of interests intervened to muddy public knowledge: the first was the personal desire of Heywood to justify himself and of the Christian family to justify the missing Fletcher; the second was the public desire for a romantic, anti-authoritarian narrative.

           Here are some other possible reasons for society’s lack of interest in truth.

The influence of courtroom dialectics

           An interesting light on the problem of truth in British and American culture is the dialectical approach to determining it, exemplified by the Bounty court martial and our system of jurisprudence in general. An enjoyable old saw you learn in law school is the story of the man sued for returning a cracked kettle. His defense was that he never borrowed the kettle, it was never cracked, and it was already cracked when he borrowed it.  In this system, the concept of a vigorous defense trumps truth, which is left up to the trier of fact to determine, often by splitting the difference between the plaintiff ‘s and defendant’s outrageous assertions. While the dialectic approach to truth-finding guarantees diverse and lively speech and good entertainment, it is not particularly a path to knowledge.

           Law’s impact on science has also been negative. There is no penalty for arguing “junk science” in the courtroom and some quite large verdicts have been won based on it.

           Another saying I learned as a young lawyer was, “Argue the law; argue the facts; if you don’t have either on your side, bang on the table and shout.” In our public debates, he who shouts the loudest with the greatest show of indignation is frequently considered to have won, until years or decades later the falsification period elapses and proves the shouter to be ridiculously wrong.

Poor education

           The decline of education in the United States in the past fifty years has been extensively studied. Our educational system no longer appears to provide students with a foundation in logic or in the scientific method. The lack of logical and analytic skills is highly implicated in the absence of American math skills.

           Innumeracy (New York: Vintage, 1990) a monograph by mathematician John Allen Pauos, is a highly readable and entertaining analysis of the basic skills we lack and why they are important in real life.

           C.P. Snow in The Two Cultures (New York: Cambridge University Press 1993) mourned the splitting off of scientific from cultural knowledge and the ensuing dangerous viewpoint that scientific knowledge is specialized, of interest to the experts only and not applicable to daily life. Snow points the way to Paulos.

           The statement “one thing may be true for me, another for you,” was made to me by college students, revealing a grievous lack of logical foundation which should have been instilled in them by the second or third grade.

Lack of a culture of investigation

           We are not raised to be truth-seekers. If we were, a foundation in logic would be a necessary but not sufficient condition.

           I can imagine a culture in which, starting at the family level, a favored activity would be gathering and evaluating data, confirming it as information, then proposing and testing knowledge structures about the events and features of our lives, from the trivial to the great.

           Despite our love for stories of investigation, that is not our culture. John Allen Paulos observed that the most disturbing of his students were completely incurious. A detective drama on television, by the way, is a spectacle in which we are entirely passive, enjoying someone else’s ostensible process as entertainment.

           Most people are not even aware that the words they use have meaning exclusively by consensus and can vary not only from era to era but from conversation to conversation. If the average person has never looked even beyond words, how is it possible to question anything else?

           A big part of our problem is that we accept a false proposition, that there is absolute truth in language and within ourselves, and therefore fail to look for it where it exists, outside ourselves.

Self deception and public lies

           “Politicians treat us like mushrooms: they keep us in the dark and feed us shit.” In order to obtain campaign funds and win elections, our leaders and legislators tell us we are specially intelligent, fortunate and good-looking.

           A definition of “American exceptionalism” from Wikipedia:

American exceptionalism (def. "exceptionalism") refers to the belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its national credo, historical evolution, distinctive political and religious institutions, ethnic origins and composition, or national ideals.


Persons who choose to use "American exceptionalism" as a pejorative allege that it is a product of veiled nationalistic chauvinism, or even jingoism.

           The idea that we are somehow better than everyone else simply because we are Americans reminds me of a remarkable statement made by Himmler in a secret speech to the SS:

Most of you must know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred, or a thousand. To have stuck it out and at the same time remained decent fellows, that is what has made us so hard.

           It is a natural human fallacy, which began with earliest man, to believe one is superior through mere virtue of some fact such as Aryanism, Americanism, or CroMagnonism. Such a belief, deeply enough held, warps knowledge and causes the disregard of any truth which conflicts with it. The proposition that Germans were superior led Hitler to believe that he could fight the Soviet Union and the Allies at once and was finally falsified when he killed himself in 1945. The proposition that Americans are superior inevitably leads us into adventures like Iraq.

           Encouragement of the perception that we are superior by mere virtue of X is usually supplemented by an encouragement to laziness, to believe that we are entitled to something for nothing ( bread and circuses; lotteries; “lose weight without dieting or exercise”). Lazy, complacent people don’t stand up to their rulers.


           I have come to believe that any ideology and truth are enemies. Fundamentalists of course murder people to punish any questioning of the absolute truth of their creed. But even ideologues as comparatively benign as Libertarians or progressives tend to sort information according to whether it supports an ideology already firmly held.

           Here is the distinction between the scientific and truthful Libertarian, who believes that private owners of coral reefs may choose to dynamite them (and have no problem with that), and the naïve, idealistic Libertarian who believes that “the invisible hand” would never permit anything so crass as the destruction of a reef.

           People cling to their ideologies well beyond the falsification period.

Greed and dishonesty

           Among the worst people on earth, not actually guilty of physical violence, is anyone who accepts money to combat knowledge which she privately knows to be correct. Voices insisting that there is no human-induced climate change today are either blind ideologues or have accepted money to fight the truth.

           In any era, millions or billions of dollars have been invested by business to fight truth (cigarettes don’t cause cancer, deregulation doesn’t cause stock market bubbles).

Truth’s a bitch (and then you die)

           Today, at age 54, I think I have a much firmer knowledge of my own limitations and defaults than I did thirty years ago. Once I picked up a fly rod and made a fool of myself, thinking I was capable of a sixty foot cast; I wouldn’t do so today.

           Life, someone said, is a revolution of diminished expectations. It is at the same time a revolution of expanded knowledge of ourselves, which leads to that diminishment. Since very few of us discover that we are better (smarter, more talented, better looking) than we thought, most will inevitably suffer from knowledge.  “Truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable”.

           In Cabell’s sardonic parable, Jergen, the hero is sent by Merlin to receive the truth about the world from a druid. Afterwards, Jergen is indignant, and the Druid remarks, “If Merlin had seen what you have seen, Merlin would have died, and Merlin would have died without regret.”

           Death and truth have some points in common. The process we follow to get to the one, as proposed by Kubler Ross, is similar to the road to the other: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In fact, Kubler Ross’s steps are really a process of confronting a particular kind of knowledge, of death. They are just as easily applicable to the confrontation with any other painful knowledge.

           Most people never seem to get beyond denial.

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana