Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Human Truth Mechanism, Part 2

(Continued from previous post)

Historical Factors

We can acknowledge that every human infant has essentially the same starting point—the same mechanisms for learning truth, value, and meaning—and that our social and cultural environments largely determine the content of our beliefs and truths. However, it’s also important to recognize that environments themselves can evolve over time, and sometimes in additive, progressive steps. That is to say that the past often affects the present, and so one’s place in history can often determine aspects of how truth is conceptualized and experienced.

Technological advancement is one of the biggest influences in this respect. As technology advanced among early communities, populations grew, access to food and shelter increased, interaction with different cultures became more and more common, etc. The cultures who experienced these advancements were more or less irrevocably changed; there could be future changes, but there was no way to go back.

With this in mind, it’s useful to think about what was common among early human societies before technological advancement could facilitate major cultural evolution. We could think of these commonalities as representing the cultural default of the human truth experience, with differences across cultures appearing more in the specific details of belief than in the broader tendencies.

All early human societies, similar to contemporary hunter-gatherer and horticultural communities, shared and experienced their cultural information via stories, songs, art, and rituals. The activities and works served multiple functions, all at once.

a) They usually involved some description of the people’s environment (like the terrain and its fauna) or lifestyle (such as hunting) that would have been regarded as accurate, meaning that the knowledge would enable successful prediction and reliable outcomes.

b) The stories had more latent meanings, often to convey the morals and life lessons considered to be important by the community.

c) The act of telling and sharing the stories, songs, art works, and rituals themselves served as an important psychosocial experience for all involved. Powerful emotions could be evoked, and the sharing of metaphors in these communal activities strengthened the feeling of togetherness among members.

d) Sometimes this bonding was strengthened by the experience of transcendence, a state in which one’s sense of self is reduced, and one’s connection with others (and even the universe) can be heightened.

Importantly, an individual or community would not necessarily distinguish between these different functions. Because a sense of truth is strongly associated with confidence, with trust, and with intense personal value, the multifaceted experience of communal ritualistic engagement could simply be labeled as “true” for those who partake in them.

I argue that the truth mechanism common to all humans is not specifically designed to distinguish literal facts from figurative details. Instead, many different experiences in formative sociocultural interactions tend to be tagged as “true.” Humans are pragmatic creatures, and our search for meaning, including truth, ultimately has do with its value or impact upon our lives. If a story, a ritual, or an article of faith is important to the shared identity of a community, it will be considered to be “true.” If a description of the environment can facilitate prediction and control for easier living, it will also be deemed to be “true.” If a work of art can unlock deeply felt emotions, and transform one’s attitude toward life, it can be said to hold important “truths.” In other words, the human default conception of truth is itself multifaceted.

An important historical innovation, then, was the ability to dissociate and cater separately to these different functions. All humans value the ability to predict and control their environments, but it was those who found ways to increase their accuracy and reliability (i.e., through technological advancement) who would flourish and dominate the course of history. It was eventually discovered by Medieval Christians, Jews, and Muslims that the skeptical investigation of empirical evidence was the most effective way to collect reliable data for the advancement of technological precision and power. Interestingly, although scientific investigation and artistic expression both blossomed shortly afterward during the Renaissance years (sometimes even via the same individuals), they were at this point completely distinct pursuits. Art and science eventually became independent of their traditional religious contexts, and so the earlier functions of communal ritual were split into separate components.

Science and academic engagement proved to be the best way to refine and expand our knowledge of the world that enables accurate prediction and reliable control. On the other hand, many people today turn to the arts and humanities for powerful emotional experiences, multiple layers of deep meaning, and even for feelings of transcendence. As for explicitly religious engagement, this itself has splintered, roughly into those who declare the stories of their community to represent accurate and reliable data, and those who knowingly engage in their shared metaphors as one engages with the arts, but with a stronger sense of communal bonding. In truth, there is more of a spectrum of practices here, with varying ratios of literalism/figuratism in the interpretation of various traditional claims. More on that in a later post.

Final Thoughts

So, what about this notion of absolute truth? That’s a philosophically thorny position to defend, but if we focus instead on probabilistic certainty, we can conclude that empirical investigation via the scientific method is the most effective way to expand upon and refine our certainty of the world and how it works—specifically the extent to which we can predict and control our environment based on our knowledge. This type of truth is truly general to humans across all cultures, and can affect even those who deny it as a source of truth. In other words, many communities who ignore scientific consensus nonetheless benefit from the many improvements in lifestyle that scientific research has afforded us. That’s about as close to absolute as we will probably get, and so humans everywhere would do well to respect scientific consensus, and to learn about our world in a way that has been demonstrated over and over to be accurate and reliable.

But what about these other experiences that can be tagged as “truth?” I think atheists and skeptics are making a huge PR mistake when they dismiss the myths, traditions, and aesthetic interpretations of a community as “not true.” The claims made by a religious group may not have empirical evidence to support it, and they likely won’t facilitate reliable predictions or technology, but the label of “truth” can, and has, extended beyond accuracy of prediction. Naturalists would do well to appreciate the pragmatic nature of human meaning-making. Even if they don’t agree with labeling artifacts of psychosocial ritual engagement as types of truth, they should at least respect the fact that a great many people really take issue with their cherished cultural artifacts being labeled “false,” or “just a myth.” As for me, I think it’s valuable to consider and cultivate all of the components of traditional cultural transmission, and so a categorical dissociation between “informational truth” and “mythic truth” seems to me to be a reasonable concession.

That said, it’s also important for members of traditional religious communities to reconcile their declared beliefs with what we know about the natural world from scientific investigation. Much more on that in future posts. For now, it is sufficient to say that an understanding of “truth” as a pragmatic tool for the linguistic, hyper-social primate known as homo sapiens would really help to break down barriers to understanding, and could help to foster empathy across traditionally opposed communities. Even if my particular suggestions aren’t used, let’s at least make the effort to find a common language with which to argue!

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Filed under History, Language & Identity, Nature of Truth, Psychosocial Resonance, The Human Animal

The Human Truth Mechanism, Part 1

The life of every person is an exploration of truth, meaning, and value. But we also know that the truths of one person can sometimes contradict those of another. How is this reconciled? Is there an absolute truth to rule out all others? Or are our truths more like personal preferences?

I propose that all members of homo sapiens share a common mechanism for acquiring and evaluating truth. The details of any one human being’s experience of truth is therefore dependent upon one’s development, one’s particular culture, and one’s place in history. The historical factor in particular is crucial for us to understand our contemporary arguments over what is true or false, but a brief look at the other factors will help us put the influence of history on truth into perspective.

Developmental Factors

Before anyone’s opinions or truths can be formed, we must all first grow and develop. Once our nervous systems are capable of receiving sensory input and initiating movements, it becomes possible for us to infer regularities or patterns in our environment, and also to learn which of our motor behaviors can be beneficial, harmful, or neutral for any given environmental context. Some regularities are more important to us than others, like the sound of our mother’s voice over other voices. Eventually, our learning experiences are guided by our caretakers, who increasingly impart their wisdom to us by means of verbal labeling. We jump at opportunities to infer relationships and patterns (such as calling a cat “doggie” because it is a small, furry animal), and we look to our elders to determine if our behaviors are right or wrong. From their guidance, we learn that right is good, and that wrong is bad. Right leads to rewards, to happy parents, and to a feeling of control. Wrong leads to obstacles, frustration, and a feeling of lost control.

Our childhood experiences serve as the foundation for our own articulated notions of truth as adults. This includes basic certainties with regard to our surroundings, such as the effect of the earth’s gravity on object movements. It also includes moral certainties and declarations of faith, which are heavily informed by the communities to which we belong, but also by personal experience. Just like when we were children, something that we label “true” feels important to us; we feel confident in its existence, but we’re also comforted by this regularity over chaos.

Yet if this is the case for all humans, what accounts for the differences in our experiences of truth? If we all share a basic human truth mechanism, variations of the truth experience will depend on the social and cultural environments in which we happen to develop.

Cultural Factors

It shouldn’t be surprising to know that we are are all products of our respective cultural environments, but stop and ponder this for a moment. How similar or different a person would you be if you were born in the slums of Harlem, or in a palace in Istanbul? It’s quite likely that your basic understanding of gravity for object movement would be the same, but do you really think your moral certainties and declarations of faith would be similar if you were raised in a completely different environment? Hopefully, your answer is “probably not,” and we can acknowledge the somewhat arbitrary nature of some of our cultural truths, even ones that feel extremely important to us.

While this acknowledgement seems to support the idea of truth as mere personal preference, it’s important to consider how our access to truth has changed across the centuries. As we shall see, historical factors have shaped the human truth experience in enormous ways.

(see Part 2 for Historical Factors and Final Thoughts)

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Rationale-ism

It’s fair to ask why anyone should attempt to cultivate or strengthen a global communal identity, rather than simply focus on our own daily lives in our various separate groups. Isn’t that how it always has been, and always should be? After all, isn’t truth relative? We all have our own subjective biases, so shouldn’t we stop pretending to have a claim on absolute truth and just decide for ourselves what is true, right, and relevant?

The answer to all of the above questions is No.

…but some qualification is necessary. A future post will focus on the subject of absolute truth. Here, I would like to discuss the historical context for such a global consciousness. The short explanation is that, despite the common tendency for human groups to compete with one another for power and numbers, it has long been discovered that cooperation and compromise across groups is far more productive than endless competition.

In many ways, the establishment of human-general knowledge and laws are old news. This has largely been thanks to the rise of Rationalism, Empiricism, and Secularism in Europe and the United States, movements that had their roots in the Renaissance and reached their peaks in the 1960s. It is not always stated explicitly, but a core assumption of the scientific method is that any human being, given the opportunity to learn about experimental design and procedure, has the ability to understand and appreciate any given set of empirical data, or any overarching theory. Similarly, the fundamental assumption of Secularism was that common truths and values could be reached among citizens of different, even opposing belief systems.

Unfortunately though, from the late ‘60’s onward, the lofty ambitions of Rationalism and Secularism were challenged and deflated. Though we all continue to reap the benefits of their existence even now, the impact of postmodernism and fundamentalism on human civic engagement has been devastating to these efforts toward human-generalism.

This is not to imply that the movements did not have their limitations. Indeed, it was the postmodernist philosophers who successfully highlighted the limitations and biases of Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism. The ethnocentrism of the Enlightenment thinkers was rightly criticized, as was the male chauvinism and general aristocratic elitism. Perhaps most importantly, the smug, misguided optimism that scientists, rationalists, and secular humanists often showed toward religion—namely, that it was only a matter of time until all religious thinking and superstition was wiped away from civilized society–made them an easy target of ridicule by philosophers, and of demonization by religious reactionaries.

Many Americans today think the term “secular” is synonymous with “anti-religious,” which is a distortion of the original meaning. This perception exists because of a widespread campaign by evangelical Christian figures starting in the 1970’s to depict American political struggles as a battle for the mind. Writers like Francis Schaeffer and Tim LaHaye painted secularists and postmodernists as trying to covertly remove Jesus from the minds and lives of American citizens. According to fundamentalist consensus even now, secularists are the enemy of anyone devoted to a religious community (see Fox News’ coverage on the secular War on Christmas).

In truth, secularism proposes a separation of church and state as a means of protecting the interests of both institutions. Since religion is regarded as the realm of the Sacred, the power and money involved in government politics can be seen as a potential pollutant of that sanctity. And since state laws affect all of its citizens, across different religious communities, the formation of laws based on explicitly religious grounds will inevitably be seen as unfair and unjust to some of those communities. The roots of secularism are actually religious in nature, springing from the conflicts of competing Protestant communities. Although they were all nominally of the same faith, the differences between the groups were taken very seriously, and they each competed for political influence. So, the goal to find generally accepted truths and values with which to construct state laws originally stemmed from the necessity to overcome differences among religious citizens.

Still, secularists of recent decades have been overwhelmingly non-religious, and their devotion to the separation of church and state can often come across as overzealous, even dogmatic, to their traditionally religious opponents. Non-believers have become more and more open in their non-belief, and have increasingly voiced their frustration and anger toward injustices against their minority group. Religious fundamentalist leaders, however, have used this animus to their own advantage, stoking outrage among their followers against the brazenly arrogant atheists and humanists, thereby fanning the flames of an endless culture war against “Godless” secularism.

Despite the limitations of the rationalist, empiricist, and secularist movements, it’s important to acknowledge the incredible positive impact they have had upon our society. And we can take the best of their ambitions—mainly the goal of establishing truths, values, and laws that can be shared by people of all nations, and all religions—and can work to let them flourish. Postmodernism rightly humbled Enlightenment philosophy for its privileged sense of progress and benevolence, yet it was the postmodern philosophers who also, ironically, provided religious dogmatists with their greatest rhetorical weapon: relativism. Since dogmatic group leaders never wish to reconcile or compromise with their opponents, our society’s descent into fractured relativism from the 70’s onward has been a giant boon to the fundamentalist cause. Much to the detriment of our country’s education, political engagement, and general civic discourse.

Now is the time to wake up from this slumber of apathy and inconsistency, and try once again to establish a broad sense of unity and moral coherence among all human populations. One that’s more pragmatic than grandiose, of course, but let’s not be afraid to aim high!

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Post-Postmodernism: Uniting the Tribe

We humans are highly social creatures, and we make our affiliations with various groups known to others. We determine the trustworthiness of strangers by the similarity of their group affiliations to our own. And, not surprisingly, the terms we use in speech and writing often reflect our affiliations and our loyalties.

In early human societies, group identity was much simpler: families were united by their allegiance to their tribe. Shared terminology, appearance, and daily behaviors all served to advertise one’s membership in that tribe, as opposed to rival tribes. Nowadays, we each have a multitude of group affiliations: some overlapping, some nested within others. Our behaviors and speech patterns can vary from situation to situation depending upon which affiliation is relevant for each interaction. Some affiliations are ranked as more important contributors to our identities than others, with nationality, race, and religious community being some of the most important.

It’s time to call attention to an important group identity that is often disregarded, one that is shared by all of us. Whether we like it or not, we’re on this earth with a great many different types of human groups (not to mention the millions of other life forms on the planet). It is in our best interest as a species to cultivate our commonalities rather than double down on established differences. Otherwise, we risk cultural stagnation and instability via endless sectarian conflicts. Every human on earth, therefore, has a responsibility to spread and cultivate human-general knowledge and values, and to live their lives in ways that strengthen the bonds of our common tribe.

The largest obstacle to the strength of our common tribe is dogmatism, and so the primary goal of this blog is to discourage dogmatic thinking. For my purposes here, “Dogmatism” refers to any type of rigid, authoritarian group identification. Much of the animosity in our world is fueled by sectarian conflict, which itself is rooted in dogmatic fealty to one group versus another. Openness and flexible thinking are essential skills for cultivating a shared global culture, and so even individuals who consider themselves to be apolitical or moderate would do well to examine their beliefs for hints of rigidity or historically enforced dogmatic close-mindedness. With this in mind, my blog will spend a fair amount of time unpacking dogmatism: its underlying assumptions and motivations, and its implications in daily life and communication in today’s world.

That said, I want to concentrate more on the social and political aspects of dogmatism, rather than on a specific aspect or claim of any group’s accepted dogma. Whether it is religious, nationalistic, racial, or socioeconomic in nature, dogmatism is unerringly political in its approach. It can be summed up succinctly by the sentiment of: “our group is fundamentally good and right, and yours is fundamentally evil and wrong.” Atheists and skeptics often work themselves into knots over the supernatural claims of various fundamentalist groups, yet the typically obvious socio-political messages within those supernatural claims are often ignored in the process.

While establishing truth is important for engagement between members of a group, I don’t want to dwell only on what skeptics consider to be “true.” Instead, I wish to explore more generally the human experience of truth, and how it has evolved across the ages. I contend that early human experiences of truth–passed on via myths and rituals–are fundamentally linked to experiences of value, and also served several distinct functions. I hope to show that contemporary disagreements on the nature of truth often result from different populations valuing (and thus focusing primarily upon) different functions, each separately touted as “true.” If we can learn to acknowledge these different functions and their respective values, perhaps we can cultivate a language and code of conduct that allows the pursuit of each variant of “truth” to flourish in our society.

My blog title was chosen to emphasize the importance of social affiliation and group loyalty for any pursuit of unity. But I also plan to come up with an actual Pledge of Allegiance that would resonate with all thoughtful, responsible citizens of the world. It need not be corny, and will certainly not be jingoistic. Most importantly, it would be open for revision and improvement. The goal here is to establish a starting point: a common identity, a proposed method of productive civic engagement. Once our common tribe is acknowledged, there is much to be discussed and determined!

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