Category Archives: Nature of Truth

On Dogmatism

SCENARIO 1: Your one-year-old child gives you a mischievous look, then with a delighted squeal he stumbles toward the hotel balcony—heading gleefully toward certain death. You rush and catch hold of him, but do you now give him a firm spanking to make sure this never happens again?

SCENARIO 2: There’s a bomb to be detonated in one hour somewhere downtown, and a member of the terrorist group is in your custody. If it’s likely that he knows something about the whereabouts of the bomb and how to dismantle it, should you torture him to extract information?

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There may be disagreement among us in our answers to these example scenarios. But whatever your answers may be, the act of putting yourself in such situations hopefully draws your attention to the fact that our behaviors and reasoning are prone to become more severe and stereotypical in times of crisis. Even if you manage to use cool counter-reasoning to control these impulses, the impulses are real, and their felt salience is determined by the perceived power of the imminent threat.

In “The Righteous Mind,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses bees as an analogy to explain human group behavior. When the hive of a bee colony is under attack, the bees frantically work to defend their territory from invaders. Similarly, when humans are stressed, and especially when under attack, we exhibit certain behaviors and attitudes that enhance conformity and control, and help us to fend off external threats.

This Crisis Mode has clear benefits for group survival amid chaos or hardship, although happiness and flexibility are not among those benefits. In times of stress, conformity for the sake of order and security takes precedence. Crisis is thought to have played a tremendous role in the forging together of human groups across kin. This included continual inter-group warfare, as well as extremely harsh and unpredictable environmental conditions. It has also played a role throughout the histories of all subsequent human civilizations, from the fortified city-states of ancient Greece, to the purging of polytheistic influence in the kingdom of Judea, to the rise of tyrants following various revolutions and coups. It will also likely factor into group responses around the world to calamities that arise in the years to come, from natural disasters to food shortages to new outbreaks of disease.

While our Crisis Mode is sometimes advantageous for basic group survival, there are clear disadvantages to having this state activated. Most notably, as in the examples above, the need to control the situation cuts off openness to alternative ideas, and a power differential is accentuated. The result is a rigidity of thinking, a type of absolute certainty that closes itself off to competing ideas. Any deviation from the established status quo is treated as a threat to group security. In instances where a threat is merely imagined or exaggerated, this is even more tragic. At best, innovation and creative problem solving efforts are needlessly crippled; at worst, someone who can’t help being an exception to group rule is punished for being a deviant, or an outside group is demonized and attacked.

So, this group Crisis Mode is the source of what many today call dogma or orthodoxy, or fundamentalism. While everyone is capable of having some shift to a more orthodox state due to stress or crisis, it does seem that some individuals are more prone than others to operate in chronic Crisis Mode. Discussed below are four personality traits that seem to be strongly associated with a dogmatic state of mind. All can be linked to a basic adaptive response to stressors, but can also feature more prominently as stable traits among certain people.

The first trait is neophobia, or the aversion to novel or unfamiliar experiences. This is rooted in our basic aversive response to certain foods, catering to the more cautious component of the omnivore’s dilemma—the need to protect ourselves from harmful substances. All of us can learn to be more or less aversive to novelty based on our experiences, but there is also a heritable contribution to one’s extent of openness or lack thereof. If someone is highly neophobic, they associate familiarity with a sense of order and control, and thus tend to guard themselves against novel situations or experiences. When unfamiliarity so readily triggers aversion, conformity to a monoculture becomes quite easy.  And if neophobia abounds in the group, the treatment of exceptions to the established norms as threats will be much more likely.

The second trait is an authoritarian disposition, which is fueled by a preoccupation with rank and status. Such individuals thrive in a well established hierarchy. They are unlikely to question the ideas or motives of their authorities, yet will pay no mind to people considered to be competitors or subordinates. Unlike more egalitarian minded individuals, authoritarians live by control and obedience rather than by consensus. The morality of an authoritarian type is primarily punitive; unwanted behavior is punished or prevented by threat of punishment, rather than by constructive criticism. This approach to social interaction is rooted in the authority of a parent over a child, but particularly when a parent feels that absolute control is essential. This can be triggered by a crisis like in Scenario 1, but it also reflects a personality type that perhaps results from an environment of chronic stress.

The third trait is a need for moral simplicity. All communities have shared narratives about who they are, what they value, and what they think is wrong. And to some extent, all of our morals are rooted in our identities and group affiliations. However, many of us recognize that real world applications of moral ideals can be fraught with contradictions and qualification, and so an appreciation for complexity and nuance is valued. However, there are some people who regard a nuanced morality as a weak or compromised morality; they equate moral certainty with group strength. For these people, there will always be a clear right answer, and a clear wrong answer. It is important to come across to others as decisive, and therefore morally strong. Naturally, since there is a right—and their group is always right!—that means that out-groups are clearly in the wrong.  Out-group demonization can result quite easily from this need to simplify moral reasoning.  The need for quick action in times of stress perhaps motivates people to impose order and regularity; reducing problems into the simple and predictable is one way to control for uncertainty. “Don’t panic, follow the drill, we’ll get through this.” Individuals who feel chronic stress or threat perhaps possess a constant need for this type of cognitive vigilance against potential threats to one’s sense of control, one’s measure of decisiveness.

Related to this, the last trait is a lack of personal insight, where one’s need to be perceived as in control trumps introspection or self awareness. There’s a responsibility to exude confidence like an advertisement of one’s virtue, which makes doubt or self-criticism things to avoid at all costs. Perhaps related to our ability to detach ourselves from misery via fantasy (“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…), the lack of personal insight results from one’s attachment to a cherished narrative, one that comforts or grants strength, one that masks real insecurities, one that must be protected from outside influence—or inside insights. A properly closed mind ensures consistency, conformity, and fealty to a group. Unfortunately, it stifles creativity, fosters contradiction and hypocrisy, and fails to address the root of any problem that arises. Compartmentalization of feelings and attitudes can be convenient when trying to cope with a crisis, or to avoid cognitive dissonance, but such willful escapism ultimately works against a healthy, happy lifestyle.

When thinking about how to reduce dogmatic rigidity in our society, it is crucial to consider the many factors that can influence individual development of an orthodox-like disposition. We must recognize that, to some extent, the disposition is heritable, driven by biological factors. It’s also likely driven by early developmental factors, such as prenatal stress, nutrition, and early attachment experience. These are of course tied to socio-economic status as well, with people in poorer neighborhoods more likely to experience stressors due to increased crime rates, unstable households, drug or alcohol abuse, and compromised nutrition. People in poorer areas are more likely, therefore, to be neophobic, authoritarian, less reflective, and to adhere to simple moral narratives than people of higher SES. There are many other factors to consider though, such as education and lifetime opportunities, all of which shape a person’s tendency to be more or less dogmatic. A real change would require an extensive long-term commitment to the improvement of our systems and communities, in order to eventually foster more open-mindedness and curiosity among our citizens in future generations. More on this topic in a later post.

We also have to think about the more subtle role of perceived threats rather than traditional stressors in contributing to dogmatism. The Christian fundamentalist and evangelical movements in America were founded by, and continue to thrive upon, a perceived attack upon a certain group way of life from foreign influence. Several waves of great social change, such as the rise of secularism, the Vietnam War protests, civil rights movements, feminism, gay rights activism, and the libertine revolution of the hippies, all made conservative Christians panic—and a reactionary wave of fervent, dogmatic fealty to perceived traditions began to grow in response. A coherent group narrative was forged, one that blamed the encroaching influence of secularism on the nation’s pervasive moral decay, and soon the language, education, and political inclinations of Christians across America were encouraged to conform in lockstep to this growing Moral Majority. Charismatic leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell strengthened Christian bonds across the nation by feeding their audiences with narratives of fear and imminent threat, making clear what was right for the group, and what was wrong.

The rise of the religious right in America was a huge impediment to social progress, to religious liberty, and to the advancement of science. Yet it’s nonetheless true that this wave of fundamentalism was catalyzed by some very rapid and dramatic social changes due to progressive influences. Without judging the rationale for what has already occurred, we can at least think about the cost of future progressive efforts for change in terms of social capital. The more dramatic and fast a social change is, the more costly it will be in terms of social capital, and the more likely a surge of dogmatic revanchism is to be expected. Also, if we can find ways to communicate to these groups in Crisis Mode that can allay their fears, then we can perhaps encourage them to be more like a rival team working toward a shared goal than as a mortal enemy.

Finally, we have to think about what the promotion of openness, flexibility, and independence of thought would mean for group living in general. While dogmatism works against happiness and healthy living, active immersion in a group is healthy and productive. An increase in openness and independence bears the risk of promoting anomie, diminishing group bonds due to a lack of unifying customs or a shared moral narrative. Similarly, a constant push for acknowledgment of diversity can result in a preoccupation with differences. However, these qualities can be put to use in a socially constructive way, namely via collaborative reasoning for problem solving. Such endeavors can be a team effort, driven by a shared sense of duty to work for the good of the nation. Tolerance and respect for diversity should be complimented by a focus on common humanity and shared activities. Although there will always be some proportion of people who react to stressors more severely than others—and there will be events in the future that can shift entire nations to a less flexible state of conformism—and this can sometimes be a good thing. If we can learn to address dogmatism not as a state of evil, or insanity, or even pathology, but rather as a sometimes adaptable trait that can get out of hand (and is arguably less and less adaptive as our societies grow in number, complexity and diversity), we have a better chance of keeping it under control.

And remember, make sure it’s a soft control, rather than absolute dominion over this seemingly foreign threat. If that Crisis Mode is triggered by progressives trying to do away with dogmatism, they will unfortunately be giving the dogmatists a taste of their own bitter medicine.

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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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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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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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