Archive for December, 2021

On Beliefs — FACTS vs. TRUTH …


I’m told there is an old saying among lawyers: “If you don’t have the facts, argue the law; if you don’t have the law, argue the facts; if you have neither, shout.” In my experience one option has been disingenuously omitted:  If you have neither the facts nor the law, lie. I bring this up to illustrate that we inhabit a house of cards built one belief resting on another and another all the way to the beginnings of human consciousness; or in the words of the lady who famously challenged Bertrand Russell, it’s turtles all the  way down. We live in a Dreamworld not much different from the everywhen inhabited by Australian Aborigines. The brain, as Michael Schermer in The Believing Brain explains, “is a belief engine”, “beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow” in what he terms a “belief-dependent realism”. Beliefs also lead to faiths of all kinds because, as Karen Armstrong points out, we are meaning seeking creatures, we look for meaning or create it as necessary. Its beliefs all the way down, folks. If you don’t like the world the way it is simply believe it to be the way you want it to be. If, for example, you don’t want to accept the corruption that is politics in the United States today all one needs to do is not take in the contradictory information. Simply buy yourself a ticket to Lala- Land, watch a movie, insert your ear-plugs and turn on your portable music player, your game playing device, switch on the TV, shut out what you don’t want to hear about, know about, or acknowledge. Step into your created reality and ignore or deny what doesn’t agree with your belief system.

In a dreamworld truth is whatever you want it or need it to be and there are no facts except as they confirm your truth and if others join you that particular consensual reality becomes a shared world view. Absolute truth has disappeared and facts are generated wholesale to affirm whatever serves the needs of the moment. I have so far collected more than 20 different definitions and beliefs about what truth is and is not. Truth is at best slippery business a bit like beads of mercury on a glass plate, press one here and it goes there, press on it there and it goes somewhere else. How is it that we can  live in such  a world, how can we function without definite fixed truths? Well we’ve been doing so for a very long time and have somehow managed to make it this far with our collective dreamworld. Will time and circumstance run out for this luxury? Has the world become too complex and contradictory for such nonsense to be be sustained? Can a society stand when there is no truth, when no one knows what or whom to believe, when the observable world fails to match the rhetoric? That’s the philosophical and practical corner humankind has painted itself into at this moment in time.

As proto-humans on the edge of the African savannah observed distant thunder and lightening, what could they possibly have made of what they saw? Some explanation had to be arrived at because we are meaning seeking creatures and this fundamental aspect of intelligence no matter how primitive means things must somehow be explained even if not properly understood. Perhaps our primordial ancestors, imagined the agency of a powerful being or beings and then believed these as causing the fearsome phenomena and so must be feared, appeased, and appealed to. Over time the same explanations were employed to explain the abundance or lack thereof of game, the fertility of females, and later, and weather conducive to crops. Forces beyond the understanding of observers were at work and those forces had to be respected and were appealed to; entire belief systems of Gods and animate forces of nature were imagined. Imagination and the belief engine were at work providing an orderly system of explanation and understanding necessary to the orderly conduct of life. The invention of primitive religious belief systems arose from explanations of the observable world which ultimately encompassed entire social contracts and thus were not terribly different from today’s world of beliefs and social contracts. The role of imagination looms large in the creation of beliefs it being a more powerful agent than reasoning to this day and what we now call superstition is what gave rise to organized religion.

Beliefs and believing are integral to human experience and are the component parts of the belief systems, they are the bricks and blocks upon which any social contract rests. Objective beliefs generally arise from what are taken to be truths or facts based on observation or deduction and, as such, do not necessarily accord with . Contemporary scientific knowledge is itself built on a foundation of beliefs built over centuries centered on methods of observation and measurement. The accuracy and impartiality of observation and observers is the material out of which arise accepted scientific truths. The questions and the answers orbit each other in a deeply symbiotic relationship. If you believe in the scientific method you are able to believe in the results; if you believe in the results you implicitly accept the methods by which they are arrived at. You must believe there are facts and that truths may be extracted from the results. Each, fact and truth, relies on the other for affirmation. That all facts in all cases are not truth is, we will see, another matter.

South of Moab, Utah you can hike in off the highway to the west and reach an overlook from which you can observe the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. From that vantage these two great rivers can be seen joining in a roiling chaotic fluid mass and becoming one coherent powerful stream which will run through the Grand Canyon and ultimately, what’s left of it after passing through the vast acres of irrigated farmland in California, to the Pacific Ocean. The confluence of belief systems and social contracts works in much the same way as they join with a great deal of turbulence into a stream of ideas and influences propelling human society across time. Much as the Colorado River cuts through the record of time in the layers upon layers of ancient rock formations, carrying and depositing sediments as it flows so too does the stream of civilization and society progress as ideas, practices and beliefs are constantly churned, modified, and replaced. 

While belief systems and the social contract can be and often are discussed as separate entities an understanding of them cannot be reached without understanding the intimate interplay between them in everyday life. Another metaphor appropriately applied here is the Zen precept that one cannot see a flowing stream twice – it is never the same, it is always moving and changing. Whatever we have to say about the relationships between interacting beliefs and social contracts must reflect a similar understanding – we are talking about moments not eternal verities. Yet it is these moments which seem to last for long periods of time that determine the course of events as we experience them. When it comes to fear and religion the universe is complex indeed.  

We live in a world constrained by beliefs and at the same time, propelled by them is an odd paradox. Contentious and contradictory theories of truth and belief come as no surprise and In political and social dynamics all facts are fungible, there are no truths. To wit:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This is, of course, from the American Declaration of Independence and certainly more noble words could not have been penned but they were not true even when they were written which may help explain the endemic cognitive dissonance that has undermined the American social contract from its beginnings. The self-evident truth is that the declarations could not be further from the truth of life as it is lived not in the United States nor in the rest of the world. The political facts, the reality contradict the stated truths. The why of this lies in beliefs and their all-powerful influence on behavior. Facts can and often do lie in stark contradiction to what are believed to be truths. We can as did the founding fathers “hold” or believe certain statements to be true but we cannot make them be facts by saying they are. They can only become facts by force of their necessity and sufficiency and not because we claim them to be self-evident. If self-evident truths are experienced to be true they may become facts but there is no guarantee.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 60 other subscribers