“My” Truth

In a comment she made to a post I wrote about the nature of truth and falsity, Sha’Tara made the following remark: “In my world there is no truth whatever unless it is ‘my’ truth. . . “ I dismissed this claim as “indefensible,” which was a bit flippant. It deserves closer examination, though in the end I will try to show why it is indefensible. In effect the position is what has been called “solipsism,” and it has been around since humans began to think about truth and falsehood. The position rests on the assurance that I am the only one; I alone know about the “world” which is regarded as “real.” Truth, which is my personal fiction, is mine and mine alone.

As I noted in my comment to Sha’Tara, the claim “there is no truth” also claims to be true and this paradox is the key to the dismissal of the position. At best the claim itself is a half-truth. Some truths are mine while most have nothing whatever to do with me. To be sure, we all look at the world differently; each of us brings with us a large suitcase full of bias, prejudice and, at the very least, individual perspective. No question. But we bring this large piece of luggage to a world we share with others who also bring their own luggage. And we try to make sense of it, to make claims that can withstand criticism and which seem evidential. The evidence is itself available to others and can be examined and verified or rejected as the case warrants.

But in the end, claims from the axioms of Euclid (“Things equal to the same thing are equal to one another”) to the claims of the scientist (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) to the claims of the historian (“Caesar crossed the Rubicon”) can be verified. They are true because there is considerable intuitive, mathematical, historical, or sensory evidence to support them. They are not “my” truth: they are “our” truth. If we disagree about the claim that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, for example, we must bring evidence forward that provides an indisputable case against that claim. Indeed, like any claim, this one can be dismissed willy-nilly, because no one holds a gun to the head of anyone else (we would hope), but the dismissal is pure whimsy. There are no grounds for doing so, except that it makes the person himself or herself feel good. All the evidence supports the above claims in the parentheses.

The chemist/philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote a book in 1958 titled Personal Knowledge in which he argued that the scientist, no matter how exact the science itself, always brings with him or her a personal element. All claims, even the most precise and exact ones supported by mathematics and empirical observation are couched within a context of “personal knowledge.” Nonetheless, Polanyi insists, the knowledge itself is not in question because of the personal element. Polanyi’s goal was to restore science to a place within the body of human studies, to show that it is human knowledge and not so impersonal and somehow clinical that no one would approach it without rubber gloves and no interest whatever in the relationship between scientific truth and the truth in the social sciences and the Humanities. In a word, Polanyi wanted to substitute for the objective, impersonal ideal of scientific detachment an alternative ideal which gives attention to the personal involvement of the knower in all acts of understanding. But, note please, he did not reject all knowledge or all truth out of hand. Indeed, he affirmed the certainty of certain truths, while admitting the elements of personal involvement in the discovery and formulation of those truths.

The point of all this philosophical rambling is to show that truth is in a sense “mine,” but as truth it is there for anyone else. I am not all alone (solus ipse). I share a world with others with whom I can agree or disagree but with whom I also share a body of knowledge. I can get on the airplane with confidence that it will take off and land safely — because science tells me it is safe. I can drive my car and it will start and stop when I ask it to. The danger in rejecting truth is that we become open to manipulation by those in power who seek to instill in us a body of half-truths and “false facts” that allows them to realize their political goals. We are susceptible to the demagogue and the politically ambitious. We need to insist that there is truth and knowledge available to all who take the time to search and seek to validate it because if we do not do so we have nothing with which to defend ourselves from clap-trap and political nonsense.

This is why education is so important, especially in an age in which there are people “out there” who would have their way with us, convince us that black is white and that theirs is the only truth when, in fact, the truth belongs to no one. It belongs to all of us.

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Democracy and Education

Years ago John Dewey wrote a book about the relationship between democracy and education, making the claim that the former relies upon the latter. Without an educated citizenry democracy cannot survive. I have been harping on the same theme for many years now and am saddened to say that Dewey was spot on. We are seeing his prediction come true, especially of late.

Thousands of qualified American citizens are ready to vote for a demagogue who has openly lied and insulted whole classes of people while making it abundantly clear that he is an autocrat in the mold of Vladamir Putin: he wants to (and thinks he can) run the show by himself. He doesn’t realize that as president he must work with the sitting Congress in order to achieve anything. Given his past performance it is fair to say that if the Congress doesn’t act as he would want them to he will try to bully them into doing so and (if he had his way) fire them if they don’t — like the generals he regards as incompetent. The extent of this man’s ignorance of this democracy which he wants to lead and how it is supposed to work beggers belief.

But the point is that so many of our fellow citizens are prepared to support him and are convinced that he is the only one who can deliver this nation from the depths to which he insists we have plunged. This, in itself, demonstrates the truth of Dewey’s thesis. Given all the indicators employed by a wide variety of disinterested parties, American education is failing and the numbers of those who plan to vote for a candidate supremely unfit for the office is clear indication of that very failure. I have written about this so many times it doesn’t bear repeating. But the truth, no matter how many times repeated, bears serious reflection.

Donald Trump would be America’s tyrant and take this country down a path that leads away from true human freedom, a path that an educated citizenry of a true democracy would avoid at all costs. Our government has already altered its form and now more nearly resembles an oligarchy than it does a republic. The wealthy in this country at present buy and sell politicians like toilet paper. The ordinary citizens, like you or like me, stand in line and vote once every four years for a candidate selected by wealthy corporate interests because they meet with their approval and will do their bidding. But even here intelligence is required to guarantee that the best qualified candidate wins the job.

There is no question the system is failing on all counts. At the roots of this failure is the fact (undeniable, though stoutly denied by many) that our education system fails to teach young people how to use their minds. The evidence is abundant as the trend in our schools has increasingly moved in the direction of job training and away from true education, know-how rather than know-why. Unless or until enough folks get worked up about this fact it will not change. Indeed, the trend will continue and demagogues like Donald Trump will continue to capture and hold America’s attention and even affection. Our democracy will be completely undone.

It all starts in the home before kids go to school. It then proceeds through the grades and into high school and college where increasingly parents and educators have allowed the students to dictate what they will learn and in doing so those parents and educators abandon their primary responsibility and weaken the structure of the political system that supports them. It is ironic, to be sure. But more to the point it is terribly sad.

Revisiting Joseph Conrad

The following excerpt from Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea was written in 1906. It deserves re-blogging since it is a powerful piece written by one of the great minds of the late 19th and early 20th century and is timeless in its import, especially since this country spends more on the military than the rest of the nations of the world combined.

“. . .it may be argued that battles have shaped the destiny of mankind. The question whether they have shaped it well would remain open, however. But it would hardly be worth discussing. It is very probable that, had the battle of Salamis never been fought the face of the world would have been much as we behold it now, fashioned by the mediocre inspiration and the shortsighted labours of men. From a long and miserable experience of suffering, injustice, disgrace, and aggression the nations of the earth are mostly swayed by fear — fear of the sort that a little cheap oratory turns easily to rage, hate and violence. Innocent, guileless fear has been the cause of many wars. Not, of course, the fear of war itself, which, in the evolution of sentiments and ideas, has come to be regarded at last as a half-mystic and glorious ceremony with certain fashionable rites and preliminary incantations, wherein the conception of its true nature has been lost.. . .We are bound to the chariot of progress. There is no going back; and, as luck would have it, our civilization, which has done so much for the comfort and adornment of our bodies and the elevation of our minds, has made lawful killing frightfully and needlessly expensive.

“The whole question of improved armament has been approached by the governments of the earth in the spirit of nervous and unreflecting haste, whereas the right way was lying plainly before them and had only to be pursued with calm determination. The learned vigils and labours of a certain class of inventors should have been rewarded with honorable liberality as justice demanded and the bodies of the inventors should have been blown to pieces by means of their own perfected explosives and improved weapons with extreme publicity as the commonest prudence dictated. . .For the lack of a little cool thinking in our guides and masters this course has not been followed, and a beautiful simplicity has been sacrificed for no real advantage. A frugal mind cannot defend itself from considerable bitterness when reflecting that at the battle of Actium (which was fought for no less a stake than the dominion of the world) the fleet of Octavianus Caesar and the fleet of Antonius, including the Egyptian division and Cleopatra’s galley with purple sails, probably cost less than two modern battleships, or, as the modern naval book-jargon has it, two capital units. But no amount of lubberly book-jargon can disguise a fact well calculated to afflict the soul of every sound economist. It is not likely that the Mediterranean will every behold a battle with a greater issue; but when the time comes for another historical fight its bottom will be enriched as never before by the quantity of jagged scrap-iron, paid for at pretty nearly its weight in gold by the deluded populations inhabiting the isles and continents of this planet.”

Amen!

Joseph Conrad On War

The following excerpt from Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea was written in 1906. It is a powerful piece written by one of the great minds of the late 19th and early 20th century and seems to me to rather timeless in its import, especially since this country spends more on the military than the rest of the nations of the world combined.

“. . .it may be argued that battles have shaped the destiny of mankind. The question whether they have shaped it well would remain open, however. But it would hardly be worth discussing. It is very probable that, had the battle of Salamis never been fought the face of the world would have been much as we behold it now, fashioned by the mediocre inspiration and the shortsighted labours of men. From a long and miserable experience of suffering, injustice, disgrace, and aggression the nations of the earth are mostly swayed by fear — fear of the sort that a little cheap oratory turns easily to rage, hate and violence. Innocent, guileless fear has been the cause of many wars. Not, of course, the fear of war itself, which, in the evolution of sentiments and ideas, has come to be regarded at last as a half-mystic and glorious ceremony with certain fashionable rites and preliminary incantations, wherein the conception of its true nature has been lost.. . .We are bound to the chariot of progress. There is no going back; and, as luck would have it, our civilization, which has done so much for the comfort and adornment of our bodies and the elevation of our minds, has made lawful killing frightfully and needlessly expensive.

“The whole question of improved armament has been approached by the governments of the earth in the spirit of nervous and unreflecting haste, whereas the right way was lying plainly before them and had only to be pursued with calm determination. The learned vigils and labours of a certain class of inventors should have been rewarded with honorable liberality as justice demanded and the bodies of the inventors should have been blown to pieces by means of their own perfected explosives and improved weapons with extreme publicity as the commonest prudence dictated. . .For the lack of a little cool thinking in our guides and masters this course has not been followed, and a beautiful simplicity has been sacrificed for no real advantage. A frugal mind cannot defend itself from considerable bitterness when reflecting that at the battle of Actium (which was fought for no less a stake than the dominion of the world) the fleet of Octavianus Caesar and the fleet of Antonius, including the Egyptian division and Cleopatra’s galley with purple sails, probably cost less than two modern battleships, or, as the modern naval book-jargon has it, two capital units. But no amount of lubberly book-jargon can disguise a fact well calculated to afflict the soul of every sound economist. It is not likely that the Mediterranean will every behold a battle with a greater issue; but when the time comes for another historical fight its bottom will be enriched as never before by the quantity of jagged scrap-iron, paid for at pretty nearly its weight in gold by the deluded populations inhabiting the isles and continents of this planet.”

Amen!

Contrasting Heroes

One of the most famous of the “Great Books” that educated people read for centuries — and which has been dumped on the garbage heap recently with the rest of the books by  “dead white European males” — is The Noble Lives of the Grecians and Romans by Plutarch. The book, which in translation is about 1300 pages in length, attempts to draw parallels between the lives of famous Greeks and Romans to serve as a model of behavior  for young men growing up following the book’s appearance in the early years of the Roman Empire. Plutarch was born around 50 A..D. and while many of the biographies he wrote are now considered inaccurate, he is nonetheless praised for providing us with “a  faithful record of the historical tradition of his age.” In a word, we are given a very detailed picture of what it is that people in those days, and for generations that followed, regarded as exemplary conduct. Most of the men Plutarch wrote about were regarded as heroes, men like Solon and Pericles of Athens, Alexander of Macedon, and Julius Caesar of Rome.

Plutarch, we are told by his modern editor, was “a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world. His mind in his biographic memoirs is continually running on the Aristotelian Ethics and the high Platonic theories which formed the religion of the educated population of his time.”

In the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen, or the year of “His Airness” as they call one of this country’s greatest heroes, Michael Jordan, we are provided a study in contrasts. This week’s Sports Illustrated is about 40% full of pictures and stories that provide us with ample evidence of the degree to which this man is revered in this country. If we hadn’t seen the magazine, our eyes and ears could have provided ample evidence after a few moments of watching ESPN which seems to run on and on….(and on) about Jordan. The reason? We are nearing the 50th birthday of His Airness.

And how does Jordan compare with Pericles, Alexander, and Caesar? Not very well, sad to say. He is clearly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, basketball player who ever set foot on the court. Just ask him and he will proudly show you his six N.B.A. Championship rings. But as far as character is concerned, Jordan leaves something to be desired to say the least. His focus does not appear to be on living the good life, except as that is defined by Madison Avenue and the American population at large. He is worth a fortune and most, if not all of that fortune, he spends on himself. Consider the “newly built $12.4 million, 11 bedroom mansion in Jupiter, Florida on three acres of land” where Jordan and his 34 year-old fiancée recently moved — as we are told in Sports Illustrated. The home is near a golf course and also near his close friend Tiger Woods. Jordan loves to play golf and gamble, we are told, and he is part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats of the N.B.A. — a team which badly needs a player of near-Jordan caliber. To be near the team, Jordan also owns a “$3.2 million penthouse in a condominium in downtown Charlotte.” He paid $50 million of his own money to buy into the Bobcats. His money comes from endorsements, mostly: Nike pays him handsomely to put his name on basketball shoes which cost the kids of this country $250.00 a pair — an amount of money that mothers of young boys and girls in the inner cities must somehow come up with in order that their children get the very latest in foot gear. And if you are hungry you can enjoy a meal at one of the steak houses that bears his name and even delight in a five-course meal “inspired by his life and career” for only $125.00.

In a word, Michael Jordan represents in so many ways the ideals and achievements admired in this country which stand in such sharp contrast with the ideals and achievements of the “Grecians and Romans” Plutarch wrote about. In case you wondered, this is called “progress.”