When I was a kid, my parents attended a lecture on the threat of religious cults. This must have been the early to mid 70s, in the heyday of the Moonies and countless counter-cultural communes. Being somewhat concerned at my credulity (and perhaps that of my siblings) and our inclination to trust the things we read, my father codified Goldstein’s First and Second Laws1:
- It’s ain’t necessarily so.
- But it might be.
The exact language for The First, of course, comes from Porgy & Bess, one of Dad’s favorites, but the sentiment often extended to a much more general skepticism than merely doubt. I can’t remember how many times that I’d repeat something I’d heard, or read, or just happened to believe, to be told “apply the First, son.” While this was first and foremost a warning to reconsider the “facts” involved in the subject at hand, it could also invite an invocation of The Second.
The thing is, though, you can’t just call upon The Second. Simply replying “apply the Second, Dad” is a wholly inadequate defense — akin to “is so!” on the playground. No, invoking The Second really requires offering more support for the questioned ideas, and is often the entrée into a much longer discussion. Goldstein’s first two laws are a prompting towards skepticism, or at least the application of critical thinking.
In my teens and twenties, I sometimes complained that the first two of Goldstein’s Laws were really a recipe for ambivalence. How could I hold a strong opinion on anything? This is a question that rarely plagues self-identified “skeptics,” nor did it really stop me from holding strong opinions. Yet this question is a key lesson from these laws. Questioning everything is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. You have to make some base assumptions to live by, assumptions you don’t continuously question. As Hume suggests, there are things you have to just accept as known. But how do you know what can you safely accept?
Along related lines, I once told my grandmother Ilse that I had known something, and later discovered that it was incorrect. “Then you didn’t really know it,” she corrected me. “You believed it.” With her definition, you can’t know something that’s untrue, because knowledge is understanding of what is true. Belief, on the other hand, does not require factual truth2. Given Goldstein’s First and Second, this definition suggested to me that I didn’t actually know anything, but that I simply had a collection of beliefs.
As I’ve gotten older, I worry less about what I can believe. Goldstein’s Laws, along with the inevitable lessons of experience, have imbued me with a healthy sense of skepticism. But it’s less about the beliefs themselves than it is the process of belief, or rather, the process of examination. In a sense, ideas are like shiny pebbles on the beach: fascinating to pick up, turn this way and that, examine and admire, but, in the end, few are worth keeping.
Skeptic or not, I can still get taken in by the better Internet hoaxes, and I’m not immune to the influence of the siren-song of advertising — but I do feel like I have a foundation I can rely on. I can comfortably consider new ideas without the need to immediately accept or reject them, and it seems that half of gullibility is in the speed of judgment3.
There is also the realization that Truth is a slippery creature, and often somewhat difficult to grasp. While I am convinced that there are, in fact, absolutes, most of the subjects where the issue of truth arises are less well defined. For example, there are hard, physical truths: pure gold melts at 1064.43 °C, an electron has a charge of 1.60217646 x 10-19 coulombs, and the planet earth weighs around 5.972 x 1024kg 4. Similarly, there are defined and a priori truths: the internal angles of a triangle on a plane will add up to 180 degrees, eΠi = -1, and there are no prime numbers between 3 and 5. There are improvable beliefs that are identified as Truths: Science will eventually explain the workings of the universe, or (my) Religion tells people the only right way to live their lives. Then there are the Truths that are considered true by convention or repetition but which have no bearing on reality: the Democrats are on the side of the poor, or the Republicans are fiscally responsible.
But most of the time, when we’re talking about Truth, we’re more concerned about a human dimension, whether it’s a recounting of history (“the compass was invented in China” or “the American Civil War was fought to free the slaves”), a character description (“Kurt Vonnegut was a misanthropist” or “Marie Antoinette was willfully ignorant”), or even self description (“I can’t paint” or “I’ll never understand quantum mechanics”). Many of these Truths are best replied to along the lines of “well, yes, but …” because there is some element that may be true, delivered in a thick coating of supposition. This, of course, is the infamous nuance problem, in that most things are surprisingly complicated, and a simple statement can’t adequately address that complexity.
Rather than argue about the Truths or dissecting the degrees of truth in complex issues, I find that I’m increasingly interested in less tangible things that don’t easily accept labels like “true” or “untrue.” These are matters like wonder, beauty, love, and even melancholy. They are emotional, or induce emotion. Unlike the shiny idea pebbles mentioned earlier, they are more experiential — the ephemeral process of picking them up, turning them about, examining them and admiring them is effectively the same as keeping them.
1 For the sake of completeness, there are two other formal laws:
- Not all errors must be corrected and not all insults must be avenged.
- But some of them must.
These latter two laws are also often accompanied by a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 9:11: “the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong.”
2 Her definition, to be fair, is the one more or less accepted by philosophers as far back as Plato. It may date earlier still.
3 The human brain is highly optimized for pattern recognition, and the optimization is biased towards speed over accuracy (although, in general, it’s very good at both). While this touches on a much larger subject, it’s clear that rapid decision-making is key for survival in some contexts, yet it introduces an as-yet unpatched vulnerability in human consciousness — a vulnerability which is systematically exploited in everything from advertising to politics to religion.
4 If these measurements are inexact, it should not invalidate the idea that there are physical truths — the measurement is not the fact. Perhaps this measurement of the earth’s weight is wrong, but the earth still has a weight. In the face of imprecise measurement, we could potentially argue whether or not these things are invariant. Furthermore, solid physical truths can get a little slippery when you get outside of the “classical” range of physics. For example, in Quantum Mechanics, a lot of measurements replace absolutes with probability functions. That, however, is a topic for other discussions.