Hacking the Root Problem

Keith SewellEpistemology, Leaving Truth2 Comments

Introduction & Dedication

Here is a tiny sliver of Titus Lucretius’ epic poem ‘De Rerum Natura’ (‘The Nature of Things’):

Fear holds dominion over mortality
Only because, seeing in land and sky
So much the cause whereof no wise they know,
Men think Divinities are working there.
Meantime, when once we know from nothing still
Nothing can be create, we shall divine
More clearly what we seek: those elements
From which alone all things created are,
And how accomplished by no tool of Gods.

The full poem runs to six books, and has been standing as a beacon for all in my camp (atheists humanists and freethinkers) for almost 2000 years. Its ‘Only because’ has in particular been our touchstone. We have been confident that as the flame of science and reason gradually strengthens – such that we do come to understand the causes of what we can see ‘in land and sky’ – our species will outgrow its childhood dependency on irrational authoritarian knowledge systems; including, and most particularly, on religions. I still cling to this, but have come to believe that a deeper and more subtle problem than mere ignorance has been implicated. This essay will be about dragging that one out into the light.


I am unhappy with the world as it is. I find Satchmo’s song, ‘It’s a Wonderful World’, deeply disturbing. I know that this is politically incorrect; that I’m supposed to accept the game board as I find it, ‘maintain a positive attitude’, and ‘look on the bright side’. But these wise injunctions seem to me to rest on an incorrect assumption. The assumption is that our world is, at least pragmatically and more or less, as good as we can make it. If that assumption is wrong then our relentless accentuation of the positive and ‘choosing happiness’ is counterproductive. Things could be better (we could be more genuinely happy in the long run) by allowing ourselves to get sad and angry enough for now to find and fix the problems.

I will be trying in this essay, as I did in my recent book, to communicate that we really have only one root problem. One underlying mother-load of a problem that supports and maintains most of the superficial ones that we can all see and agree on. That ‘most’ is important. I will not be suggesting that we can achieve a utopia. There is a very relevant line in the original radio broadcast version of Douglass Adams’ ‘Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy’. The Infinite Improbability Drive spaceship Heart of Gold has just reentered normal probability space. The crew has stopped morphing into giant mushrooms and pink polygons, and the dulcet voice of the ship’s computer comes over the PA system with: “Standard probability reality has been restored. Any further problems that you now experience should be treated as real, and your own.” I wish to get us to the point of being able to make a similar announcement; so not for elimination of our intrinsic problems, but for elimination of the large additional ones that I believe we’ve been creating. To do this I will need to challenge some very deeply held assumptions. Assumptions that have been central to our intellectual heritage for as far into the past as we can penetrate, and so may seem to many readers to be unassailable.

The most basic of these is that in some sense, or at some level, our minds can directly apprehend reality. At first glance this seems too obviously correct to warrant further discussion. The sum of 2 and 2 is of course 4, and we can of course see pairs and quads in reality, so the equivalence statement must surely contain direct knowledge. We can likewise see snow, and what color it is, so in what sense can our statement ‘snow is white’ not be a direct statement of reality? We can even see the assumption to be deeply incorporated into all of our languages; most obviously, in their universal inclusion of an analog for English’s ‘truth’. We can see that what we have been meaning by ‘truth’ – to the extent that we have been meaning anything coherent and non-redundant – is exactly ‘the actual state of reality’, or ‘reality as it is’. So now, and after this mind dump of common sense support for our possession-of-truth assumption, might it be wrong?

I will be arguing that it has always been wrong, and that our maintenance of an error at this foundation-deep epistemic level has been our mother-load problem. This essay will be about illuminating the path from the epistemic level to our visible and agreed problems. But first, what about the immediate and slam-dunk objection that a species as magnificently successful as ours just couldn’t have been propagating a fundamental error?

Let me concede from the outset that our assumption of possession of ‘truth’ has been on-balance adaptive, so far, for beings with minds like ours. But then, and to flesh out those implied caveats: I mean by ‘adaptive’ only that it has been helping us to maximize our numbers; to the possible detriment, wherever in conflict, of all other aspects of human thriving and quality of life. I mean by ‘so far’ exactly the ominous implication that that phrase often carries. And I mean by ‘beings with minds like ours’ that we have been, throughout our cognitive developmental history, thinking primarily from our ancient limbic system brain and mind levels. I will return to the implications of that in just a moment. They are not sanguine.

First, for an initial look at the case against what we appear to have been meaning by ‘truth’: We know that all of the most basic units from which we must construct our higher level thoughts and statements – even including those of mathematics – come from our own minds. We can actually watch ourselves creating them. We can see that our languages differ across modern cultures, and have been changing in all of our cultures through time. We know that even our numbers are comparatively recent, and non-universal. None of us had them 8000 years ago, and our remnant Paleolithic cultures are still managing quite well without them. We also know that our minds are able to sample reality through only a few, and relatively narrow, sensory windows. Through our eyes: a small and specific band of the electromagnetic spectrum. Through our ears: a similarly limited band of the physical vibration spectrum. Through our olfactory receptors: a pathetically small range of molecules, and with poor resolution by the standards of most other life on our planet. So we can see that, by virtue of its selection bias, our incoming data is already anthropic. But then, through its processing in our brains, the idea of any of it emerging into our consciousnesses as the actual state of reality becomes far more deeply implausible.

We have become increasingly aware during the past hundred years – and most sharply during the past decade, through the research of Donald Hoffman and his students at UC Irvine1 – that accurate representation of the world is at best the secondary purpose of the reality models that our brains have been constructing. Their primary purpose is, and has always been, optimum propagation of our genes. Our survival to reproductive age, and our effectiveness in helping a maximum number of our own children to do likewise. At first consideration these two purposes would seem to be at least aligned; a more accurate picture of the world enabling more effective gene propagation. But, as I will show, this is largely wishful thinking.

We know that we are only recently – and even now, superficially – rational creatures. Our traditional strong suspicions on this have recently been confirmed through the findings of James MacKillop2, Ming Hsu3 and others, which show that most of our brains’ important decisions are not even made in the higher and frontal locations where we do our symbolic and conscious thinking4. We can now use high resolution EEG and fMRI scanning to actually watch these decisions being made first in our ancient sub-conscious ‘limbic system’ brain locations5, and then being passed to our self-conscious rational locations for justification and strategic execution. Jonathan Haidt’s analogy6 of a rider on an elephant – with our modern/rational/self-aware minds as the rider, and our ancient/emotional/sub-conscious minds as the elephant – is apt. The rider can exercise some influence; but wherever the elephant really wants to go, it goes.

From these understandings – (1) That even the most fundamental divisions that we must use for construction of all of our higher level thoughts and statements are intrinsically anthropic. (2) That optimized gene propagation, rather than accuracy of representation of reality, has always been the main selective driver for our development of brains, and thereby minds. (3) That even our modern brains are still doing their dominant ‘thinking’ from their ancient pre-rational levels – I do not believe that we can any longer maintain with intellectual honesty our ancient ‘truth’ pretense; that some of our knowledge proposals are qualitatively better than the rest in representing the actual state of reality. But then, perhaps I am maligning ‘truth’; setting it up as a straw man. Perhaps maintenance of this pretense isn’t really what we have been using the concept for. My problem is that, if it isn’t, then I can’t understand what else we might have been doing with it.

Let me show this through a little thought experiment. We must have, in the broadest sense, initial ‘reasons’ for embracing as knowledge everything that we do so embrace. If, as an American child, my American father wants to pass me some emotionally attractive but objectively weak proposals – for example, about America being in certain respects the greatest nation in our planet’s history – then I will be strongly inclined to believe him. But he can offer such proposals, and I can accept them, without recourse to ‘truth’. Children’s minds are receptive to damn near anything that their parents earnestly tell them. I can buy my dad’s proposals merely from the basis of his authority; his having lived longer and gained more experience of the world than I. And having bought them thus – on the basis of his merely human, and so, as we both understand, potentially fallible authority – I can change them whenever more powerful evidence requires me to do so. This is not, analytically, the case if he presents them and I accept them as a qualitatively better kind of knowledge.

Let’s now move to the opposite (objective) end of our knowledge propagation spectrum; to proposals that we can directly ground in our on-demand-repeatable physical observations. If my dad wants to tell me about gravity, mass, buoyancy, or the inverse square law, then he can simply say “X (g, m, b, i, or whatever) is observable”. I can argue, but if so then he can physically demonstrate X to me. My point is that the whole spectrum, from its extreme subjective to its extreme objective ends, can in theory be propagated without any reference to ‘truth’. If I embrace X as knowledge because I’ve seen it with my own eyes then I can do so elegantly and sufficiently from just that basis; and if because my dad – whom I trust – has passed it to me, then from that basis; and if because I read it in what seemed to me to be an honest and well researched book, then from that basis. Moreover, I can pass any of my proposals to you from exactly this same basis. I can give you my own explicit, merely human, reasons for embracing any X whatsoever. I can do this right up front, as in ‘X is observable’, or ‘X is audible’, or ‘X is indicated by the preponderance of the evidence’, etc.; or I can do it by implication, in saying only ‘X’, or ‘I believe X’, but with the understanding between us that I will give you my reasons immediately upon request.

If we can do this, and can see that we have always been able to do it, then for what additional purpose have we been maintaining ‘truth’? If we have been maintaining it as an independent and more powerful basis for our propagation of X than ‘X is observable’, or similar, then I hope that we can now see our pretense of possession of any such basis to have always been absurd. But if we have been maintaining it as anything less than this then I think we can see our ‘truth’ concept to have always been redundant. We would, in such case, always have had more explicit, honest and informative ways of conveying X.

Let me now return to the three caveats in my concession that our pretense of knowing ‘truth’ has been adaptive:

1. ‘Adaptive’ only means that it has been increasing our ability to increase. And there are now – with over 7 billion of us, and still rapidly rising7 – quite a few who are starting to suspect that both we and the rest of our biosphere might have benefitted from our leveling off at around 2 billion. To sharpen this point: ‘Adaptive’ carries no implications for individual or social quality of life, or even for the future. A terrible foundation level error that had been rendering life ‘a veil of tears’ for most of us and throughout most of our developmental history, and that was now pushing us inexorably over a species-dieback cliff, but that had also been facilitating our raising of more offspring, would have been adaptive.

2. ‘So far’ does not necessarily mean anything more comforting than in the old joke about the guy who has jumped from a 100 story building and shouts, as he passes the lower floors, that it feels great so far.

3. ‘Beings with minds like ours’ suggests that we should finally recognize the influence of a more powerful determinant than apparent reality correspondence on our selection of proposals as knowledge. We can now understand that being collectively wrong, but in ways that appeal to our dominant limbic system mind levels and thereby facilitate our formation of large and militarily efficient social groups, has in general been more adaptive than being right in any objective sense. Trivially, any five people who are united by their emotionally appealing belief that the universe rotates around their own little planet can kill – and thereby appropriate the resources of – a single person who has figured out that it doesn’t. To expand on this: Clans, tribes, and eventually even nation-states that have been united by relatively more powerful (socially bonding, hierarchically organizing, militarily optimizing) systems of emotionally seductive nonsense have consistently been able to out compete their in-other-respects-saner neighbors. If – as Jonathan Haidt suggests, and our recent fMRI brain studies strongly support – our ‘elephants’ have been substantially in charge, then ‘adaptive’ has been mainly about our creation of the most effective belief systems for uniting elephants.

But of course this can’t be the whole story. Better objective knowledge has admittedly also been adaptive. 30,000 years ago better techniques for flint working, tanning/preservation of animal hides and construction of temporary shelters presumably gave some hunter gatherer clans a competitive edge over others. 6,000 years ago better techniques of water management, grain agriculture and animal husbandry allowed some city-states to raise larger armies and thereby defeat and absorb their neighbors. At present our small group of nation states that were most directly impacted by the European Enlightenment, and so assumed an early lead in modern science and technology, are able to impose their geopolitical wills on the rest. My background position is thus that each of our two competitive bases for propagation of proposals as knowledge has been adaptive.

The strange new position that I want to communicate here is that we can best understand our entire history of intellectual development as a desirable transition from primary dependence on our first basis to – potentially, and if we now so choose – primary dependence on our second. That yes, we can see our ancient pretense of being able to select and know ‘truth’ to have always been working. But that we can now understand from our more recently ascendant rational knowledge basis (most deeply, the growing edifice of our on demand repeatable physical observations) that our ancient basis has been maintaining some terrible collateral damage.

To be clear, I am not for switching from the former to the latter. I think that we have always used both, and always will. I am merely for elimination of the foundation level error through which we have observably been maintaining for the former an independent and dominant position. I am for giving up our illusion of possession of the qualitatively better knowledge basis, and resultant kind of knowledge, from which we have legitimately been able to oppose reason. I think that our ‘elephants’ will still be able to exercise plenty of influence, even after our explicit consignment of all of our knowledge to a single and level playing field.

We can now understand that we did not choose our ancient/initial knowledge basis (to recap: gene transmission optimizing emotional appeal). Evolution – which can proceed only from where it is, as in our five fingered hands, and the five ‘fingered’ flippers of seals and wings of birds – made the choice for us. But my suggestion herein is that we now should – and even more counterintuitively, that we actually could – finally make our own choice. We could stop kidding ourselves about being primarily rational, and actually become so. We could stop passing rationally absurd proposals to our children as examples of a special and better kind of knowledge, and start telling them simply what we believe from our own intellectually honest reasons for initially embracing those beliefs. I think that this simple change – our explicit abandonment of thinking, speaking and writing about ‘truth’, thereby forcing us to fall back on our more honestly ‘merely human’ knowledge justifications – would immediately start to undermine the worst of our species’ ancient and intractable problems.

To jump back to the position of ‘What we’ve been doing must be right, as it has so obviously been adaptive’: I think that many of us have already woken up to the point of no longer really wanting what evolution wants. We do not want to keep obediently ratcheting up our consumer technology, and stress levels, and interdependent complexity of extractive mechanisms for the conversion of ever more our planet’s resources into more human beings. And we especially don’t want what we can see to be the end of this road; when the desperate juggler on the ball and unicycle finally can’t handle that one more tossed up plate, and the whole enterprise comes crashing down in a massive species dieback.

Think that unlikely? Reread Jarred Diamond’s ‘Collapse’, and then take a look at how much more specialized, complex and interdependent our world’s systems for water, food and energy extraction have now become. Take a look at our rising thermometers and sea levels, and disappearing glaciers and aquifers. We’ve seen what is coming many times on limited and localized scales, and we can see our dangerous propensity for collective denial of such looming catastrophes through our series of burst financial bubbles. I think that a massive dieback is precisely what evolution, through our ‘truth’ concept, is now driving us towards. My proposal herein is for our flipping the switch, at our deepest accessible epistemic level, to change course.

We are still using ‘truth’ to teach our children proposals that are deeply antithetical to their development of reason; and thereby, to their capacities for facing unpalatable facts and reaching agreement on effective solutions. We are maintaining proposals that both we and our children can see to be mutually exclusive, and to be excluded by our entire edifice of physical observation grounded knowledge. So how, from that precedent, can we blame them for declining to see problems like anthropogenic climate change and dangerously increasing social inequality? In general our children don’t do what we say; they do what we do. And we have been consistently showing them, for thousands of generations, that desire based rejection of physical observation grounded reason is legitimate. ‘Truth’ is the concept through which we have been invoking that legitimacy.

Logically, trivially, if our world was created by the Supernatural Being of the Quran then it cannot also have been created by the very different Supernatural Being of the Bible. And its creation by any Supernatural Being logically excludes all of our scientific origin assumptions. We can thereby see ourselves to be, in effect, using ‘truth’ to sabotage our children’s minds. We are using it – from all of our cultural, ethnic and national in-group positions – to pass to our children the specific irrational proposals that will best mold them into effective cogs for the perpetuation of those positions. As already admitted, this has all been great for our playing out ever larger and more complex versions of the five earth-centric universe guys being able to adaptively kill and despoil the sun centered solar system guy; but I’m trying to suggest here that it has been a lot less than great for our development of reason to the point of being able to trust it, and so follow it even against immediate emotional gratification where the two are in conflict.

The relatively few of us who have started to develop reservations about all this have been trying to burry them in mutual assurance that the whole process is harmless and/or inevitable; “an intrinsic part of ‘the human condition’”. But can we still see that to be at all honest?

To go ahead and call the spade a spade, we have been requiring our children to develop reason from the mission destructive base assumption of reality itself being irrational. We have not been passing them all of our ancient limbic system seductive stuff – about loving paternal sky gods who preferentially favor them and their/our little in-group, and the innate superiority of our ethnic and cultural delineators – as tentative, conditional ‘merely human’ knowledge. We’ve been passing this stuff to them, through our illusion of possession of a qualitatively better kind of knowledge, as the actual state of reality. As the way that the world damn well is.

If even the small percentage of us who would already claim reason as our primary knowledge determinant become willing to start ‘living out the full meaning of our creed’ then we will begin a vast positive change. If we embrace first our repeatable physical observations, and then only such of our ancient and traditionally ‘truth’ propagated proposals as can now be maintained without truth (so, without direct controversion of our physical observations) then we will start to undermine truth’s adaptive but more deeply counterproductive feedback loop. To get right down to brass tacks: We know, through what we can see to be our most powerful and reliable way of knowing, that events like walking on water, and/or turning it into wine, and/or reanimating and flying up into the sky after having been dead for three days, don’t happen. Their happening would directly controvert our entire edifice of repeatable physical observation grounded knowledge (science). Yet approximately 25% of our planet’s population believes in a supernatural being whose existence is logically predicated on these events having happened. Another 20% believes in a logically exclusive supernatural being8 whose existence is predicated on angelic dictation to a previously illiterate man in a mountain cave, and later nocturnal flight on a winged horse to Jerusalem. All of our supernatural authoritarian belief systems – as are still cumulatively being embraced by about 85% of our species – are predicated on the actual occurrence of their founding supernatural events. We cannot, coherently, maintain the systems without the events; and if we are willing to abandon even coherence then only wishful thinking remains. We will continue to believe most deeply – and yes, admittedly, short term adaptively – whatever the strongest or most charismatic among us can coerce or hoodwink the rest into believing. Is that now, and still, what we really want?

I think that I can best conclude this essay by appending pieces from two previous ones. I’ve been suggesting throughout that we can clearly see ourselves to have never really had the independent knowledge basis from which we have been maintaining our ancient limbic system seductive authoritarian belief systems; and so, that we should finally reject both our illusion of possession of that basis and the systems. But many will object to this from one or both of the following: (A) That these systems have been functioning in all of our societies as important motivators for altruism and morality, (B) that merely rational/observable reality is just too harsh for most people to accept. [That many of us are psychologically incapable of living without the comfort and guidance provided by our irrational systems.] I think that both objections are at least substantially addressed by my following two pieces. The first is a long footnote from my book’s lead essay, the second is the whole of the book’s very brief final essay.


The powerful link between reason and morality is captured in the succinct formulation of the golden rule that we now attribute to Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change that you would see in the world”. The beauty of this version goes deeper than its brevity. It lies in its implicit inclusion of a rational motive. If we believe, as I do, that an effective majority of us would list substantially the same points as ‘changes that we would see in the world’, then not to go ahead and implement these immediately in our own behavior seems logically absurd; like beating ourselves over the head with a brick. We can never know how well our immoral behavior (that which hurts others, or other life) will turn out for us. Perhaps it will be detected, and we will be shunned or punished. Or perhaps its prize will turn out to be less sweet than we had hoped. But we can know for certain that it will immediately make the world slightly less ‘as we would see it’; and that if many others also do the evil that we are contemplating (As, from our own example, how could we then gainsay them?) it will make it very much less; for us as well as for them.

Reason’s choice here is therefore crystal clear. A ‘no brainer’, if reason in that brain has been allowed to grow straight and strong.

I will try to show in the remainder of these essays that our present choice—if we can finally summon the intellectual courage and faith in both reality and ourselves to be able to grasp it—could be to openly repudiate the supposedly better knowledge basis (‘truth’) through which we have observably been maintaining our reason-antithetical negative feedback loop (acceptance of absurd proposals as the actual state of reality <--> reason sabotage). We have always had in reason a superb fighter; one who could win. But I will show in these essays that we have been using the feedback loop to keep him sedated and bound, in order to protect so many of our species childhood’s emotionally and politically seductive little fairytales. It’s now late in the fight, and with all the evils of E. O. Wilson’s ‘bottleneck’9 closing in around us. I must therefore ask in advance, from all who will be able to grasp this book’s simple but horribly counterintuitive main thesis, to help me cut reason’s bonds. Stop thinking, talking and writing about ‘truth’, and start helping those around you to also flip this foundation level switch.

2. Spirituality sans Theism

This very short essay was originally written as an online forum reply to a theist who had posted a variant of their ancient dead horse: “We humans need religion for our spiritual development.” I believe the following to offer a better alternative.

First: learn science. Drink as deeply as you can from the lake of all that we now know about how ancient, enormous, complex and beautiful physical reality can be seen – rather than merely imagined – to be.

Now go out alone into nature. To a deserted beach, or the high desert, or a mountaintop. Think about where all of that more-beautiful-than-you-could-ever-have-dreamt-up reality stops, and “you” start. Think about your defining skin, the top layer of which is dead and continually sloughing off cells. At what point do these cease to be you? Think about your blood, which was water yesterday and will be urine tomorrow. Try to find the clear points of those transitions. Think about the oxygen that you are now absorbing from your inhaled air, and the CO2 that you are exhaling. At what point does the former become you, and the latter cease to be you? As it passes through your nostrils, or into your lungs? As it diffuses into solution across your alveolar membranes? Or perhaps as it enters, in your cells, into the chemical reactions of respiration? Think about your experience of who you are. Are the thoughts, dreams and ideas that define “you” merely your own? How many of them did you create, and how many will die with you?

Now think about your deepest division. The one that directly supports your experience of self-consciousness. Who maintains that, and for what purpose? Is it reality rejecting you? Is it really, in any coherent sense, external? Or is it merely your own adaptively powerful assumption of a position from which knowledge can be held? And as you get the right answer to this, go ahead and let it, and all of the rest of your self-maintained divisions, fall away. Let your consciousness flow out in all directions. Down into your soil, and the teaming life therein. Out into all of your winds and waters, and rocks and ice, and creatures and processes of joy and pain. And if you’re in the high desert at night, then on out across your billions of light years, and back through eons of time. Through other life on other worlds, and the births and deaths of solar systems and galaxies. Feel it all. Remember at last, and in your bones, who and what you really are. You won’t be able to function in this state. You won’t be able to do a damn thing, because with all divisions dismissed, the limited little entity that can make decisions, and so “do things,” will no longer exist.

Eventually, prosaic biology will supervene. You’ll need to pee or you’ll get thirsty or cold. Through one path or another the familiar little game of normal consciousness will reassert itself. But you can carry back into this your memory of the deeper game. You can maintain an awareness of it just beneath and all around you, as you resume your exciting role of being a vulnerable little spark of consciousness in a vast and indifferent universe. You can know both that return to the deeper game is possible, as/when you really need it, and that you will return to it for sure as/when your divisions collapse again in death.
Having even once experienced this, you will be able to see clearly the worth of all of our parochial little theisms. How inadequate they are in relation to the magnificent thing that they presume to represent. And also how irrelevant they are to all that we understand as morality. Compassion, altruism, and reverence for life will now be intrinsic to who you are, rather than being mandated from without by an imaginary deity. They are an inseparable part of the deeper and stronger game.

My suggestions from inclusion of those two pieces are (A) that reason may be a more powerful motivator for good than is now understood by most relatively irrational people, and (B) that reality as seen through reason’s lens may not be quite the frightful monster that our competitive truth based systems have been making it out to be.

To conclude, I believe that reason and ‘truth’ are ultimately a zero sum game. We can clearly see from the former that we have never honestly had the latter. I will concede that our truth illusion may have been inevitable during our species’ childhood, but I think that we now have both the rational/intellectual wherewithal10 and the necessity for growing up fast. We can see our truth illusion to have never been more than that; and I don’t think that we will be able to emerge as children from the minefield of convergent problems into which it is now driving us.

We had, prior to the rise of science, no viable alternative to our emotionally seductive irrational knowledge systems. No large and beautiful edifice of directly observation grounded knowledge within which strong and mature reason could therefore develop, and from which we could then finally challenge and reject at least the most egregious of our irrational systems. We do have such an alternative now. It has already united our Haidtian ‘riders’, across all of our planet’s national cultural and ethnic barriers, to a degree that would be unthinkable for any irrational system. And it has the potential, as has already been shown by those11 who love it, to unite even our ‘elephants’. I think that we can most deeply and powerfully accelerate its change in our world by formally rejecting our reason antithetical independent knowledge basis, ‘truth’.

For more on the nuts and bolts of this (how it could be done, and how spread outwards from our present nucleus of receptive freethinkers and atheists) please visit my website, at www.poppersinversion.org, or read my book, Leaving Truth.


1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYp5XuGYqqY

2. psychcentral.com/news/2014/03/12/researchers-pinpoint-brains…

3. http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/09/08/study-links-honesty-to-prefrontal-region-of-the-brain/

4. In general, the frontal area of brain’s cortex (outer layer). Most particularly, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and lateral frontal pole.

5. In general, our inner and posterior brain structures. Most particularly, an area of the inner cortex called the insula.

6. Introduced in Prof. Haidt’s ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’, then further developed in ‘The Righteous Mind’.

7. Before reaching for ‘the demographic transition’, or admittedly vast mitigation – for this as for so many of our other problems – of educating and empowering women, check our best current population growth projections for Africa. It, alone, now looks set to push our planet’s human population rapidly past the 10 billion mark.

8. Both of these, and most of the rest, specifically claim to be The Only One.

9. A central analogy of E. O. Wilson’s ‘The Future of Life’. Professor Wilson likens the convergence of potentially reinforcing disaster scenarios into which we are now moving (still exponential population growth + climate destabilization + biodiversity loss + exhaustion of non-renewable resources and unsustainable utilization of renewables) to a steadily narrowing bottleneck; in which our options will continue to deteriorate, and we will inevitably pass through a significant dieback period. How significant (how many of us, and how much of the rest of our biosphere will come through the bottleneck) will depend mainly on the quality and consensus of our decisions during the next couple of decades. In a perhaps more familiar analogy: The frog is now starting to cook in the beaker. It is not “going to happen soon”. It’s happening. But because the cooking is on a time and complexity scale for which evolution has not prepared our minds, most of us can’t see it. If we meekly accept that; if we wait until the process has gone so far as to be undeniable by minds whose deep desire is to deny it then—with the unfortunate 30-year inertial time lag that is also built into the system—we really may not make it out.

10. My book, ‘Leaving Truth’, provides a lot more information on this.

11. We have had beautiful and passionate science writing for at least as far back as 1839, when Darwin wrote his ‘Voyage of the Beagle’. The old stereotype of the emotionally impoverished ‘cold hearted’ scientist is observably nothing but a consolation illusion for the scientifically illiterate. It quickly dissipates from contact with the writings of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Timothy Ferris, Loren Isley, Stephen J. Gould, Carl Safina, E. O. Wilson, Bryan Green, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Caleb Scharf, and dozens more. It has also been directly addressed, and elegantly demolished, by two of Richard Dawkins’ books: ‘Unweaving The Rainbow’, and ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.

2 Comments on “Hacking the Root Problem”

  1. Doug Freyburger

    Thanks. I wrote extensive notes, then as I trimmed them they got shorter and shorter. In the end I offer the words of a bumper sticker I saw recently –

    “The good thing about science is it works whether you believe it or not”.

  2. Keith Sewell


    Thanks for reading, and yes, your bumper sticker does give a pretty pithy and functional summary. The weird idea that I’ve been trying to communicate for about the past 30 years is that we should finally embrace this characteristic (observably working whether we believe in it or not) as our most fundamental requirement for knowledge. That is, observably, NOT what we’ve been meaning by ‘truth’. So what we have been meaning has been vastly complicating and obfuscating all of our discussions.

    Its a big fat ‘Catch 22’ at the epistemic level. The damage being done by our ‘truth’ concept is keeping us too stupid to understand the damage being done by our truth concept.

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