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Leaving Truth Introduction – Keith Sewell

The rock and the flying pig.  Which will we hold on to as knowledge?

The trail that led to the Leaving Truth essays started from some very simple observations and questions. If I hold out a stone in my hand, and let it go, we all know that it will fall. But how, exactly, do we know that? From what basis do we believe it? Moving to the other extreme; if I want to convince you of some highly dubious claim – for example, that I’ve seen a flying pig, or a man walk on water or turn it into wine, or reanimate after having been dead for three days – what must I tell you about that claim to have any chance of success? As what must I present it in order to compel your belief? Finally – and the 64,000 dollar question – can we ever be honestly and functionally justified in believing ourselves to have that implied better kind of knowledge?

This question’s pursuit led down through philosophy and into philosophy’s basement, epistemology: the study of how and why we can coherently select only some proposals (rather than all of them) as knowledge. I now think that our past 300 years have seen two events of enormous importance in epistemology. First, David Hume’s dismissal of induction as our legitimate basis for objective proof (and so, it seemed at the time, effective dismissal of empiricism). Second, Karl Popper’s rescue of empiricism, but only and explicitly as our basis for science. In the book that achieved this (originally Logic der Forshung; later, in English The Logic of Scientific Discovery) Popper recognized that the rescue could not in any meaningful sense include our truth concept. Essentially, that science can coherently qualify itself as knowledge only through repudiation of its claim to being truth. Popper flirted with the obvious next step; the implication for our truth concept – and so, by extension, for all of the knowledge proposals that we can still see ourselves to be maintaining primarily as ‘truths’ – of our observably most powerful and reliable form of knowledge not being truth. But he didn’t take the plunge. It is taken, with a vengeance, in the Leaving Truth essays. They demonstrate – analytically, and through clear reference back to on-demand-repeatable physical observation – that we have been using our truth concept as an independent and reason-opposable basis for knowledge propagation; and that we have been wrong in doing so. The blade cuts beneath all of our ancient systems of emotionally seductive irrationality. They are shown to be wrong to the full extent of our minds’ ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Our theistic religions are shown to be merely the most obvious and high-profile of these systems. The bottom line, on impact to our now resurgent science vs. religion debate, is definitive victory for science and reason. Logically, our side won the debate 80 years ago. We have just been a bit slow on the uptake; and beyond that, on how to explain it to the theists clearly enough to preclude any possibility of their intellectually honest misunderstanding. These two issues are covered in, respectively, my essays Leaving Truth and Crystal Blue Persuasion.

Addendum: I’m adding this to address an unexpected implication from some of ‘Leaving Truth’s early feedback. I’ve been surprised by the number of self avowedly rational people who seem instead to have lost faith in reason at its deepest level. If we are so thoroughly cowed by “the human condition” and “you can’t change human nature” that we dare not even attempt this – if we have so completely given up on our intellectual peers among the theists as to presume their inability to understand and accept a clear demonstration of the incoherence of their proposals however powerful and compelling we may make it – then our most important battle is already lost. We won’t win because, being convinced that victory impossible, we won’t try. How can members of a species that so recently crossed the gulf of space to walk on its planet’s moon think like this?

8 Comments on “Keith’s Introduction”

  1. Rod Steffes

    Responding only to your intro. I am writing you not so much because I can follow all that you said but because I resonate with the parts that I do understand. Your efforts could lead to new and more effective ways of dealing with the self-styled creationist ‘scientists’. I’ll put this to you in my own simple-simon way: Creation ‘science’ differs from the real thing in one very basic way: It lacks a ‘how’. It can claim no practical application that could only have come about from laws derived from creation ‘science’. This is so glaring, so obvious that I fail to understand why our side has not called creationists on it ages ago. ‘How’ is the acid that will eat deeply into the BS creationists want us to take as science.

    I can think of several ways that ‘how’ might be used:
    – The same theories that made atomic weapons possible can also be used to determine the age of rock. Since creationists raise so many objections to radioactive dating, have them explain the disconnect. We could raise similar conundrums for creationists by connecting technology to the theories that support evolution. It would be damned hard for them to explain how practical application can come from theories that creationists like to minimize as some scientist’s opinion.
    – Creationists routinely object that billions of years is not enough time for evolution to achieve Life’s complexity. Science can make a similar objection as regards creationism. Since the hard-core [and in my opinion, the most numerous] creationists claim that this planet has existed for under 10,000 years, we can turn the tables on them. Geology and mineralogy are loaded with examples that would defeat their finest mental gymnasts. One could start with Siccar Point in Scotland, which shows at least five episodes of geological activity. If, as we have allowed them to do, they reach for the ‘god did this’, follow-up questions could bring home the point that there is no science in any of it, and nothing practical can come of it.
    – One could point out major differences between creationism and science: [1] Creationist research is limited to the library, websites, and google searches. No one, including fundamentalist Christian financiers, are funding cutting edge research, because despite their belief in creationism they are sane enough not to throw money on an enterprise that fails to yield tangible results. [2] Creationism has no scientific theories, i.e. explanations dependent upon patterns found in nature. Their explanations are all dead ends. They do not generate knowledge that leads to further knowledge. They are not able to apply the knowledge they say they have. They are not able to make predictions.

    But you guys probably know all this, which is why I’m writing you in the first place. Our side has played too nice with the creationist crowd. In all the debates I’ve ever watched somehow the creationists train the searchlight on their scientist opponents who spend their time defending themselves instead of grabbing hold of the searchlight and training it on the creationists. The reason for this is simple. Too often our guys fail to prepare. They seem to think that they can waltz in and get by with their knowledge and native intelligence. The creationists, on the other hand, prepare constantly. Bill Nye represented the evolutionists in a recent debate [I think his opponent was Ken Ham, an ardent creationist and village idiot]. It was interesting to compare notes my evolutionist friends, all of whom thought that Nye won. More recently, an evolutionist butted heads with a local fundamentalist Christian talk show host over creationism/evolution theory. Our guy is a member of the Promethean Society and did a great job presenting the evolutionist side [when he wasn’t busy defending himself!]. I submit that neither of these people won because they were not able to paint their opponents into a corner. Winning means eating away at the support given your opponent. I doubt that very many fundamentalist Christians were swayed by his input.

    ‘How’ is the reason creationist cannot blow science off. They cannot engage science in the same kind of fruitless, centuries-long arguments they’ve had over fine points of theology. All of us, fundamentalist and secularist alike, are immersed in technology that affirms the validity of knowledge derived via the scientific method. Whereas organized religion in general and Christianity in particular can point to no concrete gains or moral betterment of any sort despite their campaigns of blood, the torture, and death, the gains made possible by science are simply too great for them to ignore. They recognize the threat. It’s time we showed them just how corrosive the threat can be.

  2. Bert Bigelow

    Keith…I just stumbled on your ad in Scientific American. I was fortunate to grow up in a household where I was not brainwashed and infected with the “faith germ.” As a result, I am a lifelong atheist…and that’s a long time. I am creeping up on the big eight oh. It has always mystified me how people could believe that junk…yep, that’s what it is. Immaculate conceptions and resurrections…that junk.
    Read some of the pieces on my web site under the “Religion” category…and let me know what you think.
    Bert
    I suggest that you start with these three:
    Three Wise Guys (http://bigelowbert.com/?p=651)
    God Pluto and Limburger Cheese (http://bigelowbert.com/?p=11)
    A Conversation With God (http://bigelowbert.com/?p=13)

  3. Keith Sewell

    First, to Rod and Bert, I apologize for this huge delay in response. I didn’t find your comments until today. The ‘why’ is too long a story, and of insufficient relevance. I’ll start here with a reply to Rod, and then open a second comment post for Bert:

    Rod,
    We’re in pretty clear agreement on all your points, but most particularly on your contention that our side (rationalists, humanists, free thinkers) has been playing far too gently with the theists for far too long. My book is largely about the fact that we have had the philosophical wherewithal to win definitively for about the past 80 years. Dorothy’s ruby slippers have been on our feet, but we just haven’t known how to click their heels together. I’m hoping that you did buy the book, in which case you’ll have read the essay ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’. It makes brief and explicit the argument strategy that the main essay just hints at. I’ll resist the temptation to paste it here, but I will paste three little entries from my ‘Early Morning Thoughts’ file (stuff that I wake up with if I’m lucky, or – if less lucky – that comes to me in the middle of the night causing a scratch around for pen and paper to get at least some gist of it down):

    4. Our science and free-thought community’s present position in relation to the Platonists and theists is much like that of Tolkien’s King Theoden in saying that ‘he would not risk open war’ with Isengard and Mordor. With all due respect to Stephen J. Gould – and more lately Frans de Waal – we already are in open war. The tenuous cease-fire of ‘everybody’s kinda sorta right’ postmodernism has been in accelerating breakdown for the past 30 years, and during that time our anthropogenic climate change disaster has progressed from ‘obviously coming’ to ‘actually happening’. If our community – atheists, free thinkers, lovers of reason – can’t finally wake up and passionately fight its corner, then our whole species will loose as the thermometers and sea-levels continue to climb.

    19. For the proposals of any of our theisms to inhabit the same mind as those of science can be seen to require a fundamental bifurcation of that mind. The systems constitute fully independent and logically exclusive explanations for the nature and behavior of reality. In effect, antithetical ways of using our minds. I do not understand our justification for continuing to do this. I don’t see how we can continue to say, with intellectual honesty, “I will embrace reason as my primary determinant for knowledge in this sphere” (science, and most of our conscious daily life decisions), “but not over here in this other one” (our acceptance of observably absurd religious and ideological systems as ‘truth’). From what coherent platform have we been able to maintain that distinction? On what epistemic justification do our opposable Platonic ‘domains of discourse’ finally rest?
    If we must continue to do it; if the best picture of reality that science and reason can yet offer is still in some respects fundamentally unsatisfying to human minds, then OK. But personally – and as I try to make clear in ‘Leaving Truth’ – I can’t see this to be so. I think that the science/reason picture is now unsatisfying only to minds in which reason’s development has been effectively crippled, through childhood incorporation of irrational proposals as the actual state of reality (i.e., as ‘truths’). My simple claim, directly based on observation, is that we’ve been maintaining a vast negative feedback loop. Sabotaging reason in our children’s minds through propagation of irrational proposals; in terms of which they cannot then learn to think straight, and on which they also become emotionally dependent, even to the point of ruling out rejection of these proposals as their destructive consequences begin to pile up during adult life. Leaving Truth is about showing the loop. It’s about making visible something that all of our minds have been superbly trained, from earliest childhood, not to see. And then, about how we might start to wind it down.

    47. We insist on pretending that we can both have our cake and eat it. We all cooperate in perpetuation of the ‘noble lie’ through which we’ve been maintaining an independent knowledge basis, superior to science and reason, for our propagation of ‘facts’ that we can honestly see not to be so. We assure ourselves that we can continue to teach our children about the unique existence of our particular Supernatural Being(s), and the superiority of our particular cultural delineators, without such stuff screwing up their development of reason. We want to believe that they will be able to learn to think effectively – to be able to build large and coherent edifices of knowledge, within which to develop strong and mature reason, and the confidence in such reason to bravely follow where it leads – from a base of acceptance of nonsense as the actual state of reality. I think that this practice has instead been holding our planet as a ‘vale of tears’, for most of us and most of the time, throughout our species’ history; and that it’s now gearing up, through anthropogenic climate disruption, to do a lot worse.

    I’ve limited myself to 3, but there are of course a lot more, and the philosophical back-up that supports them is laid out as clearly as I’ve yet been able to manage in ‘Leaving Truth’. We here at Poppersinversion just need, from any quarter, help in getting our message out there.

  4. Keith Sewell

    Bert,
    As with Rod, we’re in pretty close accord. This is great, but a little puzzling to me, as I seem to remember having an intense – though cordial and good natured – debate with you in one of the atheist/free-thought forums (Brights? JREF?) about 8 years ago. I may be confusing my Berts, in which case please forgive me. To seek clarity, the Bert that I was arguing with then was a pretty inveterate Platonist, and this was right at the root of our disagreement. Is this ringing any bells? If not then, as requested, please forgive me.

    Moving to the present: I did check out and enjoy ‘Three Wise Guys’. But in response to it let me ‘raise you’ the version of Critias (Plato’s rather unsavory uncle):

    “Then came, it seems, that wise and cunning man, The first inventor of the fear of gods…
    He framed a tale, a most alluring doctrine, Concealing truth by veils of lying lore,
    He told of the abode of awful gods,
    Up in revolving vaults, whence thunder roars,
    And lightning’s fearful flashes blind the eye….
    He thus encircled men by bonds of fear; Surrounding them by gods in fair abodes,
    He charmed them by his spells, and daunted them— And lawlessness turned to law and order.”

    My gloss on it, from LT, was: ‘In comparing this to Plato’s own “noble lie” (The Republic’s “Myth of the Metals”) we can see that the family’s acorn did not roll very far. Yet another alternative statement of this essay collection’s main point would be that the kind of “law and order” that we can buy through our deliberate propagation of irrational belief systems—down to and including their shared root, our “truth” concept—has observably been, on balance, a raw deal for our species.’

    I also read and enjoyed your ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ essay, and found it very topical in that I’ve just used one – again, from my Early Morning Thoughts file – for my slot in this month’s Poppersinversion Newsletter. To paste it here:

    ————
    46. Our species now faces, for the first time in its history, a number of crucial decisions that can only be made at the global level. This is because they are all, substantially, ‘Problem of the Commons’ decisions. They are about voluntarily reducing our environmental impact in ways that would at least slightly and temporarily disadvantage any nation-state or corporation that might otherwise consider them.

    To rehash the classic Problem of the Commons illustration; consider a large area of common land surrounded by a number of pastoral villages. The land can sustainably support only a limited number of grazing sheep, so it is in the overall best interest all of the villagers to figure out what that number is, and then to allocate it between them by an effectively binding (force sanctioned) agreement. In this way all will receive a fair share, and the resource will remain intact for their children and grandchildren. But now for the ‘problem’; this solution is not in the short-term interest of any particular village. On the basis of short-term interest each village will graze as many sheep as possible, even in the knowledge that this will destroy the resource. In the absence of an effectively binding agreement each village will rationalize its behavior through knowledge that the resource is going to be destroyed anyway; as “those greedy bastards in the other villages will certainly overgraze, so our only reasonable option is to get as much of it as we can and while we can”.

    This is now our global position in reference to vital commons like our ocean fisheries, hydrologic cycle fresh water, productive arable land, and our atmosphere’s ability to function safely as a carbon sink. According to classic economic theory the selfish villages can still come out okay; because, having destroyed the resource, they can simply move on to something else. Perhaps they’ve used the profits from their additional sheep to buy some more land in another place, and so can continue that cycle. Or maybe they’ve purchased some fishing boats and will now switch over from mutton to fish as their main source of protein. This is what we have been doing for thousands of years; and so are deeply confident in our ability to keep doing. But it won’t work for global level commons. There are no ‘something else’s to move on to. From the top of a pyramid you can’t climb any further. We can clearly see this, but somehow we just can’t accept it. It’s so unpalatable – in the sense of obviously requiring such deep level change in our values, aspirations and behavior – that we collectively choose to turn away from it. We open another glossy magazine, or switch our TV back on, and rejoin the ‘real’ world of happy shining people whose most pressing problems are how to spend their effectively endless resources of time and money (how to choose between the thirty kinds of toothpaste on offer in their drugstores). We are superbly good at believing what we want to believe and what most of those around us want to believe. I think that we are so good because we’ve all been assiduously practicing it from birth, through our belief in our possession of a qualitatively better kind of knowledge (‘truth’) as which and in terms of which we can know that our particular little ideological and cultural quirks are exclusively the right ones, and that our universe is being run by a Supernatural Being who exclusively favors those who share these quirks with us. We’ve learned, and been practicing ever since, that it’s okay to embrace absurdity as knowledge if we’ve been passed it early enough, and/or, want to believe it badly enough.

    In my ‘Leaving Truth’ essays I argue that this practice has never been, in the overall balance, a good thing; and that it’s harm has recently increased dramatically. I think that it’s now forming our deepest impediment to the rapid growth in reason and cooperation that we so desperately need for solution of our global level problems.
    ——————-
    I’ll have to stop there for tonight, but will check out ‘God Pluto and Limburger Cheese’ and ‘A Conversation With God’ tomorrow. Will send comments within the next few days.

  5. Bert Bigelow

    Keith,
    I think that must have been a different Bert. I don’t recall the discussion, anyway.
    As you can see from my web site, my approach to issues is not as philosophical as yours.
    As I told Gary, I came close to flunking a Philosophy of Science class (about 60 years ago). I’m an old, broken down retired engineer so I tend to be a nuts-and-bolts person.
    I like that poem, although I disagree with the final line, as you do. My piece is tongue-in-cheek. I think primitive societies were perfectly capable of enforcing the moral codes they established without resorting to threats from a Great One in the sky. I got the idea for the article from reading Michael Shermer’s book, “The Science of Good and Evil.” He makes a very convincing case that the origin of moral codes far predates Christianity…or any other organized religion. The only point I was trying to make is that all religions were manufactured by humans.

  6. Keith Sewell

    Bert,

    First, ‘high five’ on being a crusty old engineer. I was a diver for my first 20 working years, but then came out of the water – sort of – to do an ocean engineering degree. I’m not quite as old as you, but at 61 definitely on the downhill slope.

    Next; That’s a very nice picture of Half Dome (taken from the Glacier Point hiking trail?).

    On ‘God Pluto and Limburger Cheese’: It was a pretty accurate caricature of most theists’ positions. It reminded me strongly of another that I read years ago in George Smith’s book ‘Atheism: The Case Against God’. That book includes an imaginary dialog between Smith and a friend who believes himself to have an invisible dwarf sitting on his shoulder. The conversation goes on at some length, with the friend blatantly cheating his way out of every one of Smith’s rational objections. [S: “Okay, he’s invisible, but surely there should be a slight depression on your shoulder from his weight?” F: “No, he’s also weightless”; and so on.] You have to read it to get the full humor, and I won’t spoil the denouement for you, but I will report that it reduced me to rolling on the floor with laughter. The sad problem, I’m now convinced, is that most theists and Platonists just can’t think very clearly. They can’t spot circular reasoning, or effectively apply reason’s most fundamental principle (the excluded middle), because they’ve been taught to be blind to these things from birth. If you pass a young child all kinds of absurd and mutually exclusive – but ‘feel good’ – garbage; before her mind has even been able to start erecting effective BS filters, then it’s kind of like irreparably breaking her intellectual legs. What we’re really teaching is that it’s epistemically legitimate to embrace as knowledge stuff that we can clearly see to be absurd. We’ve all been mutually assuring ourselves that this is necessary, and inevitable, and besides; “doesn’t really do any harm”. I argue in Leaving Truth that we’ve been wrong on all of these, but most especially and tragically on the last.

    On ‘A Conversation With God’: I think that your version (of God) might well be correct in his statement that we’re likely to engineer our own extinction within the next few generations. To insert a couple of relevant entries from the Early Morning Thoughts file, and then a footnote from ‘Leaving Truth’:

    40. After finally painting itself into the corner of a clear choice between its emotionally and politically seductive irrational knowledge systems and survival, my species seems determined to chose the irrational systems.

    41. No matter how clearly explained, or massively linked to our observations, it is almost impossible for human minds to accept any radically new idea from their first encounter with it. We like to think of ourselves as primarily rational beings, capable of fairly and honestly judging presented evidence; but even the most reasonable of us are perhaps 10% that and 90% slaves of precedent and consensus. However absurd they may be, we find it vastly easier to hold the same beliefs as most of the other people around us. There are good Darwinian reasons for this, whose inevitability I can understand. But I would that it were otherwise.

    For the footnote:
    ‘Bottleneck’: 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.
    *Today’s climate destabilization reflects our atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations of approximately 30 years ago. Or, to sharpen the point a little: The frog will be able to begin to leave the beaker about 30 years after he finally realizes that he is at a life/death decision point for doing so.
    Understanding this does not require a rocket science intellect, but it seems to require a higher level of reason’s development, and/or a stronger commitment to reason, than most people have. I think that I know, and have been able to sketch out in ‘Leaving Truth’, the root cause of that.

    Back to this response, and in sign off, ‘Happy Xmas’, and keep up the fine blog!

    All the best,

    Keith

  7. Bert Bigelow

    Keith,
    Thanks for your nice words on my scribbles. I do enjoy writing, although I have hit a “dry spot” at the moment. I hope it is only temporary. I am currently working my way through the 12-volume set of Robert Ingersoll’s writings, speeches, lectures and interviews, compiled posthumously. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I highly recommend it. He was a remarkable man, founder of the Freethought movement. He really had started a move away from organized religion in this country, but his early death in 1899 ended it. Without his charismatic leadership, it died, and we returned to our superstitions.
    Thanks for the recommendation on “The Case Against God.” I’ll see if I can download it to my Nook.

  8. Keith Sewell

    Bert,

    I posted you a nice long answer a couple of days ago, but by linking to the website via URL from the advisory message in my Gmail. Looks now like it got lost in cyberspace. The quick gist was that I envy you the time to read the 12 volume Ingersoll set. He was definitely quite a guy, and did seem to be making real headway against religion in the US. It’s certainly interesting to wonder how different our society – and perhaps even the world – would be today if he’d been able to keep up that momentum. The other, and far more recent, guy who I think was in the same category of tragic loss for our side was Carl Sagan. I had high hopes for E. O. Wilson for a while, after reading Consilience, but he seems more recently to have settled into the conciliatory camp. I think that we’ve run out of time for ‘conciliatory’, and that our only real shot now is straight cards-on-the-table confrontation at the most fundamental epistemic level. Basically, what I outline in ‘Leaving Truth’ and its app essay ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’. We could win, as its more obvious than it was even a decade ago that the theists’ emperor has never had a stitch of clothing; but we’d need to publicly challenge their intellectual leaders to debate in a way that would cost them too much credibility to dodge.

    Here’s hoping that your own dry phase ends soon, as we need all hands on the capstan.

    All the best,

    Keith

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