Truth in Troubled Times

Posted on June 24, 2018

What do we Truly Believe?

Imagine you are in Las Vegas, and you are given the opportunity to place a bet on the proposition “Trump enjoyed a pee play game with Russian hookers in Moscow in 2013”. You may be familiar with this proposition from the Steele dossier.

Call this proposition X. After you have placed your bet on X or on not-X, an oracle is going to reveal, infallibly, whether X is true. If you guessed correctly you receive one million dollars. If your guess was incorrect you get nothing. If you have a vivid enough imagination, this little game will reveal to you what your true belief is about X. You can do this with any proposition. In this particular case, I would surely bet on X. I asked for votes during a Workshop at ILLC (University of Amsterdam) last week, and to my surprise I was not in a clear majority with my bet. Hmm. If I could find a bookmaker who would give me equal odds in this bet, I would certainly be willing to risk some money.

“But such an oracle does not exist.” For many propositions, this is indeed the case. Pascal’s wager comes to mind here. In his famous argument, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal maintains that human beings bet with their lives on the proposition that God exists. According to Pascal, it should be clear what their best bet is. If God actually exists, people who have led a God-fearing life stand to gain infinite bliss in Heaven, and if God does not exists such people suffer only a finite loss (a bit less luxury, abstinence from some earthly pleasures). People who have lived as if there is no God, run the risk of infinite punishment, and even if their bet was correct their gain is only finite. So it is rational to opt for a God-fearing live, according to Pascal. In this case the oracle gives its verdict only after a person dies.

What Pascal fails to take into account is that the range of propositions that we are willing to entertain as possibly true is determined by our metaphysics, that is, by our deepest beliefs about what reality is like. A shared metaphysics of the scientific community is scientific materialism. For people who have adopted this metaphysics, propositions that involve an afterlife are simply beyond the pale. Such people would not even consider Pascal’s wager. Taking a bet on whether there is an afterlife to them would seem like betting on a horse that does not even run in the race. But we don’t have to adopt the metaphysics of scientific materialism. And if we don’t, we are opening ourselves up to experiences that are denied to us otherwise.

“Different people put their trust in different oracles.” If this is supposed to mean that different people choose to believe different things, then this is obviously true. But the oracle that we have in mind is infallible, and so it will give the same answer for different people.

The Importance of Truth

We can afford to be simple-minded about the concept of truth, for everyone knows the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie. If you understand this difference then you also understand the difference between accounts that correspond with reality and accounts that do not. Reality is everything outside us that we do not control, or, to quote the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, reality is that what does not go away if we stop believing in it.

Pursuit of truth is what keeps us in sync with reality. Since reality is the stuff we do not control, it is crucial for us to not go against reality in our interactions with the world around us. We are feeble creatures, and being out of touch with reality is dangerous for us. The ability to distinguish truth from falsehood is crucial for living our lives. Harry Frankfurt, well known for his philosophical musings on bullshit, discusses this at great length in On Truth. Frankfurt refers to Spinoza to substantiate his claim that we cannot help loving truth, for truth is what gives us joy. According to Spinoza, every human being has an essence, and if we discover truths about ourselves that bring us closer to our essence, then this is bound to give us exhilaration and joy. Spinoza has a beautifully succinct definition of love, as an abstract relation. Love, according to Spinoza, is joy accompanied by the idea of an external source. In other words, we must love a person or thing if we experience joy and we view that person or thing as the source of our joy. If discovering truth about ourselves gives us joy, then truth is the source of our joy, hence we must love truth.

Truth and Action

A crucial distinction in philosophy is that between a definition of truth and criteria for truth. “Truth is correspondence with reality” is (a sketch of) a definition of truth. “Statement X is true because the evidence of a range of reliable witnesses supports X” is an example of the invocation of criteria for the truth of X.

Note that this is all at the level of language. In logic, it is customary to make a clear distinction between a logical language on one hand and structures that this language can talk about on the other hand. We have the language of arithmetic, with symbols for naming numbers and for talking about arithmetical operations such as addition and multiplication, and we have the structure of the natural numbers with various wonderful properties. An arithmetical statement such as “2 + 2 = 4” is true because it is indeed the case that when we add two to two we get four. Because the numbers three and four are different, “2 + 2 = 3” is false. In computer languages we have the same distinction between programming statements that can be used in a switch, such as “x = y”, and evaluation of those statements during the run of a program, where the contents of the memory locations x and y determine which path the execution of the program is going to take. We can say that “x = y” is true for certain memory configurations and false for other configurations.

What the Las Vegas thought experiment above seems to suggest is that there is also a deeper connection with reality. This has to do with the person who is willing to bet on his or her belief. This willingness to bet is willingness to perform an action. What our true beliefs are is revealed by our actions more than by our words. For it is very well possible to be insincere about one’s beliefs.

Voters for Green Parties cast their vote based on a belief that taking care of our environment is a crucial thing. Or at least, that is what one would assume. Still, in a thesis defended last year at Delft University, Tourism’s impact on climate change and its mitigation challenges, Paul Peeters investigated the behaviour of people who voted Groen Links (Green Left), in connection with a study of the impact of tourism on climate. It turns out that Groen Links voters were the most frequent holiday flyers, compared with people who voted for other parties.

What we see is a contradiction between what people say about their beliefs and what people do. This kind of contradiction is very common, of course. It is called hypocrisy. Or bigotry. This is also related to the phenomenon of “Voting with your feet”. I am familiar with this from an early age, for the following words from Saint Matthew were often quoted to me:

You can tell what they are by what they do. No one picks grapes or figs from thornbushes.

So the Bible insist that deeds are more important than words. In fact, the concept of truth plays a key role in the Bible. The Devil, diabolos or slanderer in Greek, is the archetype of evil, the one who deceives and lies.

Vaclav Havel’s concept of Living in Truth, from his famous essay about the greengrocer in a “Socialist Paradise” who has had enough with all the lies and deceptions, and decides to quit playing his role in the charade staged by the ruling socialist party, is a deeply religious concept.

The Quest for Reliable Information

I sometimes yield to the temptation of commenting on what I consider to be ill-informed claims made by my facebook friends, and I have found out that these days this is quite a risky thing to do. My questioning the reliability of a source known for its right-wing bias and for repeatedly having made false claims, and my suggestion to a FB friend that he should get better informed was enough to be branded by a friend of that friend as a bully from the radical left who is coming to harass you. When I asked why the radical and why the left and what was the bullying and what was the harassment, I got my quote “You are an intelligent and educated person, and there is no excuse for you for not getting better informed” thrown back at me, with a label <– condescending bullying.

So one has to be careful in how to express oneself. One has to be very careful, maybe impossibly careful. The fact that I point people to sources on Wikipedia makes me already suspect. After all, Wikipedia is mainly put together by types just like me: white, male, university educated, champions of education in science, literature and history. To direct someone’s attention to sources written by types like me already reveals my bias, or doesn’t it?

Pointing out factual errors or questioning the reliability of an information source quite often provoke hostile replies, such as this one from a man that I will call Y that I was in an exchange with on the topic of reliability. Here are some snippets, slightly edited for comprehensibility.

(Y:) Given that none of us are there, I have always wondered how people can stamp “information” reliable. From my perspective, it appears most people on all sides consider reliable claims which support their cause, and unreliable those that don’t. Ironically enough, the people who started the whole “fake news” meme can be shown to reliably engage in it. No one becomes truthful by accusing others of lying. This is why critical thinking, and common sense analysis are so important.

I nod in agreement reading this. Y is right, critical thinking and exercise of common sense are important. But two lines below these wise words Y referred to Breitbart as a reliable source of information. So I replied:

(me:) Y, sure, we all make mistakes by believing reports that later on turn out to be false. For me a sign of reliability is that a source of information issues corrections of reports that later on turn out to be false. This is what happens on Wikipedia all the time, it is how Wikipedia works. It is also what happens on news sources that are classified as “least biased” on sites like mediabiasfactcheck. It never happens on sites like Breitbart. Also, if a site provides a stage for stories which we know to be false, such as the birther nonsense, then this discredits the site and the source, in my eyes once and for all. In sum, I believe it is possible to distinguish reliable from less reliable information, although mistakes will always be made, by you and by me.

Next, guess what happened. You wouldn’t believe it, but Y, with all his insistence on critical thinking, turns out to be a believer in a variant of the Birther theory. So now it gets personal:

(me:) Y, it seems evident to me that believers in (one of the many variants of) the Birther theory have a motive: hatred of Barack Obama. So please tell me, why do you hate him so much that you believe in this nonsense?

And I post a link to Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories on Wikipedia.

Y responds with a long list of arguments meant to convince me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is indeed a forgery. And now we are locked, fot the fact that I do not wish to even consider these arguments shows that I am biased, lacking in critical thinking skills, reluctant to apply common sense. So I am bowing out:

(me:) Y, you have every right to make up your own mind. And so have I. Over and out.

And Y ends with a parting shot:

(Y:) JvE, this is certainly true. And please forgive me for being so bold as to point out that in your case, making up your mind did not include an evaluation of the actual evidence. [..] And I don’t hate Obama. I don’t know him. He seems arrogant, and is clearly obsessed with left wing ideas, but race has nothing to do with it. I just don’t like being lied to, and I don’t like being called a lunatic for pointing out things which should be obvious.

Of course this drew scorn and vitriol from haters of the current president of the US. And as you can guess, that did not help to get the debate on track again. And when someone pointed out that the facts have been checked, by means of this link, that did also not help, for Y already distrusted the fact checking site as an information source. It seems clear to me that someone like me, or someone who points to, or someone who points to a news website like, is never going to get through to Y. Y is too enraged that all these well meaning and well educated people are looking down on him, or that is what he senses. And if I look deeply into what it must feel like to be lectured about getting the facts right in public, I can well understand his rage.

The Problem of Trust

There is no shortage of fact checking websites: snopes and politifact, e.g., do impressive and much needed work. More specifically, mediabiasfactcheck and allsides investigate and expose political bias in the way news is presented. All Sides has as their mission “ provide a broad, balanced view of news and issues in the face of growing media bias, polarizing filter bubbles and an increasingly divided society.” They admit to have a bias of their own: “We also felt it was important to point out that we have a bias in favor of free speech and freedom of the press, although, as part of our commitment to providing all sides, we also cover perspectives that promote limiting both of these first amendment rights.” All Sides is impressive in its insistence on the importance to listen to the other side. Audite et alteram partem (“Also listen to the other side”) was a key rule of Roman law.

The trouble is that this does not help, for there is this problem of trust. People like Y feel so antagonized that they simply do not believe the fact checking websites. And they have what they consider good reasons for their distrust. E.g., Y already “knows” that Al Jazeera is at the extreme left-wing side of the political spectrum, so if All Sides classifies Al Jazeera as centrist, then that’s proof enough that All Sides is on the wrong side, isn’t that obvious?

One key reason why newspapers and news sites publish or broadcast the stories their public wants to hear is that they cannot afford to lose readership for commercial reasons. But the US still has broadcasting stations that are less directly dependent on advertisements, such as national public radio.

My experiences with public discourse on internet has made clear to me that logic or attempts to agree on reliable facts do not help. What does seem to help, a bit, is the insight that in comparing world views there is not a single valid perspective. So it is not like the liberals have it right and the conservatives have it wrong, or vice versa. What helps a bit is understanding the sentiment of US citizens who believe they have been getting short shrift for a very long time, and who want to return to a world with closed borders where they can feel safer and where they are respected and where there is decent work for them to do for a decent wage. It helps to see all that. But then we part ways, for then I also have to say that I very much much doubt that the present US government is going to deliver those things.

What helps, a bit, is to assert, again and again, that those whose views we disagree with, have every right to believe what they believe. When I point to a source of information that I believe is reliable, then I believe that it will be good for someone’s soul if they read what I think they should read. And then I have to assert, again and again, that you have the right to take care of your own soul. You are just as free as I am to look at the world, to take in what you see, and to decide where you wish to stand in these confusing and terrible times.

Looking Inward for Truth

Human beings have an inside and an outside. Scientific materialism (or: metaphysical naturalism) takes the viewpoint that since there is a successful method for separating what is true from what is false if we approach the universe from the outside, and since we have no clear method for separating what is true from what is false if we approach the universe from the inside, it is the outside that matters most. We should approach the universe as an outside observer that is not part of the picture, and any attempts to integrate the observer into the picture again can be postponed until later.

Still, we do have an inside. If we take the inside view and reflect on it deeply, we can see that the universe of things appears to us, as an image in consciousness. This shift causes a complete reversal, for now it looks like first there is consciousness, and next there is awareness in consciousness of the universe of things.

Since before time and space were,
the Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see.

Lao Tse

I do not understand this with my mind, but I love it. And the line I love the most is I look inside myself and see. In any case, the quote makes clear that Lao Tse is not a scientific materialist. Lao Tse has perfected the art of looking inward, and he invites us to take up that art as well.

Our metaphysics determines what makes sense to us. What happens when we take a vacation from our metaphysical worldview? Lots of crazy, wonderful things. Just replace ‘the universe of things has an objective existence, and the observer of the universe of things also has an objective existence’ by: ‘there are as many universes as there are conscious beings.’

Everyone Makes Sense.

After watching this colour sorting video, you can ask yourself: Is this real or is it fake? How was this done? My immediate personal reaction was that his must be fake, and that this is definitely not sorting by colour resonance, using some quantum computing mechanism, as the comment to the video seems to claim. And sure enough, the video turns out to be a clever computer-coloured enhancement of a video where all the balls were white.

On the other hand, I would not at all be surprised if lots of people would put their money on the proposition ‘This video is real.’ The computer animation is very cleverly done. Many people have an inkling that quantum mechanics could provide a mechanism for sorting based on colour. Also, more importantly, many people know from personal experience that ‘sameness attracts’, and therefore they can easily believe that this video is a beautiful example of that. They repost it with inspiring texts:

How beautiful. The crystal balls separate and unite by means of resonance. In precisely the same way we humans attract what we emit.

This is indeed beautiful, and it is perhaps a deeper truth than ‘This video is fake.’

Exploring Truth About Ourselves

Focusing is a psychotherapeutic technique developed by psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin. Focusing is a way of concentrating on a feeling in the body, on a bodily felt sense, making the body reveal things about what we feel or want. Our body has things to say to us that are beyond words, or better, that we are not able yet to express in words. Here we view the body as a storehouse of experiences.

In the 1950’s Gendlin was exploring what made therapy successful with some patients, or rather, in what way successful patients behaved differently from non-successful patients. He found that the successful patients focused inside themselves on a bodily awareness that held the key to a shift in how the patients experienced their problems. This is hard to describe. Maybe a sense of what one is working on, vague and mysterious, but located somewhere in the body, a kind of intuitive and not yet articulated knowing.

We can use focusing, or meditation, or any other method of systematic introspection to find out more about ourselves, the good as well as the bad. For not everything we find will be agreeable. But the more we find out, the more sensitive we can become to our own biases and quirks and peculiarities and irrationalities, and the more forgiving of what we believe are the flaws of our fellows.

Sources of Reliable Information Need Our Support

Reliable information is priceless, and it is naive to think that it can and should be entirely free. Consider financially supporting a newspaper that cares about getting the news facts right. Consider making donations to Wikipedia. I support Wikipedia in two ways: by making monthly donations, and by not writing for them, for they already have more than enough authors/editors that look like me. The Wikipedia community is vast but not quite diverse enough.