Another word on Truth

One or two more thoughts about the search for truth, after learning just now from Healthfirst (sic) that my Primary Care Doctor is no longer in my health insurance network and that I need to find a new one, pronto, if I want my “free” annual check up by December 31. Life in America, boys and girls, no reason to get excited… just add finding a new PC to the other doctor I need to find for an unrelated medical situation. The Free Market knows the best way to marginalize these sorts of inevitable externalties, no worries.

I, for example, am not worried (though I am fucking disgusted).

In yesterday’s far-ranging “philosophical” post I may have created some unintended ambiguity about my view of the nature of truth. I said at one point that both faith-based and fact-based arguments are both essentially based on faith, the latter on the faith that facts are necessary to an intelligent debate. The way I left it could leave the impression that I feel there is no difference in how one approaches the question of truth– a narrative that follows as logically as possible from what we can observe and verify or a story based entirely on what we strongly believe. I’d like to clear up any confusion about that now.

While approaching capital “T” truth is a lifetime’s dedicated work, and we each only get as close as we are capable of getting, there are many things in life that are simply true or false. If you are 5’9” and you claim to be 6’3”, there are ways to know (including direct observation) whether your claim is true or false. You can use a tape measure, or we can stand you next to Clyde Frazier, or John Mayer, for example.

It is our human ability to say things that are to our advantage, that are provably not true, that gives rise to the word “liar” and our frequent shunning of such people. There are liars big and small among us, sad to say, and that is something to consider while pursuing truth, if it is your lot to pursue such things. I tried to explain yesterday why it is my sad lot to do this and why my search, my best theories, are based, as much as possible, on demonstrable events and verifiable facts. Arguments I can lay out without distorting the facts I have learned.

It isn’t true, as I may have given the misimpression, that an opinion based on pure faith and an opinion based on logical conclusions drawn from our best observation, verifiable data and controlled experiment, are equally valid. Not at all. The old “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts” comes into play.

The argument of a paid spokesman for an oil company must never be given equal weight to the argument of thousands of government and private industry scientists on whether the burning of fossil fuel is a good thing or a destructive thing for the earth. Sadly, in our great American “marketplace of ideas” such, eh, arguments are often fought to a “draw” (let’s all agree to disagree and, now, a word from our sponsor) in the mass media.

Faith is a great thing, a comfort to millions. In addition. no difficult task could ever be sustained, no hope for better days kept alive, particularly during the worst of times, without faith. Life itself, you could argue, is impossible without a certain amount of faith. Of course, faith is also one of those squishy words that mean a few distinctly different things. Much depends on what your faith is based on.

You can have faith in your physical strength, based on your life experience, real comparisons with the strength of others, and know, with perfect faith, that you can carry a load most other people couldn’t lift. If you have done something many times and are comfortable doing it, even if others would be fearful before trying it, your faith is founded in fact-based confidence.

I saw an eight year-old launch himself off a bannister, over concrete, and gracefully complete a backflip in the air, upside down, the top of his little skull pointing directly at the pavement, before flipping to land on his feet, graceful as a cat. It was probably the greatest demonstration of confident faith I’ve ever seen. It is faith based on the proof of direct experience, on the knowledge that you can do this daunting thing. It is a mighty thing. It is different than faith based on pure belief.

Faith, in the sense of a faith-based religious belief, is obedience to a higher will, a surrender, based on a spiritual longing, to a power far greater than yourself, infinitely greater than any human power. I get the appeal of this idea, even as I see, over and over, the dangers this kind of faithful faith in pure faith can lead to.

If you obey a higher power, a power whose mysterious will is often unknowable, and acknowledge your own lowliness, you’ll require an earthly authority of some kind to tell you what this higher power wants of you. It is a central tenet of your faith that obedience and surrender to this power are the highest values in life, and you will willingly do whatever is required, as set out by a faithful intermediary.

Such devoted faith is a beautiful idea if you are directly following the teachings of, say, Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us to love the meek, be kind to our enemies, wary of the rulers, a generous friend to the helpless and so on. I read on Brett Kavanaugh’s alma mater Georgetown Prep’s website that Jesuits believe that when two people meet it is the spark of the divine in each one that recognizes the divine spark in the other. Two particles of God, infinitely precious, communicating in divine unity, a very beautiful idea of how to treat one another.

My Corsican friend snorted when I repeated that to him and told me to look up the origin of the fucking Jesuits on the internet. Oops. They started as Defenders of the Faith (the One True Faith), the faithful lawyers for the faithful torturers of the Spanish Inquisition. They conclusively explained, with learned legal arguments of great sophistication, the legality, indeed the righteousness, of the auto de fe, the strapado, the rack, Divinely endorsed methods of inflicting agony on infidels. They expertly cited chapter and verse of religious texts and related law, fully justifying torturing and killing in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Apparently, if you buy their arguments, Jesus loves the screams of despised and terrified heretics as they are burned to death. Who knew?

The civic problem with religious faith is not hard to see looking around at the political activities of various churches in the USA. The American Baptist church split in two in the years before the Civil War. There was a northern, anti-slavery Baptist church and a southern, pro-slavery Baptist church. Each church defended its views based on Biblical verse and Christ’s teachings. You figure that one out. Anyway, after slavery was abolished under secular law, Baptists north and south shook hands and became one church again, as far as I recall.

There are many wonderful things about many people of true religious faith. They are among the most caring people in the world, the best of them. At the same time, honesty requires us to acknowledge that there are many horrible things tolerated in the name of true faith. More blood has been spilled in clashes of faiths than for any other reason.

So when I wrote that on one level a passionate argument based on pure faith and one based on verifiable facts are both, in one way, based on faith, I did not intend to imply that these arguments are somehow equal. You either have faith that facts matter, and the truth is a supreme value that may never be sacrificed in order to win a point, or you have faith that if somebody lies for a greater purpose there is no real sin to that little untruth. There is nothing remotely equivalent about those two kinds of “faith”, though in one sense, yes, they are both based on faith.

The faith that gives someone the right to kill someone else for violating the first person’s faith? We need another word for that kind of “faith”. The Framers of our democracy were wary of this kind of misuse of sacred principles, while they winked at slavery, they built a wall between church and state. The kind of depraved individuals who believe it benefits them to make sure hundreds of thousands more die of this pandemic, in order to weaken the hand of their political enemies in the future — well, any of their millions of devoutly religious Christian political allies, a considerable chunk of the 73,000,000 who, knowing this, turned out to vote for it in record numbers recently — they’re on their way to hell, no matter what they may believe about the righteousness of protecting the unborn and other pious acts.

You know what I’m sayin’?

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