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Truth in the age of the Internet

by techno Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 06:59:45 AM EST

One of the more famous quotations of the Bible is found in John 18:38

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all. (King James Version)

Millions of sermons have been based on this text because the easy message is that even an educated and cynical Roman governor could see that the Christ embodied truth.  This has spawned a millions critiques pointing out the dangers of equating religious dogma with the truth.

The world-weary what-is-truth sigh is often seen as a rite of passage that a student must go through to become a well-educated citizen.  I had a college roommate who spent several weeks and expended MUCH energy writing a philosophy paper that "proved" he did not exist.  When I asked him if the paper he was showing me wasn't in fact proof of his existence, he looked at me as if I were a heathen who would never get into the club he so desperately wanted to join.

Interestingly, even though such behavior is probably insane, it seems to be encouraged.  And some never grow out of the "seeking" stage.  I know a brilliant woman with a degree in law and a successful business she created from scratch who has dabbled in a dozen belief sets from Tarot to Buddhism.  She is an educated-by-nuns lapsed Catholic so apparently it is possible to reject perhaps the most complete belief set ever without rejecting the idea that truth comes as beautifully written sentiments packaged in moments of supreme insight.

Unfortunately, the "truths" as spread around by gurus, priests, and schools of academic thought are often not very true.  It is a very unreliable way to spread the sort of ideas folks need to become good solid citizens.  Fortunately, there is another path to truth that is much more reliable because it is self-correcting.

The Plan B method of finding the truth works something like this.  There are millions of little truths that are beyond any rational debate.  Examples would include the chemical composition of the atmosphere or the elevation of one's house above sea level.  And while the vast majority of such little truths have been discovered in the past 200 years as the result of more accurate scientific measurements, they were even available to Pilate.  Jesus could easily have answered his cynical question by saying, "if you want a harvest in the fall, you must plant in the spring--and that is the truth."

But, scream the cynics, those little truths are nothing but factoids.  When we philosophically search for truth we are looking for answers to the big questions such as: why is there evil in the world? why must we die? do our lives have meaning?

The response to the cynics is actually both simple and very logical.  All large things are assembled from smaller components--why would big truths be any different?  The more small truths one can gather in one place, the bigger the truth one can build.  Even better, a large truth assembled from smaller truths is far more likely to withstand close scrutiny.  Conversely, a pronouncement of a guru will fall apart if a foundation assumption is flawed.

Assembling big truths from little truths is a LOT more work than sitting at the feet of a guru.  Fortunately, there are power tools such as computers, search engines, and the Internet itself that now help lighten the load.  As a result, the pile of small truths available to anyone now approaches infinite.  So the question then becomes, how does one best use these powerful tools?

One of the happy discoveries of the Internet is that if people of good will are genuinely searching for an answer, the number of exchanges is usually about five with a range of between 3 and 15.  At the end of the exchanges, folks seem happy that the real answer has been uncovered--in fact, the last exchanges are usually polite expressions of gratitude so that the same folks will assemble to answer another question in the future.

The elements to the creation of large truths seem to be:

  1. A genuine desire to find a new answer.
  2. The willingness to admit someone else has discovered better information.
  3. A willingness to show one's research--links are essential.

Of course, there is plenty of pure bullshit on the Internet so this process of assembling truth is FAR from automatic.  In the end, the most important element in finding truth is the passion one has for it.  This in fact may be cultural.  In mine, Christianity says, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:32)  The first line of Luther's 95 thesis was, "Out of LOVE for the truth and the desire to bring it to light."  

One does not need to be a Protestant Christian to be a lover of truth, but it helps to have it woven into the culture.  Not surprisingly, a culture that believes even little truths are important because they can lead to bigger truths, tends to discover a LOT of the little ones.

In a world where lying has become a paid profession and "spin" a synonym for unadulterated BS, it is encouraging to know that the lovers of truth have made it possible to find an infinity of the sort of truth that can light up your face for weeks with the purest "a-HA" look.  And no matter the amount of darkness the liars would spread, light ALWAYS wins.

Excellent diary on an important subject. Thanks.

My latest mantra de jour is that communication is dialogue: without dialogue it is propaganda. It is the dialogue about truth that is important, perhaps even more so than the truth itself.

There is a lot of misinformation out there, as you point out. But what we are witnessing is an exponential increase in the diversity of freely available information. The 'many truths' syndrome. Right now we are experiencing information divergence. Who knows, in a hundred years we might see information convergence? It certainly won't be next year, but it will happen.

Even that increasing divergence is on our side. Propagandists always seek to limit information and control the narrative. Little by little, the 'narrative' is being biodiversified, and that, to me, is a good thing.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 07:20:41 AM EST
It is the dialogue about truth that is important, perhaps even more so than the truth itself.

I don't think so.  For me, dialogue is a critically important tool, but the prize is still the truth.  

When you love the truth, you don't just seek it because your mother is watching, you seek it because finding it gives you pleasure.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 07:33:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And the dialogue can, in itself, ensure that the truth is either never discovered or just simply irrelevant.
We can spend all day arguing about how many purple hearts John Kerry deserved or whether that specific kind of kerning can occur on a certain 1970s typewriter, but it does not change one undeniable truth: John Kerry served his country in the battlefield, and George W Bush did not. Yet that simple truth was distorted beyond recognition by "debate" and "the other side of the story".

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 07:48:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Narrative wins over truth every time, because it selects which truths and lies are important.

"Kerry is weak" - and to some extent he ran a campaign that was - trumped the fact of his military service.

"Bush is strong" was played very effectively. It was pure theatre, nand pure lies. But it was reassuring theatre that the marks wanted to hear, and enough of them bought it to swing the outcome.

It's well known that one of the things that makes the Left weak is that it's very bad at crafting simple, solid narratives. There's always plurality, argument, a lot of one-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand.

Even now in the US, what does Hillary really stand for? What does Obama stand for? What's their narrative in a single sentence?

Compared to them, everyone knows exactly what the Right stands for. And even though the ideal has been so badly tarnished by scandal that there's a backlash, people know what the ideal is - so much so that the Left still spends a lot of its time trying to demolish the talking points one by one.

Narrative and mythology are what move people. Truth is just an occasional accessory to the fact.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 08:48:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So should the democrats message be "We're not crooks perverts and cowards"?

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 10:14:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
yes, but positive.
by PeWi on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 10:21:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
we're better than those crooks perverts and cowards? ;-)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 10:28:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Seriously, that's a very interesting question.

If they had the balls to run it - which they don't - I wonder if a 'We're not crooks, perverts or liars' campaign might not be a roaring success.

The problem for the Dems is that they haven't differentiated themselves. So they've let the narrative become 'They're all the same' rather than 'We're honest and different.'

Which is possibly a fatal error. I think there's going to be revenge voting from the moderates for the Dems, combined with massive apathy and resentment from the Dem base.

If the Dems are thinking it's a sure thing, someone really needs to persuade them otherwise - and soon.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 10:54:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well if you look back at 1997 that was the core of the Labour parties message.  they ran it very much like the dems are now and let the media run the they're not crooks liars and perverts message.

Unfortunately I cant see the US media running it for them. so they would have to do it for themselves. the big question then would be if it would be as effective if you were running it yourself rather than having a third party putting it out.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 11:00:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
By using it in campaign speeches, it becomes third party.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 05:06:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
can the truth be tooled?

my 17- year old friend had to write an essay, 1600 words about truth and context recently, cf atwood, and so i went there with him, along the philosophical timeline, over the descartian fissure and up to today.

subjective, objective...

then i talked to a solar engineer for a while, and then returning to the intellectual fopdoodlery of how many versions of truth could dance on the head of a perception....i lost patience...

we have hard, practical problems facing us that philosophers have never faced before.

good to stretch adolescent brains, good to know how to keep an abstract ball in the air, i guess...

viva veblen


'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 11:18:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
subjective, objective...

A Subject/Object Metaphysics doesn't ask the right questions of Reality, I think.


Metaphysics of Quality

Your young friend could do worse than read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

I never got the chance when I was 17, cos it hadn't been written!

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 11:42:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Does the "Metaphysics of quality" actually ask any questions of reality?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 11:56:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Good point. Sloppy language.

Allow the right questions to be asked...

Next question. By whom?

Well, it's all relative.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 06:57:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
says who?

Oye, vatos, dees English sink todos mi ships, chinga sus madres, so escuche: el fleet es ahora refloated, OK? — The War Nerd
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Sep 19th, 2007 at 11:49:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
 I said this process ONLY works when people are actually interested in an accurate answer AND are willing to engage in good-will cooperation to find the facts.  

The folks who were arguing about John Kerry's war record were interested in neither.  The REAL question was, What makes war-time "heroism" (or war crimes, depending on how one views these things) a prerequisite for the USA presidency?  For all the "debate" on John Kerry's war record, that question was never asked--as least I never heard it.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Sep 11th, 2007 at 02:42:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There have been psychological studies which show that a fraction of the population is drawn to certainty and they get this through following strong leaders. I've cited Robert Altemeyer's studies on this several times.

This week there is a report out that conservatives brains actually function differently than liberals:


My second point: sometimes the "truth" is unknowable or unknowable at the time. A typical example is what course of treatment to follow for a person with a certain disease. This is why people go for "second opinions". OK, now you have two options, how do you choose?

There is also the issue of expecting a leader to deal with challenges that haven't happened yet. Would Kerry have dealt with Katrina better? Would the possibility of a Katrina happening have been a useful test when voting?

It is the unknowable which makes many people decide things on the basis of trust or "gut feeling". I don't see any way around this.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 10:27:36 AM EST
The truly "unknowable" is a short and mostly irrelevant list.  Most folks who claim they must "go with their gut" are just being too lazy to actually do the investigation necessary to make an informed decision.

In fact, the world is so certain and predictable, we amuse ourselves by inventing unpredictability.  From the roulette wheel to the American football that will not bounce predictably, we must make a great effort to simulate random behavior.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Sep 11th, 2007 at 02:53:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To be truthful, ;) I give ´gut knowing´ a much higher value than other people.  In my simplified view, I have gut, heart and head --or whatever you want to name them-- and real knowing comes only from the integration of the three.

I have a well-trained head, but I have come to question the value of rationality as the end-all we are used to assuming.  For one thing, every single one of us is on drugs, be it sugar, foodstuffs, contamination, coca leaves, caffeine, nicotine, etc., therefore, our logic is untrustworthy at any given moment.  Even in brainiac hours, logic does not account for good decisions, unless the heart is involved because they would easily be cold and  inhumane.  Then the gut still feels necessary, to round out and ground the whole process in some strange way.

Many times, as in tests, your first, gut guess is really the best and I have no idea why.  The gut instinct for me, sometimes gels a much better answer, faster than the head and heart, even if I always run it through all three, a moment later.

Don´t ask me to put it in technical terms, but I believe we should ´honor´, develop and use our gut sense a lot more than we do.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sat Sep 15th, 2007 at 04:26:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Do we differentiate between empirical evidence and Truth?  I'm interested in one and am not so concerned with the other.  It's far too early on a Monday for me to go into the philosophical debate about Truth (didn't we all have one of those roommates in college who would point to a chair and proclaim it did not exist?).  

There is the matter of problem solving, which requires obtaining the most accurate information possible because, when it comes to politics, policy, governance etc. -which is presumably our interest here-, our actions effect everyone, so we owe it to them to use the least discriminatory way of making decisions.  The thing about evidence is that when new, even contradictory evidence is discovered, we can adjust our repertoire of knowledge to integrate and reflect the new information.

Truth, on the other hand, by definition, is always true.  I think it is a dangerous concept because to presume to know the truth is to presume you have all the information you need - ever.  Once you agree on a Truth, you stop challenging and testing it, and if something should come along which contradicts this Truth, it is the new information, not the Truth which is discarded.  I guess there is something both willfully ignorant and arrogant about the truth.  Call me a relativist.  But at least my relativism has some humility, is always seeking knowledge and can admit mistakes.  I'm like a reed, rooted but can bend in the breeze.  

Truth is a matter of philosophy; factual evidence is a matter of science and honesty is a matter of social responsibility.   I approach philosophy like religion - believe what you want and allow me to do the same.   Few of us can prove our beliefs, but we can all share our knowledge.  I think the latter is FAR more rewarding.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 02:17:51 PM EST
I think your distinction between factual evidence and truth is an interesting concept.

But there IS another category of factual evidence that is VERY unlikely to change.  For example, I seriously doubt if the acceleration due to gravity will change much no matter how refined the instrumentation gets.  There are literally millions of such examples.

And then there are practical considerations.  We can know the distance between the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in New York and the clockworks in Big Ben in London to within a few centimeters.  Of course we should want to be willing to update our information but in such a case, whatever would be the point?

When facts get so solid, mature, and unlikely to change, they in fact become secular truths.  My father was a Lutheran clergyman.  We argued about the nature of truth--a LOT!!  I have been arguing that scientific investigation could produce better truths than any ever found in religious books (including self-help and philosophies) since I was quite young and have spent my life collecting good examples.  I am regularly astonished at the complex insights that come directly from my simple hobby.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Sep 11th, 2007 at 02:30:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Truth" involves judgment, a list of criteria in a hierarchy of importance.

And now we need to ask, where is each criterian in the hierarchy; does the range(s) of the criteria create a bounded answer-solution universe - roughly, A Set - giving the potential for the question to be 'answered' or do they create a unbound answer-solution universe -- in which case they cannot be answered except through an subjectively generated arbitrary halt; is environment in which these questions are posed dynamic - and if so under what terms, conditions, actions, powers, & blah, blah; is the environment static, always? (really? -- Thermodynamics doesn't affect it?); what is the Temporal or Time conditions, restraints, considerations, & blah, blah; if you're using Logic which Logic system are you using: Categorical, Modal, Predicate Calculus, Boolean, Propositional, epsilon calculus, mathematical, Fuzzy and why and how do you know you can answer using the axioms of the chosen Logic system; and so forth & so on and yadda-yadda-yadda.

Mix with cultural, class, economic, political, demographic, sociological, neurological, psychological, neuro-psychological, language, cognitive, emotional, philosophical, etc. etc. etc. bias, training, and knowledge.

What comes out are a Whole Bunch of Truths with varying Truth Value as the acceptance of a proposition is independent of the Truth Value.  

(and I'm being kicked off the computer.  More later, I hope.)

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 09:58:01 PM EST
Hey, I never claimed assembling large truths from small ones was easy.  I only claim that it leads to more reliable results.

Your list is an excellent start on the complexity involved.  Thank goodness for the power tools we now have to manage this complexity.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Sep 11th, 2007 at 03:01:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and just in time.  

You nearly sucked us into that misty, shadowy, shape-shifting universe of multi-valued, probabilistic, dynamically drifting, contingent realities which may or may not be simulated by mental models partly tested for internal consistency and external validity, where one makes a guess, and commits oneself to it, in the hope that by doing so, one will learn--whether painfully or otherwise--whether the guess was correct, at least that much, but more likely learns instead that one has just been lead deeper into shadow and swirling darkness with only one certainty:  The growing suspicion that one is not cut out for this business after all, and that in the hunt for Truth one has been outwitted, and Truth instead has hunted you.  

And having pounced will soon be eating you for lunch.

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Sep 11th, 2007 at 05:02:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is not to say all Truths are always relative. 'While standing on this planet, if I raise a pen to shoulder height and release it then it will drop' is True and it is always True.  'While standing on this planet, if I raise a pen to shoulder height and release it then it will rise to the ceiling' is False and is always False.  Unless, in both cases, someone is adding or subtracting normal affective forces.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Tue Sep 11th, 2007 at 10:34:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it important to remember when virtuous philosophic doubt about the truthfulness or accuracy of a statement was justified.  Not so long ago, there was very little accurate info about the world.

I get the feeling that most of the heavy breathing about relativity, uncertainty, etc. is an archaic thinking not unlike a belief that all portraits must be painted in oils.

In the past 300 years, the amount of human knowledge that has achieved near-certain status has exploded.  Yet we still discuss the very concept of truth using 3000 year-old terminology.  We still teach Aristotelian logic, for goodness sakes.

The only interesting attribute about the truth is that it is true.  Now that there is so much of it, I believe it time to re-evaluate how we think about the subject.  And I certainly believe that the subject of truth is too important to be left to philosophers and theologians.

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2007 at 01:54:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Funny you should mention Aristotle.  In a longer version I went into detail about syllogistic logic as an old, fairly restricted, but still useful tool.

I get the feeling that most of the heavy breathing about relativity, uncertainty, etc. is an archaic thinking not unlike a belief that all portraits must be painted in oils.

The demand for certainty is the hallmark of an immature mind. it would be nice if everything could be put into little boxes labeled 'True' or 'False' but that's not the way it is.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Sep 13th, 2007 at 12:23:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... partial ones?

I get:

969666 ... changing to 969966

36.  Ming I - Darkening of the Light

above K'un (The Receptive, Earth)
below Li (The Clinging, Flame)

The Judgement
Darkening of the Light. In adversity / It furthers one to be persevering.

The Image
The light has sunk into the earth: / The image of Darkening of the Light.
Thus does the superior man live with the great mass: / He veils his light, yet still shines.

(The moving line) Six in the fourth place means:
He penetrates the left side of the belly.
One gets at the very heart of the darkening of the light,
And leaves gate and courtyard.

Changing to:

55.  Fêng - Abundance [Fullness]

above     Chên   The Arousing, Thunder
below     Li     The Clinging, Flame

The Judgement
Abundance has success. / The king attains abundance.
Be not sad. / Be like the sun at midday.

The Image
Both thunder and lightning come: / The image of Abundance.
Thus the superior man decides lawsuits / And carries out punishments.

So, without going into a lot of detail, quite clearly yes, provided there are enough small truths brought together that they contain a large truth.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Sep 11th, 2007 at 03:31:18 AM EST
both simple and logical
I don´t think much can be that easy, or whittled down to almost a mathematical exercise.  Life is not purely technical and rationality is overvalued.  The range and combination of circumstances are too infinite for a purely scientific approach to produce anything more than technical facts.  Tools like computers and internet, can also increase the chances of GIGO.

people of goodwill  
Can the intellect begin to grapple with this?  I only trust my gut with it.

polite expressions of gratitude
I try not to underestimate them and consider them ´pure energy units´.  Never a waste of time.

genuine desire, ...willingness, ...passion
I could swear none of these reside in my head, but I could be wrong.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sat Sep 15th, 2007 at 05:09:23 PM EST

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