Why Truth Emerges Through Contention
By Dennis Loo (2/14/14)
In our comments section invitation we state, “Truth emerges through contention.” What do we mean by that? Isn’t truth something that is considered indisputable and accepted, established by science or by some other authoritative means? How then can it emerge through contention?
Perhaps truth is in the eye of the beholder: whatever is true for one person may not be what is true for someone else. In that case truth is something that varies from person to person and contention between different people’s views would be useless because there would be no point of saying that one view was more truthful than others.
Or perhaps truth is what a majority of people agrees upon, in which case truth is “what everybody knows” or at least majority opinion is what public officials take their cues from in shaping public policy. That is what democracies are supposed to be anyway. This is certainly the working definition used by pollsters like Gallup and why they poll people so much: to find out what the majority of Americans think because what a majority think is supposed to guide public policy.
As a working definition, most people treat what “everybody knows” as the meaning of truth because they try, usually unconsciously, to stay within the parameters of what they believe is the majority perspective. That way you’re traveling with the pack and aren’t off on your own. Being with the pack is safer, as “everyone knows.” If your views are similar or identical to others, you aren’t going to see any reason to query those views since you have lots of company. Indeed, the lowest common denominator views brings with them the side benefit of saving on mental effort – the popular views don’t need to be carefully examined because they are taken for granted.
Anyone who has studied the history of science, or history of exploration, or history of medicine, athletics, mathematics, etc. knows, however, that the conventional way of seeing and doing things has always eventually fallen before the challenge of what begins as highly unorthodox or even ridiculed as absurd and impossible views that eventually prove themselves superior to the previously reigning orthodoxy. The previously outré becomes, through a whole lot of struggle, accepted as true. Indeed, the history of human endeavors is replete with the story of how what “everybody knows” turns out to be wrong or at least decidedly inferior to the previously outlandish approach.
In horse racing the most heavily bet horse fails to win about two-thirds of the time. Betting the way most of the other bettors are doing makes most people feel more confidence in their selection, but this feeling of comfort evaporates roughly two-thirds of the time in about two minutes when the race is over and your previously most popular choice turns out to be their and your money down the drain. Yet, joining with a crowd that’s wrong about two-thirds of the time continues to be replayed in race after race after race after race. Anyone who wants to have a chance at making money in horseracing has to do something that’s not very easy for most people to do: resist the temptation to join in with the majority for the sake of being with the majority. In other words, one of the attributes you need in order to make money in horse race betting is the ability to resist joining with the crowd, but since this goes against a natural human tendency, it’s a difficult thing for most people to do, especially when you are literally betting money on your being right and the crowd being wrong.
In politics this tendency is even more pronounced than it is at racetracks since there usually isn’t money to be gained from being in the minority. Challenging the most popular and taken-for-granted views in politics can get you in trouble, including getting you put behind bars, hit by a police billyclub or even killed. So those who are willing to buck convention have to take comfort in the fact that a) history’s on their side, and b) that they are more likely to be right, even if their being right isn’t what a majority of people around them believe.
But being proud that you’re in a minority will only go so far to sustain people. Most people don’t take pleasure from being in a minority in terms of their political views, let alone in other arenas. There are those, for example, who are misanthropes who love their differences with others, but most people fortunately aren’t misanthropes, or else society itself would be impossible. There are those who rather proudly argue with others, more or less for the sake of being disagreeable, and they don’t have a lot of friends for that reason. They aren’t a model for others to follow either. So what distinguishes those who are right for the right reasons and those who delight in being different just for the sake of being different?
Let’s begin with this: the most advanced ideas at any point in time are always going to be grasped by a minority of people because by definition since they are the most advanced ideas they aren’t yet embraced by the majority. Let me repeat that: the most advanced ideas are ALWAYS going to be embraced by a minority in the beginning. If you want to be on the cutting edge then you have to be willing to not be where everyone else is and the safety that being where everyone else is entails. Hence, contention with those who don’t share your views is always going to be part and parcel of being on the cutting edge.
Secondly, truth and what isn’t true are only meaningful in relationship to each other. Truth will always emerge in the course of contention because without that struggle between what is true and what isn’t we cannot really know what is true from what isn’t because we only know them in contrast to each other. The struggle between what’s more advanced and what is less advanced (or outright wrong) helps to configure what’s true because the challenge from what’s wrong or outmoded to that which is emerging strengthens what is emerging by testing it against its opposite. There is a profound philosophical point underlying this. Truth does not exist in a vacuum. It is not something everlasting in nature that exists outside of time and place. It is not something that is recorded in some ancient tome such as a holy book. Furthermore, nothing good, bad, or indifferent exists except in relation to other things. We cannot know nor can anything even exist except in relationship to other things. For example, sound and silence are in dialectical relationship to each other, just as up and down are in dialectical relationship to each other, as space and matter are, and so on. Absolute sound without silence is unimaginable and impossible. “Good” does not exist except in relation to “Evil.” “Good” has no meaning if it doesn’t have its opposite. The quest of religious zealots for the supremacy of God’s will over the whole world and His defeat of evil is an impossibility since the very notion of god only can exist in relation to god’s putative opposite, sin or evil or Satan or whatever you want to call good’s opposite.
Thirdly, the ultimate test for whether something is true or not is something that can be demonstrated empirically. Until it is demonstrated empirically then it is only theoretical and not yet proven, just like string theory is at this point only a theory. The theory of evolution has been proven empirically through not only the fossil record but is demonstrable and provable over the course of much shorter periods of time. The flu virus, for example, proves evolution because flu viruses mutate and evolve over the course of less than a year, every year.
Those who reject empirical proof are not worth listening to because they are rejecting the one way that disputes over the truth of something can actually be settled. And yes, I am speaking of you here, religious fundamentalists and postmodernists.
This is why science and the scientific method are so valuable. Without it humanity could not have survived as we have. We’d have died out the way Neanderthals died out. The use of reason predates the full explicit development of the scientific method but the precursors of the scientific method lie in the efforts from early humankind and forward to make sense of the world, to experiment with different solutions, to closely and systematically observe nature, and to survive. The people who today deny the value of science and reason are in the process of proving the dangerousness of their path by denying climate change, treating it as a “hoax,” and imperiling the very survival of the planet. They are hell bent on bringing on what many of them believe is the Second Coming.
President Obama is not a global warming denier but he in practice is just that because he refuses to actually respond to the catastrophe of climate change beyond making very small changes and making speeches in which he abstractly talks about why it is a bad idea to leave a climate changing, fossil burning world to the next generation without actually doing anything substantial in the face of this global emergency. His likely approving of the Keystone XL Pipeline is an example of this, as is his touting of the exceedingly dirty and toxic pursuit of natural gas. His whole presidency is an outstanding example of someone who muddies the waters as much as he can to conceal what he is actually doing, thus expanding the gap as much as he can between empirical truth and representation through signs and symbols in his speeches. A perfect example of this is his deceitful comments and actions with respect to Guantanamo and other detention/torture/rendition sites and his defense of his drone assassination program and its accompanying "kill list."
Most people in this country are following – what else would we expect them to do in the absence of a real opposing force to the existing authorities? – the example of those who are in leading political and economic positions. Those in authority are telling people that they should be deathly afraid of “terrorism” and that in order to protect them public officials must suspend civil liberties such as the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and that habeas corpus, due process, and the rule of law must be annihilated to the emergency condition of the “war on terror.” Torture and assassination by drones and special ops teams have become standard American practice, celebrated on shows like “24” (which is coming back to Fox), movies like “Zero Dark Thirty,” rightwing talk show hosts, mainstream media hosts, "human rights" advocates like Michael Ignatieff who endorse torture, and by the highest officials in the land, including most especially the President of the United States.
When these policies and rhetoric make up the mainstream, why would anyone with an intact conscience who is unwilling to accept the immoral logic that underlies this - “American lives are more precious than others” - not want to distinguish themselves sharply and publicly with these horrid mainstream views? How else but through sharp contention and great prolonged struggle could the minority views of those who take the moral and legal high ground against what is now the mainstream eventually prevail against what is quite frankly fascist in nature? How else will those who are now unknowingly accepting what authorities tell them is true be alerted as to what is really true except through the bold, persistent, very brave, and determined actions of those who recognize the truth?
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)