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Why Truth Emerges Through Contention

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? 


0 # KG7 2014-02-14 23:02
I believe that to find the "truth" on any subject, person, issue, etc. one must be willing to take the time and do as much research on the subject as possible. To be well informed is to be educated, and in turn one can form an educated opinion on the subject instead of blindly or even comfortably, following the safe option of going with the masses.
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0 # Beks113 2014-02-20 04:45
I agree with what you are saying completely. I believe that it is important to not only find as much research regarding whatever particular topic you are interested in, but to also see what the opinion of both sides of the topic are. Being able to be equally informed on both sides of a topic or issue allows for one's own truth to be discovered, even if that truth contradicts the truth of the majority. It is easy to go around following the masses saying that what the high ups tell us is the truth and that we should just blatantly follow what they believe. The danger and repercussions associated with this way of thinking can be astronomical. Look at the millions of Jews that died at the hands of Hilter and the Nazis, or the millions of African-America n men that have been/are going through the prison system due to the discriminatory War on Drugs. Not being educated enough to question the real intent, or get to the real truth of the matter is a dangerous way for society to live.
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0 # Daniel Gomezzzz 2014-02-15 07:37
I feel that a very spot on example of this is the case of Galilleo's struggle to get the correct model of the solar system out to the masses before the enlightment's intellectual fervor. The truth would of never been considered truth if you never compared it to the irrationally determined geo-centric model. This also can be a case worth mentioning to your every-day postermodernist or relativist who might state that truth is determined by discourse or the most "used" perception, or by different perceptions purely. Though the authority claimed the earth to be the center of the universe due to God's image, it remained untrue, only through the the scientific method AND as , the course of contention.
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0 # sintricity08 2014-02-15 12:04
I agree in full with what KG7 is saying. just because a group decides to establish a norm, does not mean that norm was based off of truth giving facts. For example, milk is said to provide a great source of calcium to humans, even though we are not young cows and no other animal species that drinks milk will drink it from a different animal. Though because the media advertises milk this way (as a calcium provider), we all tend to think it's good, when in fact it's not if you research it. America was founded by religious fundamentalists that tend to take their beliefs, mostly wrong and condemning beliefs, such as milk (for the sake of this argument) and use it in the rhetoric of their ideology. America still holds a great deal of religious fundamentalist higher ups that continue to plague upon society, mainly the working class and middle, and they use their righteous belief system to condone their actions, whether good or undeniably bad.
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0 # Dennis Loo 2014-02-15 15:41
Just for the record, the US founders were actually deists and fled religious persecution in England so they weren't fundamentalists . Today's fundamentalists are trying to falsely claim that the founders were like them.
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0 # KT10 2014-02-16 06:30
I believe tht everything that deals w/ the truth has something 2 fight& struggle for. I think the reason y the govt hides things from ppl is b/c if they knew the truth,they'd try&overthrow the govt. Only a few brave ppl from the "minority" risk their lives in getting justice. Its hard 2 b knowledgeable abt current events, b/c the media purposely hides things, so most ppl r ignorant partly b/c of that. I think there'll always be contention between opposing sides of a matter b/c the majority of a population has more authority over the minority, even if the minority is bigger. Also many ppl fear in raising their voice, so they just agree w/what's popular. There's a quote I recently saw saying "the truth is on the side of the oppressed." I feel like this quote is fitting for this article. The ppl facing oppression have an idea of what the injustices theyr facing&have strong evidence, when other ppl refuse to believe what's rlly going on in the world or just "go w/whats popular".
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0 # LeslieB 2014-02-16 08:11
I agree with what you said and especially the quote. the oppressed are the ones who deal with the real "truth" and are exposed to it on a daily basis thus when someone comes around to expose this real "truth" we aren't surprised while on the other hand the privileged (for lack of a better word) are completely unaware of such real "truth" because their truth is not defined by facts or empirical data but rather by mainstream media which is completely influenced by the government but thats a conversation of its own.
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0 # LeslieB 2014-02-16 08:07
As mentioned in the article it is human nature or tendency to follow the masses, this might not necessarily be right or the correct “truth” but sadly it is the way most humans function. Therefore, if the masses are declaring “war on terror” it is human tendency to agree with the masses without question. The reason behind this is ignorance. Exposure followed by education is the solution to this. How can one question something if there is no one opposing it? You must expose the dirty little secrets in order for people to educate themselves. You cant research something that you aren’t aware exists. It is because of that that when police brutality gets exposed the majority acts surprised and in disbelief while the minorities don't. Thus, the only way for there to be contention is for the opposing side or the "minority" to be widely exposed thus giving the majority a reason to question "facts" and "truth"
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0 # PD06 2014-02-17 18:15
I would say that it is our society and educational system that has caused us to just accept what others say as the truth. We have been thought to take the words of someone who has some sort of authority to be true and those who speak up against authority are punished. It feels like the government would rather have their people obeying orders and not question authority than to think critically or find out what the truth is.
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0 # sas13 2014-02-22 19:23
We live in a world today where facts are at a click of a finger. Today we will find increasing numbers of people incarcerated and the rate of recidivism is high. Our inmates are not only incarcerated under minor crimes but not receiving any rehabilitation this is a truth no one can deny. You can also find truth in our highly medicated society with pharmaceuticals which are now being highly fed to inmates to keep them controlled rather than changing the environment of the prison for a healthier prison life. As Hassine states in Life Without Parole on page 90 "psychotropic drugs are nothing new to the psychiatric community, which has been using them on the mentally ill for years. However, its use in corrections as a population-mana gement tool and behavior modifier is relatively new." This is truth that the CJS is drugging inmates to keep them tame like animals. Why are we taken more humane measures? Are we brain washed with political framing?
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0 # FAVEC001 2014-02-23 07:59
I don't think that we are being "brain washed with political framing." I believe that the use of these new techniques to handle inmates is systematically a way to support the revolving door of the prison system, that creates large profits for both the privately owned prisons, and the privately owned pharmaceutical companies that are contracted to distribute the drugs. Ultimately it is Capitalism at its purist when it comes to answering the question you pose about us taking more human measures.
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0 # FAVEC001 2014-02-23 08:09
I don't believe what you said is entirely accurate, especially regarding the validity of authority figures due to fear of punishment. I believe that occasionally yes, people tend to say things they would not normally say in front of an authority figure, i.e. a cop who pulled them over, but a vast majority in hindsight will question their reasoning. Police officers know this, and is why they use special verbal tactics to try eliciting a statement that may be incriminating to an individual, despite the possibility that no crime may have been committed. However, in the long run, challenging of authority is pivotal because it is what allows new legislation to be passed, often times to replace policies that in current date are mundane.
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0 # FAVEC001 2014-02-23 08:10
... (cont'd)
If this was not true, then we would still believe that it is okay for segregation in schools to exist, and taking it to the extreme, allowing slavery to exist. At one point in time there were authority figures who preached that this was morally okay, and legally okay, however to support my claim, it has since changed.
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0 # 2014-03-22 23:47
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Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12