Truth was on my mind in various ways today.
In the morning I listened to a Chris Hayes "Why Is This Happening?" podcast interview with Kate Crawford, an Artificial Intelligence expert. Then I read an essay in my Question Everything book about the limits of free speech. In the afternoon I made a video on our back deck where I performed the Water Boxing form that I learned in my Tai Chi classes.
I'll start with the video.
I wanted to show people what the Water Boxing form looks like, but I knew that since I'd never seen myself doing the form from the objective outside, only from the subjective inside, there would be some disturbing mismatches between how I thought I looked doing the form, and how I actually did.
But I ended up feeling good about the video because it pointed out some things that I want to change about how I "play" (in Tai Chi parlance) the Water Boxing form. And while I called our back deck a "patio," I chalked that up to a split in my mind between wondering if I was talking loud enough for my iPhone to pick up my voice, and using the right words in what I was saying.
The truth can hurt sometimes. Yet usually it doesn't, being simply the way things truly are, so far as we can tell. Without embracing truth, we can't make genuine lasting progress in any area: such as work, relationships, education, sports, and yes, spirituality.
Back in my religious days, when I was an active member of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, an India-based organization headed up by a guru, I was struck by how often the word sat (truth) was used by the group.
Satguru meant true guru. Satsang meant a meeting where people heard about truth. Satsangi meant someone who associated with truth. Sat nam meant the true power of the cosmos. I bought into all this "sat" stuff.
Until I eventually decided that if I was going to pursue the truth about reality, I couldn't remain a member of an organization that -- after my thirty five years of learning about its teachings and diligently practicing the prescribed lifestyle -- didn't really possess the truth that I'd once hoped it did.
So I left Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) because I cared about truth.
Truth, after all, isn't what religions like RSSB are all about. They're into top-down control, not open-minded investigation. The RSSB guru used to be fond of saying "It's my way or the highway." Meaning, either do what I say, or leave RSSB, regardless of whether what the guru says makes sense.
On the Chris Hayes podcast, Crawford, the AI expert, spoke about the importance of grounding artificial intelligence software like ChatGPT in facts. If this doesn't occur, then sophisticated chatbots can sound like they're providing reputable information through human-sounding language.
But that information may be faulty, flawed, false.
How can we tell the difference between fact and fiction then? On his MSNBC show, recently Chris Hayes (I'm a fan of his, as you can tell) had an opening monologue where he brilliantly talked about how Republicans here in the United States, notably including Donald Trump, wage war on truth.
They did this by aggressively, and falsely, claiming that the traditional purveyors of truth and facts can't be trusted: science, the media, academia, government. Having demolished the faith of American conservatives in these institutions with their cries of Fake News!, Republicans said that Fox News and right-wing public figures were the only repository of truth.
Which was completely backward.
For just as religions tell their devotees to ignore science and reason, and embrace religious holy books and holy people, Republicans were urged to ignore reputable sources of truth and only pay attention to the spreaders of Big Lies like the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
The essay by Stanley Fish I read today, "Transparency" is the mother of fake news, speaks about how facts are arrived at.
The insistence on the primacy of narratives and interpretations does not involve a deriding of facts but an alternative story of their emergence.
Postmodernism sets itself against the notion of facts just lying there discrete and independent, and waiting to be described. Instead it argues that fact is the achievement of argument and debate, not a preexisting entity by whose measure argument can be assessed.
Arguments come first; when they are successful, facts follow -- at least for a while, until a new round of arguments replaces them with a new set of facts.
...It [the world of fake news] is created by the undermining of trust in the traditional vehicles of authority and legitimation -- major newspapers, professional associations, credentialed academics, standard encyclopedias, government bureaus, federal courts, prime-time nightly news anchors.
...This wholesale distrust of authoritative mechanisms leads to the bizarre conclusion that an assertion of fact is more credible if it lacks an institutional source. In this way of thinking, a piece of news originating in a blog maintained by a teenager in a basement in Idaho would be more reliable than a piece of news announced by the anchor of a major network.
Fortunately, Fish can't be talking about me and my blogs, since I'm a senior citizen in a living room in Oregon! And I subscribe to the digital versions of the New York Times and Washington Post, plus I subscribe to TIME, Scientific American, New Scientist, and The New Yorker.
I smile, and also cringe, when commenters on this blog say that there's no such thing as objective truth or facts, so everybody's opinion about reality is just as good as everybody else's. That's bullshit. Religions want you to believe that truth lies within yourself, and they can tell you how to find it.
Actually truth is determined through a rigorous process of investigation, argument, debate, and a ferocious dislike of dogma. Sure, personal subjective truth is open to everybody. If you like blueberries, that's your truth. No argument there.
But what I care about in addition to personal truth is objective truth. For that we need solid evidence. And that's where religions, along with today's Republican Party, fall completely short.