Thursday, February 25, 2016

Truth Counts

Much confusion persists about cultures and their origin in the fantasies produced by human minds.  The most dangerous?  
  • all knowledge is relative, often expressed as one of the following -- 
    • everyone has their own point of view based on their unique life trajectory and accumulated experiences and, because all points of view rest on assumption, all count as equally valid -- no one can be better than another.
    • all cultures count as equally valid -- no one culture can be better than another.
Franz Boas, a founder of American anthropology, proposed the relativity concept as a methods principle. If you want to understand another person, or other ways of living, you must aim to see the world through their eyes.  That requires you to treat seriously the accounts that other people give you about what they experience and the meanings they use to make sense of their experience.   Common confusions like those stated above transform a principle critical to our attempt to understand other people into obviously silly claims.  Everyone knows that some ways produce better -- sometimes dramatically better -- results than others.  Our sheltered lives, however, allow us to pretend equal output from different sets of ideas without having to deal with the consequences, which may include -- for others -- poverty, disease, and death.  

Intelligent information processing produces new ideas (h/t Homer Barnett and William Calvin) that our Interpreter (h/t Michael Gazzaniga) uses to speculate about the nature of the world and to reason about what those postulates imply about moral (aka “fair”) behavior. Evolved cognitive biases (h/t more-people-than-we-can-shake-a-stick-at) quicken our ability to make choices based on experience with opportunities and dangers and to weight most heavily the consensus of ideas and behavioral responses of the people who constitute our community. The cognitive bias that weights the risk of choice alternatives (h/t Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) in ways that force us to hate losing more than we love winning produces sharp behavioral differences. Treatment judged fair elicits commitment to that community and the coordinated (teamwork) behavior that allows us to achieve orders of reality that individuals cannot. Treatment judged unfair elicits defensive action that changes cultures.

Human minds thus can't acquire perfect knowledge. Everything we "know" rests on a true-by-definition statement. Hence we all make mistakes and all things we "know" contain errors.   Rather then denying the existence of Truth, the errors that human understanding contain actually heighten its importance.  Claims like "Truth doesn't exist" or that "we cannot know Truth" illustrate pedestrian logical errors.

‬"Science" is one name for these procedures to find out where we're wrong.   The physicist Richard Feynman concisely describes the essentials here:
  • we guess
  • we work out the implications of our guess
  • we compare those implications to the world of experience
Another name?  "Critical Thinking."  ‬  "Opinions" about Truth rest solely on personal fantasy.  "Arguments," by contrast, rest on evidence.  Evidence comes from application of explicit logical rules to observations about the correspondence of one thing with another.  Most importantly, simple correlations mean nothing.  Arguments must rest on co-relationships that exist even after we control for other possible explanations.

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