Saturday, May 1, 2021

A Eulogy to Truth – Long Live Honesty


A Eulogy to Truth – Long Live Honesty 


The truth is dead - long live honesty
Entailing honest accounts and holding accounts honest

Science teaches us skepticism - 
Entailing multiple lines of evidence
For reliable knowledge

Complexity teaches us relative perspectives - 
Entailing multiple ways of reasoning
For relevant wisdom

Collective wisdom emerges in our institutions of conversation
Entailing good faith speaker-hearers - 
with honest accounting - 
Entangling complex reasonings - 
For adaptive evolving 
We know what we know – but we don’t even know what we don’t know


20st Century – Post-Modern  Disolves Keystones of Certainty

Future Shock is alive and well - in fact it is safe to say that we are all refugees from our own childhood.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

H.P. Lovecraft

John Higgs’s “Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century” offer a brief and special history of the 20th Century. Higgs presents a deeper, more mythic anticipation of the future. It is accessible and perhaps even a profound analysis of the 20th Century.

To help us visualize the impact of the 20th Century on human culture Higgs uses a key, the concept of Omphalos. “An omphalos is the centre of the world or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world.” (p.15) Another way to think about the Omphalos is as the ‘axis mundi’ - the world pillar that was the link between heaven and earth. With this concept Higgs is able to provide us with a rich account of how the 20th Century has radically ‘uncentered’ domain after domain of human thought and experience.

Much of the discussion about the future focuses on technology with some consideration of ethical and social implications. There are some attempts to explore the transformation of culture, psycho-socio experience and the concepts of identity - but most often the visions of future technology are simply overlaid on current - cultural constructs - with the exception of privacy.

In 1950 there were about 2.5 billion humans alive - that this means is there is hardly anyone alive today whose legacy of experiences refers to the world before the 20th Century’s marvel of techno-social change. The implementation of technologies such as universal electrification, households filled with appliances, ubiquitous tele-communication, refrigeration, plumbing, healthcare, the automobile and more - these we have taken in our stride. And in this way, it becomes clear why Alan Kay’s definition of technology as ‘everything that is invented after we are born’ is so salient.

More fundamentally, Higgs’ approach maps out the deeper layers - the more mythic cultural frames that have been displaced. Humans are biologically identical to those of the 19th Century - but a vast transformation of the psychological-cultural space in which we live has transpired over the several generations that have lived through the 20th Century.

A typical person alive in 1899 and transported to 2016 would not just suffer a shock from the technologies we take for granted - but would suffer a deeper sort of psychological vertigo from the loss of the ‘centers’ of the world that had held up both the pre-modern ‘God-given’ world and the modern ‘Clockwork universe’ (the simple transmutation of ‘God’ into machine-like natural laws). The shock of traveling on the first trains at 20 mph incited a claim that this experience would literally drive people ‘crazy’ - and I’m sure if the concept of PTSD were alive then there would have been many cases of such speed induced PTSD.

Higgs argues that the ‘ground’ of the Victorian world’s, ‘natural order’ was held by the ‘figure’ of the four solid axis mundi of Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton. The certainty of this world was echoed by Lord Kelvin in 1900 “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.’

A journey through the 20th Century can seem like an epic quest. The gallant adventurers who embark on the quest, first wrestle with three giants, known by single names of Einstein, Freud, and Joyce. They must pass through the forest of quantum indeterminacy and the castle of conceptual art. The avoid the gorgons of Jean-Paul Sartre and Ayn Rand whose glance can turn them to stone, emotionally if not physically, and they must solve the riddles of the Sphinxes of Carl Jung and Timothy Leary. Then things get difficult. The final challenge is to somehow make it through the swamp of postmodernism. It is not, if we are honest, an appealing journey. p.6

The territory of the 20th Century includes the dark patches of thick, deep woods. The established paths tend to skirt around these areas, visiting briefly but quickly scurrying on as if fearful of becoming entangled. These are area such as relativity, cubism, the Somme, quantum mechanics, the id, existentialism, Stalin, psychedelics, chaos mathematics and climate change. p.9

Higgs adds an exclamation point by quoting Sir Arthur Eddington - ‘the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine.’ This is a fundamental realization - one that bloomed throughout the 20th Century and is at the heart of the 21st Century.

Higgs begins by discussing the first ‘center-axis of the world’ that is dissolved as a consequence of Einstein and relativity and firmly establishing that there can be no ‘objective frame of reference’ for either perceiving the world or understanding it. Einstein’s framework produced the first fundamental crack in belief that certainty was achievable. This was the first blow against the God-Given world and its proxy of the clockwork world. We must remember that there was no fundamental conflict between early science and religion. The conflict was between the scholastic approach that relied on scriptures for truth of the world - versus learning God’s truth from his original book of nature. 

Although a century has passed since Einstein destroyed the ‘objective frame of reference’ and proposed that space and time were really a unity of space-time, socio-cultural frameworks still haven’t come close to integrating that realization within daily life. It is curiously hard to grasp how many of the pillars supporting our world have been dissolved in the 20th century. For example, some basic science breakthroughs that disintegrate the concept of a clockwork universe include:

  • Einstein - that there is no objective frame of reference,
  • Godel - the fundamental incompleteness of systems of formal logic,
  • Quantum Mechanics’ - uncertainty principle and entanglement,
  • Turing's stopping problem,
  • Chaos - the fundamental unpredictability of deterministic systems due to sensitivity to initial conditions,
  • Freud, Jung and many others revealing the unconscious determinants of behavior – more recent cognitive & social science such as George Lakoff, Kahneman and Tversky and many others, displacing the notion of the ‘rational actor’ with the 'rationalizing reasoner'.
  • The displacement of a ‘physics worldview’ by a biology-complexity science framework including the unpredictability of emergent properties.

Higgs’ book gives us a look at just how deeply, our cultural assumptions of certainty, as a foundation of TRUTH, have been rocked.

The cunning of uncertainty excels in uncovering the unintended consequences of human purposeful action. It helps to tease out what one is unable to see otherwise when fixing one’s gaze on specific goals, even when acting with the best intentions. ... It excels in luring us to make promises and to believe in promises made by others.

Helga Nowotny - The Cunning of Uncertainty

What Higgs lays out, is a vitally important perspective providing an initial ground for understanding the rise of a widespread sense of nostalgia (homesickness). A homesickness for a past that never truly was, despite the fact that the accelerating pace of change transforms our sense of home before our very eyes.

Nostalgia is a term coined in the 17th century to describe physical symptoms experienced by Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lands. The physical symptoms were described as a result of a form of ‘melancholy’. For the Swiss mercenaries the symptoms included fainting, fever, indigestion, intestinal pain and death. Given what we now know about the importance of our microbial profile - these symptoms could have arisen as a result of new food and environments. 

Nostalgia can easily infuse our attempts to shape guiding principles. In essence, humans have developed systems of ethics – in a context of general certainty, where we feel that we can name the ‘good’. Unfortunately, a naming of ‘the good’ is a far distance from knowing that decisions and actions taken in the name of the good – will actually enable the named ‘good’ to be done (either in the short-term or long-term).

An action believed ‘good’ today has no predictive insurance that the results from decision-actions will be consistent with the aim. Moral frameworks (moral accounting) aim to keep group chemistry coherent to the memetic framework (the doings as we do – rather than the saying of what we should do). Thus, moral accounting is the means of honest accountability and is also always relative to a social evolution.

At best – ethics serves to name shaping aspirations – while at best - moral accounting aims to enable viably honest social chemistry.

One more key aspect of the context is the human capacity – for pattern making. It is at once our greatest strength and most vulnerable flaw – apophenia. As Wikipedia notes:


the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things. The term (German: Apophänie) was coined by psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 publication on the beginning stages of schizophrenia. He defined it as "unmotivated seeing of connections [accompanied by] a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness". He described the early stages of delusional thought as self-referential, over-interpretations of actual sensory perceptions, as opposed to hallucinations.

Beliefs are often conflated with THE TRUTH - but beliefs can be consistent with a sharing of honest accounts of facts and experiences. A belief of itself, can by definition, seem to want to proclaim itself as a TRUTH above accountability. But even the most rigorous founding of a true belief through the application of scrupulus logic - is still conditional to the axiomatic assumptions inherent to any system of logic. This sort of TRUTH is only  certain, within the logics of the system. Uncertainty lurks beyond the boundaries. 

But an honest ‘belief’ is like stating an coherent best guess, kept accountable by continued engagement with well reasoned challenges. 

As the context outlined above illuminates - uncertainty is the zeitgeist of the 21st century. 

In such conditions - how we language about the world can make it easier or harder for us to listen – and eventually hear other ‘good faith’ perspectives. The eulogy is intended as a proposal for approaching our conversations in ways that enable good conditions for establishing respect and good faith engagment. 

If we can let go of the concept of THE TRUTH – It may be easier to create an conditions that can develop a richer picture and understanding of the complexity of our world and experience. 

A Eulogy to Truth

The rise of honesty and good faith conversation

Science - Logic

The truth is dead - long live honesty
Entailing honest accounts and holding accounts honest

Science teaches us skepticism - 
Entailing multiple lines of evidence
For reliable knowledge

Gregory Bateson in his wonderful book “Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity” has an initial chapter called ‘What Every Schoolboy Knows’ where he makes the point that – science doesn’t Prove – anything. For example, the classic point that we can never prove that all swans are white – simply because we can’t know all the swans that have existed or will exist to be able to prove out point. The cheat around this, is a tautology claiming that if a swan is not white then if must not be a swan.

What science does do – is assemble, create, develop honest evidence to support an honest theory. Actors in the ‘science game’ are kept honest – are stewarded to good faith  by our institutions of conversation – one of which science calls ‘peer-review’. In fact, science knowledge by definition has to be ‘contestable’. All knowledge is partial.

Science can never provide a knowledge-based claim of the ‘why’ of things – what science does provide, is reliable knowledge that enables us to do things. Science gives us ‘Know How’ rather than ‘Know Why’. The more sources of evidence that can be shown to be consistent with a proposition the more reliable our knowledge can be.

Many people confuse the mathematical-logical concepts of ‘Proof’ – that enables a logical proposition to be ‘proved’ to be consistent with the founding axioms, principles of any system of logic. But the map is not the territory. 

Noise - Signal - Fact - Pattern 

These four concepts - help describe what we understand as separate components. However - their separate meaning co-emerge in relation to what they describe. 

In this figure we are presented with - One Data Base and Two Perceivable Patterns.

What makes a signal in a sea of noise? What makes a Chin vs Nose – an Ear vs Eye – a Mouth vs Necklace – Which is THE TRUTH?

Signals as Facts – only emerge with a perception of ‘pattern’ – of differences that make a difference. Facts are innumerable. Choosing those facts that matter is more difficult than we often assume.

Observations are contested – and/or have conflicting interpretations. Ocam’s Razor is a heuristic choice – but ultimately can’t determine the truth of a fact without the truth its corresponding context-pattern. It is turtle-patterns all the way down.

But – sharing honest accounts of experience – enables both to be seen.

All Knowledge is always partial Knowledge

Wisdom - Paradox
Complexity teaches us relative perspectives - 
Entailing multiple ways of reasoning
For relevant wisdom

The work of many feminist and other scholars, of cognitive scientist like Lakoff, Kahneman and many others shown us that there is no ‘objective’ way to reason. Rather that reason depends on entailing structures of logic arising with the metaphor, frames, and narratives we use to describe phenomena. Lakoff and Nunez (among others) in their book ‘Where Mathematics Come From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being’ have elaborated that even mathematics is dependent on metaphor. For example, in number theory people visualized numbers as ‘points in a line’ – until paradoxes arose when we considered how close two points have to be until they become one point? They the metaphors of set theory were used to define numbers – for example the number two is the set of all things two (almost a tautology). The paradox that Bertrand Russel pointed out is that can a set be a member of itself?

The challenge that then arise with the inevitable partial knowledge of any domain or structure of reasoning applied to the world is similar to requiring multiple sources of evidence. To create richer picture – more comprehensive understandings of what we would know – now requires we become aware of how metaphors, frames and narrative can structure how we reason. Thus, the need to engage with multiple ways of reasoning.

An example from recent research in the biology of the immune system question the frame of our immune system as a ‘wall of defense’ between self and other. However, the immune system actually needs to be infected in order to manage continued health – thus researchers found a frame that the immune systems is actually an ‘intelligence system’ (as in military or competitive intelligence) that enables self to understand other. The implications of such a change in how we reason about our immune system for understanding, for further research and even for medical treatments can be profound. How we reason shapes the creation of facts that are considered evidence rather than noise.

It has been said that a measure of intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposing views in one’s mind concurrently. I believe that wisdom arises when one can reason about evidence in multiple ways providing us with relevant knowledge for our choices. For example – reasoning about the local and simultaneously reasoning about the global – enables a more comprehensive richer and more complex understanding of possible consequences of action and non-action.

Complexity – and associated sciences have shown us that we can’t know all variables of account in any long term unfolding of events. For example, sensitivity to initial conditions. Also, in living systems the emergences of multiple ways to fulfill a purpose makes it impossible to know what some molecule, system, condition can enable a new use, function or purpose to be enacted. 

Consider the following.

Like the previous ambiguous data base – this poses multiple patterns for creating facts. But it also offers more insights. While we are presented with three figures that are the ‘truth’ each figure is also a metaphor with potential entailing logics for elaborating a ‘truth-based reality’. Does the two-dimensional square ‘prime’ our capacity to reason in a way that is different than the two-dimensional circle? Does the three-dimensional column present a different entailing logic that is different than either or both the square or the circle?

But now consider the next image. 

Now the initial metaphors increase with the possibility of 3 two-dimensional ‘logics’ to structure how we reason about the ‘figure’ with remains revealed as a three-dimensional visual metaphor. In addition, we have the illusion of an ‘objective’ frame that sees the three images in the first data base and also now sees the four images of the second data base become more conditional. In a ‘turtles all the way down’ sort of way. 

The result is a sort of four-dimensional perspective emerging from a simultaneous holding of all perspectives – the two-dimensional plus the three-dimensional, plus the subjectification of objectification.

Institutions of Conversation

Conditions of engagement in honest accounts of honest perspectives require Institutions of Conversations.

 Institutions of Conversations enable ‘honest accounts’ of-with structures of reasoning, evidence and experience. An ecology of institutions of conversation enable multiple forms of holistic inclusion of emotions, intuitions and sensibilities.

Conversation is another way to frame what Foucault defined as ‘Veridiction -production and circulation of [accepted conventions] that are established, rather than foundational - but importantly govern.’

Bruno Latour’s excellent “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns”, explores many forms of institutions of conversation. I do injustice to his exploration in paraphrasing a few examples of institutions of conversation that are premised on languaging with honest accounts held to be accountable as honest.

Science doesn’t ever ‘prove’ anything. It provides an honest account of evidence to support an honest theory - pragmatically useful – for reliable knowledge.

A lawyer is not concerned with TRUTH of justice but with an honest account of the legal means to pursue or support a legal purpose.

Religious speaker concerned with an honest languaging – seeks to enable an experience of faith – rather than indoctrination into dogma and dogmatic belief.

A politician’s work is not about the TRUTH of a moment - but endeavors an honest languaging that enables people to align their honest valuing of values with an honest implementation of purpose.

Civilizing people to build & protect civilizations requires institutions of conversation. Conversations enable & teach people how to value values and find values worth valuing. If the most honest Good – is happy life of meaning full engagement – then meaning arises with honest languaging that enables a good faith flourishing of honest conversations – that in turn enable response-able, evolving institutions.

Paradoxes of value exist in a superposition of possibilities. Choices collapse paradoxes into an actual perspective revealing and creating social/moral chemistry. A chemistry of choices enacted though paradigms of reasoning entangled in tensions and integrity. A chemistry that develops, sustains and evolves through institutions of conversation. The key is institutions that ensure ‘good-enough’ ‘good-faith actors’ engaging in honest conversations.

Phase Transition of Consciousness

Collective wisdom emerges in our institutions of conversation

Entailing good faith speaker-hearers - 
with honest accounting - 
Entangling complex reasonings - 
For adaptive evolving 

The Holocene is the human condition – our inheritance, our crises, our bequeathment to possible futures. The crisis of climate change is a key complex problems that demands a ‘leveling-up’ of the human species – a crisis of consciousness where humans have to grasp we are one species living on one world. That human local action create global consequences for all other life forms.

By understanding that the TRUTH is dead – that all we have is partial knowledge and innumerable ways of reasoning – can enable us to move forward with strengthening our institutions of conversation. Not just peer review of the sciences and technology – but many other similar institutions, such as our ways of deliberating justice (conversations recorded in case law, of trial by jury, etc.).

If we can ‘let go’ of the need for a certainty of having ‘The TRUH’ – and if we can recognize ‘good faith’ accounts of other people’s experiences and evidence – then maybe we can be in a better position to listen, hear an honest account and in turn offer our own honest account. Together richer understanding emerges.

It's been said - that one sign of intelligence is the capacity to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously.

I've thought that wisdom could be the capacity to engage in multiple ways of reasoning. 

This means more than listening to multiple voices - but the capacity to HEAR many different honest accounts of experience. 

I think the best way to achieve such an aspiration – of wise hearing – is to ensure we communicate genuine consideration and respectful speech to signal good faith participation.

Achieving the wisdom to flourish and evolve requires accountable methods to ensure good-faith participants – using honest experience-evidence, to present and hear all evidence that is held to be accountable and honest. But more – we need to also accept the inevitable uncertainty that is deeply entangled in all life and evolution. 

There is no such thing as conservation of shadows. When light destroys shadows, darkness does not gain in density elsewhere. When shadows steal over earth and across the sky, darkness is not diluted.

Yoon Ha Lee -Conservation of Shadows


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