Friday, December 24, 2010


It’s our particular cultural prejudice to believe in the permanence of ‘facts’. Facts, we say, are what is real. Facts, we aver, are ‘out there’, concrete, dependable.
But facts are not quite the hard and fast things we think they are. No-one, surely, disputes that we all see ‘the facts’ at least slightly differently. What we do dispute – constantly - is other people’s right to do so.

For societies to function there has to be agreement on what the facts are, or at least those facts that hold us together, and that’s where we exchange one problem (that we all tend to see the world differently) for another: to communicate at all, we have to agree – so whose facts are we to adopt?

Until very recently that question was answered by the received wisdom of ritual and the twin authorities of tradition and religion, all imposed by parents, teachers, officers of the law, and the priesthood. These authorities, however, have seen a steady erosion of their cohesive power with the advance of science, which, with its insistence on ‘objectivity’, has declared such sources of knowledge and forces of social control ‘irrational’. Science deals with facts. Scientific facts are objective, dependable. Traditional authority is not science-based, but belief-based, and subjective, hence unreliable.

But here’s the problem, and it’s a huge one: if we allow that the objective world of science is what is real, then the subjective realm becomes subordinate to the objective, and belief becomes merely a matter of taste. Science is then presumed to govern ‘rational’ behavior, and, with the rug pulled from under all our beliefs, we are reduced to the dictates of what is merely efficient. Such a transformation of society is happening right now, and even as we are rapidly losing our birthright we have the feeling that we no longer have a moral leg to stand on. To the extent that we now believe ourselves to inhabit an objective world we are relegating ourselves to moral paralysis.

The fact – in the sense of the logic of the situation – is this: you cannot derive morality from the objective world. Morality is values, and values, categorically, are outside the province of science. Without morality – values – no meaning can be extracted from sense data. The meaning of the term ‘the President of the United States of America’ is not objectively determinable. Pure science cannot even discriminate between the respective values of babies and bathwater. These determinations reside in us, and in us alone.

There is, then, no objective way to choose, from among different ways of seeing the world, the one that is ‘real’, since what is real cannot be separated from who is experiencing it, and where. In fact, objectively speaking, there’s no way to choose between one thing and another, ever. Different cultures are not just fanciful ways of seeing what is supposedly a ‘flat’, value-free, objective world. No, they constitute different, agreed realities that have been painfully hammered out over generations, eons, to explain and handle the world we live in.

Each cultural reality is valid on its own terms. Each is good – a word about which science has nothing to say whatever. And so it is that we all claim our own and our group’s view is the best, and hence the most real, not because it’s objective but, on the contrary, because that is exactly how it feels. In the past we simply justified this feeling of rightness by declaring that ‘God is on our side’. Today we justify that same sense of superiority by saying ‘science is on our side’ – without realizing that our precious doctrine of objectivity undercuts everything, including us.

But if we abandon this dangerous doctrine aren’t we then saying that there isn’t anything ‘out there’; that we’re simply making it all up?

Not in the sense of imagining it, no. There is an encounter with data, but the data cannot be distinguished apart from our experience of them – the two are one. We infer the existence of a world, and of ourselves, from this ever present stream of experience – a continuous process of creation occurring in us, forever in the present moment. Out of this we build up theories to explain our experience. Some of these theories stand the test of time. These are what come to be known as ‘facts’. Nevertheless, they remain theories, and about what is the real nature of the world apart from these theories we all of us must remain, forever, in the dark. Belief in ‘objective facts’ helps us in this scientific age to dispel the discomfort of this unknowing, as belief in the fact of the Devil, God and an afterlife did for previous generations.

Facts, then, are not to be considered permanent, objective structures. They are more or less fluid theories which evolve as necessity dictates. A Congolese Pygmy does not have to be a physicist to respond appropriately to gravity. He has a name for the bend in the river on which he lives, but he has no name for the river, nor needs one. He has (let’s say) a dozen necessary words for rain, but no word for snow, which lies outside his experience. For him, even more literally than for Mr. Thomas Friedman, the world is flat.

Note, what lies outside the Pygmy’s (and Mr. Friedman’s) experience has no value for him, and what has no value for him does not exist. This is extremely important for us to grasp, hypnotized as we are by the doctrine of factual objectivity (grin).
We may, from our perspective, think him (the Pygmy that is – but also perhaps Mr. Friedman) an ignorant savage, but his knowledge is sufficient to his life. You or I would perish in his situation, whereas the Pygmy thrives – as does Mr. Friedman. His interpretation of the world – the ‘facts’ which have value for him – his values, in fact – are all-of-a-piece with his environment. To that extent he is free. To that extent his interpretation of his world is truthful; and, for him, utterly factual.

But as soon as he comes into contact with people who can fly – or even just have guns - then he had better start evolving some workable theories about the larger world, or, as sure as battery chickens live in coops, he will become their slave.

Unnecessary knowledge is pedantry, but appropriate knowledge is power. Conversely, ignorance of what is appropriate is slavery – the opposite of freedom.
We in the West pride ourselves, as I say, on our ‘objectivity’. Since each of us can only believe that our own view is best, this leads us to believe that our doctrine of objectivity is the proper, the correct, the universal world view. But the cultural realities that hold Western societies together are as value-based and resistant to interference as those of Congolese Pygmies. Our command of ‘facts’ in the past mostly evolved, like that of Pygmies, through trial and error in response to our particular physical and biological circumstances. But we now and increasingly appoint specialists, duly certified by our trusted academia, to act as intermediaries between us and our environment, in every important field. Why? Because, unlike the Pygmies, our societies have grown so complicated that no-one can comprehend more than a small fraction of everything needed to run them. In the past people turned to the authority of the Church to eradicate uncertainty. Today we live in secular societies, and have put our faith in science, so we employ scientific authorities instead. But the level of faith required by us is precisely the same. We trust, implicitly, all the key figures in whom we have invested authority. We have, in a word, faith in the system, and the ‘facts’ which it supplies. We have to! We couldn’t survive without it!

And it is through these authorities, wedged between us and direct experience, that we claim objectivity! Through the mediation of experts we claim we have command of the ‘facts’ as never before! Such faith!
As of old, our faith in our system amounts, almost, to a religion. To go against established authority in any culture is to act treasonously. To go radically against the Establishment used to be called heresy, but of course this term is not psychologically respectable today, so to ‘objectify’ our rejection of deviant belief we would nowadays call it ‘delusional’. Our immediate – and extremely common - reaction to ideas which differ from our own is to pronounce those who hold them ‘mad’, where previously we would simply have branded them as ‘heretics’. The methods are as identical as the results: the erasure of other people's troublesome theories.

If an authority in a given field says that such-and-such is the case, then – unless we’re prepared to do an enormous amount of research, and then face tremendous opposition from all we try to persuade – we will accept that as the truth. And in just this way our store of ‘facts’ – the knowledge of the world we share with our group – is enlarged.

In a traditional society, knowledge (not to be confused with gossip) comes mostly from direct experience, and from our parents. In a modern society knowledge increasingly comes from mediating agencies – schools, the government, the media. We are led, even encouraged to believe that the little direct, personal experience we have is of no real value. What has value is what we are told by our authorities, who have a proper grasp of the objective world. It is, increasingly, our authorities who are in command of ‘the facts’.

Whoever controls academia, the government, and the media, therefore, controls in a very literal and complete sense our thoughts, our decisions, and our lives. It thus behooves us to know who those people are, and whether they in fact have our best interests at heart. In the immortal, though oxymoronic words of George Bush Sr., ‘Trust – but verify.’ Well, easier said than done, but to the extent that we are aware of who our authorities are we are free. To the extent that we are not aware of it, we may be becoming their unwitting slaves.

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