I quite often hear it said that, to reach the truth, what we need is a skeptical mind, or, as Dr. Judy Wood puts it (in relation to the 9/11 event), to "question everything and everyone."
On the face of it this might seem a sensible way of arriving at the truth, but on closer inspection I fear it's just as divorced from reality as that other pithy little apothegm, “‘Assume’ makes an ass out of you and me” (because everything, when you come right down to it, is an assumption). Paul Craig Roberts seems to have a better handle on things when he writes
The notion that "we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead" is an extremely romantic and idealistic notion. I have seldom experienced open minds even in academic discourse or in the highest levels of government. Among the public at large, the ability to follow the truth wherever it may lead is almost non-existent. (“Why Propaganda Trumps Truth”, Sep 15, 2009, Information Clearing House)
Nevertheless – and with apologies to Paul Craig Roberts, whom I greatly respect and admire – I suspect that even this statement contains within it the belief that following the truth “wherever it may lead” is at least possible.
If you, dear reader, are also a member of the public at large, then it should come as a relief to you to learn that it is not, actually, possible either to question everything, or to follow the truth wherever it may lead. Reality simply isn’t set up like that. We can certainly expand our store of knowledge by (somehow) expanding our sphere of interest, but interest is the necessary starting point of all inquiry, and interest always implies selection. Selection, of course, means narrowing our field of inquiry. If we were to question everything then we’d have to be interested in everything, and we’d settle on nothing. Our field of inquiry must on the one hand begin with some premises – some foundational assumptions which guide our search for “truth” - and on the other hand be limited to what we consider interesting. It’s interest that drives the whole thing. Without interest we’re not going to look at anything at all.
Another scientist, Stephen Jones, (also referring to 9/11) says,
"it is an 'unscientific method' when one starts with a conclusion and then finds just those facts that support that conclusion while ignoring everything else."
Yes, we’ve all heard about “cherry picking” the data, but again, he can’t mean everything else, because that would imply that there was no selection process needed in a study of the “facts” – they would all, supposedly, be equally relevant. But data is always cherry-picked! All we mean by that term is that the other guy has selected data by a different set of biases from ours!
I suspect that the cause of this general misapprehension – that to reach the truth all we have to do is to “keep an open mind” and “look at everything” - is an excessive faith in the power of these wretched, so-called “facts”. Almost everyone these days seems to think that “facts” are in some concrete sense “out there”, like fruit waiting to be plucked, and that all you’ve got to do is step outside your front door, reach up and there they are, ready for the taking. Nice, round, plump, juicy facts.
Oh, you thought that too, did you? Well, not to wake you too rudely from your slumbers, but no, it ain’t like that. It ain’t like that at all.
The quality of a fact, any fact, depends on what you believe. You are the arbiter of your truth. And therein lies both our difficulty and the source of our belief that the facts are “out there”. The tapestry of experience is infinite. No two people share exactly the same interests, stand in exactly the same position at the same moment, have exactly the same background, age, education, training, susceptibilities, phobias, allergies, hobbies, talents, skills, tastes, physical strength, weight, height, EQ, IQ, prejudices… I could go on and on. All these differences add up to – surprise, surprise - an often radically different selection of “facts” from the infinite ground of all being. To see all the “facts” is not only impossible, it’s meaningless. Meaning involves selection and ordering of mental contents on the basis of pre-established values. Our beliefs tell us what “facts” to look for. We then see what we believe. If you like, we tell the “facts” what to say. They do not “speak for themselves”.
In The Voyage of the Beagle Charles Darwin describes how the Tierra del Fuegians, naked savages who had never before set eyes on either white men or sailing ships, swarmed over the Beagle, consumed with curiosity over any object small enough to hold in their hands, but apparently oblivious to the ship itself, which was altogether beyond their comprehension. Robert Hughes describes something very similar in The Fatal Shore, his epic tale of the founding of Australia. Of the first encounter between white men and Australian aboriginals on April 29,1770, he writes that the crew aboard the Endeavour
… saw bark canoes, and in them blacks were fishing. The ship floated past these frail coracles. It was the largest artifact ever seen on the east coast of Australia, an object so huge, complex and unfamiliar as to defy the natives’ understanding… the Australians took no notice. They displayed neither fear nor interest and went on fishing. (The Fatal Shore, p. 53. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987)
Do we ourselves comprehend the significance of this? An entire sailing ship, 106 feet long, escapes the notice of fishermen past whom it sails at very close range. They do not see it.
What holds a society together is the values that its members share. Without this “conspiracy” to agree on what’s out there, no communication whatever would be possible. Only through the agency of those values we agree to share can we enjoy a mutually coherent world. There is, then, an intimate connection between “the truth” and the group. Similarly, what we call the objectivity of science is embedded in a matrix of such shared values, apart from which its constructs could not exist. Facts, my friends, are agreements about what constitutes reality. And isolation in science is as fatal as isolation in society. To prosper an idea must be communicated – that is to say, agreed on. Without such agreements communication between the members of the group would be utterly and completely impossible. There would be no group; no society.
But to get from what I believe to what we believe requires a tremendous, indeed an incessant, often bloody struggle. Somehow – by hook or by crook – people have to be persuaded, seduced, cajoled, bullied, tortured, coerced, and generally made to believe the same thing, if a society is to prosper. In its most benign form this process is called “education”. Obviously the resulting world view can only be a myth. Yet the myth is taken for reality, and the true source of reality – the individual, in whom all experience resides – is only considered sane to the extent that he conforms to this myth which he has by hook or by crook been persuaded to agree to.
No man is an island. We are deeply and irrevocably communal, but there is a more-or-less constant tension between what I think and what the group thinks – the reality of the individual versus the agreed fiction of the group. Failure to communicate our beliefs is extremely frustrating. Failure to agree (agreement being what communication is) leads us immediately to anger, then rage. And rage leads to name-calling, and blows. Other people are "crazy", “wingnuts", "retarded" when they refuse to see the world as we see it – whether we're wearing our religious hat, our social hat, or our scientific hat. If ours is the majority view then we feel the strength of the herd behind us, and our righteous indignation can be very insistent indeed. When two such groups clash – oh boy! The clash between the 9/11 Truth Movement and the debunkers is little different in this respect to that between Sunnis and Shiites, or Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, the feeling of personal righteousness on both sides is identical. Each side claims “objectivity”, each side claims to be in possession of “the facts”. Each side sees the other as stupid, or willfully ignorant, or in league with evil, for failing to agree with their myth. And this state of affairs is what we call “spreading the truth”.
“Authority” is the term we use to describe any agency that creates and maintains agreement. I shall attempt another blog post on that, but for now let’s just say that authority takes as many forms as are required to perform this function, and that in most societies authority – that which ensures that our behavior, where necessary, conforms with that of others – is pretty much all-pervasive. Consequently the activity of thinking for ourselves and questioning “everything” is a highly circumscribed endeavor. We are, like it or not, creatures of our culture.
Lacking the unifying influence of authority (in whatever form) there would be as many interpretations of reality – of “facts” – as there are people on the planet. If each of us, independently and always, in complete defiance of our social nature, questioned everything, we would be perpetually alone. If, as seekers after “the truth”, everyone went his own way and had his own theories about the world without reference to anyone else, nothing that we now share would ever have been built, or, being already built, now remain standing. We would be completely dissociated; without language; without thought. No-one could communicate with anyone else (or deem it worthwhile to attempt to do so). Instead we would have built ourselves, in effect, a Tower of Babel.