Earl Morris on truth, history, science, and relativism

Source: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/10/the-ashtray-this-contest-of-interpretation-part-5/

For those who truly believe that truth is subjective or relative (along with everything else), ask yourself the question – is ultimate guilt or innocence of a crime a matter of opinion? Is it relative? Is it subjective? A jury might decide you’re guilty of a crime that you haven’t committed. You’re innocent. (It’s possible. The legal system is rife with miscarriages of justice.) Nevertheless, we believe there is a fact of the matter. You either did it or you didn’t. Period.

If you were strapped into an electric chair, there would be nothing relative about it. Suppose you are innocent. Would you be satisfied with the claim there is no definitive answer to the question of whether you’re guilty or innocent? That there is no such thing as absolute truth or falsity? Or would you be screaming, “I didn’t do it. Look at the evidence. I didn’t do it.” Nor would you take much comfort in the claim, “It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?” Or “what paradigm are you in?” When I was investigating the murder of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer, and the capital murder conviction of Randall Dale Adams for that murder, would it make sense to describe my viewpoint as one paradigm, and the viewpoint of the Dallas police as another? Surely, we had different ways of looking at the evidence, different interpretations of the evidence, different ways of looking at the crime. Suppose someone said, there’s no way of comparing these two paradigms. They’re incommensurable. You can’t say one is true and the other false. There is no absolute truth. Perhaps they could gussy up the claim by citing police procedures and practices. Different traditions of looking at crime scene evidence. . . .

The difficulty of ascertaining the truth in history is often confused with the relativity of truth. Two very different concepts. (We may have difficulty fixing the exact date and location of the Battle of Hastings, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen at a specific time and place.) “The past,” as L.P. Hartley has written, “is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” [90] But when Homer speaks of the “sun,” is he speaking about a different object than T.S. Eliot? If Newton were to give Einstein a copy of the “Principia” and Einstein were to give Newton a copy of “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” would they be unable to understand each other or their respective theories? There would be a discussion, perhaps even disagreements about ideas and principles. Clarifications would be needed. But would they look past each other in numb stupefaction? The past may be a foreign country, but I do not believe that people there speak a language that we can not understand.

A reader comments on intuition

I received this comment by email. —etm

I have been reading about the thoughts on intuition on your site and find most of them do not actually reflect what intuition is in my experience.

Many speak about intuition coming from deep in the subconscious or from life experience, but when I teach about intuition, it is not about that.  When a person can select which stone out of five stones is being held in a closed fist consistently without error, that is not about the subconscious, that is from intuition.  When someone can hold a plant that is unknown to them and correctly state whether it is used internally or externally and for what reason, that is from intuition, not the subconscious.  When a person can place a hand on a stranger and tell that person about the physical condition of the body, that is from intuition.  When they improve that condition, that is another kind of intuition that allows one to connect with healing energy.

It is difficult to understand this, although it is the way of things for the indigenous tribes who have been able to hold onto their traditional way of being.  When someone of western thinking tries to describe it, he comes from a totally different paradigm and thus misses everything.

Intuition does not come from any kind of process of the brain, but rather from being in the spiritual heart, which in turn, as explained in quantum physics. is itself connected to all things and thus has access to all knowledge.

There is a lot that interferes with this kind of knowing, but once it is understood and controlled, life is a much richer thing to experience.

dance in the light of spirit

susan gale

Dawkins, dunes, atoms, and waves

In his TED talk, ‘Queerer than we can suppose’, Richard Dawkins suggests that we may be more like waves than physical objects. He describes a crescent-shaped sand dune in Africa that moves about 17 metres each year. The grains of sand that make up the dune are constantly changing—being added to or removed from the dune by the wind. But the dune, as it moves, keeps its shape. He also points out that not a single atom in our bodies was there when we were children. We are, by analogy, like the sand dune: just as the dune consists of grains of sand that are continually changing, so we consist of atoms that are continually changing. Both we and the dune, it seems, are more like waves than objects.

Another analogy: We can take a box full of Lego blocks, choose a few of them, and build a model house. We can then replace individual blocks, one at a time, with similar blocks still left in the box. Eventually all the original blocks would be replaced, but the house would retain its original shape and appearance. Or perhaps the house’s appearance would change slightly: red blocks where before there were blue ones, for example. Is this a better analogy to describe us and our bodies? Are we an arrangement of atoms, and is it that particular arrangement that is “us”?

One more analogy: A song—or musical composition of any sort—may be passed along through time and space, perhaps for hundreds of years, and all around the world. It may be performed by any number of singers or musicians. And yet it remains the same song. Is this a useful analogy for how we remain the same person even though our bodies change constantly as we move through time and space?

TEDTalk: Beau Lotto, ‘Optical illusions show how we see’

Two links to this TEDTalk, should you want to watch it again:

1. In my Dropbox folder, here: http://db.tt/fPAXLtXp.

The path is Video / Science & Technology / Sense Perception. It’s the first one in that folder.

2. From the TED site, here: Beau Lotto.

If you watch on the TED site, you can choose to see it with subtitles. However, with a slow connection, it may not stream very well.

On the ‘3 theories of truth’ [#26: Monday’s class]

Perhaps it will be useful for me to summarize the main points I argued in today’s class.

  1. I disagree with van de Lagemaat when he speaks of three theories of truth. The first, which he calls the ‘correspondence theory’, seems to me to be simply the definition of truth: if what I say matches what is actually the case, then I have spoken the truth. Truth, that is, is a correspondence between what we say, and what is. The difficult part is knowing what actually is.
  2. The other two ‘theories’ that van de Lagemaat discusses seem to me to be tests: ways of checking to see whether what has been said matches what really is. So I will refer to them from here on as tests of truth.
  3. The pragmatic test asks, “If I assume that x is true, do things work as expected?” If the answer is yes, then we may feel more confident that x is in fact true. Another sense of the pragmatic test is to ask, “If x is true, is that somehow useful to me or to others?”
  4. The coherence test of truth is based on the idea that the totality of our beliefs form a web. In other words, all of our beliefs are connected to each other in multiple ways. That ‘web of belief’ constitutes our view of the world, our understanding of who we are, where we are, and what we are doing. If someone says, “X is true”, we automatically check that statement against all our other beliefs. If the statement conflicts dramatically with our web of belief—if there is no coherence with everything else we know and believe—then the statement fails the coherence test, and we reject it.
  5. I would add another test of truth: scientific and mathematical reasoning. To test a statement mathematically or scientifically requires time, work, and expertise—which is why very few of us actually do it. We may accept an expert’s conclusions, but we rarely work out the evidence ourselves.
  6. All three of these tests of truth—the pragmatic test, the coherence test, and scientific/mathematical reasoning—can lead us astray. We feel most assured, therefore, when a statement is supported by all three of the tests.
  7. All of the above assumes that we reach conclusions about the truth by thinking. This seems doubtful to me. Instead, I would argue that most of our conclusions about truth are reached via emotion. We began exploring this idea with Robert Burton’s article on certainty, and will continue exploring it via the work of Jonathan Haidt and others.

Subjective / Objective, Take Two

I would like you to have another go at the question, “Is art subjective?” But this time I want you to

  • choose a specific art form to analyze
  • consider all the different ways in which that art form is experienced by creators, performers, critics, readers and audiences, etc., and be clear about which of these you are talking about
  • consider the possibility that this art form may be both objective in some respects and subjective in other respects, and try to explain these distinctions as clearly and specifically as possible.

Please give your new blog post a title that is specific to your response. For example, if you choose to focus on music, use the word ‘music’ in your title, not ‘art’; and instead of simply using the question as your title, make a title that refers to how you have answered the question.

Oral Presentation: Criterion D

In response to another post on the IBO’s forum for TOK teachers, Greta Timmers, a former colleague of mine who teaches in The Netherlands, had this response, which may help students understand what is being asked for:

Criterion D asks “how the question could be approached from different perspectives and how their implications should be considered in related areas” (paraphrased).

That sounds to me like urging the students to consider what they also do for the essay: “Does the student show an awareness of his or her own perspective as a knower in relation to other perspectives, such as those that may arise, for example, from academic and philosophical traditions, culture or position in society (gender, age, and so on)?”

The second part of the criterion I interpret as: If you conclude [something] for X, does this also have implications for Y and Z?

Possible example: if a presenter holds that life is sacred, [and that] medical ethics should [therefore] not allow euthanasia and abortion, [does this mean] also that political ethics should not allow war? Does it also imply (as Peter Singer does, for example) that the presenter has a duty to help starving individuals?

Criterion D assesses the amount of exploration that has been done.

Real-life situations

The TOK oral presentation requires that students focus on a ‘real-life situation’ that raises one or more ‘knowledge issues’ and then analyze how those questions might be considered, with explicit reference to appropriate Areas of Knowledge and  Ways of Knowing.

Here are a few ideas for ‘real-life situations’ that raise knowledge issues. Suggest additions to the list in the comments.

  • How do I know whether to trust what the doctor says?
  • How do I know whether to trust what the government says?
  • Which political candidate should I support?
  • How do I decide which product I should buy?
  • How do people decide whether they should smoke cigarettes (or drink alcohol, or use drugs)?
  • Should some drugs be illegal?
  • Should prostitution be illegal?
  • Should the government regulate pornography, or make it illegal altogether; or not?
  • Should prisons attempt to rehabilitate criminals?
  • Is it wrong to download songs or videos or books from the internet without paying for them?
  • Additions:
  • Should dogfights be illegal? [other animal-rights situations would also work]

Please add your own ideas in comments to this post, but in your comment please clearly distinguish (as I have not above) a real-life situation and corresponding knowledge issue for each of your suggestions.

Stealing music

There may be an interesting oral presentation somewhere in here:

David Bowie predicted that because of internet and piracy, copyright is going to be dead in ten years. You agree?
No. If copyright dies, if patents die, if the protection of intellectual property is eroded, then people will stop investing. That hurts everyone. People need to have the incentive that if they invest and succeed, they can make a fair profit. Otherwise they’ll stop investing. But on another level entirely, it’s just wrong to steal. Or, let’s put it another way: it is corrosive to one’s character to steal. We want to provide a legal alternative. And we want to make it so compelling that all those people out there who really want to be honest, and really don’t want to steal, but haven’t had a choice if they wanted to get their music online, will now have a choice. And we think over time, most people stealing music will choose not to if a fair and resonable alternative is presented to them. We are optimists. We always have been.

—Steve Jobs, 2003

http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/5939600/steve_jobs_the_rolling_stone_interview/print

What is justice?

“We all want justice,” Alan Price sang in the film ‘O Lucky Man!’, “but you’ve got to have the money to buy it.”

A very different view of justice emerges from the traditional practices of Native American, First Nation, and other indigenous peoples of North America, in which the goals are healing and reconciliation, not ‘victory’ for one side or the other.

If this topic interests you, there may be a TOK oral presentation in it somewhere. To start, have a look at these three articles:

Restorative Justice Practices of Native American, First Nation and Other Indigenous People of North America: Part One

Restorative Justice Practices of Native American, First Nation and Other Indigenous People of North America: Part Two

COMMUNITY HOLISTIC CIRCLE HEALING: A COMMUNITY APPROACH

—etm

Not all black and white; the most interesting bits are gray.