Truth: The Most Destructive Idea in Human History

If you ask most people, they’d tell you that truth is a good thing. Perhaps even the best of things. However, as Shakespeare taught us and science has confirmed, there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.

If you think truth is good, then your mind will tell you all the reasons why it’s good. But what if you think of truth as just a thing that is neither good or bad. OR…what if you think of truth as BAD, even the worst thing in history. Well, then you get a very different picture.
To be clear, there are, as far as I can tell, two very different things people have in mind when they talk about the truth:
  1. Honesty: Telling the truth. People being honest about what they did or how they feel. Really, this is people telling their STORY as they understand it without intentional deception. I’m generally all for that but it’s really about openness and transparency.
  2.  The Truth with a Capital T: Claiming that your beliefs or feelings are an exact match for the world. Cultures fall into this trap all the time. They forget that every story has two sides and that their side of the story is just ONE side.

In the end, the Vietnam War is a staggering example of why the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s fight. It’s not that they’re looking at different facts. They’re looking at the same facts but interpreting them in different ways. Was the United States in Vietnam? Yes. The United States saw this as part of a historic global crusade in the name of freeeeeeeedom. The Vietnamese interpreted the U.S. presence as just one more in a long line of colonial invaders. McNamara dismisses this interpretation out of hand. McNamara knows The Truth with a Capital T. He believes that his interpretation is the correct one and so he feels justified in waging war on the Vietnamese.

In part, McNamara’s interpretation made so much sense to him because he had statistics. So many statistics. But they were based on bad assumptions about the beliefs and feeeeeeelings of the Vietnamese. Killing the Vietnamese didn’t make them less likely to fight. It made them want to fight more. Both the United States and the Vietnamese had the feeeeeeeling of truth. And that feeeeeeeling has a very specific name in science: naive realism.

The feeeeeeeling of truth is what empowers humans to commit war, genocide and countless other atrocities. It is the feeeeeeeling that we see things as they really are. And here is Jon Haidt describing what this feeeeeeeling of truth or naive realism does.
“If I could nominate one candidate for “biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,” it would be naive realism because it is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest. Naive realism gives us a world full of good and evil, and this brings us to the most disturbing implication of the sages’ advice about hypocrisy: Good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them.”
I’m awfully fond of the story of The Blind Men and the Elephant. And it’s important to recognize that it is naive realism or the idea of truth that turns the blind men from exploring the world (or elephant) to beating the shit out of each other and killing each other. It’s when the Blind Men feeeeeeel with great certainty that they see things as they really are that they turn on others. It’s when the person who thinks the world is a snake thinks the person who thinks it’s a rope is a truth-denying fool that things get violent and nasty.
Truth is the ultimate source of violence and hostility. Truth is what makes Righteous Minds because once I see the world as it is then I need not question my choices. If I know that Americans are imperialists or that Communism is dangerous, then I must do anything to stop it. The righteous ends justify violent means.
For most of human history, we have defended our tribes. We have defended our religions. And, in that vein, it is hardly surprising that some people have taken to defending science. And yet, anyone who defends science as truth has completely missed the core point of science. Scientific truth isn’t something you have to defend or wage a holy crusade on behalf of. It’s something that if you let it loose will defend itself. And that is exactly the same as what St. Augustine said about Christianity more than 1500 years ago.
Science isn’t about TRUTH. It’s about destroying lies. It’s a way of relentlessly testing your own beliefs about reality until whatever is left is so ferocious that if unleashed on the world it will defend itself. The problem is that science is chained up in 60 million scientific journal articles, imprisoned behind walls of jargon and isolated and caged up in countless sub-disciplines. The job of Mixed Mental Arts and any lover of science is to set these ideas free onto the internet and offer our fellow humans the most powerful insights into the human condition and to help them improve their lives. Our job is not to insult people who disagree with us. If our evidence is so compelling, then we should lay it out. We should teach the controversy and let the facts fall where they may.

Will we be teaching “The Truth”? Nope. And, in fact, that idea is pretty obviously baked into the core of science. We call our ideas theories. Scientists, like Richard Dawkins, today make big bones about how theory in the scientific sense is different from how theory is used by the general public. A scientific theory is not some loosey goosey idea you just came up with. It is an idea that has been rigorously tested.
Buuuuuut…it is still a theory. Theory doesn’t somehow transmogrify into truth. It merely is tested so much that we can have greater confidence that it is a story about reality that it nothing is going to come along that will unseat it.
Buuuuuut…it is still a theory. And theoretically some piece of evidence could come along that would unseat it. W.E.I.R.D. Science aims to hide this fact but it is precisely this ability to be wrong, publicly wrong and change your mind that makes science special. And that’s something Richard Dawkins agrees on. In The God Delusion, he writes:
“I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real… Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said – with passion – ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’”
As Dawkins has said “Science…is about knowing when you’re wrong and even being pleased to be disproved.” Science is about trying to be wrong. That’s literally the whole point.
So, why when it comes to comes to popularizing evolutionary thinking doesn’t Dawkins just come out and say that? Why not just fall on your sword and say, “Yes! Evolution is just a theory. So is Creationism. Let’s go through the observable evidence and see which theory best fits the facts.” Well, because Richard Dawkins doesn’t actually practice science. Science is not merely something that happens in some far off Ivory Tower. It is a way of approaching life. It is about making a sincere concerted effort to find the faults in your own thinking and trusting that if you keep doing that then your thinking will get better. The problem is that the accumulated findings of science over the last few hundred years have now turned into a dogma and if you don’t agree with them then someone like Richard Dawkins and his band of self-righteous followers are here to tell you that you are a “retard” or a “blithering moron.” Check out the comment sections of the following two videos and you’ll see just how receptive the New Atheists are to changing their minds in light of evidence and how they deal with people who challenge their thinking.

Doubtless, the people in these comments would insist they have science on their side. They believe in evolution, don’t they? And yet, do they really? Would the pioneers of science look at this behavior or the behavior of Dawkins and Harris and say this is what science is about or would they say this was what science was designed to counteract? I don’t think you have to look very hard at the history of science to see that it’s the latter. Science was a response to a time very much like our own. The European Wars of Religion saw people unable to see eye to eye, insulting each other and insisting that they had The Truth With a Capital T. Theirs was a more violent time and so there was far more bloodshed and far less meme throwing. If these people were alive in the 17th Century, what role would they play? Would they be trying to get people to talk out their differences or would they be the crowd violently attacking those with differences of opinion? What role would you play in the European Wars of Religion? Are you trying to get the blind men to talk out their differences or pitting them at one another’s throats?
And this is what I can’t stand about the behavior of Dawkins and the New Atheists. They have taken evolution and turned it into a justification for engaging in the exact kind of behavior that science was designed to counteract. In the end though, they will force a reckoning about what science is and we will have to clarify once and for all that science demands abandoning all claim on The Truth with a Capital T. I’ll go first. I don’t claim to know the truth. Do you? I can only tell you what I believe and why. In the end, that humility will show up the problems with Creationism much more than any number of insults.
There is a profound irony in all this. Dawkins and religious fundamentalists may disagree on the origins of life but they are driven by the same feeling: a strong sense of naive realism. They believe they see the world as it really is. Their ideology may be different but their psychology is the same. And it is that psychology that science and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism were aiming to manage. All of these belief systems aim at their core for humility. They are designed to get people to be seekers of the truth. Not to know the truth as a set of accumulated dogma but to know the truth emotionally. If you have felt the difference between arrogance and humility and see how they affect your own thinking, then you know to choose humility. You reject the idea of truth not because you don’t think humans can acquire more and more realistic views of reality but because you know that the feeeeeeeling of truth is your enemy. Seekers choose to always adopt the beginner’s mind. You always put the white belt back on.
Fundamentalists differ in their ideology but their psychology is exactly the same. They believe that they see the world as it truly is. The human brain hasn’t changed much since the story of the blind men and the elephant or the cargo cults. The problem of feeeeeeeling like we have it all figured out is a timeless one. The tragedy is not that our belief systems disagree on our view of the elephant but that they all agree that we should all remain perennial seekers. Truth may be the most destructive idea in human history but the pursuit of truth is the most constructive activity in human history. It’s also a way more interesting way to live…even if it keeps taking us back to where we started. The secret of Science, Christianity, Apple Computers, the Apollo Program, the Spirit of ’76, a great new musical genre and Islam in the first few centuries is start-up culture. It’s that feeling of not knowing what is possible but being excited for the possibilities and relentlessly committed to doing better. Mixed Mental Arts is about continually reembracing that spirit. It’s about always putting the white belt back on.

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

One Comment

  1. Chris Abbey Reply

    That sense of wonder and creation is what I think was meant by the following in Luke:
    Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. Luke 18:17

    Another way of putting it. Fundamentalist, whether religious or scientific, are concerned with power, and push or pander the mistaken belief that the map is the territory.

    Great book, “The Battle for God; A History of fundamentalism,” by Karen Armstrong.

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