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Mindf*ck Monday #47: The Endless Pursuit of Truth

Mindf*ck Monday #47: The Endless Pursuit of Truth

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that freely admits we’re probably all fucked, no matter what we do, so let’s at least try to enjoy it. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being. This week, we’re talking about: 1) why we need philosophy today more than ever, 2) the civilizational struggle of fact versus fiction, and 3) setting thresholds of certainty.

Let’s get into it. 

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1. Why we all need philosophy – My dear intrepid reader, I have a confession to make. Last week… I got triggered by something I read on the internet. 

I know, I know… it’s shocking. You would think the opinions of strangers on the internet would be delightful to read. But alas, I was accosted by stupidity and malice on a scale previously unimagined by my virgin mind.

What did this hideous brute say? What did I find so upsetting that I now find it necessary to seek solace and comfort in you, my dear reader? 

Some fuckwit wrote a thing saying that philosophy is stupid and a complete waste of time. 

HOW DARE HE?!?!

I threw my headphones off in a rage. This lout! This brute! I will have my vengeance…

I began to pace in my room, stroking my neckbeard. This wrong must be righted, I thought, and not just for me and my precious sensibilities, but for the good of the downtrodden and vulnerable, for the benefit of humanity—for the world! 

Yes, this malignant force shall be excised from the minds of feeble men. I alone shall be the stalwart savior. I alone shall be the beacon of all that is good. And I will do it…

…by posting a comment on Facebook. 

Well, you and I know both how Facebook comments go. They reside somewhere between the eighth and ninth circles of hell—a form of masochism reserved for only the truly loathsome. As I wrote, my arguments bled into more points, and then more points. Soon, I found myself spending hours reviewing books I hadn’t read in years, looking for quotes, passages, and citations—any evidence of this pernicious being’s moral failings. 

Eventually, the Comments to End All Comments grew to such a staggering size, it began to teeter under its own weight (that and Facebook has a character limit).

I quickly decided to move my treatise to a Word document and continued my crusade. Days passed. Sources piled up. Inappropriate jokes about birthday cakes and sticks of butter magically appeared. And when the dust settled, I was staring down more than 35 pages of linguistic thicket and bramble. 

“Nobody’s going to read all of this shit,” I said to myself. Yes, friends, I had gone overboard.

Over more days of effort, I chopped about 10 pages and consolidated my ideas into a more easily digestible, multi-part article. And today I proudly present to you the fruit of my labors, the result of my epic struggle against Some Guy On Facebook Who Is Really Wrong But Doesn’t Know It Yet—a most complete summation of all the reasons philosophy is awesome and you should totally read it and stuff…

Behold, I give you… 

Read: Why We All Need Philosophy

The main thrust of the article is that the goal of philosophy is to develop tools that can help discern truth and reality. In many ways it has become more difficult to decipher fact from fiction today than ever before. Which brings me to a theory/idea I’ve been playing around with in my head for a while… 

2. The new polarization of fact and fiction – In 1789, at the onset of the French Revolution, the National Constituent Assembly was called where leaders from all across France would meet with King Louis XVI to determine the fate of the country. 

As the assemblymen streamed in, the monarchists who supported the king congregated on the right side of the chamber, where the nobility had traditionally sat in previous eras, to signal their loyalty to the king. Those who desired revolution, wanting to separate themselves as much as possible and make their dissent known, all sat on the left side of the chamber. The two sides soon began referring to each other simply as “the right” and “the left.” 

The names stuck. 

It’s shifted over the centuries, but typically people “on the right” value structure, order, and tradition, while people “on the left” value equality, personal expression, and change. Most people see this political spectrum as linear and one-dimensional — you’re either on one side or the other (e.g., “you’re with us or against us.”) 

But there is a lesser-known “horseshoe theory” in political science, where the political spectrum actually curves so that the extreme-right and extreme-left end up closer to each other than they do to moderates or centrists in the middle. 

The argument goes that the extremes of each side of the political spectrum generally support more authoritarian states if it means accomplishing their goals. They are both willing to suppress civil liberties, especially of their enemies. They’re both likely to see the world in stark (and often similar) us/them dichotomies. And historically, the extreme right and left have found themselves cooperating for short periods of time to overthrow the status quo. 

In the 1970s, the psychologist Hans Eysenck proposed a similar theory that the political spectrum is not uni-dimensional, but rather two dimensional. People exist on the typical right vs left spectrum, but also an authoritarian vs libertarian spectrum. (You can take a version of this test online to see where you are.) 

Historically, the difference between extremism and centrism has been people’s openness to compromise. Radical Bob and Moderate Jane would both watch the same news channel and get the same information, but Radical Bob refuses to consider other viewpoints whereas Moderate Jane understands that she is biased by her own interests and other people have legitimate views as well. 

But today, something else is going on, this second polarity seems to have shifted… 

I attended a talk (on Zoom) a few months ago given by a former official from the US State Department and he said something that kind of blew my mind and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since: 

“The strategic challenge for every nation in the 21st century is the ability of its people to determine fact from fiction.”
He went on to explain that much of the “cold war” style tactics used by the US, Russia, China, and others, is not about overt displays of military power. It’s more about introducing information that disrupts the cultural status quo in each others’ societies. This is done to generate internal instability and political parties within each country have begun to do this as a means for power as well. 

As a result, I think the 21st-century version of the horseshoe theory could become slightly different from previous eras. Whereas in generations past, the difference between extremists and moderates was the willingness to compromise, today there is a new polarization between those who doggedly pursue facts over fiction regardless of the political implications of those facts and those who only adhere to narratives that fit their political interests, regardless of whether they are true or not. 

To put it another way, in the 20th century, Radical Bob and Moderate Jane were exposed to the same information—they watched the same news channels, read the same articles, and believed the same facts. Radical Bob was simply unwilling to compromise on his interpretation of the facts whereas Moderate Jane was. 

Today, Radical Bob and Moderate Jane don’t even consume the same information. Radical Bob has limited himself to a steady diet of narratives that reinforce his prior convictions and bolster his political aims. Moderate Jane spends most of her time wading through piles of bullshit to hopefully find something that seems reliable and true. 

Each exists in their own world, oblivious to the narratives that define the others’ world. Compromise becomes impossible not just because of Radical Bob’s entrenchment, but because there is no common ground on which to disagree on in the first place. 

3. Thresholds of certainty – If I had to nominate one historical figure who would absolutely dominate Twitter, it would be Nietzsche. In researching the philosophy article, I got to revisit a lot of his work and it’s always a joy. That dude could pack more meaning into fewer words than almost anyone else I’ve ever come across. For example, check this one out: 

“It is not doubt but certainty that drives you mad.”

Goddamn. You could just sit and let that one marinate in your head for hours. 

Anyway, given the article and email and crazy times we live in, I have been doing a lot of thinking about doubt and certainty and truth the past week. 

We traditionally see truth as a binary thing. Either it is or it isn’t. True or false. 

But given the flood of epistemic uncertainty introduced by the information age, I think that maybe we should think about truth in terms of thresholds of certainty. It’s like a spectrum of how likely a thing is to be true and the further an idea gets up the spectrum the more committed you become to it. The further it slides down the spectrum, the more willing you are to let go and allow it to be wrong. 

For example, my little theory about politics above, I’d file that under “theoretically plausible” — it’s a fun thing to think about and loosely reflects reality but you probably wouldn’t want to bet your life on it. 

Other ideas that have a lot of research behind them but remain theories, you’d move them up to “probably true,” and things that have been around for generations and have a lot of rock-solid evidence, you’d categorize as, “almost certainly true.” 

Then, at the tippy top of the spectrum, you get stuff like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics, the fact that your mom fucked your dad at some point, and all the other stuff that it’s inconceivable as to how they could not be true. 

Generally, we’re good at moving up the scale of certainty, we’re good at taking something we think might be true and then accepting that it’s probably true. 

But we’re really bad at coming down the scale of certainty. We suck at taking things that we’re sure are true and admitting that they might not be. In fact, we often do the opposite: we double down on them as if to prove to ourselves we were right all along. And that’s when the trouble starts. 

Nietzsche is right that it’s not flexibility of thought but rigidity of thought that causes irrationality and stupidity. Therefore, changing your mind should be something admirable, not embarrassing. It should be seen as a success and not a failure. It should be celebrated, not ridiculed. 

This is something I’d like to institute into the newsletter at some point soon: once or twice a year, I share things that I’ve recently changed my mind about, and why. Maybe I’ll crowdsource things that you guys have changed your minds about and share those as well. 

Then we’ll all drink some cheap tequila and eat birthday cake and celebrate the necessary-yet-impossible pursuit of truth. It’ll be fun. 

Until next week,
Mark

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