Saturday, October 1, 2016

On Truth

(Draft written perhaps in 2014, published now).

A bunch of years ago, I read Harry Frankfurt's 1986 essay "On Bullshit", and agreed with him but moved on.  Today, I'm rethinking just how right he is and I am terrified.

My main take-away from the essay was this quote:

Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are
indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in
telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting
things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to
tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying
certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The
first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This
would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The
second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the
way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

His conclusion is at once snarky and hopeful:

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various
forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an
objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things
truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of
disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the
intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of
confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the
ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by
pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive
at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying
to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no
inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he
devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that
since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead
to be true to himself.

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence
susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the
ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As
conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know
ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and
certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is
the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about
ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our
natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial— - notoriously less stable and less
inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity
itself is bullshit.

This to me is a rallying cry to fight this modern tendency to retreat from attempts to seek "Truth" and instead to settle for personal truth or "what I feel".

Serious Americans (indeed all serious humans) must fight the urge to retreat into what we feel.  We must seek truth, certainly (and maybe especially) in our public discourse because a body politic can only hope to advance its collective interests if we can get beyond what we individually and sincerely feel to what we collectively "know".

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Serious Americans

Maybe this becomes a branding tool, like “Made in the USA.”  We who are serious about the future of our nation and our world could take the brand so others know that this is someone who is too, and from whom we can expect truth.  

Not necessarily agreement.  My fondest hope is that we can define “Serious Americans” in a way that explicitly transcends political labels like Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative.  My hope is that the “Manifesto of the Serious American,” or whatever we end up calling the principles one must agree to in order to join the conversations of “Serious Americans,” are not influenced by such labels or the ideologies that tend to go along with such labels.  I will require others’ help most here, because I do have my own beliefs and they will color my take on the manifesto.

Maybe “signers” of the “Serious American Manifesto” will become a political movement - may be even a political party - someday.  It’s possible we could all agree to withhold our money and other support from politicians and causes who aren’t endorsed as“Serious Americans” and ultimately become so numerous politicians and causes are willing to seek that endorsement.  Maybe establish rules for funding (no interest groups) and transparency (financial activity, etc. posted), and create tools that help recruit, train, and support candidacies.

That’s all a distant vision - or mirage - right now.  Right now I’m worried about the future, tired of trying to figure out who and what to back, and want help getting my head clear about what’s serious and what’s ignorant, false or worse: Bullshit.  So read what I’m writing, argue with me, join me, help me figure out how to be a positive force for getting serious about our future.

To me, being serious means first agreeing that there are some serious challenges that we need acknowledge, prioritize, and focus on.  Being a Serious American means acknowledging these challenges, taking them seriously, and demanding that our leaders take them seriously and are working to solve them at whatever level is appropriate for their role.  (Note that some of what I say here is influenced by The Millenium Project’s 15 Global Challenges, Fix the Debt, etc. - there are plenty of serious people out there already and this may be a redundant attempt.  I would especially like to hear of “manifestos” I can sign on to out there that will brand me and others as serious about the future in ways that are not partisan or ideological.)

Energy:  One of the world’s most important problems is energy and its relationship to the environment, democracy, and economic opportunity.  Our global (and national) economy ultimately needs sustainable, non-carbon based energy production and distribution system that can support a vibrant global economy that creates opportunity for the poor and economically disadvantaged.  I am very influenced by Bill McKibben’s assertion that our energy economy is on track to pump 2,795 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere - 5 times higher than the amount that will drive the 2 degree celsius global temperature increase that the world agreed was more than enough in Copenhagen in 2009. I’d love to find a factoid that comes from a more widely accepted voice, but net carbon production is a decent proxy for this goal for me for now, and think all serious people need to agree that we need to reduce it as fast as possible, while maintaining or reducing “return on energy” (energy consumption required to produce a unit of energy), the cost to all consumers everywhere, and any other negative externalities.

Sustainability:  Another of the world’s most important (and related) problems is sustainability.  Humanity’s use of resources has long outstripped the planet’s ability to provide them sustainably.  Whether its deforestation, soil erosion, fish stock depletion, etc. - the concern is that we are using resources future generations will need, and will not be able to restore or replace fast enough to sustain standards of living.  Currently, we use roughly 1.6 “earths” worth of resources (up from 1.5 when I wrote this in 2013) and we need to return to using no more than one earth worth of resources, whether that’s through reduced consumption and/or innovations that improve the earth’s “carrying capacity” and regardless of whether you believe the reasons to fix this are strictly utilitarian or whether you believe we have a moral obligation to preserve and restore the natural environment.  

There are many issues related to energy and sustainability that could be on this list, but many are hopelessly enmeshed in political and ideological debates, and a serious effort to create a viable, carbon-free energy future and sustainable means of living on the planet should address those issues as well.  

Debt:  We need to stabilize - and reduce - the ratio of total government debt (federal, state, and local) to GDP. Much more has been written about this elsewhere, including It rose rapidly during the Great Recession and its recovery and while that growth had slowed as of 2012, it still stood at the highest ratio since 1947 when we were paying down the costs of World War II - it stood at a post Great Recession low of 31% in 1981, and at 99% in 2012. I don't know what it should be, but the higher it is, the more constrained the options for government action to tackle our challenges.

Opportunity:  We need to build/repair the infrastructure of opportunity for all Americans, whatever that is, though I hope all Serious Americans can agree that it includes universal access to high quality preschool and educational opportunity (not necessarily through existing institutional providers or via existing funding mechanisms) - and transportation and other public infrastructure needed to enable all Americans' participation in the economy.  The United States has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility in the developed world
- contrary to our history and on-going self image as a society full of opportunity.
(link is 2009 OECD Economics Department Working Paper 707 that found "Low mobility across generations, as measured by a
close link between parent’s and children’s earnings, is particularly pronounced in the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States and France, while mobility is higher in the Nordic countries,
Australia and Canada."  

What else?  At this point I’m looking for interest in further conversation and suggestions about what belongs on this list - including serious argument that I’m wrong about some of these.  I certainly don’t want to be wrong.  My goal is to settle on a dozen or so accurate non-partisan and non-ideological statements and put them out there to see if we can get an ideologically and politically varied group to sign on.  If we can get that far, we can start talking among ourselves about what’s next. If you've read this far, please take a minute to fill in the survey.