A Commitment to Truth

A Commitment to Truth January 29, 2017

It’s barely been a week and I’m already struggling to maintain the sovereignty of my mind. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not starting to believe “alternative facts” (aka lies). But there is so much to be outraged about, my friends are understandably outraged, they’re communicating their outrage, and I’m getting outraged too. Outrage is not a sustainable condition.

So I’m not going to go into a long setup about why I have a commitment to truth. You know why I’m writing this… and if you don’t, go read the last five blog posts and then turn on the news.

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Facts are sacred. To be sacred is to be set apart, to be special, to be non-ordinary. Facts are sacred because they stand alone – they’re not dependent on anyone’s thoughts and feelings about them.

Facts may need to be verified before we will accept them as facts, but they are facts whether we accept them or not. Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick said “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Facts don’t disappear because you deny them – ignore them at your peril.

Facts are sacred and they deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect due the sacred.

I have a commitment to follow where the facts lead. Facts stand alone, but they do not stand in isolation. Rather, they stand in the context of other facts and theories. We are taught from early childhood to “connect the dots” and see a bigger picture. In science we are taught to arrange facts into a hypothesis and then to test the hypothesis.

Things we assume are facts may, under closer examination, turn out to be false. They may turn out to be strongly held opinions. And they may change over time. This presents a challenge for us. We get comfortable with our theories about the way the world works, we order our lives around those theories, and we don’t want to change.

But if our lives are to be honest and authentic, we have an obligation to follow where the facts lead, even if they lead us to places that are inconvenient and uncomfortable.

Truth is built on facts. Follow the facts closely enough and for long enough and you begin to encounter truth. Now, philosophers and theologians have debated the meaning of truth for millennia. Some religions claim they are in sole possession of truth. I find their arguments unconvincing, in large part because they are built on historicized myths and value judgments, not on facts.

I see truth as the reliable conclusion of a series of facts. “If you do X and Y, then Z will happen.” Whether Z is a good thing or a bad thing is irrelevant. For too many people, things that conform to their values are assumed to be true. They have it backwards. If our values are to be honest, we must build them on what is true.

I have a commitment to use sound logic and to avoid fallacies. Building truth from facts and values from truth requires logic, a careful and meticulous approach to examining facts and their relationships to other facts. The antithesis to logic is a fallacy – thinking that sounds good and feels good but that a careful examination will show to be false.

We heard a lot of red herrings during the Presidential campaign – irrelevant speculation designed to cast aspersions on other candidates. False equivalence runs rampant through our conversation on social change, with arguments that because problems are minor annoyances for some they can’t be major obstacles for others.

Instincts and intuition are wonderful things. They helped our most ancient ancestors survive in harsh conditions where there was no time for careful analysis, and they often lead us to deeply meaningful experiences and discoveries. But they are no substitute for rational thinking, particularly where public policy is concerned.

I have a commitment to deal honestly with unpleasant facts. Ignoring inconvenient, unpleasant, or even harmful facts isn’t going to make things better. There’s a 40-year-old Doctor Who quote going around:

“You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common,” the Doctor said. “They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views.”

That quote isn’t exactly right even though it’s mostly true. The very stupid ignore the facts, cling to their mistaken ideas about the way the world is or the way they think it should be, and suffer the consequences when the facts smack them in the face.

The very powerful ignore the facts, cling to their mistaken ideas about the way the world is or the way they think it should be, and then don’t suffer the consequences. Sometimes they’re powerful enough to change the facts. Most times, though, they simply isolate themselves from the consequences. And then, not content with enjoying the benefits of their privilege, they attempt to force others to ignore the facts – others who cannot avoid the consequences of embracing falsehoods.

I have a commitment to change facts that are unhelpful, unfair, or unjust. “That’s just the way it is” may be true, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. “It’s the law” may be a fact, but desperate people who do desperate things don’t always deserve our condemnation.

Our values must be grounded in facts and truth, but facts and truth have led me and many others to value compassion and justice. If facts are uncompassionate and unjust, let’s change them. If they can’t be changed, let’s change other facts to make them irrelevant.

I have a commitment to oppose denial of facts and truth. People of good will can disagree – sometimes vehemently – about what is good and helpful versus what is bad and harmful. We can disagree about where a certain course of action – or inaction – is likely to lead us. Sometimes the facts are so obscured or so complicated that all we can do is make a choice, see where it leads, and hope we’ll be able to reverse course if it turns out to be a bad choice.

But facts are sacred and truth is built on facts. Those who deny facts and promote falsehood are attacking the foundations of a healthy society. By refusing to deal with unpleasant facts, they expose our society to severe consequences – consequences that will be felt most heavily by the poor and vulnerable.

Politicians are known for overpromising and underdelivering, for stretching the truth, and for dancing around difficult questions. They are masters at telling people what they want to hear. This is an unpleasant fact I would like to change, though given human nature I rather doubt that’s possible. But blatantly denying facts, making serious accusations supported by no facts, and promoting untruths as facts cross a dangerous line, even by the low standards of politicians.

If we are to maintain our sovereignty in the coming years, we must have a commitment to finding facts, to accepting facts, and to following the facts where ever they may lead. We need a commitment to truth.

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