Quid est veritas

Apologies that if this post is a little choppy I’m writing on my mobile.

Amongst human beings there are many different methods for classifying information as true or perhaps valid versus not-true or invalid (which depending on your schema may not be untrue). One that is of enduring interest to me is the evaluation of truth or validity claims according to how much status belief or agreement will impart.

I’m not saying it’s a “good” way to make the distinction, but we have to admit it is probably the most popular. Nor is it simply a matter of believing whatever the ingroup you want to improve status with believes. That would be far too easy and easy things lead to status inflation.

Instead a set of rules are created for making validity evaluations, those who simply agree with the judgement of the group are in the lowest tier of status within the group. At higher levels it depends on ability to navigate the complex rules and making determinations of validity for the group.

At the very highest level of status people can actually change the rules by which truth is defined within the group, but if this is attempted without enough status it can lead to a loss of status or worse even splitting or disintegration of the group itself.

I am quite convinced that this status based method of evaluating ideas is the most important for most people. It’s a bit more complex than that, because we’re rarely only navigating our position in one group, we have to position ourselves in many different communities and identities. What strikes me about it though is how actually useless it is on the face of it for determining truth combined with how useful it has proven to be on a whole species level. Which is something I’d like to talk about more when I’m at a real keyboard.

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Nodnol

not really :P
About to face a select committee!

Parliamentary Outreach Drop In Session

So I was in London for about half of last week, part of what I did there was go to a drop in session run by the Parliamentary Outreach Service. I’d really recommend anyone who gets a chance to go along to one of these (they do them across the country, not just in London and it’s completely free). The session was held in Portcullis House which has a sort of airport style security at the front desk. Once you get through security they give you an “escorted visitor” pass which means you can go to the room you are there for and nowhere else in the building. The room that my session was in was the Wilson Room (shown above) which is right next to the Thatcher room in front of which a bunch of fellows were hanging about waiting to go inside, maybe they really were there to face a select committee!

The session itself had some problems, first whoever was responsible for setting up the room sent the materials to the wrong place. Next the presentation was missing. Despite this the lovely lady who gave the talk took it all in her stride and loosely based it around a talk she gave to a specific group and answers to peoples questions. We learned a lot about select committees which is why they’re on my mind 😉 . We were told that a group of people can get together to nominate someone to be made a Lord and then the Lords Appointments Commission can make them one, usually if they’re an expert in some particular specialist field. We learned various ways that members of the public can work to have a particular topic discussed in parliament and other methods of grassroots lobbying. It was very interesting and really made me feel inspired to try and be a more engaged citizen.

I even wrote to my MP about something that night, but then I remembered that the commons are on recess. Still I feel a lot more fired up about trying to make a difference and even more so about sharing with other people the information that if they put in the work and if we are willing to co-operate with others we can be engaged with our democracy. I am very much of the opinion that the functioning of democracy is contingent on peoples willingness to be educated about the political process and engage with it.

 

British Museum


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The other thing I did in London is visit the British Museum. The British Museum was perhaps a more reflective experience. I wandered around (I wanted to see everything but I was there for 5 or 6 hours not including a break for lunch and I only just covered half the ground I wanted to and I rushed through some things). My first thoughts were “man I wish we still had an empire” and “we stole so much cool stuff!” But as time went on I settled into a more sombre frame of mind as I contemplated the fragility of human societies and civilisations. What really did it was looking at the giant pillars of the museum juxtaposed with the pillars of various Ancient Greek ruins. I think the museum itself invites that sort of comparison in it’s design and it made me think… “some day far (or maybe not so far?) in the future will the pillars from this museum be in some other museum somewhere as a faint record of the once glorious British civilisation, now but an echo from the past, a quaint memory of something hardly understood?”

I found myself thiWhat is it?No ideanking a lot about the fact that we have so many artefacts from so many civilisations but only a faint concept of how people, even from the fairly recent past, thought and felt and related to these artefacts. We have of course some idea, especially for societies which have written language, but there is a barrier there. Even in literate societies up until very recently there was a sharp cultural divide between those who were literate and partook in high culture and those who weren’t. What about those who weren’t, how did they relate to their society and the things it has left behind? A great many artefacts were of a religious nature, statues of goddesses and demons, holy men and angels. It really is remarkable how utterly alien some of these religions are. We take a lot of things for granted, about morality, about the nature of the universe, about the right way to interact with others and with the spirit world. As heirs to an enlightenment with a deep universalist and deist root it is easy for us to imagine all religions are the same, basically teach the same things, which is to be a “good person” which roughly equates to “be nice to others” – but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that that is far from the truth. When you look at some of these terrible and fascinating forms you can’t help but long to be able to get inside the heads of their worshippers, to know why they revered things so very different from anything we are used to.

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Invisible People

Campaign for Boring Development

Howard French once noted that,  “as a matter of convention, we constantly say and write things about Africa that would be unimaginable with any other continent.”

Just imagine the scale of the international media storm that would’ve ensued if the UN Refugee Agency had put out a press release warning that:

…funding difficulties, compounded by security and logistical problems, have forced cuts in food rations for nearly 800,000 refugees in Europe, threatening to worsen unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia, particularly in children.

But, of course, this UNHCR/WFP Urgent Appeal wasn’t for refugees in Europe.

It was for Africa.

And so newspaper editors near and far felt perfectly at ease passing over the story or picking out 65 words of it to run in World Briefs section on page B17.

The story barely made a ripple.

We’re not dealing with anonymous people starving out in the bush. We’re dealing with people whose names have been registered by the…

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The dancing statue

A couple of years ago I read a book called Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy by Lev Shestov which inspired me to read Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard.

I think when we read something depending on what is on our minds we can get very different things out of it, so I do not claim the central themes of either work were this, but what I got out of them was the idea “dare to hope”.

Shestov goes into great detail about a worldview that almost certainly we all share, which he associates with the Greeks, the philosophers. Using the tools of reason and empiricism we seek to and have fantastic success at understanding the world – and in understanding the world we discover terrible things. We discover the impossible – we discover that not only must we die, on its own a tragedy – but worse, that it could not be otherwise, the nature of the universe makes our death a banal inevitability, a hardly noteworthy, yet harshly immovable, fact.

Then he (and I think both of them) do something that makes you feel almost confused, they suggest with what seems to be audacity, that you should hope that this banal truth, is not in fact true. That we should dare to hope that it could in fact be otherwise, despite every physical law of the universe protesting, despite the fact everything we know to be true about life sternly shaking its head. Maybe death is not inevitable?

Oh but death is inevitable, from the cellular to the civilisational level life screams its finiteness at every turn. From the impending death of the sun, to the entropy death of the universe, from the collapse of Rome to the quiet fading away of a sick octogenarian.

Bodily resurrection? A laughable absurdity, we know it, everything tells the same story. They knew it then too, in ancient times, when writing was as novel as vlogging, there was much they didn’t understand but they knew that much, so much closer to the land than us, they saw what really became of the body, that we are all food for something. Did they imagine their transfigured bodies emerging like a butterfly from the carrion? Our bodies are built from the same matter as other bodies, we don’t admit to cannibalism but we have eaten our dead.

How can we dare to hope that everything is false? When we know it is true, when it serves us so well as truth. And yet people have believed. That is the astonishing thing. That anyone could have even a tiny speck, an atom, a neutrino of faith.

Dare to hope, dare even to believe…

I have never managed to believe, and hardly have the strength to hope – but it is such an intriguing thought. And it reminds me of another impossible hope, more abstract but deeply emotive for me. The idea of peace. A time when the lion can lay with the lamb and yet retain it’s lion-ness. No concept of a lion as I can imagine can do this, because as soon as I make it do it (for I can command my imagination to force the image of a lion to do anything I wish) it becomes less an image of a lion. A lion is what it is, and it’s majesty requires it to be what it is, it is right and proper that a lion does what a lion does. To have peace is to destroy so much that is good, and a sterile peace is not what I dream of when I dream of peace.

Peace, the right kind, for me is to “square the circle”, just as immortality is. Yet sometimes on a cold clear night, or a bright sunny day, when my heart is light and the world seems somehow more colourful – I dare to hope. Maybe death is not an inevitability, maybe true harmony – peace without annihilation – will someday dawn. Maybe we could grow and change – and last forever.

Does it matter to us now, as grey clouds obscure the sun, while we do our taxes and eat our dead? I think it matters, a lot.