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.
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.
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 thinking 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.