“Is the sky blue?”
A seemingly simple question. How would you answer the question? If you ask my 4 year-old, he would look up at the sky to answer you. The simple answer would be yes. But, wait, what if it’s an overcast day? What if it’s raining all day? Or what if it’s storming for the first part of the day and then the skies clear later? What color is it then?
Well, the answer seems to be “it depends”. My officemate and I joke about that answer a lot. In the course of doing our job, an answer of “it depends” always makes us a little crazy. Programming a system to handle the “it depends” case is frustrating because no matter what you do or plan to do, the solution may be wrong. Or it may be right. It depends.
But take our simple question from the start…we can’t all agree on one answer. Therefore, we have no basic fact that we can all agree on. Now, that question is slightly more complicated, as we all know. The color of the sky depends on lots of chemical factors that I’m not smart enough to tell you about here. So, maybe that wasn’t the best example. What about this one: “Did the sun come up today?” Logically, of course it did. The Earth spins on its axis and each part of the world is exposed to the sun (that can be) per normal. But try telling a child that cannot see the sun everyday. Even an uninformed adult might argue with you because it’s not physically apparent to them. They can’t see it. Therefore, the answer to the basic question would be no.
An Historical Perspective
As most of you know, my wife is a professor of History. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from her over the years, history is not necessarily factual. The mantra seems to be that history is written by the “winners”. That is to say, the people that write about a war, for instance, are writing about it from the perspective of the winning side. Why would the writer not be from the losing side? Probably because they’re dead. There you go.
But, regardless of who wrote it, that history is written by human beings. Human beings that bring their own bias, their own perspective, their own experiences to the table. They write from inside their own head. They may even write when a gun is being held to that head. Why would that be? Because winners write history and I’m pretty sure the guy holding the gun is the winner in our little scenario. Are we getting it, ladies and germs?
Let’s take a specific example. Let’s talk about George Washington. What does George Washington look like? How do we (people who are living in 2011) know what he looked like? Historical portraits, right? That distinguished pose that we all know from our history textbooks. Or that pose so ingrained in our mind from the dollar bill. Seems pretty reasonable that this is what our first President actually looked like. But, these are portraits that had to be painted by a human being. How do we know the painter didn’t see him in a way others did not? How do we know he wasn’t influenced by something or someone else?
Would it surprise you to know that George Washington actually had a giant mole on his left cheek, right below his eye? Wait a minute, Lee, there are hundreds of portraits of Washington and not a single one shows this “flaw” on our first President. Well, think about what we’ve been talking about. If you are Washington and you know your face is going down in history as the first President of this new nation called the United States, why would you want your single biggest facial flaw to be shown for the rest of time? Why not have the painter(s) simply ignore that aspect and paint as if it were never there? Genius, right? But that, inherently, was not the truth. The truth was he had a very large mole on his face. Period. So, this seemingly factual image of Washington is actually fake, in a way. It’s not what he looked like. Does that not bother anyone? (See bottom of post for interesting anecdote.)
(Admission: I made the whole mole thing up. I have no evidence and/or have never heard anything to Washington having a mole anywhere on his face. But, it got some of you wondering in the back of your mind if you had missed something in history class, didn’t it? This is entirely my point. Facts can be “twisted.” Your knowledge of things known can be manipulated by anyone, even me.)
Current Political Landscape
This notion of truth (or lack thereof) rears its head most noticeably in our political system. Someone (and I honestly forget who) who was commenting on the presidential election of 2004 summed it up quite nicely: “In the past, we could agree on a starting set of facts, and then debate issues based on those facts. Today, we cannot even agree on the basic set of facts. How can we hope to move the political debate forward if agreement cannot be reached on those stated facts?” Never have truer words been spoken.
Let’s take the most recent example of this in our political culture. The dreaded birth certificate “debate.” How much time was wasted on trying to verify that Barack Obama was a natural born citizen of this country? How much time was wasted listening to and watching (the buffoon known as) Donald Trump go on every talk show, “news” show, and even “reality” show asking/demanding that the President’s birth certificate be publicly released? You heard that correctly, the sitting President (who has already been sworn in for two years) was being asked to show his own birth certificate to answer allegations that he was not an American citizen. Wherever you come from on the political scale, this was all based on the questioning of truth.
You would think that to even get to the point of being elected President that someone would have to evaluate these things. When Obama announced and officially registered to run for President, someone would have to check his bonafides. And even if that wasn’t done, when he won the election, don’t you think someone would check that the guy who was just elected President was actually eligible? But, apparently, those assumptions did not satisfy Donald Trump, Fox News, or any of the other millions of people in the country who questioned his nation of origin. So, what happened? He actually had to release this birth certificate to the world to prove that he was actually born in the United States. What happened next solidifies what we’re talking about here even more. As soon as Obama released it, there were people who questioned the validity of said birth certificate. Could it be faked? Who was trying to cover up this man’s birthplace? Maybe it’s the secret Muslim brotherhood, right?
Think about that. Even presented with the evidence of his birth certificate, people will still not believe this fact. So, we are left to ponder: What would have to happen to convince these people of this fact? What would they have to be presented with to persuade them that the truth is before them. In this instance, I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done to fully satisfy their notions of conspiracy.
Speaking of religion…
Who said anything about
Hitler religion? Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into my religion rant. Maybe we’ll save that for another day. But, the question of truth plays a unique role when it comes to religion. Let’s start with the basics. There are monotheistic religions that believe there is only one true god (examples: Christianity, Islam, Judaism). There are also polytheistic religions that believe there are many gods (example: Hinduism). That, in and of itself, is a paradox. If you believe in one of those religions, how can you know that your religion is right and all other religions are wrong? “Well, they just are,” I hear some of you saying. But, can’t a believer in one of the other religions say exactly the same thing? Who’s right? There’s no way to prove the rightness of either one of you.
So, what’s the point?
The point to all of this is that I’m not really sure we’re ever going to agree on anything. And that unnerves me. It even depresses me a little. We no longer have that basic set of facts that we can all agree on. Hell, did we ever have agreement? In the strict logic-based world that I live in, it’s very difficult for me to accept the notion that there may be no truth to hold on to. It’s a struggle that I live with everyday. Unfortunately, the only thing people leave me with when discussions arise is that I need to “get over it” because “that’s how it is.” Easier said than done.
By the way, the sky was blue today!
As I was writing this, Jayme walked in and started reading my as-yet-unfinushed draft. She told me an interesting story. Oliver Cromwell, a 17th-century leader of the English Puritan Republic, actually did have a really nasty (and hairy) mole on his face. The painter who was commissioned to paint his portrait actually did not paint the mole in the finished product. When Cromwell was presented with the painting, while amused, he ordered the painter to put the mole back in. He said, “The mirror is not kind to me, why should you be?” He wanted the truth, warts and all.