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A vehicle for venting on philosophy, religion, and the general state of things. Proprietor: C. W. Powell

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Cherry Picking and Truth


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This blog has been revised and updated.

This is to continue the theme of my last blog. Because it is impossible to know everything about anything we resort to "cherry picking." President Bush was accused of "cherry picking" the facts concerning intelligence prior to the war with Iraq in order to gather those facts which would justify entry into the war. Cherry picking one set of facts, some come to the conclusion that Bush is very evil and lied to get us into a war with a nation that was no threat to us. Cherry picking another set of facts, some conclude that he is a saint and a great American hero for having the courage to face evil and spare our nation from that evil.

But what else was he to do in the modern intellectual climate? Literally millions and millions of factoids are gathered every day by the sophisticated electronic and photographic intelligence, people on the ground, agents in other countries, and the intelligence of other countries that is shared with the United States. How is this organized? I suspect that it is filtered and reviewed electronically first by computers to sort out what appears to be relevant and reports are printed. These are further analyzed for "relevance." Then people look at them and put together reports for other people to look at. Along the way literally millions and millions of facts are discardeded. Who is to know what relevant factoid may be in that mass of discarded information? How is relevance decided? At what point in the long, long continuum from knowing nothing to knowing everything does the information become true? And even with our great technology, how far are we from knowing everything?

To change the illustration: in the millions and millions of factoids about people's lives, how does the historian decide what factoids are important? What filter does he use? Has he read all the books? The simple truth is that the further we go back the fewer are the sources. What do we know about the daily lives of the people of Europe in the first century after Christ? How many sources are there? How many firepits dug up, how many dwellings have been excavated? How much information is lost completely, and how much information is still buried and will never be found? How can such things be known? If we knew more about Gaul we might conclude that Caesar was justified in killing a million or so of them. At what point in the long, long continuum from knowing nothing to knowing everything does the information become the truth? If we cannot understand that, then what is the purpose for history?

Gilbert's policeman did not have a happy lot because as he put it: "When a 'coster's finished jumping on his mother, he loves to lie a-basking in the sun." If all we knew about the man was that he loved to get a good sun-tan we might think him a jolly good fellow, but one other factoid--the fact that he regularly assaults his mother--changes our perspective. On the other hand, additional information about his mother might change again our perspective on whether he might be justified in beating on his mother. At what point in the long, long continuum from knowing nothing to knowing everything does the information about the 'coster become the truth?

But what if character is revealed by what facts you choose to "believe." If I believe that my character is revealed by the facts I choose to "believe" and yours is revealed the same way, then I can be certain that I am a good guy by carefully cherry-picking. You will be convinced that you are a good guy, too, by carefully cherry-picking another set of facts, how are we ever to talk to each other? At what point in the long, long continuum from knowing nothing about ourselves to knowing everything about ourselves does the information about ourselves become the truth? If we compare ourselves among ourselves are we wise?

Still another illustration. Darwin was certain that the "fossil record" would prove the truth of evolution. So for a hundred years or so, millions and millions of dollars and man/woman hours have been spent assembling the "fossil record." It seems to be more and more elusive the farther we go. But have we only scatched the surface? How many milliions and millions of bones and petrified objects and other objects of interest lie beneath the ground and beneath the oceans, or even in the oceans. What lies fourteen thousand feet under Pikes Peak? At what point in the long, long continuum from knowing nothing to knowing everything does the information become the truth?

Still another illustration. Does the truth of a proposition lie in its utility, as "evolution is true because it enables us to explain things we couldn't explain before"? If so, then what keeps magic from being a reliable tool for explanation. Why can't a curse be the reason for the calf having two heads, or the house burning down, or the hail destroying the crops? Could homosexuality be the result of a curse, or is it a blessing? But, science doesn't permit the supernatural, does it? No, but who is to say a curse is supernatural. Why cannot a curse have a perfectly natural explanation? Is it even possible to define a curse? People lie, and may pretend to cast curses when they cannot do so. Are there those who can? Does a pretended curse have the same effect as a real curse if the person cursed believes he is cursed? Maybe, but maybe examining a curse has the same effect as observing a photon: the observation changes the properties. If that would be true we would have no way of knowing whether the curse was cast or if it was a real curse at all or not. Has all the information been gathered about curses? What effect does bad language have on plants and children and people and pets? Maybe there are forces and influences in the world that "natural" science hasn't studied and cannot study because observation changes the properties of that which is studied. Why is this unreasonable? Some work has been done on the paranormal, but what are we to make of such things? The Bible and other ancient sources say a great deal about curses. Hiel felt the effect of the curse of Joshua many years later, when he rebuilt the city of Jericho. Noah cursed the Canaanites. Have all the curses been studied? At what point in the long, long continuum from knowing nothng about witchcraft to knowing everything does the information become the truth? To reject it out of hand is to go against the testimony of a great many people. By what art is that rejection done?

Is the only solution agnosticism? Is there nothing that can be known for certain? One young postmodern expressed it this way, "There is nothing I would die for, because I might be wrong." Is this the way the world ends, not with a sigh, but a whimper?
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