Thesis: Empirical evidence is required to find truth in memory, and preserve ‘facts’ related to definitions of identity. Collective memory, history and scientific theories, define the present self.
Diane Chasseur, is an independent researcher of para-fictions and philosopher of science. Today she will be speaking about how we find truth, and how those truths define our identity and place within culture.
Why should we care so much about finding ultimate truths, if we even can? As Jo explained our memories are fickle and unreliable narrators, and without hard empirical evidence, we should not believe everything that is told to us. Empirically acquired information is collected through observation, experience, and experiment and, ideally, serves as neutral arbiters between competing theories to define a reliable truth. What evidence of this kind do we really have to prove that man landed on the moon fifty years ago?
The way we define truth can also be done without empirical evidence, and can be full of biases, influence from social structures and conformity with others, which leads us to establish our beliefs, and our identity but ways of social trust. We currently live in a world of scientific realism, where through social trust of scientists, leaders and governments, we believe all current dominant scientific theories are true (or approximately true) but we can look to the not so recent history to see that that has not always been the case. Pessimistic meta-induction undermines this epistemic optimism in relation to anti-realism and is perhaps the way forward. Looking to today’s misinformation age, where technologies influence our memories and understanding of truth, what role does cynicism have to play in establishing truth in relation to conspiracy theories.
What value can we find in looking at outside the dominant theories in hopes of defining the truths which establish our identities.
Part 1: Social Trust
Human knowledge is deeply social. We learn from each other and use the information other shares to define our knowledge of the world, and this social trust defines our identity. Trusting things other people tell us is something we do all the time. This is how culture has always been established, through person to person relationships. We are, and always have been inclined to trust another, since this is how we learn and communicate.
But how do we decide who is trustworthy, especially in the current age of misinformation? We have each developed our own ways of doing this on the personal level, but ultimately we look to the people who are most like us, to find trustworthiness, and we are less trusting to people who are unlike ourselves. In the past all knowledge was transferred via a hierarchy, from those with authority, established by privilege and wealth to those without. But with the rise of the internet information age, more voices found their communities, and because of this, we have built communities around our like minded beliefs.
In science and history, this sharing has always come about as an individual sharing evidence, and then they draw their conclusions, which we are inclined to trust and then we make our own beliefs. But what about those who are less inclined to trust? This can extend to political groupings, religion and “conspiracy theories”, (like that the moon landing was faked), or beliefs which we find different than our own. These have been prevalent in history but today they are labeled as fake news, and we just aren’t designed to handle fake news, as an inherently trusting species. But really conspiracy theorists are just another community who see the moon landing as real as a non-truth. These social groupings are often a large part of our identity and lead to mistrust of information.
This is an especially important distinction when it comes to events or experiences which are not necessarily universal. There are only a handful of first hand accounts of actually walking on the moon, and only a few hundred thousand that the mission happened. That leaves millions of people who are outside of this community, who did not have first hand experience of the truth in question.
So when someone reports an experience that we can’t experience directly, we want to learn from this, but since truth can be so easily manipulated, should we just blindly trust the information, or should we look for our own evidence to question it? Social factors, rather than individual psychology, are essential to understanding how truth and misinformation is spread.
Part 2: Pessimistic meta-induction and Anti-Realism
Since, historically, we have been inclined to find truth in the information shared to us, and we cannot experience/investigate every theory firsthand, we established a world of scientific realism. In this world, we believe that scientific theories are true (or approximately true) because we have established and found authenticity in scientists via our social trust, groupings and hierarchies.
Pessimistic meta-induction undermines this epistemic optimism and is perhaps the way to move forward in developing our understanding of the world and ourselves, free from hierarchical baggage. The pessimistic meta-induction argument was first fully postulated by Larry Laudan in 1981. Using meta-inductive reasoning, rather than deductive reasoning, Larry Laudan argues that if past scientific theories which were successful were found to be false, we have no reason to believe the realist’s claim that our currently successful theories are true or approximately true.
We can look to the not so recent history to see that that has not always been the case, and scientific beliefs we once found to be true are completely erroneous. Ie. handwashing, the flat earth, hollow earth, pluto as a planet, the list could go on into thousands of examples. Overtime we have found new scientific concensouses, superseding these earlier theories, but what is notable about all our current theories on these topics, is that they started out in opposition to dominant beliefs, you might even call them ‘conspiracy theories’. If some of these past conspiracies have turned out to be truthful in the past, what prevents current theories from being proven truthful in the future. That we just cannot predict and maybe there was some foul play in the “moon landings’ which we have not fully found the reasoning for yet.
Philosopher Micheal Dummett proposes that “a statement about the past is rendered true or false only by evidence available to the speaker at the time of asserting it.” implying that the only evidence we can truly believe is in first hand knowledge based on empirical experience. “That individual takes the memory to their grave, then when the witness dies it ceases to be true that the event took place”. However, this is not how we have socially come to find truth in information, and while that statement might find truth in the evidence, when a community takes that evidence, they develop it to find meaning and usefulness with the evidence. This idea of finding truth from individual interpretation allows from any voices to become an authority on a subject. In political theory, or political philosophy, John Locke refuted the theory of the divine right of kings and argued that all persons are endowed with natural rights to life, liberty, and property and ultimately there can be authority found in many.
While Dummett ultimately argues against many aspects of Anti-realism, in theory we can conclude that the truth of a statement rests on its demonstrability through our internal logic mechanisms which are, ultimately, a part of our identities. So as we receive information socially from many authorities, in the search for truth it is ultimately up to us to individually question everything as we continue to move forward as a culture in search of truth.
Part 3: Machineries of Memory and role of artist
Looking to today, technologies influence on our memories and understanding of truth as we receive our evidence not through physical first hand accounts, but socially through these technologies. Human memory and interpretation is fallibile as Bruce M Ross states ‘…a purely cognitive memory must belong either to a robot or to an inert database.’ Unlike machines, human memory is designed for information retrieval, not for information storage. So we must consider the authenticity of our evidence in relation to time and kind, to assess its usefulness.
George Steiner reflects in In Bluebeard’s Castle. Somes Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture, that “it is not the literal past that rules us…. It is images of the past” often as highly structured myths passed through human knowledge, or of late as data stored in machines. Walter Benjamin argues that each human sensory perspective is not completely biological or natural, it is also historical inn ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. We perceive change, and shifting truths alongside social changes, or changes in ‘humanity’s entire mode of existence’. In the reproduction of evidence, truthfulness is not the same, like a work of art looking it’s aura through reproduction. Because this is how we often receive our evidence for our beliefs, via inference from mechanical and technical reproductions, video and photographs. We can only experience a moon landing through the images, video and audio that prevails, but how trust worthy of sources are those really?
Today, the construction and operation of machine memory is fully understood, as it has been completely generated by us, as opposed to human systems, our brain, which we are continuing to learn about. This may make machine memory more trustworthy in some instances, but it also allows for manipulation of information, which we can see lead to catastrophic results, if we are not critical of it.
In conclusion, finding universal truths may seem a futile practice as we fight against our inefficient human memories, social bias and incomplete understanding of ourselves and the world around us. However, by questioning the status quo, we may be able to find new truths in old theories as we forge ahead with pessimistic induction, even epistemic optimism is a lot easier to go along with. Questioning who holds authority and who we trust can generate more truthful truths, and allow us to find community in cultures built on these truths. By finding truth in multiple communities, there is not just true and untrue, but rather many truths made from many perspectives which may transcend our knowledge of the truth. By analyzing and questioning the collective memory we call history and science, our personal narratives in relation to these histories can become a navigational tool in defining our identity.
Furthermore, As technology continues to challenge our understanding of truth and ways we interpret information, we must also adapt to become more critical of the evidence itself, and find value in truths we first find outside the dominant theories defining our own identities. As artists looking to represent truths related to our identities, we must challenge the accepted truths and dominant narratives within the cultures we are a part of.
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