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What to Believe?

A man name Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States: a fact. Eisenhower was a part of humanity's visual experience and is recorded history.

A man commonly known as Jesus was crucified almost two thousand years ago. We have reports of him from his contemporaries and we have reports of his trial and execution.

Was Jesus resurrected? We have reports of this, but these reports might be hearsay rather than real observations. And resurrection is not something that has been widely corroborated empirically.

Was Barrack Obama born in Kenya? Evidence points to his having been born in the Hawaiian Islands.

Was President Kennedy assassinated by an agent of Fidel Castro? No available body of factual evidence indicates this.

Closer to the Truth

We may encounter a claim that involves a body of facts, some perhaps true and some not. To quote John Stuart Mill: "the general or prevailing opinion in any subject is rarely or never the whole truth."

In my opinion we should hold to ideas built on specifics, on facts drawn from recent research rather grab onto ideology. "Most isms," it has been said (by John Lennon, perhaps), "should become wasms."

For example, you may think Marxism has been the best overall view of political reality. Marx built his point of view on a lot of observations that his partner Engels claimed to be science (sociology?). It included the Labor Theory of Value and it included a solution: communism. But maybe Marx was closer to truth only in a statement here or there. In my opinion one's solution to social and political problems, conventional or radical, should not be derived from any authority or celebrity figure or any ideological whole. It should be what it is: our own collection of specifics. In thinking about the world around us we need to be our own sociologist and strive to put our specifics together with veracity.

Science is built on collections of observations, each observation a verifiable simplicity – nothing grandiose. All claims turgid in prose and all generalizations (including those embodied in scientific claims) deserve to be scrutinized for overreach. An example of overreach I heard just yesterday from a PBS documentary on civilization and Egypt. A contributor to the program described religion as "the glue that holds society together." Peter Turchin, who also appears in the documentary, writes of his "powerful macrohistorical generalization" in his book War & Peace & War (page 55), but he limits his generalization to specific circumstances.


CONTINUE READING: Knowledge and Progress

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