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Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Impossibility Of Truth - Life In A Post-Objective World

Americans on the Left slam Fox News for its bias, unfair and distorted reporting, and blinkered support of the conservative Right.  Those on the Right levy the same criticisms against the New York Times, MSNBC, and The Nation.

Where, both sides ask, is fair and balanced reporting? Objective treatment of the facts, and broadcasting free from incendiary, self-serving hysteria?

Yet who ever said that there was any such thing as objectivity? It is human nature to distort facts, to be biased, to extract only selective memories to bolster arguments and points of view, and to see only what personality, character, genetic disposition, and upbringing dictate.

It is also human nature to defend one’s territory, expand it where possible, accumulate the greatest stores of resources,  and create indomitable centers of power. The struggles for power among European nations in the 16th century are good examples; but such self-interest is no different for families, communities, or tribes.


The definition of community has been significantly expanded through virtual reality.   Social media have encouraged thousands of electronic friendships, enabled a broad marketplace for opinion and conviction; and in so doing created new virtual territories to defend.  Social, political, religious, cultural, economic, and environmental causes are defended on Facebook no less aggressively than in ‘the real world’.

The combination of the very human tendency to distort, imagine, or recreate past events; and the equally human drive for establishing and expanding territory and arrogating worth and power to oneself within it, is a perfect storm of subjectivity.  Objectivity – if there really is such a thing – can never withstand its winds.

Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon all tell the same story from differing perspectives.  Increasing scientific inquiry into the nature of perception and the infidelity of eye-witness accounts has forced jurists to rethink what evidence should be permissible at trial.  In a recent, well-publicized case, despite the absolute conviction of witnesses that they saw a white male, large ears, and goatee point a gun out the window of a Buick LeSabre and shoot Robert Leggings, they saw no such thing.

Image result for images rashomon
Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, provided surprising evidence in a recent interview on NPR’s Ted Talks.
Fraser researches what's real and what's selective when it comes to human memory and crime. He focuses on the fallibility of human memory and encourages a more scientific approach to trial evidence. He has testified in criminal and civil cases throughout the U.S. in state and federal courts.
In 2011 Fraser was involved in the retrial of a 1992 murder case in which Francisco Carrillo was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences in prison. Fraser and the team that hired him staged a re-enactment of the night in question, and they showed the testimonies that had put Carrillo in jail were unreliable. After 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Carrillo was free.
Not only were the testimonies of the eyewitnesses in question, what they said they saw had no bearing whatsoever on reality.

Scholarly research into the nature of memory has shown that the process of reconstructing past events is dependent on many different parts and functions of the brain; and by the time the memory is assembled, it may have little to do with reality.
Memory is never a literal recount of past experiences, rather it is dependent on the constructive processes present at the time of Encoding that are subject to potential errors and distortions. Essentially, the constructive memory process functions by encoding the patterns of physical characteristics that are perceived by the individual, as well as the interpretive conceptual and semantic functions that act in response to the incoming information.
By utilizing multiple interdependent cognitive processes there is never a single location in the brain where a given complete memory trace of an experience is stored. In this manner, the various features of the experience must be joined together to form a coherent representation of the episode and if this binding process fails it can result in source memory failure, where later attempted retrieval of the episode results in fragmented recollection and an inability to consolidate the information into a cohesive narrative of a past experience.
During the recall of Episodic memory, the information that a person remembers is usually limited in scope, ultimately giving an incomplete recollection of an event. By employing reconstructive processes, individuals supplement other aspects of available personal knowledge into the gaps found in episodic memory in order to provide a fuller and more coherent version, albeit one that is often distorted (‘Reconstructive Memory’, Wikipedia)
There are several different types of what are called ‘memory errors’, in which people may inaccurately recall details of events that did not occur, or they may simply misattribute the source of a memory. In other instances, imagination of a certain event can create confidence that such an event actually occurred.

Causes of such memory errors may be due to certain cognitive factors, such as spreading activation, or to physiological factors, including brain damage, age or emotional factors.  Some researchers have suggested that up to 90 percent of memories are ‘fill-ins’.  Although we may remember an accurate fragment of a past event, other people’s recollections of it and/or environmental influences (old photographs, movies, literature) our eventual recall and retelling of the event.  In other words it is really a composite of many irrelevant additions.

Considerable psycho-social and cognitive research has gone on in the past few decades to explain the persistent and seemingly growing phenomenon of conspiracy theories.  Ordinarily reasonable and logical people discard reason and objectivity in favor of a subjectivity which suits their own ends or agendas.

Why, then, do people go off the logical rails and look for answers in the realm of fantasy? Some of the earliest work on the subject in the 60s was by Hofstadter who suggested psychopathology:
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.
Image result for images richard hofstadter
Later researchers turned to what they felt were more compelling social factors.  How, they argued, could psychopathology be the principal cause of conspiracy theories when there were so many of them?
A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.
A more persuasive argument is that “conspiracy theories afford adherents a means of maintaining self-esteem, coping with persecution, reasserting individualism, or expressing negative feelings”; and an even more persuasive one suggests that “conspiracy theories emerged because of ‘an irrational need to explain big and important events with proportionately big and important causes’”

In other words, 9/11 is simply too big an even and too world-altering to be explained only by citing the various social-economic, religious, and political factors that led up to it.  There simply had to be radical, supra-global causes to explain it.  When combined with the theory of powerlessness – the total insignificance of the individual in this Armageddon-like event – plus Hofstadter’s psychopathology (extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism), this makes total sense.

There is no such thing as an objective, neutral media source.

Even that most respected institution, the BBC World Service is run by human directors.  News items are chosen by human editors; and reporting is done by very human presenters.  The overall philosophy of the corporation, the selection of news items to be included in broadcasting, and the take on the news by presenters is biased. 

The New York Times for decades was published under the banner “All the news that’s fit to print”.  It was considered for years as the American paper of record.  It was commended for its separation of editorial policy and objective news reporting.  But this separation is fictitious, for the editor and publisher must choose what of the news is fit to print.

Give human nature and the impossibility of neutrality and objectivity, why not drop all claims to them?  Let Fox News be as blatantly and hysterically conservative as ever; and let MSNBC, Bill Maher, and the editors of The Nation do their own arrogant, sarcastic, and sanctimonious liberal rants.

The American justice system is a good model.  Jurisprudence does not rely on a truth, but only on which truth the jury believes.  The confrontational, dialectic, and argumentative legal process has always been considered the fairest means of dispensing justice of any.

The job of voters is not to determine the truth in what politicians say, but which version of it most coincides with theirs. 

The conviction that there is in fact such a thing as the truth leads to intolerance, divisiveness, and acrimony.  True believers pollute reasonable colloquy and debate more than anyone.  Those who hide behind “I-disagree-with-what-you-say-but-defend-your-right-to-say-it” but find it impossible to say, “You might be right” are the biggest factors contributing to divisiveness.

Disinterest and nihilism are two different things.  One can drop one’s insistence on truth and objectivity without falling into the chasm of meaninglessness. A perceptually iffy world is not necessarily one without God or purpose. 

The Presidential campaign of 2016 was one of the best yet because the most popular candidate was a vaudevillian, a carny barker, a clown, a snake-oil salesman, and one canny, savvy operator.  Donald Trump is so American.  We have taken image, virtuality, fantasy and subjectivity to an entirely new level.   We are already in a post-objective phase of reality.


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