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Monday, 27 March 2017

What is a Belief?

"Alternative facts" became a controversial phrase on 22 January 2017 (just yesterday, as I’m writing the first draft of this) when it was uttered by a White House representative talking about inauguration crowd sizes.1 It provides an interesting backdrop for writing about another important concept.

Two robots are discussing the truth of two conflicting arithmetical statements.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of establishing some basic terminology and started by providing a definition of truth.2 I’ll consider a statement to be true if it refers to something in the present or in the past (i.e. not the future), and the statement is consistent with reality (i.e. what actually happens, happened, exists or existed). “It rained yesterday” can be true if it actually happened. “It will rain tomorrow” cannot be true because it’s about the future. “The pizza tasted great” cannot be declared as true because it’s an opinion and not an assertion about objective (i.e. opinion-free) reality. On the other hand, “I think that the pizza tasted great” can certainly be true because it can be a real reflection of the current state of one’s thoughts.

There’s a related concept that deserves attention as well: belief. Here are a couple of definitions:

  • “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing”3
  • “An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof”4

You might see from these that belief can be a broader, less stringent concept than truth. Belief can include opinions:

  • It will rain tomorrow.
  • The pizza was great. 

are expressions of someone’s opinion. They’re examples of beliefs, but they’re not eligible to be true statements.

  • Our team won yesterday.
  • Gravity keeps objects on the ground.

are beliefs as well. However, these ones are also potentially true statements.

My intention is to use the terms that way. Belief and believe will be used as broader terms to capture the notion of something being held as an opinion, however strongly. You can hold and declare any beliefs that you like:

  • Trees have leaves.
  • Dragons have wings.
  • Dogs talk with a British accent.
  • Lizards like modern art.

These are statements that are all eligible to be true, if they can be shown to align with reality (good luck with that). All of them can also be beliefs, in this case regardless of reality. Beliefs don’t have to be true—they just have to be believed. Truth and true will be held to a much higher standard. They’re not intended to be used to describe statements about things that cannot be (or could never have been) objectively verified as existing (or having existed) or happening (or having happened).

“Fascinating, Cal, but so what?”

Yes, I heard you thinking that. Well, I might not have heard the “fascinating” part but, nonetheless, so what?

Here’s the challenge: As we head further into discussions about finding the truth, it’s important to understand the distinction so we can make meaningful statements without confusing each other. For example, it’s easy to find beliefs—just ask anyone what they thought of the game last night or what the weather forecast is for tomorrow. Done. Finding the truth can be much harder. You could say “The deepest part of all the oceans is the Mariana Trench” and I could accept that both as your belief and as a potentially true statement. Whether it’s actually true could be a much tougher assignment, but at least I know that it’s the type of statement that could be. You could say “The sky is blue and gorgeous today,” and we could legitimately discuss whether “the sky is blue” is a true statement, but we could quickly dispense with “the sky is gorgeous” as your belief—a mere expression of your opinion. (Upon re-reading this, that sounds harsh—that your opinions aren’t important. Oh well, if you think that’s what I believe, that’s merely your opinion.)

And with that, we can avoid debating statements that simply express beliefs, and thereby agree on what we’re actually chasing as we continue exploring how to find the truth.

Back to "alternative facts." The idea of a fact, as it will be used throughout this blog, is that it’s a true statement. “Fire produces heat” is a fact and a true statement. “The moon revolves around Earth” is another. "Alternative facts" seems to have been used to mean a kind of alternate truth about the inauguration crowd sizes. This starts to feel like the notion that there’s no single, objective truth about a situation and, instead, that we can pick our own. That opens an interesting philosophical debate, but not one that helps the discussion right now. Maybe we’ll try that can of worms sometime in the future. The notion of alternative or competing facts about a situation makes no logical sense. It could be acceptable if two facts were asserted but didn’t compete with each other. For example, someone could say “the sky is orange” and someone else could say “the sky is blue”. Both could be factual if the speakers are looking at the sky in different circumstances. Otherwise, alternative or competing facts only makes sense if they were never both facts (i.e. true statements) to begin with. Rather, they were different beliefs. Multiple beliefs (i.e. opinions) can probably be held about any situation.

For our purposes, truth (and facts) will be deemed to be absolute and objective, albeit often hard to pin down.

A better phrase for the U.S. President’s representative to use would have been "alternative beliefs."
© Calvin J. Brown 2017
1 “Conway: Trump White House offered 'alternative facts' on crowd size.” CNN, . Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
2 “Defining Truth.” Tracking Truth, Published 12 Mar 2017.
3 “Definition of BELIEF.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
4 “Definition of belief in English.” Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Truth about Post-Truth

Last week, I provided a definition for truth. I had intended that this week’s contribution would extend that discussion to include the concept of belief, but I decided a slight diversion might be useful…

A friend pointed me toward a podcast recently, just prior to my driving to meet him for lunch. In case it proved to be good fodder for conversation, I listened to it while driving into the city. That was a mistake: Not the choice of podcast but rather my listening to it while driving.
Two robots discuss whether tiny people make better rulers.

The podcast was produced by Canada’s CBC Radio folks as part of their Ideas program. It was entitled “The Truth about ‘Post-Truth.’”1 Clearly a catchy title if you’re someone blogging about truth. I confess I was expecting to hear variations of ideas that I’d already considered but was expecting nonetheless to enjoy hearing someone else’s version. I got some of that, but I also got a fascinating dose of other ideas that I’d never contemplated. The mistake part of this was that, as I was driving, I had no way to write down the new ideas I was hearing. At the end of my drive, I quickly settled myself with a cup of coffee in a restaurant and, since I was early, tried to capture some of what I’d heard. That my memory isn’t as flawless as it used to be (but, of course, I can clearly remember it once being flawless) certainly hindered my ability simply to transcribe the podcast’s words, but the ideas remained. I’ve since re-listened to it to ensure I wasn’t far off base. Here are some ideas sparked by the podcast, but filtered through my own memory and re-packaged by my interpretation.

The podcast generally is about how it seems that we have entered a time where “facts have become malleable, subordinate to feeling and opinion… and, more and more, truth is what you make it.”

The most startling idea I heard was a convincing argument of the importance of truth in a democratic society. Not completely new for me. However, the notion was that a democracy, as we’ve come to know it in modern western societies, “cannot exist without an informed citizenship” that comes from us collectively caring about the truth. Cannot exist? That caught my attention. The point was that styles of government can be viewed as being of two types. Democracies rely on their citizens' caring about the truth (e.g. about events and history and people and statements). Autocracies (i.e. dictatorships) rely on their leaders' telling the citizens what to consider as true and on citizens accepting it unquestioningly. In autocracies, leaders tell people what to believe about historical events, guilt in a trial, or where the nation’s money is being spent, and people accept that as the truth because of the power that their leaders wield. The proposition is that caring about the truth and deferring to power are in opposition to each other. If you defer to the powerful and simply accept what they say, you are in or are drifting into a dictatorship. For a democratic society to exist, people have to care about collectively debating and discussing what is and what isn’t and, beyond that, what should and what shouldn’t be. It’s society’s interest in discussing and knowing the truth that keeps leaders reined in. If too many people stop caring about the truth of what they’re told, then they’ll eventually be fed a steady diet of nonsense. If you lose interest in knowing the truth and become content with accepting invented facts from political leaders, then you should expect that your ability to usefully analyze what you hear and to cast a meaningful vote will ultimately drift away.

It’s hard not to think about the relevance of this idea as we watch the competition for truth playing out in the United States. Are we witnessing an extraordinary difference of opinions and style between political factions, or are we seeing the beginning of the end of one of the world’s oldest democracies?

Another podcast topic involved speculating about causes of the current apparent disinterest in truth—our so-called post-truth era. One idea was that it’s a by-product of the Internet making massive volumes of information immediately accessible to us. I believe the problem raised is that this discourages people from ever personally trying to master topics. Why analyze anything to form an independent opinion when there’s so much information to absorb, or when someone else’s opinion is just a Google search away? Information can be uncovered as easily as a quick search of Wikipedia or IMDB. Brief quips about anything from news to nonsense can be found by the thousands by scrolling through Twitter.

Another suggested cause of our disinterest in truth included society’s expectation that everything needs to be entertaining. If it isn’t coming from a celebrity, if it’s not humorous, if it’s not a game, if it’s not being presented in a witty or action-packed fashion, then it’s not worthy of our attention or our time.

In general, the suggestion was that society is losing its patience for spending the time necessary to understand and absorb anything other than simplistic information and for spending the time to analyze anything to discern its truthfulness. I’m not sure the argument is completely sound, but it certainly provides food for thought.

That and more was a lot to ask me to absorb and consider while trying to drive safely through city traffic. Amazingly, I arrived without incident. Since I couldn’t recall much of the drive (a phenomenon I think is fairly common), I attribute my safe arrival to the amazing and mysterious capabilities of my subconscious mind to handle driving details, while the conscious part focuses on other matters. Following the correct route. Handling traffic lights. Avoiding other vehicles. Everything seemed to have to have worked well, but then would I know if it hadn’t? How does that work? A great question for which I don’t yet have a great answer. Nonetheless, just in case my subconscious doesn’t always hold up its end of the arrangement, I can’t help but wonder if podcasts should come with a warning: CAL, THIS ONE’S INTERESTING. TURN IT OFF OR PULL OVER. NEVER TRY TO THINK AND DRIVE.

The idea of belief is queued up for next week. I hope you’ll be back to join me.
© Calvin J. Brown 2017

1 “The Truth about ‘Post-Truth’”, CBC Radio,  Broadcast 19 Jan 2017. Accessed 17 Mar 2017.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Defining Truth

Before going much further, it’s important to nail down some terminology. A good place to start would be establishing the meaning of the word truth. There seems to be little point in talking about something if we don’t agree on what that something is.
Two robots look in a mirror but only one is reflected.

In common speech, truth and its kin are used quite liberally:

  • Do you truly believe that?
  • Is it true that inflation will go up next year?
  • Did she tell the truth when she was testifying?
  • Is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity true?
  • At the seminar, the speaker explained that we each have our own truths.
  • If you want to hear the truth about how good the restaurant is, ask Frank.

To have a focused and useful discussion about truth, we’ll need to find a more precise meaning to work with than these examples provide.

Here in my office at home, I have a small collection of dictionaries—over a dozen general purpose ones. I didn’t ever intend to collect them, they just seemed to increase in number over the years. As long as there was shelf space, there was never any reason to throw any out. It probably didn’t help that we erected more shelves a few years ago.

I even have a couple of favourites. One is a family dictionary I grew up with: The Consolidated Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary: A Library of Essential Knowledge.1 It was published in 1953 and comes from an era when printed volumes could seek to be somewhat comprehensive references. The book is about 4 inches (10 cm.) thick and, beyond being a general dictionary, includes sections on business and finance concepts, business law terminology, medical terms, biographies of famous people, maps and descriptions of countries of the world, as well as several pages of meticulous, colour drawings of North American plants and animals. It seems to have tried to be an all-purpose reference for your home. When it was published, countries such as the U.S.S.R. existed, and others such as Ukraine and Estonia were simply republics within it. It’s also from a time when Las Vegas (now with almost 600,000 residents) wasn’t even listed in a table showing U.S. cities with a population over 100,000.

Another favourite (Warning: shameless self-aggrandizement ahead) is the 1997 edition of the Gage Canadian Dictionary.2 The explanation for this one: I had a small role in its creation. Back in the early 90’s, a friend and I had the opportunity to update and expand all the computer terms found in its predecessor. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly becoming as dated as my 1953 Webster. And don’t worry, I’ve stopped showing it to everyone who visits.

As fate would have it, I now rarely use any of my hardcopy dictionaries. That’s certainly not because my brain has absorbed all they have to offer. Rather, technology has quietly shuffled them off into near-obsolescence. Now, I almost always use online dictionaries. Oh well, the ones on the shelves make great decorations and, still occasionally, conversation pieces.

Enough meandering. It’s time to get to work. I’m hoping you’re awake and alert, this might be a wee bit picky and precise. If you’d rather skip the details, scroll down to the bottom for the final result.

Here’s a sampling of definitions for truth from a few online sources:

  • “the state of being the case” or “the body of real things, events, and facts”3
  • “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality”4
  • “the real facts about a situation, event, or person”5

And since these definitions seem to hinge on the notions of fact, here are some of its definitions:

  • “something that has actual existence” or “an actual occurrence” or “a piece of information presented as having objective reality”6
  • “a thing that is known or proved to be true”7

And then there’s reality and being real. Here are some definitions of real:

  • “not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory” or “occurring or existing in actuality” or “having objective independent existence”8
  • “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed” or “not imitation or artificial; genuine”9

Of course, there are other subtlely different definitions presented at each of these sites, but these will suffice. For purposes of this blog, the meaning of truth is going to be that suggested by these definitions. Truth refers to things or events that actually exist now or existed in the past. A statement about a situation, an event, an object, or a person represents the truth if it is occurring or exists now, or occurred or existed in the past, exactly in the way that the statement asserts. So, as long as they represent factual statements about reality, these statements can be true:

  • She wore a green sweater yesterday.
  • The sun rose in the east five years ago.
  • He was eighteen when he graduated.
  • Widgets were made by hand in the eighteenth century.
  • The dog is eating an apple.

Note that this definition of truth doesn’t include potential future occurrences or circumstances. For example, one cannot correctly speak of the following statements as being true, because they haven’t yet occurred:

  • He will be very angry when he hears about it.
  • It will be cold tomorrow.
  • She will be going home next week.

These won’t be considered as true because they haven’t yet occurred. They might be good predictions, they might in the future become true, but they aren’t yet true. However, there are often variations of such statements that would qualify. Consider:

  • I believe that he will be very angry when he hears about it.

In this case, because the belief exists today, the statement can be true, even though the prediction about the anger cannot yet be.

Or consider:

  • The forecast says that it will be cold tomorrow.

Since the forecast exists today, you can talk about what the forecast truly says, but you can’t yet declare whether its prediction is true.

Or also:

  • Ruth said that she ate the cookies.

This can be true since what Ruth said has already occurred.

This notion of truth also excludes opinions about the past, present, or future. For example:

  • The best food comes from Italy.
  • The Greek architecture produced was magnificent.
  • Japanese art is exquisite.
  • Unemployment will be high next year.

These aren’t statements that can be said to be true, because they express opinions and are not statements of objective fact. That these reflect someone's opinion can be true, but the statements themselves would fall within the notion of a belief. More on this idea later.

So, to recap, for our ongoing discussions in this blog…
A statement declares the truth if:

  • it makes an assertion about something in the present or in the past, and 
  • its declaration is in accordance with reality (i.e. what actually happened, is happening, existed, or exists). 

If a statement is about something in the present or the past, it could be asserting the truth (i.e. it’s the type of statement that’s eligible for consideration). Whether the statement represents reality accurately is what will then decide if it’s actually asserting the truth, and that’s where the challenge usually exists.
OK, all done. I’m hoping that helps establish a better foundation for some future discussions.
© Calvin J. Brown 2017
1 Meine, Franklin J. et al. (eds.). The Consolidated Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary: A Library of Essential Knowledge, Consolidated Book Publishers, 1953
2 Gage Canadian Dictionary, Gage Educational Publishing Company, 1997
3 “Definition of TRUTH.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
4 “Definition of truth in English.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
5 “’truth’ in British English.” Cambridge Dictionary, Accessed 29 Jan 2017.
6 “Definition of FACT.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
7 “Definition of fact in English.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
8 “Definition of REAL.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
9 “Main definitions of real in English.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Wondering in the Dark

A few times each year, I see something that’s not there. That might mean I occasionally hallucinate, but perhaps not. My reason for considering this is that, to get at the root of understanding our beliefs, I think it’s useful to begin by carefully considering some personal experiences.
Two robots are wondering about the sound of unheard falling leaves

My wife, Jane, and I live in the country. Every evening, late enough that it’s usually dark outside, I take our dog, Reilly, out for his last walk of the day. Usually these are short and quite uneventful. However, occasionally Reilly dashes off into the dark after some unseen intruder. I usually assume his quarry is white-tailed deer, even though my first concern is that it might be a skunk. I’m rarely certain which it is because my night vision isn’t sufficiently acute. I’m more certain that something is there, because I’ve learned to trust Reilly’s ability to detect invisible visitors.

What I do occasionally see during these walks, as I look across an open field to the southwest of our property, is a cluster of lights in the middle of a farmer’s field. If that doesn’t seem unusual, consider that those lights aren’t usually there. More unusual is that, if the conditions are just right (and this only happens every few years), I can actually see enough detail to recognize vehicle headlights driving through a brightly lit intersection—out in the middle of the field. However, I’m quite certain these lights and vehicles aren’t actually out there. Given where I see the lights (and my certainty that there isn’t a road and intersection there), I’ve concluded that it’s an image of the lights and activity that are actually about 31 kilometres (19 miles) away and well over the horizon. The scene is a mirage.

Mirages are interesting phenomena involving some rare meteorological circumstances and a bit of physics. However, discussing the physical aspects of them isn’t my goal here. Rather, they provide an interesting point (for me at least) on our road to understanding truth.

Consider my two examples. What justification do I have to believe that Reilly is chasing anything other than darkness? I suspect the answer involves elements of trust (in my dog’s acute vision, sense of smell, and sanity) and hope (that it’s not a skunk). How can I be sure that I’m not seeing light-emitting objects that have suddenly shown up in the field, only to be gone by daylight? In this case, the answer might revolve around the understanding I’ve developed about the way the physical world operates and the most probable explanation for the lights.

In trying to understand what causes us to believe things, consider a few other examples. How do you know that humans have walked on the moon? How do you know that your religious beliefs are true, and why are you so certain that those held by many others are not? How do you know that the sun will rise tomorrow? Why did you believe (or disbelieve) that Wikipedia article you read yesterday? Why do you believe your favourite politician is telling you the truth? Why do you believe that you can vividly recall memories from years ago? Why are you certain that a chair (like the one you’re probably sitting on) is solid? Whatever you believe about these issues, there are people who would disagree with you, even about the chair: Ask your local physicist about how much of that chair is solid matter and how much is empty space.

So what should we believe, and why? How can we know what’s true? They’re intriguing questions. They’re also questions that recent world events have suggested are important. Through this blog, I hope to take you on a thought-provoking journey through ideas from advertizing, the law, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, religion, everyday life, and elsewhere. Along the way, we might encounter some ideas you’ve considered before and others that might surprise you. An important part of increasing our understanding, and perhaps even changing our opinions, will be to ask fundamental questions about the nature of our beliefs.

In the meantime, I’ll hang onto my assumptions that my dog has been chasing deer at night and that an intersection doesn’t sometimes magically materialize in our neighbour’s field.

© Calvin J. Brown 2017