A habit for talking about truth

It’s a lot to ask, but there’s one thing we should all do every time we make a claim 1) that is debatable and 2) whose truth value matters to us and our audience.

We should state the level of truth we’re speaking on—in effect, where our claim lives in the world of claims, and how wide or narrow its implications are. This is something I suspect we already do implicitly and occasionally—but I sincerely think we’d be better off if we made a habit out of doing it in plain, explicit terms.

What do I mean here? A good starting point, to which I’ve referred before, is the central idea in Meaningness, that all things (ideas, objects, living beings, you name it) are characterized by both nebulosity and pattern. Applying this to truth—or let’s just say, the truth value of a statement like “John’s grandmother is from Ohio”—it should be apparent that all truths are relative, but non-arbitrary. 

We could add that with given the way information is structured “out there”, some truths refer to a wider set of things than other truths—and on, and on. We might intuitively grasp this as there being multiple levels of truth, ranging from the most total (verging on absolute, but never quite getting there), to the most specific and contingent.

So yes, John’s grandmother is from Ohio in the sense that people identify with the places where they grew up, and John’s grandmother just told us that she grew up in Ohio. But our definition of “from Ohio” might change—do we use it to mean “born in Ohio”? “Spent more than 5 years in Ohio”? “Lives in Ohio currently”? “Once made a pit stop in Ohio”? “Is made of molecules with origins in Ohio air and soil”? “Is made of molecules with origins in Ohio air and soil dating back past the Ice Age”?

This is a case where the commonly understood meaning of “from Ohio” wouldn’t vary too much in practice—but clearly there’s some wiggle room. But in no case is it infinite.

When it comes to contestable claims that draw on multiple realms of knowledge and mutual understanding, there’s just enough wiggle room that people will often talk right past each other, unaware of how incommensurate their ideas of what a claim means or the scope of the claim actually are.

This happens all the time in conversations with my brother about politics and society—unsurprising, given that conversations about politics and society include both huge, abstract, unverifiable claims and tiny, tactical, testable claims, and also given that my brother and I both agree on plenty and disagree on plenty.

It turns out that when we agree, we’re usually referring to a common set of claims that we understand in roughly the same way. When we disagree, though, we often find out—45 minutes in, say—that one of us is making claims on one hierarchical level, with X set of implications, and the other is making claims on another hierarchical level, with Y set of implications. We probably ended up making the arguments that went easiest with our gut convictions, but now at least we make more sense to each other.

To that end, I’ve gotten into the habit of prefacing my arguments with (maybe I should postface instead), “Now, I’m talking on the level of aggregate social good / metaphysics / political messaging when I say this, but…”

A good analogue is Slate Star Codex’s habit of labeling his conjectural posts with “Epistemic status: X” at the top. In fact, we can kind of think of “truth level” as orthogonal to “epistemic status”—when you’re parsing an argument, the scope and hierarchical context of a claim matters big time, just like the author’s degree of confidence in that claim.

But I guess they’re not entirely orthogonal. There’s a pretty obvious general pattern in which lower-level, more topical claims can be more easily assigned high confidence, and the highest-level, most abstract and systematic claims can only be made with so much confidence. Clearly communicating these variables, and this tendency, is crucial to healthy thinking.

A closing example of why:
Toward the end of a very arduous, very beautiful serotonergic experience, I called up a person I love who happens to believe in God, and who’d known me as an atheist for many years.

I told him that it no longer made sense for me to identify as an atheist, because of the depth of wonder and absolute doubt I’d developed in reference to Existence/The Universe/Ultimate Reality. Because from an honest human perspective, all bets are off.

Not a hard theist himself, he appreciated my take and said he could relate. It is also worth noting that this person is a Republican, and in the moment, he extended the logic of my cosmic doubt to the question of man-made global climate change. Something like: This is why these scientists who think they know why the climate is changing are so out of their depth.

In that moment, I had to remind him: we can’t even begin to compare claims about The Nature of Ultimate Reality can’t even begin to be with claims about the earth’s climate. The difference in scale between Universe and earth (10 followed by 20 zeroes, by the most conservative measure) means that they’re on entirely different levels. Which means that while one is impossible to make total sense of, the other can be carved at the joints rather neatly.

Strange oaths

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles
and by the hinds of the fields

— Song of Songs 2:7

By the fig and the olive,
and by Mount Sinai,
and by this secure city

— Qur’an 95:1-3

What’s up with this? Are the authors just swearing to emphasize/enshrine these particular mundane images, or is swearing by such things a classical Near Eastern convention? Curious to know if there are similar examples out there (Hebrew, Islamic, Hurrian, Hittite, or otherwise…)

Dealing with violence, laying down our mood affiliations

Las Vegas: no words. I don’t know why he did it, and I don’t know what the solution is. More importantly, I have no dog in the fight. I just don’t want to see more people killed.

Rather than trying to frame a narrative around the who and why, to the end of arguing that x kind of violence is preventable and y kind isn’t, or that z kind of discourse about kind of violence only serves z people, let’s lay down our tribal histrionics and agree on this: America has a violence problem.

Before we get caught up in secondary issues—the religious and racial background of the assailant, the motive (stated or unstated), or the degree to which policy can prevent such attacks—let us also agree: we must try our best to combat violence, whatever form it takes.

It turns out that this neutral formulation is too much to ask. Because people don’t see “violence” (I would bet that mothers do a better job at this than others)—they see “gun nut violence”, “jihadi violence”, “black inner city violence”, “white nationalist violence”, “police violence”, and “misogynistic domestic violence”, and exercise selective concern.

I would forgive this if people were selectively concerned out of self-interest—but that doesn’t seem to be the case. We’re not designed to weigh contemporary probabilities of harm with much accuracy.

Instead, selective concern about violence seems to be a matter of tribal mood affiliation: e.g. “I am a conservative; we conservatives see mass shootings by white men as the price of freedom” or “I am a liberal; we liberals see talk about black-on-black violence as a racist smokescreen”.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about mass shootings. I don’t know if stricter gun laws will help thwart them, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without lurching into authoritarianism.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about police brutality. I don’t know if post-Ferguson reforms will make a difference, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without depriving police of the ability to do their job.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. I don’t know if global war on terror measures or naming and shaming of Islamic fundamentalists, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without running roughshod over civil liberties.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about the violence in inner cities that disproportionately claims the lives of young black men. I don’t know if stricter gun laws and smarter policing will help mitigate it, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without encouraging racist policing.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about white nationalist terrorism. I don’t know if stricter monitoring, naming and shaming, or stricter gun control will make a difference, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without policing nonviolent speech.

Let’s be sincerely concerned about misogynistic violence at home and on the street. I don’t know if arming women, disarming men, or stricter policing of domestic violence complaints will change the game, but let’s consider the possibility and do what it takes to keep people safe, without eliminating the burden of proof.

It is hard, even unnatural, to conceive of all forms of violence as “one thing”. But it’s our best hope. When we pick and choose which forms of violence to freak out about and which to bury, we open the door to others doing the exact opposite. And then nothing gets solved.