Truth and Reason

@ K. 1995
(This was my first “Teaching” module at, my first on line “essay.”)

The modern world has split into two factions that can’t and generally don’t want to communicate mutually: the ordinary and the rational. Needless-to-say, there are no individuals in the latter group who are 100% rational 100% of the time and there are few individuals if any in the former group who are 0% rational 100% of the time. The difference is in who trusts the faulty reasoning they inherited and who makes an attempt to keep up with the evolution of reason. There is no guild of the latter group whose membership can be trusted merely on the basis of their claiming to be in it. No, each claim to reason has to be probed on its own merits, without regard to the status of the claimant. A Nobel laureate does not speak ex cathedra any more than does any Pope, guru, or rave head.

All have some ability to determine the truth.
Some have a genius for it.
All have some ability to deny the truth.
Some have a genius for it.

Where do you fit in? How about your Church? Your government? School, police, judiciary … How about your media? TV, newspapers, Hollywood …

A fast way to recognize who’s who just occurred to me last night: it involves a paradigm shift that I don’t imagine too many others can yet be aware of. I’ll introduce it by way of an implicit analogy.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet refers to events of the future as behind him; contemporary culture thinks of itself as walking forward, it’s stereoscopically coordinated, eyes-forward primate vision a reliable prophecy. As recently as the Renaissance, a smart young man would think of himself as backing into an unknowable future, his awareness on the past: things experienced, stories heard, things that can be remembered.

All philosophy which is epistemology
should be studied with diligence:

all else should be classified
with the history of pathology.

Now. Pay attention. Members of the former group, the ordinary, those who trust familiar fallacies, speak of the truth in metaphors appropriate to an extensional object, a fairly sturdy object, one that can be safely handled and even tossed around a bit without distortion, let alone dissolution. In contrast, that nearly invisible, barely audible minority who pursue reason the way a virtuoso rehearses scales and modulations, think of the truth as neither visible nor graspable, indeed, not a thing at all, but rather (like a sculptor who, seeing an essence implicit in the marble, keeps chipping away everything that isn’t that essence) speak of truth in metaphors appropriate to a spirit never fully visible, never graspable without utter destruction of its symmetries, and always not fully revealed.

If there is a guild that in any way deserves credit for keeping its reasoning tools in working order and up to date, it’s science. In his basic primer on reasoning, Chapter Two of Mind and Nature (1979), Gregory Bateson wrote that science can disprove theories, that science can improve theories, but that science can never prove theories.

A tautology is the only rational system
within which anything can be proved.

Further, Bateson discusses Korzybski’s map/territory distinction, simultaneously admitting psychology’s finding that the human brain doesn’t seem to be “wired” to allow individual minds consistent awareness of that distinction. “Sticks and stones may break my bones” but names are what we go to war over. People can’t be trained out of their tendency to confuse the thing with its symbol.

It is possible for human beans to know that something is not true; it is not possible for us to know what is true. There are no (revealed) paths to truth; only paths shown to avoid known errors.

Unfortunately for the viability of modern human society, the institutions and professions that profoundly affect our survivability: churches, governments, schools and universities, justice and law enforcement … routinely reveal themselves to be populated almost exclusively by the ordinary.

Truth makes the finest armor,
and the remarkable thing is that when you shield the truth,
it will also shield you.


2015 11 16 People (governments, institutions) can be relied on to tell the truth where the truth is flattering. Where the truth is compromising, forget about it.


100%: Degrees of Reason
Not only are there no persons who are wholly reasonable, but there is no such thing as Pure Reason. Reason is evolving. (Regarded as an “ideal,”) we’ve figured out part of it. Some of us are working at figuring out more. There is no finished perfect state.
Man too. There is no finished, definitive human nature. If we’re not evolving, not even socially, then we really are doomed.
How many of you know this utterance from PT Barnum? “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, and I don’t see how you can beat them odds.”

Minority: Precise Thinking: Heinrich Scholz on men dedicated to precise thinking:
1) They remain inexorably silent if they have nothing to say which is at least formulated in such a way that it could be tested.
2) They only make assertions about something when whatever this may be will stand up to a possible subsequent test; with the reservation, however, that some time in the distant future something could be discovered that might lead to a revaluation of their statement.
3) They distinguish precisely in what they say between that which they can prove and that which they cannot prove.
4) They object relentlessly to something being said in such a way that it cannot be tested, or if it can be tested it will not stand up to a rigorous repeat-test.

Common faults in reasoning, Genius or Not: Falsification: the Wason Test
Human intelligence is genetically disposed to get the Wason problem half right. We are also genetically disposed to get it half wrong. That’s the problem which has obsessed the latter half of my adult life. IQ isn’t enough: not even when exceptionally high. Ptolemy was clearly a genius, maybe smarter than Copernicus and Kepler put together. But Mariner and Voyager photos show him to have been dead wrong in his most important work. Copernicus and Kepler were nearly alone in being on the right track. Right track at least so far as we can tell today. Your average genius, without help from predecessors like Karl Popper, is going to be in the solid majority of failures with the Wason test.
Oh. Well then. Does it matter?
Only if we’re interested in staying alive.

It isn’t wrong to be wrong, as I’ve written elsewhere: the crime is in staying wrong. Crime? Fatality! The luck of our nature got us here (an ambiguous place, both “bravo” and “big trouble,” as my son was quick to see). But where we are has changed. And luck won’t be enough to keep us.

Right Track:
The problem is in the potential clash of realities. Reason deals with tautologies and science with verifiable/falsifiable theories: verifiable reality; societies thrive on social realities: its members marching in step to ideas about … justice, freedom, salvation, immortality, Santa Claus and government.
Those issues will need an essay of their own.

Truth Menu


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in pk Teaching, reason, thinking tools, truth. Bookmark the permalink.

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