History Is Stranger Than Fiction

History is tricky business. Mostly because everyone has an angle, even if they don’t know it. Any source you can use to determine what exactly transpired must necessarily be suspect by hearsay procedures. Try this: get 10 people together and have someone walk into the group, say hi and some unusual phrase, then leave. Wait an hour, and then give each of the 10 people a questionnaire about the event asking questions like “what color shirt was the guy wearing” and “what was the first thing he said?” Depending on the impact each characteristic made on each person, you’ll get accounts that differ, perhaps significantly. Now factor in the telephone effect of one person telling someone else what happened, and them telling someone else, etc. etc… Plus, any source you use to verify or disprove another source is suspect under the same circumstances. Agreement does not necessarily constitute truth, in the same way that correlation does not imply causation. Determining objective history is a nightmare, as any court lawyer or historian will tell you.

However we have reams of history books. You can go to any library and find volume after volume of books claiming to report “what happened” as far back as ancient Egypt, or even further. Hell, some books go so far as to claim truth based on evidence derived from oral history alone. We then apply our favorite “truthiness test” to determine if it’s accurate or not. What I mean is that we go “does that sound realistic?” and if it does then we accept it as true, and if not then we disregard it. We read about oral history claiming that ancient Aborigines would play music on long wooden instruments and we go “yeah, OK, I can believe that.” We read that their gods made it rain and today still control the future, and we go “OK, that’s wrong.” Basically we’re using our own independent standards of truth to judge a historical artifact which may or may not be true, based upon evidence that may be faulty, derived from a telephone-game obscured source, based on perceptions of people that cannot be trusted. History as we know it is flat-out fiction. I’m sure you already know that history changes as the world changes? We reinterpret events to suit our current situations. In World War II we didn’t congratulate German princes for the original rise of secularity (albeit in the form of nationalism) in Europe, we transformed Nietzche into a Nazi. China has a heavy hand in the interpretation of reality of its people, and American media has its tendrils deep into the ongoing perception of most Americans.

Now I’m not saying that “assisted perception” is necessarily evil, due to the sheer volume of information in objective reality we can’t hope to handle even a miniscule fraction of it, it is absolutely necessary. However, it is vital that we understand what we know, and differentiate it from what we think we know, what we don’t know, and what we want to know. When you perceive there are a number of “mental protocols” that should be adopted like a patient being admitted into a hospital. You have to assume, based on the knowledge that there exist some patients with extremely contagious and horrific diseases, that everyone you admit does. Even though the precautions are often unnecessary, you can’t know beforehand that they’ll be unnecessary *this time*. Your dentist always wears gloves, always wraps everything in disposable plastic, etc. When you hear something, the process is similar. You put it in the clean room like a virologist with a sample and think “alright, this is the information presented.” And, like a virologist, you need to confirm that this sample is based in objective reality, practical to adopt, accurate, useful, and consistent. In order to ascertain if this information is something you can use, you have to run a sizable battery of tests on it. There are an endless variety of tests, I’m sure you can easily think of more. I’ll just go over some critical, bare bones examples here. Test 1: Does this information set contradict itself, or contain internal inconsistencies, anywhere at all? This establishes that, insofar as and according to your current body of confirmed knowledge and powers of analysis, the information is logically consistent (although not necessarily sound if an assumption is false). 2: Does the information reduce to a set of organized principles or is it derived from a predefined set of postulates? 2.1: If so, are these postulates consistent within themselves, 2.2: and objective reality? 3: When measured against objective reality as you currently conceive of it, is the set inconsistent or contradictory? Most people begin with this step, but use shoddy methods and internally contradictory conceptions of reality to begin with. Starting with nothing and rebuilding the world using strict, nearly medical levels of rigor, you can be assured that this analysis will yield useful results to the extent of your own faculties and intelligence, factoring in the possibility for error at all points. 4: Does the information have any immediate conclusions? 4.1 Are these conclusions consistent along the previous lines? 4.2 If carried forward indefinitely, does any conclusion eventually lead to a result which is inconsistent/contradictory/outright ridiculous? 5: Assuming for the sake of argument that the information is true (after establishing that it’s materially and logically feasible), what else must be true? Are these deductions consistent?

I could go on for a long time on these things, but as you can probably guess it makes for uninteresting reading after a little while. Besides, you don’t even need to know exactly what you’re doing. Allow me to give you an example. Let’s say you hear on CNN that George Bush has claimed Iran already possesses nuclear weapons, are shown a picture of a van, and an administration aide claims they have confirmed the truck contains weapons-grade plutonium and the TV then shows you a picture of documents to that effect. What do you actually know?

Well, in a profound sense, you don’t actually know anything because CNN is the one telling you that. Most lose the battle at square one with the implicit assumption that CNN must be objectively correct. Actually we have to add that we are implicitly assuming for the sake of practicality that CNN could be incorrect, and that information contained within that shell will be distorted to some unknown degree due to the telephone effect, not to mention the probability of deliberate misdirection to an unknown degree along the lines of unknown motives with unknown magnitude. So we’re going to assume for practical purposes of further analysis that CNN is telling “the truth,” never forgetting that that is a large assumption made for our sanity’s sake. Next, we have been told by CNN that George Bush has claimed (oh, dammit, now we have to go through all that, again…) that Iran has nuclear weapons. He does not claim to have been told this by Iran, and neither is he claiming that he personally saw nuclear weapons in Iran. So he’s implicitly saying that some unknown person removed from him an unknown number of degrees of intermediary people witnessed or otherwise inferred that Iran has nuclear weapons. By now you’re probably screaming “why are you doing this to me, you vile torturer! I don’t want to have to do this every time someone tells me anything!” A better question would be “show me the evidence already, damn you!” Direct observation, and inference if necessary, would remove all this mucking about. Of course, you’re never going to see any direct evidence with your own two eyes about whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons. And even if you did, that evidence would be suspect as well, did someone prepare or otherwise modify the evidence? Has your perception been artificially altered to limit your natural observation of objective truth, such as with a prior analysis? Etc. etc.

My point is not that you need an IQ of 2 billion in order to understand anything with any degree of certainty. My point is, rather, that it is not possible to know anything with certainty. It is possible to be certain to the degree to which it is possible to know anything, which is pretty far if you ask me. But you always have to allow for the possibility that your model is wrong, that your evidence is faulty, that there are variables you haven’t accounted for, etc. etc. ad infinitum. The possibilities of all these things added together is still fairly small, but absolutely vital nonetheless. Anyone who claims to know something and all the evidence can go to hell is just outright flipping insane. Very nearly by the definition of insanity; the inability to distinguish reality from fantasy.

So that leaves us with…. what, exactly? I seem to be saying that we need to live in objective reality, but at the same time also claiming that objective reality is so mind-bogglingly complex and so fraught with unknowns that it’s impossible for us to know anything. If that’s where you are, congratulations. You are a philosopher. I would like to introduce you to my friend Descartes, to whom we are all indebted for a singular stroke of genius. “Cogito ergo sum.” I think, therefore I am. The one thing which we can know a priori with absolutely no reliance on objective reality for input riddled with unknowns is that “I exist.” The reason for this is simply that you are able to think that you exist. Maybe you’re just a brain plugged into a computer, maybe a demon with a spear is prodding your soul, but in some way your consciousness exists because you can formulate the thought needed to think you do. From this we can begin to deduce all that we know about reality. Now, keep in mind that while Descartes is the source of this idea for you, actually everything he says is suspect under the same unknowns of perception. However, I hope you can see that when you conceive of “I think therefore I am” you can verify its own truth independent of objective reality. In a way you are conducting an experiment and getting your own results right now. However, anything else you read about in philosophy must necessarily be subject to the same questions and unknowns as the rest of objective reality. If you can’t prove it for yourself, don’t believe it just because this or that person said so. Ideally you can formulate your own conclusions from that single solid core of absolute objective reality. Your first task is doubtless going to be to create some sort of process for proving other things, but not necessarily because that suggestion is itself suspect.

Basically what I’m saying is that you have to find your own answers for yourself. Anyone who would get you to accept their perspective/views/reality because they believe it to be true is being inconsistent. And yes, I can respect the ironic ‘contradiction’ that I’m trying to tell you to think for yourself yet if you do as I say then you’re not thinking for yourself. While an amusing argument, it’s not truly a contradiction. It’s like telling a child to brush their teeth. You have basically two approaches. You can tell the child that they have to brush their teeth because you say so, because they’re a bad person if they don’t, because you’re providing incentives like toys for doing it and punishments for not brushing. This style of corrupt power is inconsistent when they’re trying to get you to adopt a specific perspective on reality because they believe it to be true. The alternative is to tell the child that you don’t care one way or the other if they brush their teeth. They’re free to do whatever they want. But, you provide them with the information needed to make that choice for themselves. Presumably you want them to brush their teeth for rational reasons, right? Otherwise you’re being a corrupt psychotic despot who wants your child to ritualistically do what you tell them and to worship arbitrary power irrespective of morality and objective truth. You can show them medical data about how their teeth will basically be taken over by germs, they’ll rot, and they’ll need expensive, invasive, and painful operations to fill cavities to keep their ability to eat functional, etc. etc. When presented with valid information for both sides, the child can choose either and you can have no issue with it. By assuming that there is an outcome that that person *must* take, you’re basically arguing that freedom is conditional on rationality. Haha! “In order to be free, you must do X, and nothing else.” How amusing. That said, I doubt that there’s a single person who would choose not to brush their teeth when they fully understand the implications of their choice.

Going on a medium tangent here- I will agree that young children tend not to be the most rational agents, and that as a parent you have something of an incentive to get your child to be rational in their own interest. Perfect. You’re free to add incentives to their choice as much as you like. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with altering the conditions of someone else’s choice- it’s the fundamental principle of the free market. Whoever can offer the most incentive (utility) for the least cost gets the most buyers. Simple. Doesn’t impinge on anyone’s freedom one whit. However, it’s vital that you understand the difference between the corrupt, abusive incentivization (is that a word? It is now!) and the freedom-creating form of incentivization, considering that you as a parent have unparalleled power, and equal ability to do either, so it can be a thin line. I have an easy way to make sure you never cross that line. Any and all contracts are optional. You can offer someone (not necessarily just children) the option to take your use of power, as well as whatever power you’re going to apply. So if you make the offer “whenever you don’t brush your teeth I’ll whip you 100 times, and if you do then I’ll say ‘good job.’ Deal or no deal?” They’re going to go “Pass!” However if you offer them “whenever you brush your teeth, you can have an extra 10 cents put forward into an ice cream account, and when it reaches enough to pay for ice cream, we’ll go get some.” They’ll probably agree to that, and they’ll brush their teeth like you want them to. You also need to get them to agree to terms under which their contract can be enforced, of course. “So you’re agreeing right now that if you void your responsibilities on this contract, I can do X?” Magic key to freedom: any and all agreements are always optional. Nobody makes an agreement that doesn’t give them a net benefit in some sense, and that applies to both you and whoever the other party is.

Back to finding your own answers for yourself. History is worse than fiction. At least fiction doesn’t pretend to be *true* in the purest sense. Fiction is true because it is exactly what it is, and you are free to draw whatever conclusions from it that you like without deception. That said, the process for analyzing either is basically the same. You have to assume the same level of doubt: total, for both. But with fiction, the assumed truth level is already virtually zero, so you can chill out a little. You’re already applying much of the needed doubt. Either way, triage your information intake. Otherwise you might read something online, or watch some speech, and just get sucked into believing it without really thinking about it. Information is organized to be transmitted from mind to mind, even if it’s only been encoded into language. It’s not that much of a stretch to assume that some might naturally be more contagious than others by its inherent nature. Your mind is a library, a laboratory, a temple, a hospital (and more of course) all rolled into one, and you need to triage your information so you don’t catch something nasty.