Truth in Society
9 September 1997
It's easy to settle for superficial and easy (but wrong) explanations for why people think things are true. Part of what we want to do in our study of truth(s) is to make sure we're not taking the easy way out, that we're being realistic about how people come to believe what they do. It would be easy, for instance, to say that people believe things because they're convinced by logical arguments and evidence, but that wouldn't be realistic.
One way to make sure we're not fooling ourselves is to test what we're thinking and saying about others against our own experience. So, regularly, we'll be trying to set up ways in which you can explore your own beliefs and how they came to be what they are (and how they have been changed -- and might be changed again).
We'd like to begin that process now. Take five minutes or so to think of something you believe to be true -- not just that you believe in the way you might believe that families are important or school is fun, but the way you might believe that nuclear power is safe (or dangerous), or democratic government is preferable to dictatorship, or
that not everyone you know and respect also believes. It might be a fact or an idea about how people are and why they act as they do. It might involve society and social behaviour, science or the natural world, art or music. It should be something that most people would agree is important -- not whether you like a certain kind of music or think it's important to clean up after yourself, but something about what's valuable and why, or how the world is.
Take some time to think about some issues like that, and decide on one you'd be interested in exploring.
Now, take a pad of paper and start writing about it. First, state as clearly as you can in a few sentences what you believe about the issue; then talk about your memories of how and why you came to believe it. If you don't actually remember, speculate about what you think might account for the fact that you believe it and other people don't.
As you write, don't worry about whether your writing is "good" or not. Just get the words down as quickly as you can. What we're looking for here is a kind of writing you may not have done much of before. You should just start, without much thinking or planning, and keep writing until you have at least a couple of pages. Keep writing after you think you've run out of things to say: often that's when the most important ideas occur. You should write without stopping, and without worrying about whether your writing is "grammatical" or spelled and punctuated correctly. Just make sure your handwriting's legible. We'll be doing a lot of this kind of writing. We call it "inkshedding."
We'll allow about a half hour for thinking and writing. When you're finished -- and be sure you've taken enough time to write everything you can -- put your writing in the Inkshed box on the counter. We'll come back to them when we reconvene at 1:00.
Begin by listing some things that you think are truths that some people -- people you respect on other grounds -- are mistaken about. They might be matters of scientific truth (do you know someone who believes, or doesn't, that you're safe from lightning if you're in the lake, for instance?), or historical truth (do you know someone who believes, or doesn't, that the War of 1812 was between the English and the Canadians, for instance?), or personal truth (do you know someone who believes, or doesn't, that smoking cigarettes doesn't cause lung cancer?) or social ones (do you know someone who believes, or doesn't, that more frequent impositions of the death penalty causes the crime rate to go down?) The point here is that they shouldn't be things about which "everybody's entitled to her own opinion"; they should be things about which there can be honest disagreement -- and about which you might even imagine convincing someone to change her mind.
There are lots of such things; take a few minutes and think of some. You don't need to say what your opinion is; just define the statement of truth ("whales are an endangered species," "girls mature faster than boys," "getting more education causes you to earn more money") and write it down.
Having done that, form a group of four or five people and read everyone else's list. Talk about them for a bit, and then choose one that someone else also has mentioned (or one that only someone else has mentioned) and take a few minutes to write down what you believe about it and, more important, why you think you hold that belief. Write quickly, without concern for things like mechanics and grammar, but make your handwriting legible. Write as much as you can: if you're guessing about things or not sure but have some half-formed ideas, try to get down as much of them as you can.
It's important to keep writing: if you feel like you're running out of things to say, say that and keep saying that till something else occurs to you. This process is designed to help you generate, or find, ideas you didn't know you had. But it works best if you just keep writing.
When everyone's written for at least ten minutes, we'll stop you and give you a chance to read each others' writing
Choose one piece of someone else's writing and add substantially to it, asking questions, reflecting, etc.
Get your own writing back and respond to what the other person wrote, then do that again to someone else's document
Finally, you should have your own original document back, with three new sections: one written by your first responder; another written by you; and a third written by a second responder.