True Enough for Training Trust?

Recently borrowed from the Berkeley Public Library is  Farhad Manjoo’s  True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.  (Wiley, 2008),  which seduced me with the promising subtitle  “learning to live in a post-fact society.”  I think a lot about how to  understand what’s actually happening, how to grasp the truth, if you will.  Almost everything I believe about the world came from sources beyond my own immediate experience; even direct experience is hardly an infallible source of knowledge.  And though I could critically examine any given assertion for its  veracity, most things I have to take on trust.  I have to build upon so many other cognitive pieces that I’ve already accepted (for the time being at least) to be true that most of the time I’m working more on faith and trust than on naked reason.

From looking at True Enough‘s  table of contents, I surmise that most of the book is about why people believe so many divergent things,  based on different universes of “facts.”  What I’d really like to know is how not get trapped in the ruts of our well-worn ideological frames — and secondarily, how to help others do the same.    I couldn’t resist turning to the last page of the narrative to find “Choosing means trusting some people and distrusting the rest.  Choose wisely.”  OK, Mr. Manjoo:  teach me how to “choose wisely” or at least how to learn how to choose wisely.

When I taught high school students in  my course The Nexus of Newton and Nietzsche, I  placed a lot of emphasis on looking for areas of disagreement as a way of sorting through complicated matters.  Focus your energies on getting to the bottom of what people fight over, and you’ll get some real insight.  Now, I wonder whether I had put too emphasis on disagreement.  We should look hard also at what everyone seems to agree upon, asking ourselves:  “just because everyone seems to say it’s so, is it really so?”

An immediate objection is “certainly, overthrowing commonly held assumption is the stuff of revolutionary science, but will it help me with daily life?” When you add up what people disgree about and what they seem to agree about, well, that’s a lot of stuff to examine.   I’m still needing to define a practical methodology about where to spend my energies.

As I mulled over Manjoo’s book, I kept thinking of a popular article in The NY Times from late last year: Barbara Strauch’s  “How to Train the Aging Brain” (Dec 29, 2009)  The essential point of the piece is that people with middle aged brains  (40s to late 60s) should focus their learning on not so much accumulating more facts but challenging, stretching, and enriching what we already have learned.  Here’s some key quotes from the article, which is worth reading in full:

If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.

[…]
Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

[….]
…continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different.

[…]
…get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.

[….]
Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.”

These observations seem right to me as someone in my early 40s. But I wonder whether they apply to younger adults, say in their 20s — the age of most of my graduate students. (A question for the Berkeley teach-net list, methinks.)

James Wood on the problem of evil

I enjoyed reading James Wood’s essay on the problem of evil in the New Yorker. He captured well at the end of the essay a question I’ve had for a long time, namely, why do we have go through life on earth when we have heaven as the ultimate destination? If it’s the exercise of human free will that enables evil to take hold on earth, how will heaven not be earth redux in which freedom will lead again to a fall? And if heaven is some special place in which freedom is fully consonant with the impossibility of human evil, then why does God put us on earth in the first place? Or maybe we won’t be truly free in heaven at all.

I’ve never seen a satisfactory answer to the question that Wood poses. The essay made me think that it would be a great idea for New College Berkeley or my church First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley to host a class — or at least a talk — on the topic.

Steven Winn on truth and truth-telling

From today’s SF Chronicle, I read Lies are no longer damned lies / Americans reduced to expecting deceit, an article that comes at a good time for me, especially as I reflect on the challenges of getting at the “truth”. The article calls for a more nuanced response than what I can give immediately — but my off-the-cuff reaction is this: The fact that I’m not surprised by the great amount of deception half-truths, mistruths, failed attempts to convey the truth, delusions does not mean that I don’t long for the truth to be told or for a system in which we can trust each other and our leaders to be truth-tellers (and perhaps, more importantly), truth-bearers. I am tired by the amount of effort it takes to figure out what’s going on. It’s hard enough when well-meaning people try to communicate. Add to the mix people who are struggling for power over each other and we start to get this incredible mix. I don’t exempt myself from the class of people who add to the mess — for I am deeply sinful too. Hence my dependence on a hermeneutic of self-suspicion in addition to skepticism of others. And to throw in something else I will want to elaborate as I go along — even well-intentioned self-suspicion is insufficient!

[If I get back to revising this post soon, it would behoove me to deepen my understanding of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” — an article on Paul Ricoeur might be a place to start for my own self-education.]