belief, truth, and evidence ~

belief, truth, and evidence ~

I’m good at believing. The White Queen’s ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ is nothing to me. I believe in world peace. In faeries (really). In other universes. In public education. And a few more things I forget. Daily.

There was, at one time, a national movement, inspired by the sainted Edward Murrow: This I Believe. It asked Americans to submit a short essay on what each one believed. These ranged from a quilt made from old saris, to helping the homeless, to getting together w/ sisters. I absolutely believe that each of these is important.

My father believed in the government. Although a Southern Democrat, he believed strongly in the implicit goodness of the American government. When Nixon was in power, and Watergate was breaking, my father refused to hear anything against the man. I remember a yelling, food-throwing dinner (yup: a regular food fight, at least on my side of the table), w/ Daddy yelling & pounding the table and me hollering back at him. I know I flung my food at him in utter frustration. I don’t think he threw it back. But he certainly was mad enough to, and thumping the table hard enough it might have just flown my way! My mother was crying, my sisters were bawling, even the cook (this was overseas, in a villa on a Thai soi long ago…) was whimpering in fear.

Not me & Daddy. Each of us was certain we were right, and if we just yelled a little louder the other would finally LISTEN. So we kept fighting. Need I say that neither of us was arguing from even a FEW scraps of evidence, but rather from beliefs & individual (in my case limited) experiences? Sometimes the ways I am like my father can we say bull-headed? opinionated? weird sense of humour? unnerve even me. I don’t know how we’d do today, in this contentious political danse macabre. I hope we’d be able to talk more reasonably, citing…well, evidence.

Believing and truthIn a related (but not clearly so) incident recently, I was told on a FB thread, by a friend of a family member, that I was not welcome. That I didn’t ‘belong’ in the conversation. I had cited a Snopes link to refute a lie about the upcoming election that my family member & friends were determined to believe. My family member praised the woman who insulted me, and applauded her friend’s patriotism. This, she crowed, was about AMERICA. And Snopes (which always disagrees with untruths) was a leftist conspiracy; didn’t I KNOW that???

So, I must be about something other than truth & America, apparently.  And I’m obviously crazy because I don’t ‘believe’ that belief makes something true. It just means you think it’s true — in fact, that’s exactly what belief does mean. But again: believing that aliens are the reason my cat sheds doesn’t mean that’s true. No matter how much I believe it. There’s just noooo evidence. Even if your belief system derives from your spiritual tradition(s): I don’t believe what you believe, most likely. So no, I won’t accept that as ‘evidence.’ Any more than these folks who booted me off their FB belief wall would accept the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The same family member who sees me as an interloper armed w/ liberal conspiracies also deleted one of my sister’s posts, for the same reason: it gave solid evidence that a claim being made was, at best, erroneous. I’d call it a malicious lie, but then, I’m not really a particularly good person. Just a hard-headed Buddhist realist.

Both of these incidents remind me that I often offend folks. I’m unabashedly liberal. Beyond liberal, apparently: maybe a flaming crazy progressive. Each separate encounter alerted me that folks often aren’t the least interested in hearing both sides of a story. My son — the one who sent me the difficult essay discussed in a previous post — has reminded me that liberals used to be better than the kind of people who delete posts on their wall that disagreed w/ their own politics. And we didn’t smear folks, either, or accuse them of treachery.

We do, these days. And I’m guilty of it just like the people I decry. But I’m NOT guilty of refusing to look at solid evidence. I’ve changed my opinion(s) on so many things I can’t begin to enumerate them all. Suffice to say that if you can come up w/ strong evidentiary support, I’ll listen. Because like the Venn diagram demonstrates, the intersection of truth & belief is knowledge. Which — for a lifelong learner, a person as nerdy as they come — is better than gold or chocolate. However, tell me it’s your ‘opinion’ & you’re entitled to it, & I’ll discount it. While that’s true — you’re certainly entitled to believe what you want — if you consistently buttress yourself in a safe hidey hole free from troubling contradictions of your careful beliefs, you’re not worth talking with about anything important.

I know this is a character flaw — one I struggle mightily with. And I wish someone could tell me: why I have to work so hard against hate? Because I HATE (list follows):

  • intolerance (my own included)
  • child abuse
  • animal abuse
  • hypocrisy
  • greed (especially when it wears the sanctimonious mask of ‘helping others’)
  • sanctimoniousness (see above)
  • people (and political figures — who don’t seem to always be human) who say they’re being ‘responsible,’ but it always seems to be at the expense of other people, not $$
  • placing more importance on profit than people
  • mean people
  • bad coffee, bad tea
  • ugly gardens

And sooo much more! ????

But ironically, I believe in the government, too. Like Daddy did. Also like Daddy, I believe we can help people help themselves — create jobs (remember the WPA?) and folks can pay taxes. But somehow, when I hear people talking, I don’t hear true belief. I hear a chorus of sea gulls in Finding Nemo: mine mine mine mine mine… And that’s not something I ever want to believe in. Any more than I want to delete folks’ posts.

I confess, though: I’ve pruned my social media to reflect less politics & more science. Fewer political action groups and more poetry. My battered heart can’t bear the ugliness that this election has brought roiling up from some dark pit within America. I can’t handle when people I care about — on even the smallest level — refuse to consider verifiable, independent facts. You know: evidence? That stuff that exists outside of you & your belief system(s): science, for instance. It doesn’t matter if you believe you can fly. Jump off the roof, & you’ll fall. It’s called gravity (even if it is only a theory). And gravity (like Zika virus, like whooping cough & total eclipses of the sun) don’t care whether you ‘believe’ in them or not.

So I apologise if I offend people I care about, but I’m learning to be myself. Even at this ripe old age. I’m learning to juggle what I believe with… well, what I believe. Social justice w/ compassion & tolerance, even for those who deny both those things to me & others. Belief with evidence. Truth with… well, truth with truth. Because surely that’s enough.

I’m getting better, though: I’m learning not to throw food. And actually? I think my Dad would be proud of me. I really do.

Revising the world, or, baby enlightenments ~

Revising the world, or, baby enlightenments ~

My baby sister is going to grad school. And like I did, she is swimming happily in a new ocean of knowledge. Her field requires a LOT of reading, none of it ‘light.’ She’s also taking American Sign Language as her required language, which in some ways (although it’s a secondary subject, not her primary focus at all) is even harder.

When I went through grad school, I realised there are several kinds of learning. Two, however, remain big epiphanies to me. One is the expected: you learn a LOT of new stuff. Diane is reading a lot of fiction, most of which is new to her. So did I. Not many folks read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography for fun. Not to mention Ezra Pound’s Chinese translations… Those were part of my ‘new stuff.’ Diane’s are less outré: Virginia Woolf, Ursula Le Guin, others.

And it’s GREAT for book addicts to have new books to read! You learn histories, cultures, beautiful language. It’s FUN! And, eventually, it changes you. More on that later ~

imageThe second kind of learning is one you don’t expect. At least I didn’t. It’s the sudden intake of breath, and a complete shift in how you see the world. I don’t know of a name for this kind of learning: it’s not really experiential — I’m not out doing something that triggers it. In my sister’s case, it’s the ASL that’s been a catalyst for a revision of Diane’s concept of language. And unless you’re familiar w/ the verrry different way ASL for native speakers works, compared to spoken language for the non-deaf, this may be hard for me to articulate.

Years ago, during my jounalism days, I did an interview w/ the Gallaudet University acting troupe. We talked, with the assistance of a non-deaf interpreter, about ASL, about speaking it as a native speaker. Since I grew up speaking a 2nd language (well, from the age of 8, still within my window of linguistic learning), I get the idea of true fluency. I used to be verrry good at French. But I was never a native speaker, even though I have (still) an excellent accent. Even though I sometimes — even these decades later — find a French word or phrase more appropriate than its English translation.

The conversation centered on how ASL — or other systems of deaf language — differed from ‘speaking’ language. It was my first introduction to the idea of linguistics: how languages can be utterly different, and how that informs our entire world. It led to me reading everything by Oliver Sacks I could get my hands on, beginning with his wonderful ‘Seeing Voices,” on his studies of deaf history, culture, and the 1988 uprising at Gallaudet. Nothing in my phsical world changed as a result of that interview, or reading Sacks. But I changed — and in ways that would echo across decades, leading me into an exploration of linguistics at a graduate level.

image Yesterday I watched a newly fledged downy woodpecker try to figure out the ‘logic’ of our feeding stations. She was looking for not only information — What kind of seed is this? What kinds of birds are eating here? — but also where ‘her’ station was. Not a small seed eater, she bypassed the millet feeder w/out stopping. At the busy sunflower feeder, however, she flew to the pole supporting the feeder and clung, trying to see if this was where she should be. Eventually, she tried the feeder station where the suet block and the seed cylinde are, clinging to the cylinder to peck off nuts and seeds. Nothing changed in the little woodpecker’s world, and yet everything did, because she did: she now understands that there are different feeders, and they offer different choices. Her world has order & meaning now.

Knowledge is like this, I think. It’s the reconnoitering — reading the books, casing the feeder stations — that leads us to these epiphanies. What my elder son & I used to call ‘baby enlightenments.’ You can understand that the air on the earth has always been here, turned to rain and then back to air from ocean, lake, & river. But it’s learning about Buddhism, about breath, that led me to put my knowledge of air with my understanding of the biological processes of breathing, and come up w/ the baby enlightenment: each of us has breathed this air forever. Each of us — all of us, every THING of us — is still here, in the air that is the web that connects. The silty erosion of the rocks from the very earliest beginnings, the gases given off by rotting dinosaurs. The sneezes of the tubercular Keats, the calm last breaths of the monk burning himself to death in protest of war. It’s all in the air, literally.

This kind of learning doesn’t happen daily, of course. It can’t be predicted or planned. It only happens to me, at least, when I’m caught up trying to learn or do something ‘else,’ something other than reframing my vision of the world. When I’m gardening, thinking about how earthworms are non-native species, as are honey bees. And what that means, and how it led me to raise native bees instead (I can buy honey…). Nothing outside changes, and yet the way I see it metamorphoses into something new,

So much of who we are is what we’ve learned. When I watch my grown-up baby sister expanding her intellectual horizons, she whose own children are adults, I marvel at the infinite landscapes each of us contains. And I wonder what other epiphanies will emerge from her flashes of insight about language. I know they will. It’s just part of who we humans are.