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Objective Reality

He who controls the present controls the past,
He who controls the past controls the future.
George Orwell

In spite of the general assumption in the essay, What is Truth?, that there is an external reality which does not yield to our wishes and is not affected by our beliefs, there is a persistent undercurrent of belief or half-belief that if only everybody, without exception, agreed that something was so, then it would in fact be so. In a general form, this idea is absurd. For thousands of years, probably hundreds of thousands, every single human being believed that the Sun rotated round the Earth. Does that mean that it actually did? If so, when did it stop? When one person suggested that the Earth might go round the Sun? When one person became convinced that it did? When the majority of people believed that it did, or when everybody did so? When half the people believed one thing and half the other, what did the poor Sun do? It is no use saying, “There is my Sun and your Sun,” because we know perfectly well that there is only one Sun, that it is as it is, and that if I act on false beliefs about how it is, I will suffer the consequences.

Until we get involved in space travel the practical consequences of ‘how the Sun is’ are not important for most people, but there are other areas when the facts are very important indeed and where universal but wrong beliefs did not help at all. One of the most obvious is the cause and treatment of disease. For thousands of years it was believed that blood-letting was an effective cure for fever, and following the belief large numbers of people were treated and notwithstanding the belief, they died. Recently other methods of treatment were found and as a result people now live longer. If command or common belief could make truth, all diseases would have been treated successfully at all times and there would have been no increase in the expectation of life over the last hundred years.

There is, of course, one rather important area of reality that does not respond to human wishes and beliefs and that is human behaviour. If it is only human behaviour that we are concerned with, to create a universal belief may well be effective. The trouble is, however, that nearly all human behaviour involves interacting with non-human reality so that behaviour based on false beliefs quite simply does not work. The Black Death could not have been prevented by making everybody believe that the plague was prevented by eating garlic. At least this would have done no harm, but if it was believed, as in some places it was, that the way to combat plague was to kill off all the cats, the belief could do great harm, the more harm the more it was actually acted upon.

The issue is complicated by two things that exist extensively in human society. The one is arbitrary convention and the other is traditional myth.

Arbitrary Conventions

Arbitrary conventions are very common. They arise when it is desirable, or in some cases vitally necessary, that everybody should act according to the same rule, but it does not matter what the rule is as long as there is one. A perfect example is the rule of the road. There is absolutely no advantage in driving on the left side of the road rather than the right, nor vice versa, but it is literally life and death that everybody should drive on the same side. Hence there is no objective fact or state of affairs that has to be ascertained. All that is necessary is that everybody should agree.

Societies are full of arbitrary conventions, many of which are much more subtle in their purpose than the rule of the road. The purpose that they all serve, in many different ways, is to enable people to know in advance what behaviour they can expect and, more important, what behaviour they can be sure of not getting from other people. Beyond the rule of the road, there are subtle conventions in driving which differ from one town to another, giving rise to the near-universal perception that people from other places do not know how to drive. It is small differences in manners and conventions of behaviour between one society and another that give rise to the stress and anxiety associated with travelling in foreign countries, sometimes called ‘culture shock.’

Arbitrary conventions are extremely widespread and completely necessary, but properly speaking they should have nothing to do with this enquiry. The reason why they cause confusion is that it is quite common, and used to be much more so, to teach the arbitrary conventions of society to children as if they were cosmic truths and not to distinguish between rules based on social convention and rules based on prudential consideration of the facts of external reality. Is ‘wash your hands before eating’ a social convention or a prudential act to protect oneself against infection? In fact it is both, and so are a great many others.

Many conventions are not truly arbitrary. It is highly desirable, from the point of view of your personal health, always to wash your hands before eating. By making it a convention so that everybody expects everybody else to do it, it is made easier. Everybody accords to everybody else the reasonable space to do it. It is also made more difficult not to do it.

Traditional Myth

These kinds of conventions shade into the area of traditional myths. These played a very important role in earlier societies and exist in our own society much more than we often like to think. They consist in a convention that serves an important social purpose, supported by a story which is factually untrue, which give a sanction to the convention. So, for example, in a traditional society there is a taboo on cutting living wood, which serves the extremely important purpose of preventing the deforestation of the countryside. The taboo is sanctioned by a story that the spirits of the trees will avenge themselves on anyone who cuts living wood.

Much of what our immediate ancestors pleased to call ‘superstition’ was of this kind, and in order to understand it we have to accept two points that the modernist rationalists do not like. The first is that people have discovered by experience what works and what does not work without having a valid theoretic base for their knowledge. ‘Primitive’ people knew a great deal that was true without knowing why it was true. The other point is that over time natural selection sorted out ways of behaviour that worked better from those that worked worse, and it is the better ones that survive. Patterns of behaviour that have survived for a long time are certainly serving a purpose and while there may be better ways, we need to be sure we have identified these before we attack such patterns.

As long as things remain unchanged these myth-backed conventions serve useful purposes, but their drawback is that they stand in the way of change. When new discoveries or changed circumstances make it possible and desirable to change the convention, the myth stands in the way.

The very purpose of the myth is to make change in the convention impossible. (This may not be its only purpose but that is another story.) This is important since the conventions will always require behaviour which is in some way burdensome, usually involving the sacrifice of short-term to long-term interests, such things as not eating seed-corn or slaughtering draught animals or breeding stock or enforcing all the complex requirements around the proper care of the young.

The Rationalist Approach

Modernist reformers hated these myths because they stood in the way of change, denounced them as ‘irrational’, called them ‘superstitious’, and demanded that they be ‘swept away’. Reason was to take their place. All rules of behaviour were to be tested by conscious reason and only conventions which were justified by reason were to have any force.

This was all very well up to a point. As the world changed under the impact of new knowledge and new technology social behaviour did have to change (as it has done, vastly). ‘Superstition’ did sometimes stand in the way of changes that would definitely be beneficial, for example in preventing or curing disease.

However, the rationalist approach ran into no less than three problems. The first was that the rational reformers did not always know what they were doing. In general, they did not know as much as they thought they did. Typically, they would focus their attention on one aspect only of a convention of behaviour which was often much more complex than they had realised and served not one purpose but many. They were forever throwing out babies with bathwater, giving rise to the now familiar phenomenon of social reform producing new social evils.

The second problem was that reason is not as simple and cogent as rationalists liked to believe. The idea that was still being seriously put forward just a few years ago that if only everybody would embrace reason, everybody would agree on all essentials, is just not true. One of the main consequences of their replacement of ‘superstition’ with ‘reason’ has been the breakdown of social uniformity. The old conventions have not been replaced by a new rational one but by a multiplicity of new conventions or by none. Indeed the most striking difference between a ‘modern’ society and a ‘traditional’ one is the far larger areas in which individuals are free to make their own choices.

In many areas this change, whether or not it was intended by anybody, has been highly beneficial. As societies have become richer, with more resources, so having bigger margins against misfortune and disaster, it has become increasingly less necessary to insist on uniformity of behaviour and therefore possible to reap the advantage of not doing so. These consist not only, or even primarily in the lifting of the burden which compelled conformity placed on individuals; even more important is the scope which individual freedom creates for experimentation and the competition of different ways of doing things which is the main engine of progress in any society. Throughout history relatively free societies have always progressed more and faster than unfree ones.

Nevertheless, there is a price to be paid for this that accounts to a large extent for the widespread disillusionment with modernism that we see in the contemporary world. This links up with the third problem of rational reform of behaviour, namely that reason fails to give people adequate motives to defer immediate gratification for the sake of the long term, and to subordinate the interests of each individual to those of all other individuals, which is the proper way of regarding the concept of the individual versus society. Reason teaches each individual that by being sufficiently clever and unscrupulous, he or she can get away with behaviour that, if practiced by everybody, would be totally destructive. It is not for nothing that Shakespeare’s most extreme villains, Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear, are both rationalists.

Hence, very largely, came the discontent of modern society. Everybody, or at least too many people, were trying to live off ‘society’. “Live now, present a bill to ‘society’ later”. Governments, in trying to appear to meet these demands and not to present the bill for them, were loading burdens onto future generations or, quite simply, preparing future bankruptcy. The equivalent of seed corn was being consumed; the young were not being adequately cared for; and large numbers of people were damaging themselves through their unwillingness to take the long-term consequence of their behaviour into account.

This now brings us back to our starting point, for as we have become disillusioned with rationalism there has been a revival of the question: Is it possible to create myths as a way of influencing human behaviour? The idea is not a new one. Plato, in The Republic specifically recommends that rulers should create myths and that these should be based on false information. Plato, too, lived in a time and place when traditional conventions of behaviour were breaking down under the impact of change and reason, and when people were worried about some of the consequences of this breakdown.

In a situation where the inadequacy of reason is becoming evident people may revert to old beliefs – be they myths or not – as is happening in many parts of the world in the movements which are sometimes called ‘fundamentalist’, but it is very unlikely that they will buy new myths which do not appear to be rational, so that new myths, as Plato realised, will necessarily be based on disinformation.

Rewriting History, and Creating Truth

This brings us to the passage from George Orwell that is cited at the top of this essay. “Those who control the present control the past; those who control the past control the future.” Those who control the present – assuming that their control is total, can falsify any facts that they choose; they can rewrite history, they can suppress, distort or fake research data on any subject; they can make it appear that absolutely anything has been proved.

It is the hankering for this kind of power that underlies the constantly recurring nostalgia for the idea that we can make the truth if we can only persuade everybody to believe, or pretend to believe that it is so. This is not only the resort of tyrants though it appeals to tyrants very much. It is a resort, too, of people who are in the utmost good faith and are driven by the very intensity of their caring about some or other issue. It surfaces every time somebody seeks to prevent some line of research or to suppress some finding, on the grounds that the result may be, or the finding is ‘undesirable’.

However, as Galileo is reputed to have said, “It moves all the same”. Galileo had published the evidence for the belief that the Earth moves; specifically that it rotates on its axis and around the Sun. He was coerced by the Inquisition into retracting his statements and saying that he did not believe them. The story goes that after announcing his retraction he muttered under his breath, “It moves all the same.” And of course it did move all the same. It moved before Galileo published his findings, it was moving while he retracted them, and it has been moving ever since.

The point is, in George Orwell’s terms, nobody controls the present. The Inquisition could coerce Galileo but it could not coerce the Earth. A sufficiently powerful government could falsify data until everybody believed that blood-letting cures fever or that smallpox is prevented by eating garlic. Everybody might be induced to act on these beliefs, but the germs would not listen. People would die who would otherwise have lived and, what is more serious to the regime, more people would die than in other countries. If the government was not prepared to back down it would be forced either to cut off contact between its people and the rest of the world, so that they would not know how far they had been disadvantaged, or to try to impose its system on the rest of the world by force or fraud. There are numerous examples of both policies in history. Sometimes, as in the case of the Soviet Union, both were pursued at the same time.

We cannot create truth by agreement or deceit unless we are talking about truly arbitrary convention, like the rule of the road; but it is very unlikely that in any real instance we would be talking of these. Arbitrary conventions create no problems. The desire to suppress or distort or fabricate truth arises precisely where there is a truth to suppress or distort.

This fact matters very much. Once a regime, or a whole society, embarks on defending a myth that purports to be based on fact there is no knowing how far the harm will spread or what the cost will be. As we have already noticed, it can lead to cutting off contact with the rest of the world, with the necessary consequence of excluding all sorts of useful and harmless information along with that which is feared. It is likely that ever-widening spheres of enquiry will have to be prohibited so that the defence of the myth is not outflanked. Reality has the inconvenient character that ultimately everything links up with everything else; and there is no knowing in advance from what direction a particular set of ideas may be called in question.

Implications of New Theories

Finally, and most seriously of all, we can never know in advance how important a new theory or discovery may ultimately turn out to be. Those who persecuted Galileo no doubt believed that the scientific facts regarding the movement of the Earth were quite unimportant – it made no practical difference – whereas the Mediaeval view of the cosmos was of the utmost importance, underpinning the Christian religion and the conventions of moral behaviour that made civilised human life possible.

At that time both these beliefs were entirely plausible, but they both turned out to be wrong. The revolution in astronomical thinking of which Galileo’s work was a vital part led to the new understanding of motion which was formulated by Newton, and it was Newton’s laws of motion and the new understanding of mechanics which they opened up, that made possible the industrial revolution and the whole development of the modern world. On the other hand, the Christian religion turned out to be perfectly able to do without Mediaeval cosmography (of which the Twelve Apostles must have been entirely ignorant), and whatever we may think of the condition of morality and the conventions of civilised life in the modern world, they are certainly not in a worse state than they were in Renaissance Italy, the land of Pope Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia.

Great is the Truth, and it shall prevail.

Disclaimer: This essay was extracted from O’Dowd’s 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections”, for the Free Market Foundation. The essay’s name was changed from the original “All Being Wrong Together” and the headings were inserted by Rational Standard editors.