Originally posted 5 Oct 2003. This predated the birth of social media and its enhanced 'echo chamber' effect. Looking back now, I think that it also, perhaps, underestimates the care and work required at the practical level to 'see' the stories through which we interpret the world.
I dreamt I was emperor of the Earth. From my glass palace, I set out law and pronounced on every dispute. But I could not leave my palace. I had at my disposal ten deputies, each of whom had ten assistants who in turn had 10 observers each. Through this network, I learned of the goings on in my kingdom, heard of the wishes of my people.
My deputies did not always agree. I was presented with accounts so different that I could hardly believe both described the same event. I suspected that my deputies, rather than wishing to pursue the Right, sought to advance their own interests. In this nightmare I knew that I did not and could not rule my kingdom, for I knew not the first thing about it.
Where is the truth?
In the run-up to the recent invasion of Iraq, I was struck more strongly than ever by the belief that there was no way I could ever really get to the bottom of the 'facts' behind the cases for and against the war. Now, the Hutton inquiry and other investigations in the UK (and serial scandals in the States) roll on, and the debate continues about both the justifiability of the invasion and its concrete costs and benefits. I feel that truth will always be beyond my grasp (unless I reach it through good chance), and I can't help but draw a parallel with well-known problems caused by sceptical challenges in 'formal' philosophy.
The philosophers' problem
Descartes famously embarked on a programme of doubt that included viewing himself as a mental entity whose access to the external world relied completely on his senses, all of which were subject to error. We've all been introduced to interesting optical illusions in which our visual sense was duped. We can take one hand from the fridge and the other from the radiator, place both in the same bucket of water, and register cold sensations from one and hot from the other. We've thought we heard things when others swore there was no sound. Our taste buds are fooled by clever food product engineers into reporting that a mix of synthetic liquids is cranberry juice.
Pushed to its logical conclusion, this collection of uncertainties might lead us to doubt whether the 'real' world resembled our model of it in any regard. It might lead us to doubt whether a physical world exists at all. In the end, Descartes, like Berkeley and others after him, relied on the existence of a benevolent God to secure the existence of a world that 'tracked' with our senses. Some today take solace in the same belief, but others cannot.
Hume, William James and others, in different ways, effectively threw in the towel and said that all we can do is adjust our 'model' when we encounter new, awkward evidence, trying to find a way of incorporating it with as small an adjustment as possible to the old system. Much of this is done based on what was then called human nature - what some would now call our general genetic and cultural 'programming', which tells us which inputs to trust most at which times, etc. At some cost to human pride, we could dodge the question rather than bang our heads against the wall to secure a route to Knowledge of the Truth.
The citizen's problem
This image - of a mind forced to make do with a collection of error-prone (perhaps even wholly unreliable) senses to collect information from the world with which to predict how best to act within that world - has an obvious parallel on a political level. The Cartesian mind becomes the citizen, man-on-the-street, would-be pundit. The unreliable senses become the competing editorial lines of the media, the jousting press-conferences of the governments, the mass prattle of the chattering classes. This modern, practical example poses new problems, because we all know that each source of information is not only imperfect but also driven by an 'agenda'. Truth may not be what these sources seek at all.
We all need to sift through the overabundance of information, choosing which data to attend to - to pay attention to. Most of us don't have time to go to primary sources in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Pentagon or Whitehall. This selection in itself goes a great way toward determining what we will believe. Of course, I would be oversimplifying if I asserted that readers of the (leftward-leaning) Guardian or the (conservative) Telegraph will have beliefs that wholly conform to the editorial line of their chosen newspapers, but the correlation is certainly non-zero.
Most of us have access to and pay attention to multiple, often competing (or even contradictory) sources of information, so we have the luxury of a second challenge - choosing what to believe from among the information we take in. Obviously, we can reject some claims, assertions, stories out of hand. They fly in the face of too much that we take to be unshakably true. Or perhaps we know from experience that the source of the information is not to be trusted. This certainly helps. Yet, given that intelligent, reasonable people can and do disagree passionately, not only about moral principles but also about the facts of the cases in which principles must be applied, our reason cannot take us to a universally accepted answer.
Our senses have developed over millions of years so as to provide information to our brains that can be (generally) trusted - trusted in that decisions based on that information have tended to result in longer life and greater reproductive success. For the most part, I trust my senses. At a practical level, I am not unsettled by Cartesian doubt.
Our political institutions and media corporations have evolved over a much shorter time span. The individuals within them have learned within a lifetime all that helps them rise to 'the top'. Entertainment value aside - the drive of this evolution and learning is not reproductive achievement but rather success in being believed. We get our information from a collection of finely honed experts in the field of belief generation. At this level, I do feel overwhelmed by sceptical doubt. How can I possibly work out who to trust?
Bush? Bin Laden? NY Times? Le Monde? UN Weapons Inspectors? MI6? David Kelly? Al Jazeera? Amnesty International? The Vatican? Michael Moore? I do hope you didn't expect a post about scepticism to come to any answer...