Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Results from my Imaginary Focus Group

While hiking today, I had a town hall meeting in my head.  
I should note that this is not uncommon for me.  When I encounter a new concept, argument or belief, some mode of thought that I've not encountered before, I'll imagine myself at some gathering of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, members of the community, neighbors or complete strangers in some pretend version of place I've been to before or frequent or have never been to in my entire life and have a discussion with these citizens of my mind regarding said topic.  
Some of the most heated of these illusory discussions, some with violent endings, have taken place at the American Eagle terminal at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, during a fanciful trip to visit my parents in Barling, Arkansas on some non-existent occasion.  It has prompted me to refrain from talking to strangers when I make this journey in real life.  
This particular Town Hall Meeting of the Mind took place in an unfamiliar location.  It was some academic space.  Something like those auditorium styled classrooms where they teach those required courses that every freshman has to take, like "California Civics 101."  It was prompted by an article I read about the reason one philosophy and ethics teacher believes is the reason behind his observation that young people entering college today do not believe in moral truth.  You can read his opinion piece HERE.
To summarize, he is ascribing this trend that he's observed (while admitting there is no nationwide study to quantify the degree to which this observation is shared by that demographic), to the Common Core curriculum being implemented across the country, and its requirement that students be able to discern "fact" from "opinion" and the standard it imparts to students to be able to make such a distinction.
The contention of the writer of the piece is that Common Core's strict definitions of "fact" as being something that can be tested or proven, and "opinion" as being something that someone feels, thinks or believes creates a mental model that undermines the view that there are moral truths that are objective and should be adhered to.  I'll leave it to you to read his piece and make the determination yourself if you agree with the his argument.  It was forceful enough for me, obviously, that I found myself creating an imaginary forum in my head to debate and discuss it.
This particular fictional town hall gathering in my head was pretty diverse and large.  A young lady, in her early twenties, was expressing her point of view, shaped by the Common Core values I've summarized from the opinion piece's writer, that there is no such thing as moral truth.  I was giving my response, shaped by those opinions that I shared with the writer of the opinion piece, that there is a distinction between "facts" and "proof," that what is "proven" by one generation can, and sometimes has been  "disproven" by another on certain topics, that some points of view could be both "fact" and "opinion," and that there are "facts" that, at least under our current abilities or circumstances can't be proven or tested.  My favorite example from the piece was the existence of other intelligent species in the universe.  This may or may not be a fact, but the logic of our understanding of how the universe works, and the mounting evidence that life can come into being in a huge variety of environments, some of which would be hostile to "normal" life on our planet, leads me to categorize this viewpoint as "fact" rather than mere "opinion."
I should add that the same could be same for the existence of God.  If one assumes that, by His (or Her, or Its) nature, God would have to exist outside or beyond the bounds of experiential existence, then the "fact" of Her (or Its, or His) existence would remain forever beyond any objective proof or verification method that we could create.  
It was at this point, though, that the non-existent moderator of this pretend town hall meeting threw me for a bit of a loop by turning this question back on me.  
"If," he asked, "There are Facts or Truths that can not be proven or verified objectively, what method remains for us to separate them from what would be categorized as 'opinion'?"
In my mind, I sat there for a moment.  Everyone else in the darkened auditorium waited for me to give an answer to this query.  I know exactly what my imaginary self was thinking because I was thinking the same thing in my real-self brain just off to the side. 
The single word answer I came up with was this: "Beauty."
Yeah...  This is something like the "Truth is Beauty, Beauty is Truth," we've heard in English class.  Definitely not that visual attractiveness of some person or object that would be more accurately translated as "pretty."  Nor the collection of sounds that combine into something millions of people might download to listen to or play on their cell phones as ringtones.
The purpose here is to formulate a yard-stick by which concepts can be measure for their degree of truthfulness.
The Beauty I'm referring to, I said to my fellow make-believe members of this discussion, is a form of symmetry.  It is a seamless explanation of why certain things happen, and what we might expect from them.  The circumstances of life can be ugly at times, unfortunate, painful, and deadly.  The Beauty I'm talking about will tell us why things are they way we are, often due to some moral truth, which I do think exist, being violated, and pointing the way to correcting the state of things.  
It is the type of beauty that is expressed in a mathematic formula, a proof, where all the numbers and parts line up.  
It is the beauty that exists in a sinker, breaking low and away, when the batter nearly falls over chasing after it because it looked so much like the inside fastball he was expecting when the pitch was first released.  
All Truths (with a capital "T") are marked by this synchronicity.  All the parts connect.  There is no jury-rigging.  It explains.  It makes sense.  It fits into your brain like the word for something you feel but have difficult describing that you stumble across in some book or article.  You don't come up with it.  You recognize it.  
As I expressed this thought to the imaginary people gathered in my mind, I began looking at the problems, issues and circumstances surrounding my life, both personal and in the greater fabric of society.  What I came up with when I did that was the sense that most of the solutions being offered for these problems, or which I attempt to apply to personal issues, are, in a word, ugly.   They are ad hoc.  They address only surface symptoms or features of problems.  They do not connect completely across the issue, tying all the parts in place.  This is not due to them being comprehensive.  In fact, they are often too comprehensive.  Like Rube Goldberg machines, they require a series of exchanges that need to be constantly monitored and observed to ensure they go off without a hitch, even while the parties involved accuse the others of violating some essential part of the process.  
Think the Two-State Solution.  Body cameras on police.  Raising the Debt Ceiling.  National Healthcare.  Etc., etc., etc....  Compromise is at the heart of any political decision.  But if we can't agree at what is at the heart, the Truth of the matter, then no amount of comprehensive complication will create something that works.  
I finished my hike before the town hall meeting in my head reached a conclusion.  I don't know if I convinced the young woman I was debating against of the veracity of my arguments.  I probably did.  In my mind I am Simply BRILLIANT!  I think that I have gained a tool for evaluating figuring out solutions to issues I face.  At least a way of clarifying what is the Truth that is being engaged by that interaction with others, and thereby understand what moral truth that I ought to be facing because of it.  
If it simplifies, if it connects, if it is Beautiful, then it is very likely the direction I should be heading. 
Now, the only thing left to do is get the world to work as beautifully as the one inside my head.


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