Sunday, October 15, 2023

With Force Off The Table

Awhile back I wrote about meeting a man who was convinced that the Earth is flat. It's an absurdity, but for much of human history, this was considered a fact. If early mariners sailed beyond the sight of land, everyone knew they would fall off the edge into some sort of oblivion. To insist that we lived on a globe was the absurdity.

In political discourse these days, it's common to hear frustrated people to argue, "You're entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts!" Environmentalists pull their hair out over those who doubt or deny the facts around climate change. I often find myself at ends over those who insist on hammering their two-year-olds with phonics lessons even though it's quite clear that this is, at best, useless, and probably harmful to their social, emotional, and intellectual development.

Even something as seemingly obvious as "the sky is blue" is in question. There are many who claim that the color blue is a relatively modern invention and there are today isolated cultures in which our color blue is perceived as green or brown or gray or even yellow. The Slavic word for blue is also used to describe blonde hair.

As humans we rely upon our senses to connect to the world. Everything we perceive comes in through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and fingers (although there are probably more senses at work than the standard five). What we actually take in are electrical impulses, waves, photons and other particles, then our body-brains process it all into what we call reality. In his book The Case Against Reality, cognitive psychologist David Hoffman convincingly argues that nothing we perceive actually exists, at least not in the form we perceive it. A tiger is not a tiger, but our senses have evolved to perceive a tiger and if we don't heed that perception we're liable to become lunch!

Facts are not facts. Scientists, those purveyors of many of the facts we throw out as truth, use the term "scientific consensus" or "theory" in places where we laypeople may resort to the word "facts," or to add gravitas, "scientific facts." 

This has led me to consider that there are, in fact, no facts, only agreements.

I think this is fascinating to think about. If there are no facts, then that puts our capacity to come to agreements with one another at the forefront of human survival. Without it, without the ability to come to consensus with those around us, we are lost. As individual animals, we are weak, hairless, mid-tier apes, easy prey for apex predators, pack hunters, and microscopic creatures that invade us from within. It's only through the ability to come to agreements with one another to collectively protect and nurture one another that we are able to thrive as a species. Granted, for too much of our history this "cooperation" took the form of force and slavery in which only "facts" as perceived by the powerful held sway, but despite our problems, at least we live today in a world in which actual slavery (as opposed to such things as wage slavery or psychological manipulation) is relatively rare. 

Force is still with us, but it seems that in the Western world individual freedom is the agreement of the day, even if just barely.

The agreements we make with one another are most clearly seen in the stories we tell. Shared mythologies, for instance, bound us together for much of our existence, stories that represented agreed upon "facts" through which to work together in our smaller societies. Today, we usually call our mythologies by other names -- religion or science or philosophy, for instance -- and these are the stories around which we argue, debate, and, hopefully, to some extent, agree. Our religious stories require faith no matter what the other stories say. Our scientific stories require faith in our subjective and unreliable senses. Our philosophical stories require faith in our capacity to invent new stories. That faith is, in part, the faith that enough of us can come to agreements with one another.

We tell our own stories to one another in the hope that our "facts" are persuasive, but successful persuasion, I've found, is rare and difficult, mostly because we fail to, in turn, actually listen to the stories that others who are not like us have to tell. Persuasion suggests that my story is in competition with yours, that the goal is for my facts to supplant yours, and lies become a valid tool. But when I understand that I must also listen to your story, not with the intent to compete, but rather to include some of your ideas with my own, then we are talking about agreement, not on every little detail, but at least in broad brushstrokes. And that, I think is the best thing for which we can hope.

Having known thousands of young children, I've had the privilege of spending many of my days among humans who do not yet know the agreed upon stories, who have not yet mistaken facts for truth, who form their own views and listen even if it doesn't always seem that way. It's impossible to live without telling your own version of the story, but I've strived to really listen to the stories they have to tell me without judgment or persuasion. 

I can't deny that I have always insisted on non-violence because that is what the modern story of individual freedom, of non-force, has me do. But it has been by listening to and including their stories, their facts, alongside my own, that I've come to understand myself, my relationships, and my world. 

If there is anything that stands as my personal creed, it's the Utah Phillips line, "I will not obey, but I'm always ready to agree." With force and persuasion off the table, this is what I'm left with. This is the beautiful and difficult thing that's found in the open hearts and minds with which we are born. Our success as a species is the degree to which we can keep it.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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