My two sons, Shanan and Joshua, suggested I start a blog on WordPress. After thinking about it, I have decided to try. I have always enjoyed communicating with all sorts of people. I used to write a lot of letters. Over the past quarter century I have found email to be a good medium for me. I discuss, argue, and teach with all kinds of correspondents, especially people with whom I do not agree. By profession I am a pulpit rabbi, now retired, but my favorite activities have always been teaching and engaging in dialogue. My intention for this blog is to do teach and discuss. My real passion is for truth, but truth is a difficult thing to find.
As a rabbi I will cite rabbinic sources quite often and I might as well start now. When the Creator was about to make human beings the angels argued for and against it. The Torah says (Genesis 1:26), “And God said, ‘Let us make a human in our likeness.'” Who was God talking to? One tradition says that the Creator was taking counsel with the angels, who had already been created. “Some of the angels argued against creating man and others in favor. For example, the angel representing kindness was for man’s creation, for man bestows kindness. Truth opposed man’s creation, since humans are full of lies. God heard these arguments, and finally seized the angel representing truth and hurled it onto the ground, as it says in the verse, “and He threw truth to the ground” and created man anyway. The other angels protested. How could God abandon truth, which is known as His signature? God responded “may truth rise from the ground” and our Sages then cited the verse, “truth shall grow from the ground.” (from http://www.aish.com/sp/ph/48956911.html) Our world is such that truth is not easy. Even the physics of our universe involves uncertainty as a basic principle.
I want to take this post to talk about truth. In symbolic logic there are two values: true and false. I want to add two more: doublethink and bullshit (if that offends you, maybe this is not a blog for you, but, as i will explain, bullshit is a good word to use in a legitimately philosophical way).
TRUE AND FALSE – Assertions of fact are verifiable and can be fairly judged either true or false. Arguments and opinions can be useful or enlightening but, for my purposes, are neither true nor false. For most people this is a distinction that is hard to accept. It is easy to confuse opinion with fact in our own minds. I will try my best to make this distinction in my posts. If I say something is true or false, that means I have fact-checked it. If i express an opinion or make an argument, I am open to disagreement and challenge. I do not think any human is infallible. No one is always right and no one is always wrong. I do not want people to take me at my word just because I wrote something. What I want is to inspire my readers to think and to think critically.
DOUBLETHINK AND BULLSHIT – Many of you readers (assuming there are many of you) recognize the term “doublethink” from Orwell’s “1984.” At my undergraduate school, Shimer College (which will come up often in this blog because I credit that school for much of my ability in thinking, teaching, and writing), we were required to take nine all-day comprehensive exams to graduate. The first of these was Logic. We had to read “1984” to prepare for this exam because its author wanted to stretch the use of symbolic logic to include doublethink – three values, rather than two. (from Wikipedia) According to the novel, doublethink is:
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”
“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”
In my opinion Fox News regularly indulges in doublethink, but this is not exclusive to them or to the political right.
Philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt published an essay entitled “On Bullshit”in Harper’s in 1986 which later became a best-selling book. He defines bullshit this way (from Wikipedia). ‘Bullshit can either be true or false but bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements (it is because of this that Frankfurt concedes that “the bullshitter is faking things”, but that “this does not necessarily mean he gets them wrong”). While liars need to know the truth to better conceal it, bullshitters, interested solely in advancing their own agendas, have no use for the truth. Thus, Frankfurt claims, “…bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are”‘ (Frankfurt 61). [I highly recommend this book to you]
So there we have it. True, false, fact, opinion, argument, doublethink, and bullshit are categories that the skeptical and critical thinker should consider when getting information or ideas from any medium. I call this process, as many do, a crap detector. I find it serves me very well.
Now I leave you with a question as I will try always to do. Are doublethink and bullshit actually different categories or is this a distinction without a difference?
I will consider this blog a waste of time if it does not make you think. Please let me know what you think. Consider me as if I were ADHD with a short attention span. Keep your responses brief. I find that writing letters to editors with a 200-word maximum is a great discipline in both thinking a writing. If you really want me to read your email and respond you will honor this limit or something close to it.
I look forward to hearing from you.