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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

It's the truth

In the 14th century a Franciscan friar by the name of William of Ockham, suggested a deceptively simple principle whereby one might solve the problem of competing hypotheses. We know this principle as Occam’s Razor. Simply put. Ockham said that simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones. On the face of it this doesn’t seem like an earth-shattering insight but indeed, Occam’s Razor—also known as the law of parsimony finds application in law, science, religion, philosophy and technology even to this day.

Pick Occam’s Razor apart, and what lies underneath its simple veneer is a tool for thinking, a logic that we can use to slice away the extraneous. Confronted with a seemingly compelling argument Occam’s little scalpel lets us peel away rickety assumptions and convoluted beliefs in order to find solid ground. Too often, we find that what appears unassailable to the naked eye is in fact nothing more than assertion based on opinion, unaccompanied by any real or verifiable fact.

Why is this important? Well for one thing, we live in a time where truth itself is under attack. Some politicians apply a sophistic approach to any unpleasant truth—they label it false, fake, or irrelevant. By carefully choosing what information they trade in and how they portray it, those who would muddle our way rely on a lazy indifference to critical thinking. Sadly, this is not something we can rely on our schools to teach, they are busy filling students’ minds with information not discernment. It is our job as individuals, parents, mentors, and citizens to supply the lessons.

Read the letters to the editor page in any newspaper—that is assuming you read newspapers any more, and you’ll find endless opinion-for and against any person or subject. What you will rarely find is a single straightforward, logical recitation of truth. We could get lost here looking for a definition of truth—but let me suggest some ways we know things to be true. One way relies on a kind of majority rule. If we all see something the same way, we can generally accept that our common view represents a kind of truth. Whether our perception is accurate or not—as long as we all act on the basis of that identical vision, then for all practical purposes our view is the truth unless or until we have new information that throws our common perspective into question.

Another kind of truth is one we are not taught, but it is one that we discern. Let’s start with something reasonably certain; ‘most people are neither all good nor all evil.’ It would be hard to debate that assumption because it does not state anything in absolute terms, it allows a wide range of possibilities to exist—but it also tells us something very important. That anyone who might assert that a group of people—regardless of how they are constituted are unlikely to be all good or all evil must not be telling the truth. So, when anyone describes a group in terms that imply, they are good or evil we know that this cannot be true. Here’s a few. Republicans, or Conservatives, are evil. Liberals, or leftists are good. Neither of these statements is true—we understand it cannot be so. While individuals might be one of those things to some degree it’s simply absurd to think that all of those who constitute any group are all one thing or another. Yet every day we hear intelligent people make exactly that assertion—about people whose views differ from theirs, about people who come from other countries, or ways of life, or those who hold to different religious beliefs.

We have a tool –a built-in detector for untruth. So, when someone begins their rant with the assertion that this or that group is—fill in the blank—because of their views, race, religion, gender and so on we can instantly apply our razor—and know it is not true.

Now you might say that I deliberately chose an easy test. Not so. Ask yourself how often you have heard exactly the assertion I used as an example to dismiss people with whom someone disagrees. My purpose here is not to drag you through some abstruse treatise on logic, but rather to show how a simple test, such as that devised by William of Ockham can help us uncover the seeds of untruth. From there all we need to do is dismantle all of the accompanying argument because it rests on what we have shown to be untrue.

I submit that if we spent a little time with our children, with friends, colleagues and those around us encouraging a pursuit of truth above all else we would find our world changed for the good. It need not require a course in logic, the reading of thick volumes on philosophy, or any other discipline. We have all the tools we need to suss out the truth. It is already within us.

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