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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

It's Axiomatic

Our system of mathematics is based on axioms or in simpler terms, accepted and self-evident truths. However, the mathematician, Kurt Gödel, shook the mathematical world by demonstrating that any axiom or set of axioms that one might employ as a proof inevitably must be incomplete. In other words, there will always be evident truths that cannot be proved. That can be a perplexing idea to illustrate, so I’ll borrow an example to demonstrate Gödel's paradox.

Let’s take the following sentence, This Statement is False. If the statement is indeed false, than what the sentence says is true, and likewise, if it is actually true than the sentence is false. Wrap your mind around that bit of semantic legerdemain. We could describe this as an example of a self-referential paradox because the proof depends on the statement itself.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the big lies being told today; a key feature of our increasingly dysfunctional political theater. Naively we might ask how it is possible that such lies can persist in an era where access to information is so readily available, and apparent falsehoods seemingly obvious. Now mind you, I am not referring to the myriad of exaggerations, Facebook posts, Tweets and other misrepresentations that have become a commonplace thing. Though they cause real harm and act as an echo chamber for like-minded delusionals of all political stripe, big lies exhibit a characteristic not unlike any self-referential paradox; they cannot be disproved. But before you rush to show me the error of my ways, let me suggest why.

Truth, at least truth as we would generally define it can be a slippery thing indeed. It reminds me of a joke engineers may be familiar with: “the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” So it is with truths, these days. We are so used to filters being applied to everything we see, hear, read and view that discernment is problematic. As for the ease of access to information and the abundance of sources we face a similar conundrum—there is so much, so readily available that one can find limitless contradictions without much effort.

Big lies persist, however, not because they cannot be shown false, but because the proof of their evident falsehood is simply not accepted. Consider recent statements regarding the events of Jan. 6, 2020. Describing an insurrection that millions of Americans witnessed in real time as an exercise in “legitimate political discourse” is quite beyond mistruth—it borders on parody. But it is only the latest attempt to whitewash a vile moment in our history by substituting self-referential truths fabricated to disguise reality. If you don’t like this lie, how about the one in which it is described as a false flag operation –the participants, members of the FBI and Antifa.

Unfortunately, big lies work. They work because significant numbers of people credit them as truthful despite ample evidence to the contrary, and because so-called leaders, give credence or outright aid and support to these lies out of self-interest, fear, or cynicism. Proof has no traction in an environment of patent disbelief.

When we see children caught in a lie, we inwardly chuckle at their obvious attempts to divorce themselves from responsibility out of fear they may face punishment. These we say are innocent little lies: the dog ate my homework, I don’t know who took the cookies, it wasn’t me. We understand that children do not have an overarching agenda, they are simply deflecting blame. Politicians, members of Congress, state legislators and high officials across the land are not children, at least we do not expect them to behave as such. We expect them to be above such games, and to uphold the truth. When they support the big lie, not only support it but use it as a pretext to pass laws designed to confound future elections, introduce doubt about the legitimacy of the process itself and thereby attack our system of government, more is at work than childish prevarication.

There was a point in our history when a man’s reputation and standing in the community rested on his commitment to telling the truth, even if that truth was unpleasant or outright prejudicial to his interests. Every school child knows the proverbial story of George Washington and the Cherry tree, however apocryphal it may be. Being truthful was once a sign of good character and worthiness as a leader. Today our leaders cynically harness lies to drive an agenda—in this case to preserve and obtain power over the electorate, and large swaths of that electorate are willing accomplices.

Young children have built in crap detectors. They know a whopper when they hear it and will instantly challenge the teller of the tale; prove it. We need that skepticism in abundance to navigate the world today. I have a few rules for listening to anyone’s assertion of the truth:

1. Who is telling me and what do they have to gain or lose from my acceptance?

2. What are the sources of any proof they offer—how credible and objective are they?

3. What relevant experience have I personally had that might shed any light on the veracity of what is claimed, and what bias might I have as well?

4. Even, and especially if I am inclined to dismiss an assertion what are the consequences of accepting or rejecting it?

I am not suggesting that you should be guided by my rules—apply your own tests to discern the truth, but don’t accept without question anything anyone says simply at face value or out of your own orientation. When it comes to politicians, regardless of party, I am largely of the same opinion as Mark Twain who famously described Congress this way: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.

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