From: Paul Lotus

Dear Bob:

Well, I visited your site and noticed what (in my opinion) may be a shortcoming in your presentation.

You emphasize the harm of false beliefs, go on to say people should find out what is true, but (at least at this point) you don't emphasize the importance of individual thinking. At risk of oversimplification, the emphasis of your pages is that people should replace false beliefs with true beliefs.

In my opinion, false beliefs versus true beliefs is not the problem. The problem is mental inflexibility, poor reality testing skills, and a general lack of problem-solving strategies and skills.

Let's look at an example of a "false belief." For about 300 years scientists believed that an ether existed. The ether was the medium for the transmission of light waves, electromagnetic energy in general. The ether theory was part of the foundation of physics in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Albert Einstein replaced the ether theory with a much richer theory that, as a side effect, did away with the necessity for an ether. The reason for the crisis in physics in Einstein's time was the failure of certain critical tests of the ether theory. If the ether theory did not exist, if it was not as formal as it was, the next step would have been delayed, perhaps for decades.

So the false ether theory was necessary to form a bridge to a better theory. What was important was the thinking skills of the participants, not which theory was popular, because those thinking skills were the real issue.

This is why scientific thought and the scientific method is held in high regard, and scientific "facts" have no status at all, at least among scientists.

With only facts available, sometimes there will be witch burnings, other times there will be hero worship -- but this can never be more than a society of automatons, what I call "fact consumers." Once society moves beyond facts and falsehoods, replacing it with creative thought, then none of the individuals in that society can be swayed by an emotional presentation.

Remember this -- a fact is nothing more than a reversed falsehood. It cannot be evaluated, it can only be accepted or rejected. Each property of nature is open to critical examination, and most areas of study reveal neither facts nor falsehoods -- these terms are not appropriate in any but the most trivial subjects. The true richness of science is not in uncovering facts, but in uncovering knowledge, working intellectual tools, strategies for describing reality.

My favorite (imaginary) punishment for someone who believes in the fact/falsehood dichotomy is to require the study of quantum physics. People come away from this study either failing to understand it, or with a new appreciation for irony and paradox.

Paul Lutus


Thanks very much for your comments about my website. I can see that some changes would be helpful. One would be to make it very clear that although I discuss truth and falsehood, I, like you, don't believe in or want to promote any kind of ABSOLUTE truth (except possibly in mathematics). I feel knowledge can be viewed as models which have predictive value, and those that predict better can be viewed as "more true" than those that do not predict as well, and it is always desirable to seek out better models. The concepts of truth and falsehood, however, seem to me to be very useful in practice. For example the reality of the Nazi holocaust is so far superior a "model" of history compared to holocaust denial that for practical purposes it is quite appropriate to call the former true and the latter false.

Perhaps promoters of religious and political ideologies have poisoned the words "true" and "false" by using them for their absolutist crap (the magazine "Plain Truth" that used to be given away free at airports struck me as truly perverted), but I still think the words are useful, and that truth in its non-dogmatic form is worth pursuing.

I find the desire to avoid false beliefs to be a useful unifying factor for addressing various thinking problems. Reliance on authority, wishful thinking, jumping to conclusions, undue influence by isolated sensational events, lack of problem solving skills, etc, all lead to false beliefs (or models of reality that are clearly inferior to other available models). If we can get people to be genuinely concerned about avoiding false beliefs, this provides them with a motivation for employing the better thinking approaches which I think we both support.

I definitely don't intend the emphasis of the pages to be replacing false belief by true belief (often it should be replaced by uncertainty; typically we have insufficient information to identify any belief as clearly superior). I will make a serious effort to avoid creating that impression. Thanks again for your input.


Dear Bob:

<< I, like you, don't believe in or want to promote any kind of ABSOLUTE truth (except possibly in mathematics). >>

I know what you mean to convey, but imagine how North and Whitehead felt (Principia Mathematica) after Gödel pulled the rug out with his incompleteness theorem. No more absolute certainly in mathematics!

Paul Lutus