Plastic Gender

I felt that I ended my last blog post without elucidating the reasons for my concerns about the extremes of each position. I presented it, perhaps unfairly, as a nature versus nurture paradigm, although neither side would probably represent themselves this way as neither side really concerns themselves with biology. Queer and feminist theorists, for example, base much of their efforts on the premise that biology has almost nothing to do with our behavior, and that norms are created through cultural performance, including the measurement of this behavior. Structuralists, like Lacan and those that follow, come from the Freudian position and look for fixed elements within human psychology beginning with birth and often surrounding the Oedipal complex. To me, it’s interesting that Freud began his career as a neurophysiologist and then developed his terms to describe what he was observing, but much of the philosophy rooted in psychoanalysis makes little use of neuroscience.

I can only think of a couple of options if we accept the premise that the mind, or our psychology, is a function of the brain. This is still a point of contention, and even the great philosopher Thomas Nagel has taken a serious misstep, in my opinion, by trying to declare mind a fundamental force of the universe. From my own point of view, rooted as it is in biology, the mind is a product of the brain. So if there are fundamental, maybe it’s better to say recurring, structures within the human mind, then it is because there are fundamental structures in the brain. Of course, this idea is neither novel nor new.  then they are neural and physical in nature. If they are there, then evolution has acted upon them. But there are two reasons that the brain could have fundamental structures. One reason could be genetic blueprint for the brain, and the other could be its plastic nature and interaction with culture. While there have been many books written about the former, I don’t think the ramifications of the latter have been fully recognized.

 

The brain is a very plastic structure, which means that you can grow two very different brains even if they have the exact same genes. This is because genes are only part of the story for many things. The environment is the other part of the story, and it can shape gene expression in tremendous ways, especially neurologically. Think of how things like nutrition, home environment, and access to education can affect the human brain, regardless of the genes, and you get a sense of the brain’s plasticity. Our interactions with infants shape their brain from the moment they’re born, and we are just starting to scratch the surface of how this works.

I can see an argument here for the perpetuation of cultural paradigms through the ways in which we teach our children to think early in life. I’m not thinking of care giving per se, but deeper. Gender expression, for example, is learned through numerous acts and patterns seen as children. I doubt even as adults we are aware of the ways in which we gender each other, yet most children deeply internalize this concept. But is gender itself a fundamental structure of the mind? This would imply that it’s also a fundamental structure in the brain and genes. Another option, however, is that the concept of gender was invented very early in human society, and that this concept then deeply patterned onto the brains of each generation until it became fundamental to human culture. Depending on how early this was adopted in our history and how many resources were tied to believing in this concept, there could then have been evolution that gradually increased the frequency of humans who were susceptible to this type of pattern. I am definitely not saying that this is what I think happened, but I do think that there is much further room to explore the intersection of gender and biology without taking either extreme of nature versus nurture. Or maybe I’m just too much of a doubting Thomas to commit to either one.

Being Normal

Astronomers developed the idea of the mean, or average, in the 19th century. The word mean can be traced to the French meien, which comes from the Latin medianus, meaning the middle, but the history of average is less clear (Eisenhart, 1971). It likely related to ship taxes that were eventually shared equally amongst investors in the 1400’s. The mean was giant leap forward in how humans interpret data, but many argue that it was a giant leap forward in how we interpret ourselves. In any set of measurements, whether it is human personality traits, emissions from cars, or stars in a galaxy, there are differences between the individuals in the set. That is, there is variation. The mean helps us see past this variation to... well, what exactly do we see? Mathematically it is easily defined as something like the central number calculated by adding up all of the values and dividing by the total number of values. The mean of 2, 1, and 9 is (2+1+9)/3 = 4. The mean was one of the key inventions of the scientific enterprise and the Enlightenment, and it permeates every branch of our lives, to the delight of some and the horror of others.  

One of the reasons for fear, especially after Foucault’s assault on the norm, was that this concept acts to standardize a single type of human morphology or behavior as the “best”, at least if the mean is interpreted in this way. And while this interpretation is beyond how I think most scientists would interpret it, historically there has been a strong conflation of the mean, or the average, and what is considered average, or normal, behavior. As feminist and queer theorists have pointed out, this conflation of the mean and what is normal has marginalized outsiders, invalidated different lifestyles, and worked to create depression and anxiety in those who don’t match normal standard. This is works especially powerfully in body images, as Cressida Hays, in her book Self Transformation, points out. It is disturbing that our standards of ideal body proportions were developed by actuarial companies.

But is it so easy for us to make this mistake – to take a mathematical concept and construct an ideal? The Lacanian answer is that there actually are norms within our psychic structures, and this is what gives rise to them in the first place. So the mathematical structures are simply capturing a real phenomenon. According to this way of thinking, things like gender and family relations are fundamental structures that act to organize behaviors, making deviations from these central patterns increasingly rare as the diverge from the most mean behavior. One branch of queer and feminist theory has inverted this relationship, via Foucault, by claiming that it is the measurement that actually creates the concept of the ideal norm. There is good evidence for this within the history of behavioral medicine.

I don’t think the extreme version of either position is easy to justify. I know that I am often arguing for the middle ground, but there is evidence that both approaches capture some truth about reality. Certainly long before the Enlightenment, and even before any trace of the mathematical mean (numerical expressions of it pop up thousands of years ago), our species had evolved common behaviors. Foucault’s point focused more on the control of behavior and said nothing about its evolution or neurological foundation. However, the muddy thinking that originally conflated the concept of a normal, or ideal, human with a mathematical construct is still with us and should be forcefully argued against.

Transition and Possibility

Transition. From present to future. From possibility to reality. From man to woman. Transitions are a part of how we understand ourselves. Nietzsche was the first philosopher to seriously articulate the tension between the future of humanity and its past, writing “Man is something to be overcome” in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Foucault considered his work to be direct continuation of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and I think he took this idea of transitioning seriously in his work as well as in his personal life. One of my favorite quotes from him is that, “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not at the beginning.” Nietzsche’s time was a time of social and technological revolutions, and his work was to turn the exhausted sigh of the old guard into an exuberant fresh wind. By the time of Foucault, the wind has died again, and philosophy feels resigned and pessimistic, two world wars having destroyed hope that humans could transcend themselves ethically. Transhumanism, the literal interpretation of the superman as humans merged with technology, has this ethical pessimism hardwired into its attitude.

But I still believe in possibility. In her book Undoing Gender, Butler says that possibility, or fantasy, is essential to human life. While her focus is on marginalized groups, such as those represented by LGBTQIA, she is making an existential argument. Humans need to believe that things will be better, that they will find a space within which they can express themselves honestly. These spaces are the gardens that give purchase to the very roots of our being, and without the hope of ever finding these spaces we wither and die. It does not require technology to create these spaces for humankind, although technology can be used to find virtual spaces, small plots of digital soil for the slow growth of new kinds of human beings.

I know what it’s like to live without possibility. I lived with neither hope nor expectation that I would ever be able to transition. I searched for ground that could support and nourish my being for decades, and eventually I gave up. I lived my life through the wrong end of a telescope, and always asking myself when the time would be to physically end the battle. I was 36 when I stumbled, numb and pessimistic, into a space that allowed me to be a transwoman, and it was a profound experience. I saw an entirety to my being, a depth and a beauty, that had been walled off one brick at a time. I saw the living, essential nature of myself that had never found purchase, but was still there, undeveloped and raw. A woman unborn.

I live now in the currants of transition and wind of possibility; it is both exhilarating and frightening. Certainly the social cost and backlash is scary, but even more so are the moments when I forget about possibility. When the certainty that is baked into society seeps into my thoughts, and for a brief moment I believe that there is no space for me in this world. That we have figured out what a woman is a long time ago, and I am delusional at best, and dangerous at worst. In these moments it helps me to think of how far we have come in ten thousand years. To see that we never knew what we could become or the new spaces we could create, both the terrifying and the beautiful, and that possibility is created as long as we are alive and humble. To quote Butler, “We don’t yet know what a human is, or what a woman is.” We have not discovered all there is to know about ourselves, and for me, that is hope.  

Language and Reality

It often sounds to me as if there is a disconnect between the sciences and critical theory, and I think that much of this can be attributed to how scientists and critical theorists view language. Scientists often think of language as a poor substitute for reality, while critical theorists view language as the only means through which we know reality. These are such vastly different points of view that dialogues between scientists and critical theorists often fail because while they are using the same words, such as reality, they have two very different things in mind.

From the structuralists onwards, language has taken a place of primary importance in the world of critical theorists. Language forms our experience of ourselves and the world, and is thus the vehicle by which we experience the world. When I read articles by critical theorists, and they are speaking of reality, it feels to me like they are speaking of this reality created by language – the reality of the subjective and objective mixed together to form a network of words that encompasses all we can express. Within this context, it makes sense that they are interested in identities that cannot be spoken of, forbidden dialogues, and overarching narratives. These are how they think all humans construct reality.

Scientists, at least in my experience, have a much different relationship with words. Richard Feynman summarized this point of view best when he tells a story about his father. His father told him the word for “bird” in several languages, oiseau in French, pajaro in Spanish, and vogel in Dutch. Feynman’s father asked him if he now knew anything about birds because he knew more words for it, upon which the young Feynman realized words do not constitute reality. This seems like the viewpoint of most scientists. Words are messy, clumsy, awkward constructs that do not capture reality in any meaningful way, but they are necessities of human communication. For scientists, mathematics captures reality much more accurately, but it is still imprecise and filled with error.

This is the fundamental difference – critical theorists believe that words and symbols not only represent, but in fact create reality. Scientists, on the other hand, believe that words and symbols poorly represent reality at best, and that to mistake the word for the objective fact is to commit a serious error. This has led to many misunderstandings on both sides, particularly when critical theory tries to analyze science. Such analysis rely on the words scientists use, and often assume that scientists are using words naively while supporting a larger narrative structure; however, scientists mostly use words operatively. The assumption is that words are a poor way to capture reality, so they assign a word to operate as a place holder, and while that word might draw the attention of a critical theorist, a fellow scientists will likely treat the specific word as having very little meaning.

This also leads to very different attitudes towards political activism, which critical theorists and those influenced by it concentrating efforts on the change of language as a means of social progress. For many scientists, it does not matter what the issue is called, but whether or not there are real behaviors and policies in place for the change to occur. Both points of view make valid points, but both can also generate problems when taken dogmatically. To assert that language completely constructs reality is to lose touch with the blunt facts of our existence which even the most hardened critical theorist takes for granted, while to assert that language has no role in shaping our view of reality is to be blinded to the social and psychological harm generated by social narratives.

The Hope of Postmodernism

My last blog post felt bleak, reflecting one response to a decentered system, but postmodernism also offers hope. Judith Butler, in her book “Undoing Gender”, consistently reinforces the hope that through the interplay and reconciliation of these tensions we can produce a more inclusive society. Postmodernism is the new seed - the pushing grass - that is breaking apart the worn concrete of past norms that defined what it means to be a family, a gender, a sex, and a human. It could not have taken root unless there were already cracks in the pavement.

Butler describes this tension as one between identity and non-identity within society. Resources in society are distributed according to a set of identity relationships – parent and child, doctor and patient, man and woman, master and slave – that define both the amount and the type of access that each identity is allowed. This structure, in which we swim from the moment that we are born until the moment that we die, can be called the discourse. It is neither bad nor good, but by nature of its identity relationships creates inequalities in allocation. Each discourse creates a type of society in which humans organize and express their relationships and a set of power structures around limited resources. Each discourse also defines the boundary of society, if tacitly, because nothing can be said from outside the context of the discourse.

Each person must adopt an identity in order to participate in society and access resources. A human must become a child to receive parental love; a human must become a patient to receive medical attention; a human must become a criminal to be imprisoned. Although we adopt some identities, such as opera singer, most of them are imposed upon us at birth, such as male or female. We learn to express ourselves through these identities as if learning to play an instrument or wear a mask, and the learning is so deep that the very question that these identities are not real seems unquestionable. And in actuality, they are not oppressive in themselves. How else could human society operation without such avenues for expression?

Yet too many of these identities are expressed as “us” or “them”, with one group representing the standard or norm, and the contrasting group representing the other, the unwanted. Foucault expressed this as the center of power creating its own shadow, but he simply meant that one cannot define male except in contrast to female, or doctor except in contrast to patient. One cannot create a norm without defining the deviation, and vice versa. These distorted reflections, sun and moon of each other, create the inherent tension of movement and force within a society. The goal of social and political activism has been to remove stigma from the identity of the other, such as “woman”, but often this required that the identity was reinforced as a way to bind people together to create social strength. Postmodernism asks us to step outside of the identities themselves, to think about way to express our humanity in new ways, and thus can often come into direct conflict with marginalized groups who have fought long and hard for political and social rights.

The true hope of postmodernism, at least in my opinion, is in its on the fringe. In every person there are unspoken desires – desires for new modes of family, different forms of love, and unexpected gender expressions. For the most part they are never expressed, and cannot be expressed, because there is not even a way of thinking about them without using the categories, the discourse, of society, which has already defined the boundary. Yet they exist, and in some individuals become so great that they must become find articulation, in spite of the danger such expression entails. Often these individuals are shunned and silenced, or labeled deranged, or simply murdered. Often, the current discourse insidiously incorporates the new expression into the current categories so that things can proceed as normal.  

But within each new form of expression is a seed that seeks to break apart the discourse and reveal our shared humanity underneath. The hope that postmodernism brings is the hope of re-humanization, of seeing through the discourse to the beating heart and unique awareness at the center of each identity.

In truth, it is no small hope.

The Cul-de-Sac of Postmodernism

I didn't know it, but I was born into a time without a center, uprooted and in flux. In many ways I think my own trajectory recapitulates (to bastardize the Haeckel's phrase) the historical trajectory of Western thought. I grew up religious, and I was as sincere a believer as I think one can be. I was born with asthma so bad that I was regularly hospitalized and more than once my mother was warned that I might not survive the night, but my belief in a creative and intelligent design filled me with such comfort that I found it impossible to be afraid. There was a plan. Whatever happened was part of it, and thus good. I wonder sometimes if this wasn't how medieval people felt for a thousand years, despite the horrors that they often endured. But just as the medieval period came to a close with the Renaissance as a new generation began to value personal experience, reason, and logic, my own love of science fractured my relationship with my childhood beliefs and led me down the path of reason. 

For me, this led to a decade long reassessment of my relationship to religion and belief until I landed firmly in a materialist philosophy. I have to say, I feel that a decade is very good compared to the three or four hundred that it took Western philosophy to move from the Renaissance to the culmination of the Age of Enlightenment. And I think that I took Enlightenment values to heart: reason as a guide for making decisions, constitutional government and individual rights as a basis for organizing society, education for all, and most of all a sense of progress. John Amos Comenius, an early Enlightenment Moravian (or Czech now), is a personal hero of mine. He laid the groundwork for the modern educational system, and he was the first to promote universal education.

The Enlightenment was over long before I was born (the French Revolution in 1789 is often used as a marker for its end), and I grew up in a modern and postmodern world. Modernism grew out of disillusionment following the horrors of the First World War, and then was firmly locked in after we repeated the whole thing with the Second World War. Modernism retreated from universal values, and especially from a sense of progress. Artists and philosophers moved towards irony and absurdity to express their feeling of losing value, and Nietzche summarized what was left when you took away universal values and the idea of progress - the will to power. Born in in the latter quarter of the 20th century, I can see that I integrated modernist sensibilities from birth. I love irony, tend towards the absurd in my humor. Modernists loved to turn old values upside down, dash tradition to pieces, and try something brand new to world, and I love all of this. But for me, it's not a belief system, rather a way of approaching the world - an attitude. The problem for many modernists was that this pretty much summarized their viewpoints as well, and they were unable to come up with a coherent belief system to guide social action.

Finally, the postmodernists (Derrida's speech in 1965 to Johns Hopkins is a handy marker for the movement's beginning) were able to articulate what the modernists had been trying to express in their minimalist music, happenings, and abstract art. Postmodernism is the era I was born into, and while the name has changed frequently (deconstructionism, structuralism, posthumanism, cyborgism), I think that its permeation of our culture is too deep to ignore. I take its claims seriously, and I think they inform many of my decisions, yet in the end, it feels difficult to move forward without resorting to the old Enlightenment values that started it all, and I wonder if there is some way to blend the two into a stronger philosophy (cyborgists should love that - but they probably won't). 

Postmodern articulated the feelings of the modernists around two keys tenets - there is no center, and people like power. A million ramifications flow from these two statements, and there is no way I can do it justice or pretend that I understand it all. But the fundamental idea isn't complex. If there is no objective truth and no universal values, then there are only preferred truths and values. Why prefer one truth or value system over another? Power. Look behind any belief system, and you will find the tendrils of power, oppressing some and privileging other. And who can deny these claims? Even a single reading of Howard Zinn's "A People's History" or Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" should be sufficient to convince a person that privilege and power are constantly operating throughout society. The idea is horrific to me not just for the perpetuation of injustice, but also its inherently bleak take on humanity.

The human posited by postmodernists is a character from Kafka, navigating mazes of power, sometimes attaining enough agency to rebel against the current power structure, only to replace it with another one just as oppressive. The philosopher Simon Thorpe has denied this terrifying end point and argued that postmodernism can lead to revolution through interconnected grass roots movements to promote new power structures that are equal and just. But honestly, that doesn't give me much hope. For me, the postmodern world that I inhabit now feels like it's necessary to entertain fifty contradictory elements at once. I still believe the Enlightenment values of universal education, constitutional government, and reason as a tool to guide decisions, and although postmodernism correctly points out deep fundamental cracks in these ideas, what else is left? How can we make decisions as a group without reason and objective scientific truth? Is climate change a fiction? Is education? Can we agree on fundamental human rights, or is each one hiding a power grab? The postmodern viewpoint doesn't feel like it gives me any tools to build, only tools to tear down. It doesn't feel like it gives me faith in another person's charity and humanity, only a sense of suspicion of their motives. Postmodernism offers no clues as to how progress can be made because it doesn't believe in the idea of progress, only the reorganization of power structures. 

I wish I knew of some way forward, but I don't. Philosophically, I feel that we have backed ourselves into a cul-de-sac. Maybe it's possible to reinvigorate the old Enlightenment values that gave rise to the first schools, the first encyclopedias, the first hospitals, and Declaration of Independence. To dust off our belief in self-determination, the dignity of humans, and progress while still keeping our eyes open for injustice. Or have we reached the point where it just seems like an absurd hope?

Is it possible to have the heart of Voltaire and the eyes of Foucault?

Human Identity

We live in a time of identity politics, but perhaps this is nothing new. The citizens of the ancient Greek city states were proud enough of their separate identities to go to war, and the religious identities of the 17th century tore communities apart throughout Europe for almost a century. The only part of Foucault's writing that I agree with in large part is his writing on identity, but his focus was mainly on the power structures it created.

If I am interpreting him correctly, and he was always obscure, he thought that any identity automatically created an "other", an identity that was outside of the one adopted. These two aspects are intertwined as light and shadow; we cannot perceive one without the contrast of the other. This creates a space of exclusion, wherein one identity is validated and the other is repressed. He firmly did not believe that any identity was better or more valid in actuality than any other identity, but rather that we are caught in an endless play of identity creation and suppression. He had a grim take on the whole enterprise of a functioning human society that could move past these dichotomies.

However, Foucault was vague about his definitions of power, how identity actually constructs the dynamic, and how it is propagated through organizations through individuals. I don't think he actually knew. This vagueness has left his work open to endless interpretations, and unfortunately most of them are extremely simplistic. One of the worst examples, in my opinion, is the use of his work to fight against the established power structure by embracing identities as a weapon. As a trans-woman, I have come across these efforts frequently. 

The idea is that minority groups, such as trans-women, are oppressed because of their identity, and the solution is to embrace for groups to embrace this identity and fight for its place at the power table. In doing so, these groups thus invalidate the oppressing group and turn the tables on the power paradigm. The problem with this, however, is that the paradigm hasn't changed at all, and the identities have become even more firmly locked into place. It creates more conflict and oppression, rather than progress.

And worst of all, to me, is that each of these identities is a way of dehumanizing another person. Placing the label of "trans" on someone and organizing society to punish this identity takes away the humanity, the person-hood, of a trans-person. But it also dehumanizes the oppressor, making all cis-gendered people less than human. They become trapped in a small piece of their humanity, and they rigidly defend it against that attacks from trans folk. 

By playing into these identities, rather than side-stepping them and creating a new paradigm, identities that feel oppressed actually become the oppressor and keep the cycle going. A simplistic interpretation of what I am writing, and one that I hope to make clear that I disagree with, is that people of historically oppressed groups should not stand up for their rights. That is not in any way what I am saying. I believe that every person does have rights, not God given, but that we as humans have decided benefit each member of our species. I also believe these are human rights, not trans-rights or any other. Until we can embrace our humanity first, above more restrictive identities that bind us to conflict, we will always be stuck on the weary, endless cycle that the pessimistic Foucault predicted. 

Symbols of the Self

I have finished up some of my reading on Dewey, and while he does not write about the creation of the self, he does write about our use of symbols, which led me to reflect on the creation of the self. According to Dewey (and there is always a caveat in my writing that I misunderstood him), symbols are internal representations that are generated in childhood through a combination of culture and biology. I don't think he claims that these symbols are biological in origin; however, there is good evidence that the basic visual shapes are hardwired into our brains, so I'm making a leap for Dewey that he might not appreciate. Overall, he's more interested in how we manipulate the connections between these symbols and test those connections scientifically. 

It got me thinking about the symbols we use for our identity. The creation of identity is something that is well outside of my expertise, but as an educator working with a diversity of identities and as a trans-woman undergoing many fluctuations in my own identity, Dewey's theory of symbols made me wonder how we connect the symbols of our identity and test that against reality. 

Foucault wrote a lot about the creation of identity, and it's the only area in which I agree with him. Foucault seemed to believe that our conception of the self was a modern invention, and not just of the sort in which we now think of ourselves as "modern people." Probably everyone throughout history thought of themselves as modern to an extent. My interpretation of his writing is that he thinks we have changed how what our fundamental definition of subjective identity since the 17th century. Before, humans created identities by associating them with physical things (body, possessions), role in society (carpenter), or thoughts.

The modern person has switched to an historical definition of self, in which each identity has to be linked to a narrative and history. This has a couple of implications. The first is that all of our life events have to be simplified to fit within an identity narrative. The second is that all narratives and identities come with baggage, and Foucault wrote a lot about how the act of creating an identity in this manner obligates each person to pick an "in" and "out" group, creating a them and us mentality. Honestly, this is a bit dull to me.

But Foucault also said that the creation of a subjective identity in this way needed a history behind it to validate the narrative, thus leading to our modern obsession with personal and cultural histories. As history is always partially a subjective creation that can have as many interpretations as there are humans, we become stuck in an infinite loop as we create an identity, create a historical narrative to justify it, judge our identity against i, and repeat. Advertising has become adept at helping us associate these identities with products. I have to admit that Foucault seems to have a point here, in that it's very difficult to even talk about identity within our current framework without referring to an historical narrative. Even a person's career is put in terms of, "I always knew..." instead of saying something like, "I have a real talent for..." Foucault believed that when our culture changed how we define subjective identity, then the entire project of identity politics and narratives would be done, and "man would be erased, like a face drawn at the edge of the sea."

What can we do now though, in the midst a culture that defines our identity through historical narrative? How do we proceed, once we know that we have created these evanescent identities, these symbols of who we want to be and hope we are, through an alchemy of history, will, and imagination? Speaking as a teacher at a community college and as a trans-woman, I think we have to treat them as magnificent and living art - the art of ourselves. And like art, I believe that we can appreciate each person's unique creation, and celebrate those that bring us a sense of authenticity and dignity and beauty. And we can celebrate a plurality of identity instead of getting caught in the trap of the "other." 

 

Education and Sensory Experience

Single cells follow chemical trails, plants can grow towards light, and animals, well, animals can see and hear and smell and touch and taste. The sensory systems of organisms embeds them within the world, anchoring their behaviors to the features of the world that matters most to their survival and reproduction. Yet, most organisms don't have an experience of the world. At least what humans conceive of as experience is impossible without the complex neural structures found in the vertebrate brain, and not just any vertebrate brain, but one with cognitive functioning circuitry. Humans have this circuitry, which links our consciousness with our sensory experience of the world in way that is impossible for other organisms, including most animals.

We co-create the world as beings with consciousness. Neuroscientists have known for decades that sensory information is groomed and shaped backstage, in the primary brain systems, before it makes an entrance on the stage of consciousness, but each of us interacts with sensory information through a stunningly complex, and unique, suite of symbols, imagination, memory, and attitudes. We define ourselves in relation to these sensory data, contextualizing our goals and revising our relation to the universe. We co-create the world, and the world co-creates us. 

Education provides a path for infinite construction and new interaction with the world. Anyone who has taken an art history class cannot view a painting in the same way, although the sensory information has not changed between the beginning and ending of the course. But the person's vocabulary, memory, and attention has changed, and it can continue to change. One of the promises of education, arguably its greatest gift, is that humans beings can be more than receivers, listening to the static of the universe. We do this by building, over the centuries and from generation to generation, knowledge systems that promise humans something denied to almost every other organism, the chance to participate in the creation of the world. 

Where is the truth?

The concept of truth may be problematic to philosophers, but I don't think it's that complicated for most scientists. In my experience, which is admittedly limited, scientists believe that there is an objective reality and that we are able to understand it. The scientists that I have spoken to about this also have a very nuanced view of how they are able to understand reality, and they fully realize that a model, whether mathematical or descriptive, doesn't fully capture reality, is prone to error, and must be continuously revised. For this to happen, scientists use evidence, and only evidence. Basically most scientists seem to have a common sense belief that we can develop models that roughly correspond to reality, and that we judge these models using evidence. 

This fundamental belief about truth and evidence guides scientific dialogue, both in peer reviewed articles but also within the community at large. Whether at scientific conferences, gathered in small journal clubs, or over beers at the local pub, the conversations that scientists engage in are focused on how a belief corresponds with reality and what evidence would justify it. Scientists are just humans, so there's certainly a fair share of ridiculous opinions, poorly informed platitudes, and blind hero worship that crops up in any social gathering, but these don't gain much purchase before they get cross-examined for evidence. It is not only socially acceptable, it is a social imperative in the scientific community, that all beliefs be questioned and justified based on evidence, rather than expert opinion, general consensus, or emotional weight. This shifts even personal dialogue away from opinion and into a discussion based on truth, something badly needed in other social arenas, particularly politics. 

Political issues are currently awash in opinion without reference to either truth or evidence. Discussion center on what each person believes, or their ideals, or their emotions, but by their nature participants in these discussions have little chance of finding common ground. There is no common ground if the issue is what I believe versus what you believe. Common ground comes from a hard discussion of our models of reality, usually called opinions, and how they are supported with evidence. This type of dialogue forces participants to cede ground when their opinion lacks evidence, and it removes many of the negative emotions associated with being wrong. Being wrong isn't stigmatized in the scientific community. In fact, it's almost celebrated. Scientists change their opinions a lot because they're not attached to being right; they're attached to understanding the truth about reality. This type of focus in the political arena would be a breathe of fresh air.

There a couple of limitations that I see to this sort of conversation taking root in the political arena. First, it would require people to be ok with being wrong and willing to change their opinion when they see evidence to the contrary. A lot of people hate this idea. Second, these types of discussions would require that participants actually pay attention to the facts. This means asking hard questions about funding limitations, embedded social structures, trade-offs, and risk evaluation. It means being honest about subjective priorities and values and their place within an evidence based discussion. Third, and perhaps the most difficult, it would require that citizens understand what constitutes evidence. This means that the anecdote and the feeling would have to be recognized as an important determiner of values, but not as a justification for a belief about reality. Rather than focusing on how people feel about issues like gun control or education, discussions would focus on real goals, limitations, and embedded trade-offs. This does not mean, of course, that feelings are unimportant. They are arguably one of the most important aspects of a political or social decision. This does not mean they are evidence. 

How can society move towards truth and evidence based discussions, without everyone returning to school for a PhD in an already glutted field? Actually, I don't think it's that daunting, if we begin to utilize this type of conversation in our daily lives. What if it becomes socially acceptable in America to question a person's social or political belief, not maliciously, but in terms of evidence. More importantly, we should begin to question our own belief systems. Are we using anecdotes to justify broad generalizations, or feelings to justify a social policy? Without this type of daily practice, and without the social acceptance for this type of questioning, how can we question our politicians? 

If you believe that there is no reality beyond a subjective social opinion, then the future is simply a bleak replacement of one social paradigm followed by another, with the face of power being the only thing that changes. But if there is an objective reality, as all but the most extreme Foucauldians believe, then our decisions regarding issues such as war, education funding, gun law, lgbtq rights, and a myriad of others, have real consequences for every member of society, giving each person a responsibility not just to themselves but to all. If reality isn't informing these decisions, if we reject evidence, then we are rushing blindly through the world, mistaking the volume of our voice for the light of truth.