Some readers weren’t sure if I was presenting a joke or a parody last weekend when I proposed the invention of three new words. I wasn’t, and I don’t see why it should be strange for me to try to use this blog as the launching pad for useful new terms that could, if widely adopted, improve the precision of discussions we’re already having.
As a software developer, it feels natural for me to invent new words. We developers invent words — variables, classes, constants, properties, methods — all the time. Good naming helps us think, and helps future developers who may later read our code.
Based on the comments last weekend, some of you out there understood what I was trying to do, and one brave commenter even tried to use the three new words I’d just invented in actual sentences. That’s the spirit! Of course, it will take more than “bluth”, “fruth” and “swuth” to dissolve the clumps of misunderstanding and ill intention that clog our public dialogues, and I’m going to complete the first proposal for a Pragmatist’s Vocabulary today with three more terms representing three more popular varieties of quasi-truth.
Yeah, I’m going to stick with the rhyme scheme. Why not? Also, once again, there are political connotations to the misuses of “truth” that I’m targeting here, but I’m trying to cite examples equally supporting both sides of today’s social/political spectrum, because a Pragmatist’s Vocabulary is too valuable to be partisan. Here goes:
Three days ago my country celebrated Veteran’s Day, often a tough day to navigate for committed American pacifists like me, because of course we support and love the human beings who suffer and risk their lives in US military operations, but we don’t necessarily believe that these military operations actually help to make the world more free and democratic, or achieve anything good at all. Yet our country is deeply devoted to its vast military infrastructure, and many of us have friends and family members in the military, and pacifists will often find themselves bitterly shouted down if they ever dare to suggest that US military actions around the world tend to kill lots of innocent civilians for no good reasons.
Truth crashes into pride. When John McCain was running for President two years ago, I got myself into trouble with a few friends by repeatedly pointing out that McCain’s activities as part of the dreadful Operation Rolling Thunder were nothing to be proud of. Over and over, I got the same response: the bombs that fell from John McCain’s airplanes in Vietnam didn’t kill innocent civilians. He was only bombing power plants. (Always the power plants! How many power plants could there have been in North Vietnam?) Unfortunately, I could not find documentary evidence to prove that our presidential candidate’s airplane had destroyed peaceful villages and killed hundreds or possibly thousands of women and children. Without conclusive evidence to the contrary, the “truth” that John McCain’s service in Vietnam was noble and humane must stand. But we need a different word for variations on truth that emphasize pride over reason. Let’s call them pruths.
No, Quuth is not a character in a fantasy novel, though it’s a hell of a name and I bet J. K. Rowling wishes she’d thought of it first. A quuth is a truth that is widely believed by some segments of the population but also widely disbelieved by other segments, and which won’t ever be fully proven, despite its firm claims of validity, because it rests on premises that are theoretically questionable.
I know that many people are upset that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, a great theory endorsed by nearly 100% of serious scientists, has increasingly become a point of contention for some religious conservatives who prefer the theories of creation found in their sacred texts. This is one of the raging-hot topics of our times, as it seems to bring out the most intense emotions on both the believing and disbelieving sides.
Personally, I know Darwin’s theories are right. I’ve seen the dinosaur fossils and I know our planet is more than 4000 years old. It concerns me that today’s Republican Party seems to be veering towards widespread promotion of anti-scientific positions on topics like evolution and climate change.
And yet, I believe it’s a mistake for scientific-minded Americans (whether liberal or not) to take too rigid a position on the necessary acceptance of scientific truth, because in fact all scientific theories are ultimately questionable. That’s how science works. It is every human being’s personal and moral right to question every truth at every level., and in fact a consistent and coherent (if not scientific) position of intelligent design or creationism is possible. One has to ignore a whole lot of evidence, but one may choose to do so. The fact that many, many people of various religions around the world reject Darwinism proves that this position can be a consistent and coherent one.
Instead of feeling threatened by those who deny the theory of evolution, science-minded people should seek ways to accommodate the full breadth of belief options, including the ability to disbelieve the empirically obvious for any number of personal or spiritual reasons. Scientific validity is a very persuasive thing, but ultimately it’s the nature of complex scientific truths that they can be questioned or rejected at will. Let’s acknowledge that these truths we believe in may be validly questioned, and let’s acknowledge this with a hearty “bring it on”. Let’s call persuasive truths like the theory of evolution quuths, and see where the conversation goes from there.
“I just want to say that …” (chokes back sob) “… you folks, you guys, you are the best group of people I’ve ever worked with. I’m leaving here with a heavy heart, because I’ll never meet another gang of swell people like you. You’re the best in the world. Aces. I’m going to miss you all, but I want you guys to just keep doing what you’re doing, keep doing an amazing job every single day here, because this is the best company in the world, and if you just keep doing what you’re doing, there’s no way you can lose.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve all heard this farewell speech. Hell, I’ve made this speech myself a couple of times (though, because I always try to be honest, I’ve also left jobs without making this speech). Anyway, some poor sap is standing there holding a slice of cake speared with a plastic fork on a paper plate with one hand and wiping tears away with the other while making this farewell speech, and he truly believes at this touching moment that the gang of co-workers staring back at him (and calculating how to get more cake) are the best people in the world. At this moment, he believes it with his heart and soul.
But this truth is mathematically very improbable. It’s not exactly a lie, because the “goodness” he alludes to is so vague as to be meaningless, and he does feel it in his heart. So he is speaking some truth, but it’s a vacant truth, a truth so ephemeral and general that it will vaporize in the air and disappear before, probably, the last slice of cake is eaten. These kinds of vague, vacant truths surrounds us, and I suppose our society needs to keep producing them to survive, so let’s call them vuths.