Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The market for truth

John Cleese was asked in a recent interview why so many people profess a desire to be famous.

"I think it's to have a sense of significance," he said. "Now most people don't want an ordinary life in which they do a job well, earn the respect of their collaborators and competitors, bring up a family and have friends. That's not enough any more, and I think that it's absolutely tragic - and I'm not exaggerating - that people feel like a decent, ordinary, fun life is no longer enough."

"One of the things I've discovered ... as I've got older," he continued, "is that almost nobody knows what they're talking about. Of course, we're still talking and we're having fun but you have to realize that, in terms of truth or reality, most of it is completely valueless."

It's easy to make fun of this sort of celebrity wisdom, but I think Cleese may have a point. Three points, really.

Firstly, the point about people not being satisfied with an ordinary life. This has a lot to do with the decline of a rich culture (customs, religion, etc.) which provided the sense of significance which is now lacking.

The second point is, if not literally and simply true, then only a slight exaggeration: "... almost nobody knows what they're talking about."

And the final point Cleese makes I would put another way, and say that the market for truth and reality is vanishingly small.


  1. The second point reminds me of a line attributed to Pope Julius III:

    "Do you know, my son, with what little understanding the world is ruled?"

    And yet, even though I can't examine an issue from every side - and half the time don't want to - I form conclusions anyway. It's an unfortunate part of being human. (Fortunately, another part of being human is that, despite this personal and collective ignorance, somehow we muddle on regardless.)

    Could you elaborate on what you (and Cleese, inasmuch as you can speak for him) mean with the third point?

    1. All I'm saying really is that truth-seeking (for its own sake) is not a very popular activity. Knowing the truth about this or that or themselves is not a priority for most people. Normal happiness is often achieved by forgetting about the bleaker aspects of the human condition (like death). A degree of self-deception is involved, and sometimes fantasies provided by religions, political ideologies or popular culture (e.g. rags to riches or romantic love).

    2. Agreed. I think the mathematical idea of the incompleteness theorem (some things are true but not provable) has been translated by the social semi-sciences as "all alleged knowledge is subjective, contingent on the prejudices of the holder." So you get stupid things like "gender is a social construct," ignoring that the entire mammalian kingdom, and most of the rest of the animal, has distinct gender roles.

  2. The anti-science relativism that WMarkW is talking about has been fostered by cultural elites who are only really concerned with pushing their social and political agenda, and not with truth. The worst thing about this is that it makes communication and normal discussion about matters that can be assessed objectively much more difficult.

  3. The extreme relativist social scientists take the true - our sensory organs are imperfect and can be fooled - and extend that to suggest that we cannot know objective reality. I admit that my patience is stretched to the limit when I give any opposing argument and receive the 'That's true for you' answer. That lazy cop-out of theirs lets them argue in the traditional way, with logic and evidence and so on, and then stop arguing whenever they feel like it.

    Unrelated: I notice, Dr. English, that your About Me has changed. With the exception of the last line, that would almost describe me. I do hope that your description of your commitment to truth becomes prescription in those moments of frustration where you feel tempted to stop truth-seeking.

    Also unrelated: WMarkW, do you have a blog? I notice your comments on Mark's and Heathen's posts and often wonder what your thoughts are when you have more space and time to lay them out.

    1. Thank you for your interest, but I don't blog.
      I link to these sites from SecularRight.org (I'm RandyB on that site because of different sign-in accounts).