When US presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway became famous for her “alternative facts” remark last January, she was being more profound than she probably intended. For arguably there is only one empirical fact: We live in a universe of alternative realities.
Realists are continually frustrated by the inability of some people to accept the “obvious” despite overwhelming evidence. In Myanmar, Buddhist leaders and Nobel laureates swear up and down that the Rohingya are to blame for their own persecution, for their own villages being torched by the military, for fleeing barefoot into miserable refugee camps in their “native” Bangladesh.
Meanwhile in the United States, the reality of man-made climate change is vehemently denied, even by so-called leaders, at precisely the same time as unprecedented (but accurately predicted) storms and wildfires bring their roofs crashing down on their heads.
When Donald Trump appointed as head of NASA Jim Bridlestine, a man whose main claim to fame up to now has been proudly displaying his ignorance of science on the floor of the US House of Representatives, comedian Jimmy Dore remarked that to keep things in balance, Richard Dawkins should be appointed to lead the National Day of Prayer.
Bridlestine’s appointment, of course, follows that of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency – a body he has sued 14 times – and Betsy DeVos, a noisy opponent of free public education, as secretary of education. It’s as if America has been immersed in antimatter.
But it’s not just Myanmar and the US that have abandoned reason and sunk into a morass of unreality. Social democracy and labor unions are on the decline worldwide and perpetrators of the age-old “trickle-down theory” comfortably win political office even as the chasm between rich and poor rivals the Grand Canyon, and the middle class and workers’ rights look like becoming a brief accident of history.
Yet we must remember Pontius Pilate’s query, “What is truth?” Two millennia on, his question is still pertinent. As we gain more knowledge of how our universe works, we find our very senses challenged.
We are taught in school that our planet is a ball, but if we go out for a walk, our eyes tell us the Earth is flat. We look up into the sky, and our eyes tell us the stars are mere pricks of light, but we are taught in school that they are impossibly huge balls of nuclear fusion, and that their numbers are impossibly vast.
Galileo is called the father of modern physics, but if so, he in effect died in childbirth when his reality clashed with that defined by the Church. Today, in our enlightened era, reality is defined not by clerics or ancient scriptures, but by scientists who explain that microscopic amoebas and blue whales evolved from the same primordial soup, that while we wonder at the panoramic plumage of the peacock or the gravity-defying acrobatic antics of our pet cats, we must snicker at the idea of “intelligent design”.
Life would be so much simpler if people would reject myths, ancient and modern, and accept the obvious. But life was never meant to get simpler. And, apparently, it is human nature to be repelled by burgeoning complexity and retreat into the comforting cocoon of faith.
And so, we compartmentalize our belief systems. We know that the emissions from our SUVs are ensuring that the world will become less and less livable for our children, but we drive three blocks to the convenience store anyway to pick up a few plastic bags full of stuff. We know that democratic systems worldwide have been bought and corrupted, but we dutifully cast our ballots anyway.
We have faith that, somehow, an irreparably broken political and economic system that guarantees billions of humans will continue to live in misery while a tiny clique hoards a growing share of the wealth will repair itself.
Boldly going on
We learned from Mr Spock that logic is the beginning of wisdom, but it also may be the beginning of fatalism. Must it be so? And must we fall back into ancient superstitions to make sense of our world?
No. Intelligence is not founded on irrefutable evidence but on a balance of probabilities. If men and women a lot smarter than us determine from years and years of study and observation that, because of our poor stewardship of our planet, the weather will continue to get worse and islands and coastal cities become uninhabitable, it makes sense to believe them, not because of the number of degrees they have but because their motives seem purer than those in the employ of oil companies.
Maybe the Rohingya really are murderers and rapists, and should be exterminated. Most of us don’t have the ability to travel to Rakhine to see for ourselves. But as every human-rights organization that has earned its credentials, every trustworthy journalist, every NGO working in Myanmar tells us the same story, and only a tiny cabal of Buddhist clerics, military brass and opportunistic politicians beg to differ, the safe bet is on the prevailing view that the Rohingya are suffering unconscionable horrors for no reason but for embracing the wrong superstition. The wrong reality.
There are no such things as fundamental human rights. Humans have invented these over the millennia, in fact many of them just in the past one or two centuries. Does that make them invalid? No. They define and continually redefine civilization, and are even more necessary now that civilization itself is under the threat of destruction by the greedy and the powerful. And most important, by the ignorance of the 99% who keep failing to stand up to them.
We all live by faith, whether it is in fairy tales, holy books, unsustainable economic systems, or democracy and the quest for justice. It’s only a question of which reality we choose, and fight to preserve.