There Really Are Alternative Facts (2nd in a Series on Critical Thinking)

wilbers-stages

Clearly our culture and the world have entered uncharted territory with the announcement from multiple sources that we’ve entered a post-fact world of fake news. Nowadays, it seems, one person’s truth is another’s propaganda. In such a world, critical thinking is either essential or irrelevant.

I hold for the former.

I believe that truth is relevant, that facts exist, and that the facts of some are truer than those of others. At the same time, however, I recognize that my own understanding of “fact” has changed drastically over the course of my life. What I once fervently embraced as truth, I no longer accept. Something similar, I think, is true for all of us. As Paul of Tarsus put it in his letter to Christians in Corinth 2000 years ago: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (ICOR 13:11)

Paul’s insight holds for western culture as well, including the scientific community. It readily admits that facts change. For instance, scientists once universally accepted as absolute fact that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo changed all of that.

And that brings me to what I wrote last week about those essential elements of critical thinking: world-centrism, evidence, comprehensiveness, and commitment.

As for world-centrism, the argument here begins by noting that truth is largely relative. Our perception of it often depends on our stage of personal development – on the degree of evolution we’ve attained. What’s true for children (think Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy) is not true for adults. This by no means invalidates what children think. Their insights are often more acute than grownups’.

On the other hand, however, there are hierarchies of truth. While honoring children’s perceptions, adults cannot generally operate on the basis of what youngsters believe about the world. Neither do all (even very sincere) adults enjoy the same credibility. Some of them are more mature than others – more highly evolved at least in their chosen fields. Einstein, for instance, enjoyed high credibility in the field of physics. He also played the violin. However, his credibility in the field of music didn’t begin to approach that of Jascha Heifetz. It’s the same with other endeavors. Expertise matters.

Recognizing such relativity makes us realize that we do actually inhabit a world of “alternative facts.” But not all fact-claims have the same value. To separate true from less true and truth from falsehood, we must exercise extreme care. Recognizing the previously mentioned truth-hierarchies associated with universal stages of personal development is part of that process.

Philosopher Ken Wilber identifies four major stages of personal development or evolution. The perceptions of higher stages are superior to their lower-stage counterparts. Children, Wilber notes, tend to be egocentric. As such, their world and judgments tend to revolve around themselves, their feelings, needs and naïve beliefs.

In early adolescence or sooner, their scope of concern begins to widen towards group identification or ethnocentrism. They identify with their family, church, school, town, teams, and country. Relative to nation, the attitude here can be as narrow as “My country, right or wrong.” Many people never move beyond ethnocentrism. And in practice, their tribal superiority complex often leads to what Wilber calls “dominator hierarchies,” where control extends beyond the abstract realm of “truth” and “facts” to the politics of imperialism, war, and even slavery.

Those who move beyond ethnocentrism advance to the next evolutionary stage, world-centrism. Here allegiance shifts from my tribe and country to the world and human race. At this stage it becomes possible to criticize even habitually one’s tribe and country from the viewpoint of outsiders, “foreigners,” and independently verifiable data. Dominator hierarchies become less acceptable.

A final (as far as we can tell) stage of development is cosmic-centrism or what Wilber terms “integral thinking.” The cosmic-centric thinker is a mystic, who realizes the unity of all reality, animate and inanimate. (S)he holds that separation between human beings and their environment is only apparent. As many of them put it, “There is really only one of us here.”

The crucial point to note in this context, is that each of these developmental stages has its set of “alternative facts.”

Take the question of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience. According to many observers, Mr. Trump has largely been fixated at the stage of egocentrism (with, no doubt, ethnocentrism rising). Accordingly, he evidently thinks that because of his exceptionality, brilliance, and importance, his crowd must have been larger than that of President Obama, because the latter isn’t nearly as important or smart as Mr. Trump. At Trump’s stage of development, his perception constitutes a fact, pure and simple. Those who disagree are disseminating fake news.

For their parts, the dissenters – reporters, for instance – are usually ethnocentric. In the United States, they typically report from an “American” point of view. They regard Mr. Trump’s statements about crowd size as lies, since his assertions do not agree with readily available independent data information. As previously noted, the D.C. police, for instance, say that Mr. Obama’s crowd was four times larger than Mr. Trump’s. Moreover, ethnocentric reporters regard Mr. Trump’s lies as particularly egregious, because the falsehoods bring discredit and shame on the United States, which they consider the greatest and most virtuous country in the world.

Those with world-centric consciousness subscribe to yet another set of alternative facts. While agreeing that independent data is important for “fact checking,” they emphatically disagree with the premise that the United States is exceptional in its greatness or virtue. Simply put, it is not the greatest country in the world. Instead, for many (especially in the Global South with its history of U.S.-supported regime changes, wars, and dictatorships), fact-checked data show that the United States is the cause of most of the world’s problems. In the words of world-centric Martin Luther King, it is the planet’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” That recognition shapes and relativizes every other judgment of fact.

Cosmic-centered thinkers profoundly disagree with the so-called “facts” of all three previous stages of development. Nonetheless, they recognize that all human beings – and they themselves – must pass through the stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism before arriving at cosmic-centrism. That is, though most humans do not surpass ethnocentrism, no stage can be skipped. One cannot become world-centric without having previously been ethnocentric. One cannot adopt a cosmic-centered viewpoint, without first having traversed the world-centric stage. So, instead of anger, those with cosmic consciousness experience great compassion, for instance, towards Donald Trump and his critics both patriotic and more cosmopolitan.

Nonetheless, mystics approaching “facts” from their particular altitude insist that antecedent stages of awareness, though true in ways appropriate for those phases, are at best incomplete. All of them are incapable of discerning the Universe’s single most important truth that renders all else highly misleading. And that’s the fact is that all consciousness of separation is itself an illusion. Hence the size of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience is completely irrelevant. But so are questions about “the greatest country in the world.” No country is greater than any other. In the end, the only truth is God and divine love. Nationalist separation, fear, war, hatred, and associated attitudes are all false. They remain without factual support.

What I’m saying here is that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. In that light, the ultimate task of critical thinking is to help practitioners move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to at least acquaint them with the notion of cosmic-centrism.

In the terms just explained, what stage of evolutionary development are you?  Where do you think most of your friends are located?

(Next week: Why the world’s impoverished know more than Americans)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

7 thoughts on “There Really Are Alternative Facts (2nd in a Series on Critical Thinking)”

  1. Hi Mike,

    All knowing is accurate (if it is) only from the perspective taken.

    Each has its particular uses. When working in a given culture, the ethnocentric perspective is extremely useful. Fortunately I knew not to eat with my left hand when visiting in SE Asia.

    The same can be said of all the perspectives you mention. When working in one’s garden (which Merton says is perhaps the only occupation consistent with the contemplative life ), the Cosmic perspective is interesting, but perhaps not informative.

    Each perspective has its limitations: by definition, given that one perspective can be discerned from another, and that each only resonates to certain information (that being the definition of perspective), and has its strengths by the same reasoning.

    I can see a developmental pattern in the hierarchy you describe, much as those exist for cognitive development (Piaget) or moral development (Maslow). Each of use can understand those preceding but not those following — and, I would add, understand the current level incompletely (one cannot see well the spot on which one stands).

    Given that only 20% of the adult population at most has Generalized Conceptual Ability (old numbers, but I doubt they’ve changed), and that the figure for self-actualization is considered to be even lower (2%), holding one’s breath for the world to go Cosmic seems a daunting task.

    Fortunately, the most common method of expanding perspectives is one that is available to us all, namely, the practice of connecting as deeply as possible (practice may not make perfect but most often does make better) with all around us, from a young child who skins their knee in a stumble (easy) to our pets (still pretty easy) to worms in the garden (a little harder) to rocks (when worms are easy, give it a go).

    One way of fostering deep connections is through listening to and telling of life stories, meaningful ones, told with faithfulness, with coherence to the experience of the story (aka authenticity). Community, small heterogeneous community, can provide the context.

    What we call knowing can be seen as the triangulation of multiple perspectives. In both public (“we know this”) or private (“I experience this”) ways of knowing, the same applies. Like science (where these perspectives are called “lines of evidence”), forming a solid conclusion requires multiple perspectives. In the case of public knowing, each perspective has to be shared (verified). In the case of private knowing, the best we can do is to experience that perspective as deeply as we can, in order to know it well (raising signal above the noise of our monkey selves). No perspective is less than another, however: each is applicable to what it applies, but not elsewhere (until merged with a perspective of the elsewhere).

    Thanks for opening the way on this important matter.

    Hank

    Like

      1. Hi Mike,

        There is a developmental sequence of growth: the case can be made in general systems theory terms that once a given system is mapped (what Bateson calls “the web that connects”), it becomes a “thing” by itself, thus identifiable as a element of another system that incorporates it. Echoes of Augustine’s “proof” of one highest god here, but also of de Chardin’s evolving god.

        That hierarchy of development does not necessarily prove or imply superiority, however. In fact, the case can be made (and has been in Ogilvy’s Many Dimensional Man) that each system of knowing and acting (in modern psychology, dating back to Milton Erickson’s seminal works, known as “states of consciousness) has its own usefulness. Ogilvy’s point is that we need to be able to switch into that which best serves the current situation, while still informed by our other states. When I’m fixing (or attempting to…) the washing machine, I am best off in that state of consciousness, etc.

        As for Wilber’s tipping point: research on when memes go viral on the internet back up that number. The big caveat is this: those numbers are within a single population. In the US we have two major populations that have contrasting ways of getting and acting on information. To see a change in “the other” population would presumably require 10% of that population to have evolved. Now, “evolved” is a potentially loaded word, for good and (too often) for less-than good. How that 10% will evolve will be particular to where they are. To be successful, their evolution must incorporate those positive qualities that they have which are foreign to much of modern civilization. For example, I have observed in my neighbors a willingness to physically help, to offer sustenance, to share deep experiences, that are foreign to, e.g., university settings I have experienced.

        Finally, as a former colleague remarked one day, “to lead a horse to water, you first have to connect to the horse in some fashion.” That means connecting with individuals where they are, seeking that of Spirit (as we say in Quakerdom) in them. Then, because we are in their system of experience, while still informed in the background by ours, we need to allow ourselves to be guided not by the signposts in our system of experience, but rather by that creative impulse that comes from that intelligence beyond words. We need to listen and be guided.

        Thanks again for the opportunity,

        Hank

        Like

  2. Oh geez, the blog didn’t handle my old-fashioned smile (<s>).

    Here’s it again:

    Hi Mike,

    All knowing is accurate (if it is) only from the perspective taken.

    Each has its particular uses. When working in a given culture, the ethnocentric perspective is extremely useful. Fortunately I knew not to eat with my left hand when visiting in SE Asia.

    The same can be said of all the perspectives you mention. When working in one’s garden (which Merton says is perhaps the only occupation consistent with the contemplative life <s>), the Cosmic perspective is interesting, but perhaps not informative.

    Each perspective has its limitations: by definition, given that one perspective can be discerned from another, and that each only resonates to certain information (that being the definition of perspective), and has its strengths by the same reasoning.

    I can see a developmental pattern in the hierarchy you describe, much as those exist for cognitive development (Piaget) or moral development (Maslow). Each of use can understand those preceding but not those following — and, I would add, understand the current level incompletely (one cannot see well the spot on which one stands).

    Given that only 20% of the adult population at most has Generalized Conceptual Ability (old numbers, but I doubt they’ve changed), and that the figure for self-actualization is considered to be even lower (2%), holding one’s breath for the world to go Cosmic seems a daunting task.

    Fortunately, the most common method of expanding perspectives is one that is available to us all, namely, the practice of connecting as deeply as possible (practice may not make perfect but most often does make better) with all around us, from a young child who skins their knee in a stumble (easy) to our pets (still pretty easy) to worms in the garden (a little harder) to rocks (when worms are easy, give it a go).

    One way of fostering deep connections is through listening to and telling of life stories, meaningful ones, told with faithfulness, with coherence to the experience of the story (aka authenticity). Community, small heterogeneous community, can provide the context.

    What we call knowing can be seen as the triangulation of multiple perspectives. In both public (“we know this”) or private (“I experience this”) ways of knowing, the same applies. Like science (where these perspectives are called “lines of evidence”), forming a solid conclusion requires multiple perspectives. In the case of public knowing, each perspective has to be shared (verified). In the case of private knowing, the best we can do is to experience that perspective as deeply as we can, in order to know it well (raising signal above the noise of our monkey selves). No perspective is less than another, however: each is applicable to what it applies, but not elsewhere (until merged with a perspective of the elsewhere).

    Thanks for opening the way on this important matter.

    Hank

    Like

    1. re: transcend

      If he means “be authentically where the other person is” while still having available other later-developed modes of being,’ then I’m on the same page. I have found that is much more difficult than moving on to a later-developed mode of being and always keeping one foot in the later-developed mode. 🙂 When I am able to do that, I ask to be led where I can help that person the most, and then (figuratively) sit back and watch. Just because I have a later-developed mode of being doesn’t mean I know the bridge this person requires: everyone has their own path, and mine is every unlikely to be anyone else’s. So I have to allow an intelligence greater than mine lead me in what I do. And that starts with being totally where the other person is, without reservation. Radical empathy, when successful, creates radical compassion. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.

      Like

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