Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Lloydminster, Truth, and Nuggets

Last night, CBC did a story on the town of Lloydminster, which straddles the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta. A line of tall orange pillars run through the centre of town to mark the division between the provinces.

On the one side, oil wealth, citizen dividend cheques, and ultraconservative politics -- and the swagger and pride that goes with it all. On the other, Canada’s most understated and progressive province, quiet in its convictions, hard-working without ever seeming to get ahead.

Apparently the 19th-century surveyors that originally marked out the town put the provincial boundary in the wrong place. They were off by a few hundred metres, which would move a few city blocks into Alberta.

Should the line be moved?

Forget it, say the politicians. It belongs where it is.

The story made me think about the dividing line between all things conservative and progressive. Only in prairie geography is this merely a line: everywhere else, it’s a gulf as wide as an ocean.

Progressives and conservatives can't communicate with each other because they speak different languages. Same words, different core concepts behind them.

The most crucial difference is in their concepts of truth. One side sees truth as a noun, a fixed concept like “cow” or “cabbage”, a nugget of fact that you can write down or memorize or enshrine. The other sees truth as a verb, a process of verifying and testing and comparing to come to a reasonable conclusion, of examining things for what they are, rather than what they ought to be.

For truth-as-a-noun people, a smart person is one whose head is stuffed with truth nuggets. For truth-as-a-verb people, a smart person is one whose head is empty -- except for tools.

It’s the difference between the static and the fluid, between materialism and stewardship, between product and process.

So when these two groups talk about scientific truths, they are in fact discussing entirely different things. Truth-as-a-noun people see science as nothing more than a group of facts agreed upon by scientists. For them, it’s possible to disagree with science and substitute another group of facts agreed upon by another group of people.

Whereas truth-as-a-verb people look at the process that created the science – the rigorous process of experimenting, duplicating, computing, and comparing, all to yield the best truths we are capable of. To truth-as-a-verb people, you cannot disagree with science: you can only disagree with the end nuggets, and only if you have the math and experiments to back yourself up.

Religions are either truth-as-a-noun or truth-as-a-verb.

People often ask me: What do Quakers believe?

They want me to give the list of nuggets.

I answer: They believe what they believe.

Which is true.


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