When is a person right? When is a person wrong? What’s involved in making the call?
A useful way of framing the matter is to speak of exopotent truths and endopotent truths.
For exopotent truths, such as those concerned with natural phenomena and their coherent, consistent, rational explanations, it is possible to make the call in well-stated contexts using currently available data.
On the other hand, for endopotent truths such as those that have an impact on our inner sense of self or status, there is no standard way of determining which view is correct and which is not correct; they represent interpretations of many situations that can be seen to be meaningful.
Exopotent truths are sometimes wrong (in science, often in retrospect), but when they’re wrong, there’s a procedure in place to correct them.
By contrast, endopotent truths entail an intrinsic uncertainty that can generate irreconcilable conflicts because, in such cases, I-am-right implies that you-are-wrong.
Exopotent truths have not, of course, always been adjudicated by scientific inquiry, nor have they historically been accorded the optional status that they hold in our times. Historically, cultures have self-organized around accounts of origins, identity, and morality, conveyed in the narrative form called Mythos, and persons have been asked to normalize their endopotent truths to the exopotent truths articulated by that Mythos. One’s endopotent truths might indicate X, but if the tradition said Y, then the tradition trumped.
Scientific inquiry has provisioned us with a set of exopotent truths that are a) not user-friendly, particularly without education; b) not the obvious plot-line for a human-centric narrative; and c) not the bearers of obvious moral imperatives. So while we slurp up these truths to the extent that they undergird our technologies, they don’t have the normalizing effect on endopotent truths that the old narratives had and, in countless cases, continue to have.
In the old days, when members of tribes or denominations held an aberrant endopotent truth – one at odds with the prevailing exopotent Mythos – it was considered heresy and quickly snuffed out. We’re now multi-tribal, so my endopotent truths that are sanctioned by my Mythos are right, and yours are wrong, because we don’t share a normative account.
The result is pretty much the mess that we call our global situation.
If our “scientific Mythos” is to step to the plate and provide a pan-tribal exopotent orientation that serves to constrain – not censor, but constrain – endopotent truths such that we’re all moving in the same direction rather than shouting I’m right you’re wrong at one another, then this strikes us as something that would be a good thing. Indeed, if this 13.7 blog can be said to have an overarching theme, it would be to foster such a trajectory.
That said, the challenges inherent in such a project can often seem insurmountable.
Co-blogger Varadaraja V. Raman (known as VV) is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He writes on many aspects of Indian heritage and on the science-religion interface.