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David Brooks (!) Causes Me to Consider the Machinery of the Truth Process

May 29, 2009

Forgive me if this post isn’t perfectly well-thought out, or coherently expressed. I can only proof read and edit it so many times.

Against my better judgment, I have once again read a David Brooks piece. Here’s a taste:

Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world. [Bobo]

I sort of agree with what Brooks says here about these models. Back when I posted about chaos, and considered some of the impressions a particular book left on me, with respect to the relationship between truth and opinion, I resolved myself to the idea that there are natural truths (the way the world is) and there is opinion (the way we communicate about how we perceive the world to be.) Brooks’ models falling into the second category.

I disagree that these models — informed by genes, culture, education, parents and events — amount to “emotional intuition.” People working with underdeveloped models may rely on intuition to fill in the blanks, but a knowledgeable, well educated person standing on the giant’s shoulders, will have a reasonably well formed model. A model that to the best of accumulated human knowledge, reflects the way the world truly is, that provides a reasonably good approximation of the underlying natural truth.

Indiana Jones, aside from the hokey religious undertones, provides a handy visual aid in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

The bridge represents truth. The sand: opinion, (or ‘model.’) While the sand does not reveal the full extent of the reality of the bridge, later in the movie, it reveals to the pursuing antagonists that there is, in fact, a bridge there.

Brooks seems to lose the thread when he delves into the practical application of these models in jurisprudence:

One judge, with one set of internal models, may look at a case and perceive that the humiliation suffered by a 13-year-old girl during a strip search in a school or airport is the most consequential fact of the case. Another judge, with another set of internal models, may perceive that the security of the school or airport is the most consequential fact. People elevate and savor facts that conform to their pre-existing sensitivities. [Bobo Ibid.]

(As an aside: I’m interested as to why Bobo felt it necessary to add the “or airport” to his example.)

Now I’m thinking that when Brooks speaks about “models,” he’s actually talking about what I would call “scripts.” Though scripts aren’t “models of how the world works,” but rather routines we employ to process information, and sensory input, to reconcile this information with the model and react to it, or adapt to new situations. Scripts, are how (and what!) we learn. Scripts, are what we use to investigate, analyze, communicate and make decisions. Scripts, are where emotions and intuition will often come into play.

All that said, Brooks’ point is well taken. Different people may very well draw from different models and different scripts depending on their beliefs, culture, upbringing etc.

This is all interesting and edifying to sort through, but some point we need to shift gears away from the concept of natural truth to something more philosophical. Philosophical truth?

I think Brooks’ point is this: more important than the scripts one uses to come to a decision, is the model in which one vests their beliefs. In this case, Brooks prefers a model based upon the law, tradition, the status quo:

[D]oes she have a love for the institutions of the law themselves? For some lawyers, the law is not only a bunch of statutes but a code of chivalry. The good judges seem to derive a profound emotional satisfaction from the faithful execution of time-tested precedents and traditions. [Bobo ibid.]

My question is, as posted yesterday: Is there truth in it?

I maintain that when it comes to the rule of law, we have departed — as a rocket from the Earth — from truth and opinion, into a realm of simulacra of truths and problematic scripts.

PS: I’m interested what Winston Smith would say about this (he’s been posting about this stuff lately) though I don’t get the impression he takes me very seriously as I may, in his view, be given over to kooky far-left quasi-philosophical nonsense. Perhaps it’s just an incompatibility in our base models.

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