The Super Witness

Imagine for a moment that there were a Super Witness to every event since before the beginning of the Universe.

Let us further imagine that our witness has all these qualities:

  • has witnessed every event.
  • has understood every event.
  • has remembered every detail of every event.
  • has a perfect memory, far in excess of the capacity required for such a database.
  • has no dishonest motives that would cause him/her to dismiss, discount, distort, exaggerate, omit, marginalize, spin, or lie about any event or the importance thereof.
  • is perfectly willing to share any account of any event with anyone who asks—and at any time.

Let us suppose that such a Super Witness exists.  And let us also assume that this Super Witness was available to us to answer our questions.

How often might the Super Witness’s accounts of what actually happened disagree with our own perceptions, understandings, opinions, and beliefs?

No field of human endeavor would be exempt from the effects of perfect knowledge.  History, Education, Science, Law, Politics, History, Medicine, Parenting, Philosophy, Religion, and Consumer Issues—all these and more would be revolutionized.  And we ourselves would be constantly corrected on what we have believed and even promoted in error.

Yes, I know that there is no such Super Witness available to answer our questions.  Even so, however, imagining such a character opens an important door in our minds.  That is, it opens the notion that the truth (facts) could be uncovered about any particular topic.  Sure, it may not be as easy as simply asking our Super Witness, and our ultimate level of certainty may not be as high as we’d wish.  Such, however, are the perils of being a temporal being in an extensive timeline!

The pursuit of the facts is an exhausting affair, however, and most haven’t the energy for it.  Indeed, it is much easier to “shop ’til you drop”, so to speak, and simply to decide at some point along the line that you’ll accept whatever “fact” is in front of you, and will search no further for anything more satisfying.  This is how I believe that most of us acquire our various beliefs.  At the end of the day, it is little more than hearsay, for we have not examined issues for ourselves, but are choosing to rely on the testimony of others.

And that brings us back to our Super Witness and our limited presence along the timeline.  Since we cannot ourselves go backward to previous times, we are forced to consult the assertions of others if we are to have any hope of understanding what may have happened before we got here.  Those who wrote our various histories, however, were most likely, people like us.  They had assumptions and beliefs and paradigms and fears and hopes just like we do.  They might have left something out for fear of retaliation, or for forgetfulness, or for not understanding that it was important to include.  And worse, they might have included things that did not actually happen—perhaps for similar reasons, or for personal gain of some sort.

Let the reader beware, therefore!  The more sources we consult, the better our chances of discovering the facts.  Sadly, however, our hearsay society doesn’t see much need for thorough research.  Conclusions are reached and defended, not on the basis of the amount and validity of support each enjoys, but for other reasons.  Among those reasons is likely the desirability of the conclusion itself.  Thus do so many simply believe what they want to believe.

When a person chooses such a practice, he removes himself altogether from the search for the truth and sets himself up as quite the opposite of our Super Witness.  Where the Super Witness has value by virtue of being a repository of all facts for all time, upon which facts others may draw their beliefs, our Make Believer looks to himself as the source of all that is important.  His beliefs may be as unreliable and fleeting as his moods.  He, himself, will not prove a reliable source for other fact seekers, but he could be very popular amongst the hearsay crowd, for he regularly has a self-based opinion.

I have likely been somewhat extreme in my contrast between the non-existent Super Witness and the fact-proof Make Believer, but this is simply to make the point.  None of us can be the Super Witness, for we are limited both in space and in time.  All of us, however, could be the Make Believer, even in the most extreme version.  It is simply a matter of how often we choose to make up our own beliefs out of nothing but whim, versus forming our beliefs as the result of diligent investigation.

Be sure to read Pelham’s Law of Cognitive Error.

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