How to Tell What’s Real

I’m designing a new class for this coming block called How to Tell What’s Real. It’s the basics of epistemology as I — a layperson interested in what is true — can portray it. We have suffered a systematic attack on the human powers of reason that has always come from Right Wing sociopolitical forces, but it also comes from romantic forces like the American Hippie movement which has, to a great extent, confused reason with military industrialism.

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The thesis of the class is that there are two processes that we can use to align our beliefs with the truth:


which frees our mind to release convenient fictions



which trims away the impossible from our beliefs

The two work differently but in concert. The most dedicated practitioners of meditation I know are scientists. They use meditation to polish their intuition in such a way that they can develop effective hypotheses — hypotheses that listen less to prejudice and attachment, and then they work out ways to test those hypotheses.

Our class is going to start with asking what we mean when we say something is real or isn’t. What do we mean when we say “That’s not a real dog” because it’s small or has a round face. Does that mean that the “real” dog is the one we hold in our imagination as the abstract paragon of “dog”? Are things only real when we imagine them? Is nothing real, then but our imagination? Or is it that we look at all the dogs we’ve met and determine just how real something is according to a taxonomy? Is the taxonomy real? Or, as I think is the case, is the taxonomy a useful description, like a map is?

We take action all the time based on things we think are real and true. Sometimes we have to go on very little information, like when we’re taking an action based on what we surmise (feel? think? know?) someone else is feeling.

And what about experiments we can’t do? How do we know how to trust when someone is telling the truth? What does it mean when resources go toward exploring one question over another? Does that mean that the answers that emerge are more true than the questions no one wanted to fund?

I’m not exactly sure how the class will go. It will necessarily stem from student questions, which means that we will probably wind up pursuing broadly varying questions to all different depths. We’ll do science experiments, learn how to reduce variables, talk about (if not quite do) statistical analysis.

One thing that I want to make sure happens is that it not be a debate class. I have given up trying to plan classes from the beginning because they never go how I expect, but here are some principles I want to make sure we orient to:

  • Do not interrupt anyone who is explaining their thought. Let them speak. We’re not in a hurry. Write down your thoughts into chat.
  • Don’t negate a fellow student by starting a sentence with “But”, “Actually”, “Well…” Start with “If”.
  • The best indication we have of someone’s feelings is what they tell us their feelings are. They are the authority on that. Objectively, they are feeling their feelings, whatever the truth of what they’re having the feeling about. Their feelings might change, especially if they can say them out loud.
  • You can think about what you’re going to say before saying it. You don’t have to say it out loud, but write it to the group or to me in chat. You can edit it.
  • Beliefs are not evidence.
  • Proposing truths you don’t believe is arguing in bad faith.

And each day we will start the class with meditation.