Saturday, July 28, 2012

Zongor, The God of Objective Knowledge

When I was a kid, I wished I had a machine that I could just ask questions, and always get the answers. Since I was a kid it was always things like, "How much ice cream in the world is there at this second?" "Eight hundred million and two liters." Or when I was swimming at the beach, "Is there a shark over ten feet long within a mile of me?" "Yes." "Within half a mile?" "Yes." "Within a hundred yards?" "N-...Yes." Later, I was reminded of my objective truth machine while I was driving through Georgia and saw a sign on a highway: SPEED CHECKED BY DETECTION DEVICES. What, as opposed to a mystical encounter with pure truth?

My objective truth machine.
Sadly it broke and I couldn't get a replacement vacuum tube.

At some point the truth machine became Zongor, the god of objective knowledge, because that's catchier. When someone cites a fact that would seem difficult to verify (like the amount of ice cream or location of a shark - or a budget number on the news), you can call them on an appeal to Zongor. This isgood exercise not just for theists, but for anyone (including us) who's doing some muddy thinking about anything, supernatural or otherwise. How do we know what we know? Sometimes it just means knowing how to weight information based on the source that's supplying it, which of course is critical when consuming news. In science and engineering, whenever we hear a fact that's not the results of common every day experience, there was a specific effort behind that fact to uncover it, some kind of a measurement device or experiment. But it's also good to consider when we're making any decision - buying something, voting, business decisions, - and the question is always, how did we come to know that? The fact didn't just pop into someone's head as a gift from Zongor. By what process? What certainty can we assign?

Zongor, in all his majesticness. The tassel on the right is for truth. The tassel on the left is for, guess what!? more truth!

It's interesting to note that a decent propotion of the world's languages have obligate evidential marking. That is to say, they can't say something without simultaneously saying how they know it, i.e. whether they saw it themselves, or they inferred it, or someone told them. Pretty cool, huh? (There were several languages right here in California that had this, Shasta, Maidu and Wintu.)  Since we don't have that in English, maybe we should start calling people out on appeals to Zongor.

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