Finding the historical “Truth”

It’s interesting to notice how easy it is to misunderstand/misinterpret history. Historical “facts” arise from different sources, and it is the historian’s job to sift the documentary evidence and see what kind of balance comes out in the end. And the balance doesn’t necessarily come from the volume of the documentation. Popular lies get reported much more–creating documentary evidence–than the uncomfortable truth.

Especially today, with anyone with an Internet connection can publish their opinion like me here, some assumptions or claims are repeated over and over, and there are many people, who think that opinions don’t need evidentiary back-up; they seem to think, that the more often and the louder something is repeated, the more “true” it is.

As I’m not a professional or formally educated historian nor philosopher, I guess I should give a disclaimer, that I may be wrong about some details. But.

I think there are some prerequisites for historical factuality:

  1. There is no absolute historical truth. Take the example of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: Is “the separation of church and State” something that the “Founding Fathers” intended as literally as some vocal secularists demand; does “State” mean the Federal or State; is it proper to have pastors/priests of varying denominations give “nondenominational” prayers where the Supreme Being (by whatever name) is petitioned for the safety of the Country and especially for wisdom for the governing officials; who actually deserves the title “Founding Father” (did they sign the Declaration reluctantly, under pressure or willingly, and could something like that even be determined), etc? You will receive varying analyses from different historians–and especially lay people and politicians–as to what the “intentions” of the “Founding Fathers” were. The surviving original documents can not tell us the whole story.
  2. The documentation we have available to us is quite often partial opinions (instead of facts), reminiscences decades after the fact or heavily redacted under some excuse. An historian must try to gauge how much these conditions colour the documentation at hand. For example, if someone were to print all the public statements of, say, Rush Limbaugh–or Bill Maher, for that matter (pay attention here: I’m seriously comparing the two, although the latter is admittedly a comedian, not a “serious” commentator, unlike the former, who would be funny if he weren’t so dangerous)–and that happened to be the only surviving documentation of the Obama presidency, could we not expect an historian to detect some bias as well as illogic in them? I know that the thought is outlandish in its way, but it isn’t that far fetched. Think how much such printout would be copied!
  3. We know that other people wrote something down during classical Greek era, but name someone besides Homer or Aristophanes! The fact is that the most quoted and copied documents survive and are best known. We must not accept the most obvious sources, but must dig deeper, until we are satisfied that all parties have their say. And we should also let them all have their say in what we produce, but in a way that gives at least some idea of how credible some opinions or reminiscences are. Hence, a good, professional historian extrapolates or interpolates some things, he can be reasonably certain to reflect the reality.

Then there’s also the philosophical angle. The word “truth” can be said to mean many things. But if we wanted to be thorough, it would mean, that if we claimed to know “all truth,” we should actually know everything. That in turn, would mean that we’d have petabytes of information about natural phenomena and human activity–impossible for any human being to absorb in full–and before we could begin to state it, our “truth” would not be fully truth any longer, because the facts have changed. A biologist said, that if we took every single virus on (and in) the Earth and lined them end to end, the line would reach 100,000,000 (hundred million) miles. Well, I really can’t know if he’s actually right! 🙂

So we can not fully grasp even the present, let alone history. And if our ability to really grasp and explain phenomena like the “flower child” movement among the baby-boomers in the 1960’s, how can we claim to be absolutely certain we know what happened 200, let alone 2,000 years ago? Many “truths” we take self-evident are nothing but theoretical explanations of observed phenomena. I’m not saying Science and scientific explanations are fantasy! I’m just saying, that as our understanding grows, we come up with new “truths,” or explanations to various things.

What I’m actually saying is that some humility is in order when we approach some phenomena we observe now, or some historical occurrences. Especially wars are difficult, because winners tend to write the history that gets published. E.g. in Serbia they don’t teach school children that Serbs were the perpetrators of the worst atrocities in the 1990’s Balkan wars. In Russia, they don’t teach school children about the millions of people killed in their own concentration camps or yet more millions forcibly transplanted from Baltic countries to usually Siberia, bringing Russians there, again forcibly. Just like they don’t teach American kids everything about the genocidal wars against American Indians or the manipulation of Latin American governments–Augusto Pinochet‘s fascist dictatorship, just to name one–by CIA (which CIA has even admitted, among others).

I think we just need to study diligently so we know what’s going on–and make sure we get our information from various sources to avoid bias. Just like Doctrine & Covenants 88:78-80 tells us. But we should also be careful to prioritise our time between different activities, so we don’t let any one thing hijack all of our attention. We need variation; different challenges and experiences are essential to our mortal experience.

As you see, this is an opinion piece. But I just thought I’d share it. God bless!

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