If pigs had wings, then they would fly. Which is an old saying designed to make fun of the counterfactual, the hypothetical. But there is a role for considering how we would view a particular situation if the facts were slightly different. Doing so can illuminate the key question of whether we are operating on the basis of ideology or on pragmatic fact.

Why is that relevant today? Because politicians and pundits love to exaggerate the importance of any given news story; they love to take a specific case and turn it into a sign that the Earth is about to rip itself into pieces or that the sky is about fall on top of our heads. Considering whether pigs have wings or don’t can help.

We had a big debate about building a telescope on Mauna Kea. But what if this were the first telescope or large structure to be erected on Mauna Kea, instead of the most recent in a long line of telescopes that are already there?Wouldn’t that debate have been more “pure” from a philosophical point of view, and more compelling?

We have had an ongoing debate about rail. But what if we had built it decades ago when City Councilwoman Rene Mansho killed it with one vote?

Or what if the rail to date had been built within budget? Or what if rail had been completed quickly before new technology appeared to threatening some of the very purposes for which it was originally conceived?

At the national level, we have had an endless debate about a southern border wall. But if the border were only 200 miles long (as opposed to 10 times that), would there even be a debate? There already are partial barriers on that border and no one complained before.

We watched an ugly spectacle in the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But what if his accuser Professor Christine Blasey Ford had seen him in school every day for several years before the incident, and then after?

What if the event as alleged had occurred when they were both adults, say in their late 20s? What if the event alleged had occurred five years ago, instead of nearly 40 years ago?

What if the memory of the event had been persistent since it occurred and was reported to others or written down in a diary, as opposed to being recovered in psychotherapy? Would we still extrapolate this hearing into a grandiose referendum on how men are or how women are or how gender biased our institutions are?

Lawyers and non-lawyers who have a lot of experience struggling to apply the abstraction of language in a rule to a specific set of facts in a given case know well that every case is different and the result can turn on a tiny fact that is there or not there, in place or out of place. To us, generalities are not that useful.

It is natural for the human brain to try to make sense of the world, to derive meaning from events, but this act is inherently reductionist and therefore problematic. And there is always the element of the subjective. What for centuries was called epistemology in philosophy, is today called hermeneutics (and semiotics), which is basically the study of how humans interpret the world around them, including the things they read or the images they see.

A fine short book on this topic is Jens Zimmermann’s “Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction” from Oxford. But if I may do reductionist violence to Mr. Zimmermann, it boils down to the idea that you get out of things what you bring to them.

Precept, Principle, Fact

There is a very interesting piece of literary criticism from the Renaissance by Sir Philip Sidney called “An Apology for Poetry.” And by “apology,” he means a “defense,” not obsequious regret.

Sidney thinks that philosophy is about the general precept or principle, while history is about the particular fact. He argues that literature is superior to both because it allows the author to marry the general precept to the particular fact, for a pedagogic or didactic purpose.

In other words, teaching. We learn best when the facts embody a principle. But Sidney is talking about fiction.

We shouldn’t get trapped in the fallacy that any given news event has a broader ideological meaning.

When dealing with life, we have to accept that sometimes things don’t seem to make sense to us, we have to accept contradictions, we have to accept the possibility that some things don’t have much meaning or purpose at least as it relates to us puny humans as individuals.

Those of us who are religious may believe that God’s purpose is always served. But it can be cold comfort if you happen to be the young man who gets killed storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day or the lady reporter in Bulgaria who gets raped and murdered for reporting on government corruption.

But I digress. My point was simply that we shouldn’t get trapped in the fallacy that any given news event has a broader ideological meaning. It may or may not. It may be just another specific cluster of facts to be followed by many more in an endless stream until the end of history as we know it.

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