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Hallo again to all.

Today we launch our new Letters section, in which we publish some of the notes that our readers send to us. While working on it, we got to thinking about the ways in which it might go sour, and we thought of the high levels of acrimony often seen in online discussion forums.

Online contentiousness often involves entrenched disagreement about truth, knowledge, and belief. One person says, ‘x is obviously true’ while another angrily asserts that ‘it is easy to prove that x is false’, or perhaps ‘easy to prove that the Bible says x is false’. Without even getting into the issue of what it means to prove something, we need to think carefully about what it means to know something.

In our university years we took courses in epistemology, the study of knowledge, in which anger and invective never made anything more true. At the end of an entire term studying knowledge and truth, the principal lesson we learnt: it is very hard to be certain of knowledge and truth. We humans rely on our own perception to provide a second opinion about truth, and it requires some skill to believe in the truth of something that cannot be perceived, like mathematics or theology or cosmology or the physics of elementary particles.

Some situations encourage us to believe our personal experience over any proof, no matter how rigorous it seems. Consider this proof that 1=2. It uses only basic algebra; do try to follow along. When you see this proof, we presume that you will respond the same way we did at first: ‘I know perfectly well that 1 does not equal 2, and I don't need to refute this proof. It's contrary to my own experience, so I know it's not a valid proof’.

In the church now, we are grappling with issues for which our own experience might differ from assertions, proofs, or consensus that we encounter. There are so many mistakes that we can make in our search for the truth. We can mistake consensus for truth. We can mistake personal experience for truth. We can mistake a jury's decision for the truth. We can mistake our own opinion about what the Bible says for truth. We place great stock in the Bible, but we are not so vain as to believe that our opinion about what it says is more valid than another's opinion about what it says. We place great stock in our understanding of God, but we are not so vain as to believe that we understand completely.

As we launch our Letters section today, we hope that it does not become a forum for hate and condemnation. We hope that if you hear what you believe is a call from God to act hatefully, that you treat that like a proof that 1=2. Compare it to your own experience, in which 1 does not equal 2, in which God does not call you to hate—and assume that you are not sufficiently saintly to understand all of the subtleties of what you think you may be hearing.

We grieve this week the loss of our friend Barbara Wolf, one of the great lights of reasoned and intelligent online discourse. Her obituary in the Portland Press-Herald (Maine, USA) gives a glimmer of her greatness. This collection of some of her online discourse gives a better idea of just who she was. We were privileged to know her. We think she would approve of our launching a Letters to the Editors section.

See you next week.

Brian Reidís signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 18 May 2003


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