Hey, you. Yes, you!
Want to know every band we’ve been compared to in print?
I love covers of songs. Not all of them – I hate a) punk covers of songs and b) anything done in the Radio 1 Live Lounge – but there’s something about a good cover that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s the recontextualisation, seeing something familiar in a new light. Maybe it’s the artist’s love of the song shining through that I enjoy. Even more possibly, maybe it’s because people only choose to cover good songs and use their time honed skills to make them sound awesome.
It used to be common for artists to record “covers”. In fact, I think back in the olden days of the 20th Century they just used to be called “songs” and if a “song” was good everyone would record a “version” and the best “version” would be a “hit”. Then, if your a certain school of rock critic, you say the Beatles came along and spoiled everything by making everyone write their own shitty, shitty songs.
Funnily enough, I suck at covers. Suck. This mainly because I barely proficient at playing songs I wrote. But this is another story…
Here are 5 of my favourite covers.
Cat Power – Satisfaction
I could have chosen the Devo version, which is great, but this is better. I didn’t really know Satisfaction when I first heard Cat Power’s version but when I did I was impressed by how she stripped out the chorus and made it a new song. At the time I just thought it was achingly beautiful and defeated the song sounded.
Sun Kil Moon – Tiny Cities
I hated, hated, hated [stop repeating words - ed.] the original of this when I first heard it. Then I heard this – which is sparse and beautiful (I’m going to describe all of these as beautiful). Then I relistened to the original, which I now love. True story. Also, some Modest Mouse fans truly hate this album – possibly because it’s so radically different to the originals, possibly because they’re idiots, who knows?
Clem Snide – Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievience
One where I had never heard the original. I enjoyed the lyrics and melody and the lovely arrangement. It is lovely. Daniel Johnston is also awesome.
Glen Adams – I Wanna Hold Your Hand
I have a whole boxset of reggae Beatles covers. I’m not sure how I feel about “genre” covers in general. But I think I’m generally pro Trojan Records covers of pop music from the 60s. This is weird and slightly hypnotic.
Hard’n'Phirm – Rodeohead
My opinion on comedy covers? Generally low but seem as though I (almost grudgingly) love comedy music, I love this. Technically excellent, shows how good the Radiohead songs are, funny etc.etc.
The modern age is horrible. That’s a given. But there are some positive aspects to it.
Take being in a band for instance. You can now do it all for “nothing” and on your own terms. You can make believe and day dream and it’s all that little bit more “real”. Part of being in our band is trying to have all the good bits without any of the bits we don’t want. We can write as many songs as we want, record as many albums as we want, draw as many covers as we want, shoot our own videos, release stuff on our record label. We can play one show a year and pretend it’s Wembley.
To quote Robert Pollard (as is obligatory), what we do is
“count the days that we have wasted from the start speak the words and build a playground in [y]our head[s].”
We know we’ll never play Top of the Pops, we know our greatest success is probably behind us (thanks Gideon Coe), we know we’ll never actually be a successful band but we can pretend and we can dream.
So in that spirit we present what is perhaps the world’s first fan-fiction for an album, the one and only SOAP. Yes, it’s slash-fic for the 33 1/3 series, the Continuum series where a writer chooses a “classic” album and writes about it in depth. There’s been about 80 of these bad boys.
Max knew no one would write one about us so, in carrying on in our delusion, we prefer the term “building a playground in our heads”, he wrote one himself as a Christmas present to us all. Enjoy.
“I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me”
I have 69 (fnarr fnarr) of Pitchfork’s top 100 albums of the 90s. I have 74 of their best albums of the 00’s. Yet I have heard but 2 of their top 50 albums of 2012. To be honest, I’m not even 100% sure that Pitchfork is still a cool arbiter of taste.
So does this mean I’ve given up? Well, on “new” new music it kind of does. The reasons I give to myself are:
a) a lot of it isn’t very good and I can’t be bothered to sift
b) I’m busy and GBV isn’t going to listen to itself
c) “If it’s any good people will still be going on about it in a couple of years”
d) I’m so cool, I don’t have to follow trends
Sadly, d, I fear, is, the, truest.
Ween – Baby Bitch
I started off the year by moving house/towns after the disintegration of a relationship and reading the excellent 33 1/3 on Chocolate and Cheese. That album is 1. amazing but 2. almost entirely tongue in cheek… apart from this song. One of the bitterest, and most gorgeous to listen to, break up songs known to man.
Arthur Russell – This Is How We Walk On The Moon
I was vaguely aware of Arthur Russell before my friend put this on a mix cd for me. This song is beautiful, strange, a bit wonky and includes bongos. I can’t pinpoint exactly what I love about it but the lyrics are wonderful. It’s far too easily to be cynical but I can’t help agree with “each step is moving me up/this is how we walk on the moon”. There’s many interpretations (I’ve thought about it too much) but I like the literal one, we keep on trying, we work together as a race and eventually we can WALK ON THE FUCKING MOON.
Drake – Marvin’s Room
This was also on the mix cd my friend made me. I heard it, went “he’s put fucking Drake on a mix cd for me” and turned it off. The whole cd. For a month. Then I gave it another go. The visceral hate I felt for it quickly turned to fascination. I enjoy: the strange off kilter, minimal music; Drake’s masterful change from half spoken, half rapped vocals to half sung half spoken vocals; the use of phone voice (all songs would be better with this). But it was the lyrics that kept me coming back. They were vulnerable and honest but they also only revealed themselves over the fullness of time: Drake’s a jerk. He’s only interested in her because she won’t sleep with him and is willing to take her away from, by all accounts, a nice guy to do it.
Louis Armstrong – La Vie En Rose
Taught to every Frenchman* at birth, Louis Armstrong’s version is perfect. A joy.
New Order – Temptation
I was in a “club” – OK, a pub with a dancefloor – tired and wanting to go home at 1 in the morning. Not even drunk. Then this came on. I like New Order but didn’t know it. I shut my eyes and danced joyously the whole time. It was wonderful. If this sounds lame, I don’t care.
*ok French person, but Frenchman sounds so much funnier
Comedy music. It seems to be loved by nerds, enjoyed by many but taken seriously by very, very few. And I always got the feeling it was seen as uncool by most.
I’ve already written about The Lonely Island - and I implied my love for them – now I turn my attention to Flight Of The Conchords. I was going to write a cohesive, compelling argument about the brilliance of Carol Brown but I thought I’d just make a list about why it’s one of the best songs ever.
1. The idea is funny: The conceit that a man would list all the “ways lovers have left me” and for them to respond belittling him in a chorus? Mwah.
2.It’s musically excellent: Especially the chorus and the drop out at the end of the verse.
3. It’s really funny: See the call and response of “he doesn’t cook or clean, he’s not good boy friend material.” followed by an “Oooooooh we can eat cereal”
4. It’s pitched perfectly: See the way he half sings sincerely and then crams in lines like “who organised my ex-girlfriends in a choir and got them to sing” and almost breaks the 4th wall.
4. It’s really clever: The huge list of ex girlfriends names and (audacious) rhymes, “Loretta broke it off in a letter”, takes a huge amount of skill.
5. It pays loving homage to Paul Simon: Being an inversion of 50 ways to leave your lover. But better.
6. It has a brilliant video: Shot by Michel Gondry, of famous music video fame, and having Brett and Jemaine turning 2d, getting big, getting small etc.
7. It builds on Jemaine’s character without you having to know a thing about him to enjoy it.
8. It’s a slow burner: For example, noticing that everything that happens in the video is a result of the Jemaine messing with his computerised guitar.
9. It lets you sing girls names at them: And get a look that says your a creep/nerd. e.g. “Felicity said there was no electricity”.
10. It’s genuinely moving: When Jemaine sings “but I’m hoping that you’ll stick around”, it’s Red House Painters stuff.
There’s a famous saying, “It takes a tool a make a tool.”
In fact there isn’t.
Googling that phrase (with quotes) gets you precisely 9 hits. But I think it should be a famous phrase. To state the obvious, if I want to make anything I need to use something to make it – so if I want to make a tool I need to use something to make it – a tool!
This doesn’t seem like much of a revelation but I think we can make 2 interesting conjectures from it:
Firstly, if I wanted to make a machine that cuts more accurately than any machine made before, I would, necessarily, have to use tools less accurate than it at cutting to make my new machine. It always seems a little odd, and amazing, that we use less refined tools to make more refined ones. I think this speaks well of human’s natural skill, adaptability and lateral thinking ability.
We can also consider – as analogue to cutting things more precisely - that, if we wanted to make a machine that measures length more accurately, then the only way to check it’s accuracy would be to use previous tools for measurement – tools that were less accurate at measuring. The question then becomes how can we really know the accuracy of what we measure?
(An obvious answer being statistical measures and the combined use of previous measuring tools)
The second, perhaps more interesting, conjecture is: If it takes a tool to make a tool was there a “first” tool?
Now, as seen by the chimp at the start, we have a wonderful set of tools at the end of arms. Hands are highly adaptable and are pretty vital in the use of most of our tools, from knife and fork to power drills. I am not going to consider hands as tools, though, as they come attached to our bodies. But we can use them to grab objects and “make” them a “tool” by their use. For example that chimp using a rock at the start of this “article”.
But if we start to consider tools more complex than found objects things start to get interesting.
When you look at the computer you’re reading this on, the tool your using to read my mind garbage, there must have been an older tool (in fact hundreds of older tools) used to make it. That tool we’ve chosen must have had a parent, which must have had a parent, which must have had a parent, and so on and so on back through the centuries. Logically, at some point, these tools must have been less refined, less adapted to do their jobs, than the tools we have now. What I wonder is how far can we trace this tool trail back? Can we go back several millennia to the point where homo sapiens sapiens was not yet homo sapiens sapiens, where someone used a rock to break a twig and started of the whole chain?
Is there some sort of ur-tool from which all others derive? Or, is it more likely that the process began and has been repeated countless numbers of times, and each tool we use today had a hundred fathers and mothers some from thousands of years ago, some far more recent – perhaps only a couple of centuries when someone broke a branch on a leg? Is the real question how many tools does it make to make a tool?
It came as a genuine shock to me when Kid A routinely topped the end-of-the-decade ‘best album’ polls. Not because I was unaware of how highly regarded Radiohead were or because I thought it was a weak album, but because I didn’t personally know anyone who rated it that highly or went on about it. Kid A was supposedly a ubiquitous, unavoidable album but I still couldn’t hum or even name a single track on it. When it was released I’d just started university so may have had other things on my mind, but the whole thing somehow managed to completely pass me by.
I’d lost interest in Radiohead shortly after OK Computer and managed to successfully ignore them until In Rainbows, a record I didn’t hear by choice but I’m glad I did as it genuinely surprised me and caused me to re-evaluate my attitude to the band. It was recognisably Radiohead without being a retread of former glories and without being too self-consciously innovative or experimental, as if instead of trying to make a big statement they’d just made a great group record. Hell, it even made Radiohead sound likeable. And yet for some reason I wasn’t sufficiently intrigued to check out any other records of theirs.
It wasn’t until about six months ago that I heard Kid A for the first time. I can’t even remember what compelled me to listen to it, though I do recall it was a conscious decision. I noticed that it had been lurking on the hard drive of my computer, untouched, for over four years.
And you know what? I thought it was okay, really okay. It didn’t shock me, didn’t bore me, didn’t particularly grip me. I expected it to sound more radical, more dense and impenetrable, and I was looking forward to unravelling its mysteries, but it just sounded quite plain. I almost thought it was – gulp – lightweight, insubstantial. It reminds me now, for entirely different reasons, of the disappointment I felt when I first heard Never Mind The Bollocks when I was about fifteen and decided that it, too, was really okay. I’d rather have detested it than go away feeling indifferent.
Jonah Lehrer explains the physiology behind how we hear and process sounds in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a fantastic account of a few modernist artists who arrived by intuition at the conclusions which neurophysiologists only much later reached through empirical scientific methods. It turns out our auditory cortex, the part of the brain that registers and analyses music, works by a positive feedback loop. This reinforces familiarity, making us more attuned to hearing the sounds we’ve heard before. The brain learns by association, so that with experience it learns musical patterns and develops expectations of what will follow. But the brain is also adaptive, so that exposure to new sounds reorganises the auditory cortex – it literally rewires the brain. In time and through repeated listens everything that was once shocking becomes familiar.
‘How To Disappear Completely’ – the Kid A track we can all agree on?
If time is required for the brain to adapt as it assimilates new sounds, did Radiohead even think the new music they were making post OK Computer was any good to begin with? Or did it take time to grow on them too? If so, it’s a real leap of faith in a new and unchartered artistic direction.
Radiohead’s popularity was traditionally based largely on two ingredients: people liked it when Thom Yorke wailed, preferably in unambiguously emotive language, and when Jonny Greenwood strangled ungodly squeals from his guitar. Upon ditching both their USPs they not only confrontationally confounded expectations but embarked in a direction that would be unfamiliar territory for much of their fanbase. They knew it would take time for their audience to come round to Kid A, yet they didn’t issue any lead single which might have given listeners a head start. Like it or not, you’ve got to admire their chutzpah.
The success of Kid A makes me wonder how far this ‘brain rewiring’ principle can be stretched. Could any offensive or dissonant sound, however odd, be appropriated and be made enjoyable, given enough time?
Apparently some people enjoy Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Although Lou made grandiose claims about how it had been composed it still sounds like nothing more than obnoxiously abrasive noise. When I heard that there were fans of this album I thought they must be either as wilfully contrary as Lou Reed himself or else it must be what this album represented – a ‘fuck you’ to Lou’s record label – that they liked. I didn’t even consider that people would actually put the record on for enjoyment. But perhaps they’ve just gone through the ‘brain rewiring’ phase? And could I too grow to like it?
Metal Machine Music – easy listening? Judge for yourself
Some of my favourite records have been, for me, ‘growers’. I recall the first time I heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea I thought it was awful. Not just something that wasn’t for me, but something I actively disliked. I couldn’t understand the adulation it was held in and I thought it could only be something people said they liked to show how contrary they were, to file alongside Metal Machine Music. But my reaction to it changed quite dramatically over the first half a dozen listens. And yet, ITAOTS didn’t really have any sounds that were unfamiliar to me. It was based around musical instruments and forms I was very used to. In this regard I can’t see that it needed any ‘brain-rewiring’.
Kid A had elements of music I was quite familiar with (krautrock), less familiar with (electronic music), and music I was fairly sure I didn’t like (jazz). And yet, for me, what shocked me most about Kid A was how little I was shocked. For sure, it didn’t sound like Pablo Honey, but it also didn’t sound like nothing I had heard before. I guess that, even having successfully ignored it for ten years, I’d still heard enough about it to know what to expect. But maybe we’re exposed to so much and so varied music nowadays that it’s all but impossible for there to be any unheard sounds out there.
And yet, the fact that Kid A rose from its initially mixed reception to topping many album-of-the-decade polls shows it is the grower par excellence, and suggests there is some inherent quality which would reveal itself if I just hung in there a while. But if there is it seems remarkably elusive. I know it quite well now – there’s the one with the annoying squawking brass, the one that sounds like it could’ve been on OK Computer, the instrumental one that drifts by and doesn’t do anything, the one they used to play at, um, Idioteque… And there’s nothing I particularly find myself wanting to return to. If it wasn’t Kid A I wouldn’t have granted it a third listen.
This investment of time in what may be a lost cause is almost a thing of the past. When I was growing up, without the internet or a great deal of disposable cash, any CD that I spent my hard-earned on was guaranteed a fair few listens, so it was given the chance to become a grower. Nowadays, of course, music is so easily accessible and there is so much music I could listen to at the click of a finger that slow burners are rarely given this opportunity.
Neutral Milk Hotel – bad at first impressions?
The mutability of taste makes me wonder how many records could I have loved if I’d only stuck with them? If I repeatedly listened to Kind of Blue – which I have heard and did not enjoy – would I grow not only to like it but to appreciate the status which jazz fans regularly attribute to it? I strongly suspect not. I expect it would grow on me somewhat as familiarity set in, but I still can’t imagine it becoming a record I would choose to listen to.
So why do some records grow on you where others continue to leave you cold? There must have been something about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea that kept me coming back as it’s now one of my favourite records. On the other hand, of those that I give a chance at least as many turn out to be duds as repay the faith.
Part of this experimental laziness on my part comes down to, well, plain laziness. I already have far more of the music I already like than I have time to listen to it. Why should I invest time becoming familiar with a genre I may not even turn out to like? I’m perfectly happy not liking jazz, just as I will be if I don’t end up liking Kid A. But I find my realisation of this complacent attitude quite depressing, especially for someone who considers themselves a music lover. This “I know what I like” ethos sounds suspiciously like simply getting old. Perish the thought.
But maybe I am just reaching the point where my brain has been saturated with the sounds it enjoys hearing, and by continually reinforcing its positive feedback loop my brain really does know what it likes. This phenomenon happens to everyone. In fact, neuroscientists say that most people have formulated their tastes by the age of about 20. The brain’s positive feedback mechanism explains not only how we negotiate unfamiliar sounds but also why we prefer listening to the golden oldies, the most familiar and deeply ingrained musical experiences. So rather than stumbling around in the dark for ‘the new sound’ maybe I should concede that I can’t override my physiology and blast out the first record I truly loved, Definitely Maybe. After all, it is better than Kid A.
Arriving to the party as I typically do with a tardiness way beyond fashionable, last summer I signed up to Last FM after lobbying from impassioned Last FM advocate Adam John Miller. When I signed up, as Last FM does, it collected, counted and ordered the plays that had accumulated in my Windows Media Player (yes, I still use it). When scanning my most listened-to artists it presented me with few surprises. I didn’t remember listening to Damien Jurado anything like that much, but you can’t argue with the stats. And what surprised me least were my top two artists: Guided by Voices, then the Mountain Goats.
I suspected I was not alone, and checked Last FM to confirm – yep, both Adam and John’s top played artists were also Guided by Voices, then the Mountain Goats (okay, so John actually had the Wednesday Club at #2, but a lot of those plays were strictly business, right?).
Knowing Adam and John well enough this was not in the least surprising. But it struck me to be shown in stark, undeniable statistics just how closely our listening habits, and therefore tastes, coincided. For three people to not only have the top artist in common but the second as well must be quite rare. Thereafter our top artists diverged somewhat, but there were plenty of other shared names high up the list: The Magnetic Fields, Pavement, Built to Spill, Galaxie 500…er, Robert Pollard – and, yes, The Wednesday Club.
For sure, the three of us have been close friends for a while now and there were a couple of years in particular when we spent an unhealthy amount of time together. So naturally we shared between us the records and bands we most liked which meant we would have listened to a lot of the same music. In addition, we would have had numerous shared listening experiences – putting a record on whilst the three of us played Sensible Soccer, for instance. Singing along to a record while hanging out with your friends provides a kind of collective affirmation which is surely only going to reinforce the attachment you have to it. And finally, of course, we were in a band together, where you would expect shared musical tastes to be a given.
And yet I refused to dismiss this congruence of tastes as a banal or somehow inevitable consequence of our friendship.
Last year I read Carl Wilson’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series of books which interrogates the Celine Dion album Let’s Talk About Love. It is essentially an enquiry into the nature of taste and aesthetic judgment which has apparently even found its way onto reading lists of some degree courses on aesthetics. At the very least it’s led me to think a lot about why we like the things we do.
Wilson considers the idea (by no means his own – I think he credits it to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that our tastes reflect values which we have or would like to see ourselves as having. Our taste judgments are acts of social positioning, a way of orienting and demarcating our social status. They are not disinterested but aspirational; they embody how we choose to present our social status to the world and are thus indicators of class. At this juncture I can’t help but think of Johnson, the unflappable and unabashed yuppie from Peep Show who blared ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ by Toploader from his BMW.
I was initially sceptical, but the thesis, when explained by Wilson, becomes quite persuasive. If true, it would make the congruence of the individual Wednesday Club members’ musical tastes even more remarkable. For if our tastes are meant to represent a set of values or principles which we chose to project, what values were Guided by Voices or the Mountain Goats meant to embody that evidently resonated so strongly with us? In the case of Guided by Voices perhaps it’s slapdash recording techniques, poor quality control and drinking heavily – those are core Wednesday Club values, after all.
Less facetiously, of course you would expect to share with your closest friends a clutch of values, some presumably fairly important, others less so. But couldn’t there be another band who reflects those same values just as well who I didn’t like half as much? Or didn’t like at all? But maybe I’m being too specific, and what we are talking about here is a shared love of indie rock generally, and perhaps the specific representative bands aren’t important.
The ‘social positioning’ hypothesis appears to apply more successfully to some types of taste better than others. It might perhaps explain why different people might choose to wear Nike trainers, Doc Martens or Jimmy Choo shoes, for instance. The example of fashion is instructive. For someone dressed in a flashy Armani suit, is taste signifying social status, or is social status determining taste? Not everyone can afford expensive clothes, whereas musical taste is arguably more democratic. It doesn’t really cost any more or less to like reggae than hip hop. For sure, watching a small local band may cost less than going to the opera, which may cost less than going to a Madonna concert. But special packaging aside, most records cost about the same, and anyone with internet access can listen to whatever music they like through Youtube, Spotify, etc.
My main beef with the ‘social positioning’ hypothesis is that it doesn’t seem to explain the personal, physical experience of enjoying music – it fails to do justice to the fist-pumping joy I feel when belting out the chorus of ‘Tractor Rape Chain’. It’s hard to believe that the visceral experience of listening, enjoying and being moved by music is due to its creators representing some values which you choose to confer your social status. I’d like to think that I prefer GBV to, say, The Who because they move, entertain and excite me more, not because they more accurately fulfil the aesthetic criteria that my social class values.
The hypothesis seems less adept at explaining how we experience our musical preferences than how we present them to others (Last FM is, after all, nothing if not a tool for presenting our musical taste). The two aspects need not coincide, and this distinction seems to be highlighted by ‘guilty pleasures’, those songs we would rather not admit to liking, which rather defy the ‘social positioning’ hypothesis. In these instances, clearly, musical taste as we experience it very deliberately does not map onto taste as we present it to others.
Given the similarity of our tastes it also struck me the extent to which Adam, John and I could still argue about music. There was plenty within our shared ‘taste pool’ which we could disagree on. To pick a nerdy example, I would strongly dispute Adam and John’s assertion that The Sunset Tree is the best Mountain Goats record, and to me this was as clear and self-evident (as opinions always seem to be to their holders) as my belief that Guided by Voices are a better band than The Who.
Similarly, I got quite irritated – to an extent which itself irritated me – by a recent Drowned in Sound edition of the ubiquitous ‘best album ever’ poll. The list was topped by a slightly unusual but not altogether shocking choice: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, a record I love but would not personally put towards the very top of the pile. Further down, the list featured a lot of familiar and predictable entries and, at the same time, a number of my favourites, some with a much higher ranking than they normally get in these polls (Illinois or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, to pick two). In short, I would probably conclude that it was very broadly a reasonable enough approximation of my musical taste.
But one thing still rankled. And that thing was bloody Interpol. The DiS ‘community’ had named Turn On The Bright Lights their fourth favourite album. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a solid enough album. A bit derivative, naturally, and it slumps heavily in the second half if you ask me, but a good debut. Fourth, though? Interpol had even managed to leave off the album my favourite song of theirs, ‘The Specialist’.
In the countless best album polls there are always going to be entries you personally disagree with. But here was a list complied by individuals who clearly had tastes similar to me and whose values supposedly chimed uncommonly well with mine. How, I thought, could these people collectively get it so wrong? And why did it annoy me so much?
But ultimately, I have to resort to that most facile truism that it would be a dull world if all our tastes were the same. I guess musical preferences are just not all that rational, predictable or explainable. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste.
N.B: Any one who has studied philosophy may take massive offence at the simplicity and logical leaps taken in this piece. Good for you.
I was speaking to my friend, a philosophy masters student, about truth a while ago. He told me that on one occasion he and his girlfriend, a sociologist, were arguing for a long time about a subject. Eventually she said,
“Well that’s true for you but it’s not true for me.”
He found this baffling. His area of philosophy is very concerned with the truth and he believes there to be such a thing as empirical truth. We were sitting in a pub at the time, so I may have been a bit too pleased with my myself after a few beers, when it hit me.
“I think you were actually arguing different things here,” I said. What she was talking about was value judgements, where as he was thinking about a purer, more logically based, “truth”.
She based her judgements and feelings on one set of values, so it was “true for her”, he another, so something else was “true for him”.I suggested maybe in these cases the word “true” isn’t the best to use.
This got me thinking about the nature of truth, something I’m sure many, many others have thought about better. Better, but with less Simpsons references.
So maybe we could split truth into two categories, logical “scientific truths”, and value based “emotional truths”.
Let’s look at “emotional truths” first. As an example you could state that “killing is wrong” and take that as a truth. A lot of people would agree with you. But, then it would depend on what you value more highly; human life or (in past times especially) the power the ability to kill would give you. If you favour the latter, then killing isn’t wrong, it’s good. So then the statement “killing is right” would be true for you.
Thinking about cases like this, it becomes hard to come up with any universal “emotional truths” and if you did they would have to add plenty provisos. For example you might predict: “if you are of sound mind and body and value human life above power or retribution or the idea of justice and the human life has developed for over 4 months in a womb then you believe killing is wrong”. But even then you would have far, far too many people who didn’t fit into that definition.
Are there any value judgements that every human would agree on? From which we could derive “emotional truths” for the whole human race. It’s very hard to find them, even basic human urges like eating don’t yield any universal truths. For example, “when I’m hungry I want to eat” would be a value shared by most but not by people with anorexia.
It’s also interesting how value judgements can effect harder, scientific truths. For example, if you value the status quo and ability to make money for you, climate change existing or being a problem is “not true”. Your value judgements mean that you are more likely to look for lone dissenting voices, or more rationally, prefer your short term benefits to the planet’s long term survival.
So scientific truths. These must be a lot easier to say these are true, right? Well, again these come with a lot of conditions too.
Take an easy one, “a triangle has 180 degrees”.
Actually we need to toughen that up as it doesn’t make any sense. A triangle has 180 degrees where?
“The interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees”. Mmmmm better. Well, let’s pick that one apart.
Firstly, the angles adding up to 180 degrees is a culturally determined concept, coming from the Ancient Phoenician system of having 360 degrees in a circle to mirror the “360″ days of a year.
Secondly, we have to assume that this truth is important or useful otherwise, why look at it?
Thirdly, triangles don’t actually exist in our universe as they are defined as 2D objects, impossible in a multi dimensional universe, such as ours. So we would begin to have to narrow down our statement to say “On the triangular surface of an object the interior angles add up to 180 degrees.”
Fourthly, s pace time is curved. so even with this condition, the statement still isn’t “true”. Any triangular surface is never completely flat, which leads to the interior angles to adding up to an number slightly greater than 180 degrees.
So we can add another condition: on a Euclidian plain (flat, non changing ) a triangle’s interior angles add up to 180 degrees.
So now we have a “truth”. One that’s almost entirely pointless as triangles don’t exist in our universe and a Euclidean plain doesn’t exist. Also we have to assume a system where the angles in a full turn add up to 360 degrees, because we like the Ancient Phoenician System.
the triangle is a lie
There you go, there are no scientific truths. Or “Bollocks!” as you may respond, “you cherry picked an example”. This is fair enough, and the point being to say “a triangle has 180 degrees” is true enough to be practical and usable, which is far more important.
Take another famous scientific truth, “The earth is round”. That is it’s like a ball, a sphere.
This is also untrue, as explained in Isaac Asimov’s wonderful article on scientific progress, as the earth is almost an ellipsoid except for it bulges a bit in the middle. But again, to say the earth is round is true, in that’s it’s “true enough”.
This applies to lots of things, such as the statement “I weigh 14 and a half stones”. You can kill it with, “what’s a stone?”, “is gravity constant?”, “is your mass consistent from second to second?” “does gravity effect your body in the same way at all points”?
Even when you start to rigidly define your parameters, things are a little tricky. For something to be scientifically true it has to have testable results. For example it may be true that the universe only started 5 seconds ago – I personally believe it did – but I have no way of proving it so it’s pointless to say it’s true.
So there’s “emotional truths” based on value judgements, which are individual to each of us and “scientific truths” which can be picked apart by the pedant. Neither are “true”.
So should we just believe anything? As I seem to be saying I don’t think anything is really “true” or at least universally “true”. Should we let creationism be taught in schools, for example, as it’s “true” for a lot of people. Well, no, I go along with the idea of “whatever works best” or “what can’t be easily proven wrong” for truth. So no to teaching creationism as you have to ignore lots and lots of things for it to work. Best stick to evolution. But we can teach why it’s interesting that people want creationism to be taught. Actually, best not.
For such a fundamental human idea, truth is particularly slippy. I’ll leave it to the Simpsons again .