Towards a more honest relationship with truth
Words & images © Paul Ransom
“After all, those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned it into anything better than a sheep.”– Thomas More, Utopia, 1516.
Truth. We tell ourselves we seek it, that we work in its service, or for the love of it. We extol it as the highest virtue. Some think it‘s fluid, relative; others think it’s fixed, eternal. Still others believe they have found it, or that it’s on their side. A small minority have retired to caves and mountain tops to meditate further on it. In the name of truth, calendars have been re-jigged, witches burned, and Large Hadron Colliders constructed. Truth has been co-opted by conquerors, requisitioned by religion and brought to light with daring and genius throughout human history. And now we have post-truth.
Perhaps, in the sweeping dialectic of civilisation, it is inevitable that an Age of Reason be followed by an Age of Information, that Galileo and Gandhi be balanced by shock jocks and Salafi. After all, truth is one thing; truth in the hands of the human animal is another.
There is nothing about truth that prevents it being used as a weapon.
We have an ironically dishonest relationship with truth, bending it, like love and other virtues, to suit our ends. Hardly surprising, since truth is so supple, so tensile. You would be foolish not to use it. As a bludgeon. A veil. An excuse. A denial. Or indeed in the pursuit of righteous vanity projects. Oh, to be a sage, blessed with the aura of wisdom. So much holier than thou.1
Yet, despite this we remain genuinely driven to know the truth. We explore, examine, probe, ponder. From cosmology to our own cognition, maths to metaphysics, we continually, incrementally, finesse our understanding. When the answers don’t come, and the questions themselves are a dead end, our curiosity and unquenchable desire for knowledge impel us ever onward. Even at the frontiers of science and philosophy, where we contemplate the very nature of existence, and indeed have come to accept that ‘the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know’, we wonder still, our sights trained on the unknown.
The same can said for the individual. Why am I here, what’s the point of all this, etcetera? The million questions we ask about our lives, our identity, and our place in the grand scheme of things. Each of us – sometimes consciously, mostly unconsciously – seek fixed points in the sea of flux and uncertainty we find ourselves in.
Although cool existential reasoning soon reminds us of the law of impermanence, and of our essential ephemerality, still we seek the relative safety offered by a world we can better predict. Order, we believe, tempers the tyranny of chaos.
- To a crucial degree it does. Imagine a disordered world where you could never identify landmarks, or work out what was edible, let alone whether you would eat again. What if our species had tried to organise itself with only random grunts, as opposed to the designated and repeatable sounds of language? In fact, in a universe of insufficient order, where patterns could not be recognised and prediction was nigh impossible, a sense of consistent self could not emerge. The I (and therefore, the Other) are surely the first of our fixed points. The self is a form of order; or if you prefer, an act of recognising order.
However, much as we crave it, we understand that order can also be a problem. Too zealously pursued and the outcomes range from tedious to totalitarian. Indeed, we equate being too orderly with being heartless. Inhuman. Machine like. To be human is to deviate, to surprise, to make mistakes and act with occasional bursts of passion. Our baseline sense of free will, of agency, is perhaps rooted in our experience of saying no, of refusing imposed orthodoxies. As others have observed, we exist on the boundary of order and chaos – and I for one would not have it any other way.
All of which brings me back to the quest for truth2 and, in particular, the various bargains we make with the unknown. Whatever else we might think true, if we are honest we must acknowledge that there is much we do not – and most likely will never – know. This is as pertinent in our personal lives as it is in science or ancient history.
Whereas with the latter this effects theory and impacts the body of what we understand as ‘fact’, at the individual level it can feel more profound. As easy certainties dissolve to complex ambiguity, or to paradox and regress, fixed ideas about meaning and, in turn, our values and objectives, (and even who we think we are), can blur to the point of disorientation, if not despair.
This is where the bargain is made. Are we married to the truth, or are we simply having a rather complicated affair with it?
Here too, you may demur. Maybe you have a god or a destiny and, as such, a more solid foundation for your sense of meaning and purpose. The universe you inhabit maybe unfolding according to a plan. For you there are no accidents, and your path lies somewhere on an ascendent arc of revelation. As such, your identity will be fixed in relation to this complex of externally mandated truths, and the cosmic/moral order it entails.
Others, myself included, do not have this luxury. However, this does not necessarily imply rudderless confusion, lack of moral compass or a Cartesian insistence that I am only thing I can be certain of; for it is entirely reasonable to allow for fundamental uncertainties regarding the nature of cosmos and consciousness without automatically adopting extreme vale of illusion philosophies3 or lapsing into the hubris of New Age solipsism. In short, we do not have to be so either/or in our reckoning with truth and uncertainty.
Neither do we have to be so attached. By which I mean, we can regard truth without righteous ego drama, ideological mania or the belief that it will somehow save us. We can stop taking it personally.
The truth is not about me.
Truth is a menu item. I may choose it – or know it – or just think I do. My worldview maybe closer to truth or more like fantasy. Perhaps I have chosen wisely, perhaps foolishly. Either way, truth neither sanctifies nor excuses me. It does not make me a better friend. It does not guarantee happiness. Truth will not keep me clothed and fed, and however much I lay claim to it, I will not be any less dead.
I realise this will strike some as gutless ambivalence, or as a kind of refusenik apostasy. Or even just lazy. However, I will endure these slurs rather than nail myself to pedantic binaries, missionary brow beating or self-deifying saviour fantasy. Whatever truth is, or is not, I would rather not bully, burn you at the stake or insist you praise me in its name. (If you find this overly virtuous, consider yourself signalled.)
Perhaps there is a definitive truth I would be better off knowing, a primary ‘reason’ for everything or undeniable set of rules for living, but I have yet to stumble upon anything of the sort. In all likelihood, I never will.
Which leaves me where exactly? Like you, moving forward with a mix of truth and its alternatives, all the while hoping I have the smarts and the honesty to reappraise my precious truths when the evidence is compelling – even if the newly revealed versions upset the existing order.
What I can be sure of though is that I will approach truth as a selfish creature with flawed understanding in pursuit of all manner of advantage, not the least of which will be the maintenance of a self-belief I can comfortably live with. I will certainly not be noble, nor above reproach. I will not always be cool and impartial. When it suits me, I will be selective. In the end, I shall make of truth little more than bluster.
“Tomorrow when you leave yourself behind, what will you know?”– Omar Khayyam4, Ruba’iyat, 1048-1131.
When truth is neither the focus of missionary zeal nor the promise of salvation, neither badge of honour nor weapon of choice, we are free to embrace it more as a gift than as a reward or chattel. If we do not own truth, we are less afraid to lose it, or have it change tack on us.
And anyway, truth is only ever on loan…for we shall not take a scrap of it with us.
1: Back in April 2016 I addressed similar ideas in a piece called The Failure of Wisdom, which you can read here.
2: Here I have treated truth as analogous with order because, in psycho-emotional and raw survivalist terms, they both map out as predictability. We can rely on certain truths being true tomorrow and thus we can plan around them. For everyday purposes, predictable equals true.
3: The popular notion that ‘everything is an illusion’ is a misnomer, if not redundant. While true that the world of our perception is bounded by both the capacity of the brain and the limited spectrum of sense data, and therefore does not necessarily represent the true nature of reality, this does not mean that existence itself is an illusion. Furthermore, even if we accept that all human perception is illusory, including our sense of atomised self, we are left to contend with the experience of illusion, which is surely real. In effect, what we are doing here is inserting another layer with next to no extra explanatory power. More accurate, I feel, would be to say that everything we experience is a construction. (‘Illusion’ is too often value-loaded, in my view.)
4: The famed Persian polymath’s authorship of the much-loved collection of quatrains that bears his name – The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam – remains hotly disputed; none of which effects the quality of the poems.