Sunday, October 20, 2019
Considering The Nature Of Truth
written 13 October 2019
published 20 October 2019
Deep examination shows we can "know" only two absolute truths: "I am" and "something seems to be happening". Rather than be at peace with this awareness, we elaborate with descriptive stories. "I am" quickly shifts to "who am I?", with answers rooted in past memories, which are only partial recollections at best. "Something is happening" becomes a quest to understand "what is happening", requiring description of my current context, framed by further memories, limited by language and social structures. We move from clear awareness to elaborate stories the moment we begin to think about it all.
The philosopher Kant argued that we can never know objective truth, because our entire experience is filtered through physiological limitations and psychological perspectives framed by cultural interpretations. Everyone lives in a bubble of their own personal "truth", which is always relative and incomplete. However, no one lives alone: no self is absolute, but always lives within a larger context. Even the most socially isolated hermit needs physical sustenance from the organic world. Those of us who live within a social structure have to negotiate even more complex interactions. How can we transcend our personal "truth" bubble to effectively engage the larger world?
What has evolved over time is a two-pronged approach: living within a group with agreed upon social structures for general support, and trial and error for further development.
Social structures have organized communities of individuals for millions of years, long before humans arrived on the scene. While the forms vary, their endurance comes from constantly weeding out individuals who don't accept the form. This can range from shaming or expulsion from the group to actual extermination. In this manner, the relative "truth" of each society member is kept in resonance with the larger group, for mutual advantage. The history of life, as well as the history of humanity, is an evolution of how social forms deal with divergence within their group and how they engage with groups with different structures.
Trial and error can inform individuals or groups as they encounter the larger world. There is a bumper sticker which says: "Reality is what you stub your toe on". This points to the fact that, independent of what we believe, we inhabit an effective reality with consequences. If the structure of our society, or the nature of our personal "truth", is in conflict with this reality, the unexpected happens, even to the point of death. Trial and error is a way to investigate this reality. When we experience a conflict between our "truth" and reality, like stubbing our toe, we have the opportunity to modify our "truth" before we repeat the encounter. This can be difficult, since it requires changing our beliefs and social structures, which have psychological inertia and external consequences. An alternative response is to deny the reality of the "stubbed toe" feedback, blame something or someone else, and proceed as if nothing important happened. This is very popular in the short run because it requires less effort than real change, but the vulnerability persists since the choice is for continued fantasy over education by reality. In a rapidly changing world, choosing denial becomes more perilous.
This denial is in action today around the issue of climate change. The "stubbed toe" feedback is becoming more obvious every year, with increasing consequences, but climate denial is tied to religious, economic, political, and social structures which have worked relatively well for a powerful few. That structural denial has persisted over half a century now, so simple responses are no longer possible, leaving only radical solutions, if any, which creates even more resistance. Because the conflict is between fantasy and reality, the outcome is inevitable.
A companion denial is the rise of fake news, with roots in the advertising industry that arose after WW2, presenting fantasy as fact for economic and political gain. While propaganda and spin are as old as empires, the rise of mass media and technology have brought sight and sound into every home around the globe, making the fantasies harder to distinguish. The insanity of our current leadership's "truth" bubble has created another Middle East war and global economic chaos, while ignoring issues that threaten our survival as a species. Again, the outcome is inevitable.