Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Humans are forever looking for the truth everywhere; we’re curious animals because we survive in Nature by knowing what is true or false and coping accordingly. How do we judge what is true and what is false? In school the teacher asks us to respond to questions with “true” or “false” answers. Naturally we look to the teacher’s lectures for the “right” answers. Similarly, in taking a Department of Motor Vehicles test to renew our license we face multiple-choice questions and give the answers in the official manual. We accept as true what is handed down to us by those of superior standing, knowledge or power: parents, teachers, experts, authorities, or officials. Deciding what is true or false is largely a matter of consequences and conveniences: what suits us, what is useful, what does no harm, what benefits us in dealing successfully with our fellow humans, other living things, and the inanimate world. True is what supports our values and ideals, what is productive, bringing desired results; false is what hampers us in surviving and achieving goals we deem worthwhile for ourselves and for society. True is what works; false, what fails.
Yet truth itself is a major value and ideal for us, much like beauty and love, to be admired and sought to perfection. Scientists, artists, theologians, and social leaders seek truth in different ways. We should strive for the ideal of truth, keeping in mind practical aims. The ideal of truth is something to which we aspire as best as we can in our thinking but can never reach. In Plato’s ideal world what is not totally true what has even a tiny bit of falsehood is false. Yet, most of us lead lives wrapped up in false beliefs or at best in half truths. We may ask, hasn’t Science been pursuing the ideal of truth diligently for a few centuries now with astounding success? Yes, the scientific method has been very fruitful in approaching the ideal of truth.
Is it true that an electron is a particle? Science says an electron is a particle with a mass of 9.11 times ten to the minus 28 grams and a negative electrical charge. But the electron is also a wave, the electron’s position determined by a probability density; thus, if electrons go up against a barrier like a diode, some electrons will appear across the barrier, giving rise to the tunnel diode. What then is an electron (or any object), a particle or a wave? The answer depends on the experiment we’re conducting; we can call the electron a particle or a wave, whatever suits our situation.
It suits scientists to steer away from stating absolute truths as prophets and some philosophers do regarding divinity, immortality, justice, grace, and goodness. Mathematicians too can be absolutely sure of their results; scientists never are, although they aim for certainty. Einstein wrote: “In so far as the statements of geometry speak about reality, they are not certain, and in so far as they are certain, they do not speak about reality.” We cannot fit all the complexity of Nature inside the framework of our mathematics, but if a mathematical model fits well enough, scientists accept it as useful in making predictions or manipulating objects.
The Standard Model in particle physics fits the findings from the Large Hadron Collider, but facts in physics are less certain than facts in mathematics. Have scientists at CERN discovered the Higgs boson? Yes, early in 2012 they located this particle within a confidence interval of three standard deviations and by the middle of the year 2012 within five standard deviations. There is a possibility that the Higgs signature is a random fluctuation of energy, but that chance is one in three million. Science is the search for certain knowledge, but that is an ideal, not what scientists can achieve. We are fortunate, however, that nothing is impossible in good science; a small probability is attached to its existence. Cold fusion may be possible, but investigations show it’s extremely unlikely.
Mathematicians can state some results are impossible, such as division with zero. Such a division is forbidden, because it results in infinity, an unmanageable quantity that blows up a computer program, ending in a logical error by the machine. Mathematicians can be certain of their results because they make up the rules about the objects they study, as opposed to scientists who have to contend with Nature’s rules. Einstein again: “How wretchedly inadequate is the theoretical physicist as he stands before Nature—and his students.” Mathematics is much simpler than natural processes. Engineers use mathematics, fitting a part of Nature to a bed of Procrustes, to manage practical problems and find useful solutions.
On the other hand, scientists aspire to finding the real facts in the universe, separating those from artifacts and illusions such as Percival Lowell’s Martian canals. We proceed in science from observation to theory or from theory to observation, if possible experimentation, then to measurement, recording, and finally to a likely proof of our theory, never absolutely sure of the truth of our results, but accepting them conditionally as long as they aid our understanding and our endeavors.
A true finding in scientific work must be repeatable, by the researcher who found it and by others trained in the same field. A scientific truth is a public, not private: If other independent researchers can’t come up with the same results in an experiment under the same conditions, scientists don’t accept the finding as true. That’s how cold fusion failed a few years back. Like cold fusion, a finding could be a true but very rare phenomenon, an event that occurs only for the benefit of the original researcher; still we don’t accept it as a scientific fact, because it would not be useful for the rest of us under normal circumstances.
This is the method scientists and engineers use to achieve their astounding successes. We observe and measure; experiment if possible, then observe and measure exactly. How exactly? We measure as exactly as necessary for our purposes. Let’s say a machine part must be 10 cm to fit well. Our die cuts it to just slightly over 10 cm then we use a piece of fine sandpaper and shave layers of molecules off until it fits flush. We have discovered the truth of what is 10 cm in length for a piece of metal.
Here’s another practical approach to the truth of an exact measurement. We take a tape and measure the object under observation numerous times. The measurements should fall into a normal, bell-shaped, distribution, unless our approach is biased towards the high or low end. We pick the average length and correct for any bias. We have arrived at a truth of some sort for practical purposes.
Is it true that a 2×4 stud of Douglas fir is 2 inches by 4 inches? It was true a hundred years ago; now the stud is 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches. Lumberyards got the same price for less wood, conveniently.
Is it true that the earth is flat? It certainly appears to be flat, unless you climb a mountain and look upon the curvature of the sea. The earth is flat locally, but spherical globally. This applies to many phenomena, for example amplifications which are linear and predictable in an operating region, but curved or interrupted with singularities further out. A large nation’s economy is complex and becomes chaotic under extreme circumstances, like a spring that we can pull and it extends until it reaches a breaking point.
Philosophical and religious truth
What is true? What’s really out there? We can’t know completely; we can only guess. Human knowledge has its scope and limits, as Bertrand Russell pointed out. We look at a table and recognize it as a table; but what it’s really like is speculative. A lot depends on the aspect of the table we look at, the lighting, its surroundings, even our own mental state. We see a table as a solid object, but physicists tell us it’s an arrangement of atoms, nuclei surrounded by a cloud of electrons, and the table is mostly empty space, with its material parts simply bundles of energies held together in a stable state by the strong nuclear force. We can never really know what’s out there; learning is supposed to be the process of acquiring truths; actually, learning is adapting for success or survival—getting the prey or prize, avoiding predators and living another day to reproduce.
We don’t know for sure what’s out there beyond what our senses tell us; but we rely on vision while driving on the road to avoid colliding with other cars, and so far vision and hearing has worked well enough to keep us alive.
Is objectivity possible? Bertrand Russell mentions the statement “two plus two equals four” as an objective truth. René Descartes believed as certain that a triangle has three sides and its internal angles add up to 180 degrees. Certainly this fact is true within the context of Euclidean geometry, but not so in other geometries we may design. Euclid’s theorems served well the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, not well enough today’s modern physicists.
Is there an objective truth to UFOs? Of course there is; we’re constantly observing unidentified flying objects. We just don’t know whether they’re all natural objects or some are extra-terrestrial vehicles. Most of us find it practical to consider UFOs as natural phenomena—that way people are less likely to consider us odd and laugh at us. Belief in UFOs is like religion for some people; we laugh at these people, but they’re fervently searching for an ideal world in their imaginations.
The search for imagined ideals, such as the brotherhood of men, a compassionate Creator, a perfect place, and eternal life, this search is religion. Men call each other brothers; then they wage wars causing mass killings. We sometimes question the existence of a Heavenly Father, seeing all the bitter cruelties in the world and the disappearance of loved ones, never seen again except in dreams. Yet the ideals remain with us for peace, justice, and true security.
Most of us–Christian, Muslim, or Hindu–hold as true that we are not our bodies; we inhabit our bodies and operate our bodies, but we believe in the idea that our spirits exist as entities separate from our bodies. We believe we’re always in the hands of God, who exists in Nature, but apart from Nature. Is this particular belief true? Does God in fact exist? René Descartes stated that the existence of his own mind and the mind of God were true without any doubt, while he doubted practically everything else he read about in the sayings of sages.
Some of us, especially those trained in the scientific method, doubt everything, even God and our own souls, accepting the truth of anything only with a degree of confidence, great or small. We may accept God and our own spirits only as useful concepts in coping with life’s vicissitudes. Those who believe resolutely in God believe they’re always safe in God’s hands and that they can count on His guidance and support in life’s struggles. If such a belief gets them through a dark night to a bright morning; if it helps them survive and prosper and be at peace with themselves and the world, it’s a useful belief, and it may have a connection with reality, like most useful concepts.
If we meditate and ask God for help and inspiration to solve a crucial problem, and if an insight comes to us and we solve our problem, did we actually receive help from outside our own mind? Sigmund Freud would say that the insight came from the subconscious, which is the central processing unit in our brain, processing ninety percent of the information we get. The conscious mind is simply the input-output processor, focusing and directing our subconscious. But is there a connection in our subconscious to the Universal Mind? If it is useful for us to think we’re getting help from a Supreme Being, consciously or subconsciously, then it may be true that God exists; surely He exists for true believers.
True believers also hold as true that God created the universe. Is creationism true? How about evolution? The theory of evolution is supported by a vast amount of hard evidence; creationism is supported only by biblical references. Could both creationism and evolution be true? All of nature may not be a creation, but certainly most of the products and services we use and enjoy today were created by humans–God’s free agents according to the scriptures.
What then is really true and what is imaginary? Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge. He did not mean that knowledge and hard work are not also important in actualizing our dreams.
Dreams and emotions such as hope and love are necessary in our lives; but in logic, to make a statement simply because we desire its truth without sufficient supporting evidence that is called a subjective argument, a fallacy. Still, we can dream a desired goal, believe we can achieve it, and do what is necessary to realize it; then our dream can come true in the external world as well as in our mind. We can be objective in facing a problem, but fight back with a positive subjective attitude which helps in its solution. The attitude is that of “can do,” or “can handle this.”
We can have an attitude that life is wonderful or that life stinks. In making a choice, what outlook is more beneficial? “Oh, what a wonderful morning, oh, what a wonderful day, I have a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way,” from the musical “Oklahoma” by Rogers and Hammerstein. We’re more likely to make a good day when we’re feeling good about our situation.
Feeling good with song, wine, or religion is fine, but we should not take this approach to extremes. We become irrational when we respond disproportionately to the circumstances that challenge us. With stress or aging such irrational behavior becomes common to all of us, and if not checked, we descend to insanity. Insanity is lacking a sense of proportion. For example, it’s sane to care about money but not too much to the point of becoming a miser; or saving things, but not becoming a hoarder; or enjoying a drink or two of alcohol, but not becoming an alcoholic. It’s insane to turn a blind eye to an obvious truth because it’s uncomfortable or even painful. We are insane when we are unable to function mentally well enough to get along with others and with nature, failing and risking our survival. Finally we are insane when we confuse our thoughts with outer reality and believe in illusions.
Sigmund Freud called religion an illusion, and famous author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls faith a delusion. God is an internal truth, inside the minds of faithful humans, but not an illusion or delusion if we accept that it’s a personal, not an objective truth. If belief in God and our spirits, however, are very useful in our lives, allowing us to survive longer and better, is it possible these beliefs are connected in some subtle way with reality? A devout atheist, Richard Dawkins acknowledges this possibility, although he judges the possibility to be extremely small.
Should we think the impossible dream like The Man from La Mancha? Yes as long as we know it’s a dream.
As to the existence of God, Descartes could not imagine that an imperfect being such as himself could have ideas of perfection, unless a Supreme Mind, God, gave him these ideas, and only a perfect being could have done so. We may wonder how we get our ideals, our sense of perfection in a piece of art which thrills and uplifts us, like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. Our wondering is not a proof of God’s existence.
The proof of God’s existence is a secret. Since ancient times, jealous gods have kept secrets from us because they want us ignorant and obedient to them. But Prometheus gave the secret of making fire to humans out of compassion for their miserable existence. Knowledge was the apple of Eden, plucked by Eve, who gave it to Adam to eat so that he might become a god. Knowing the truth about things raises us up from an animal status to a human one and from there to the divine. Knowing the truth about good and evil, that is the most critical phase of our human development; animals don’t distinguish between good and evil, acting on instinct alone for their survival.
We call one man evil, another good. But is anyone totally evil or good? Most of us have both good and evil traits, except saints who are ideal beings in imitation of God.
Jesus said, “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) A simple but powerful message telling us to look to His ways for the truth and we shall find an eternal life of the spirit. Jesus also spoke of prophets after him, true or false, thus: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” In other words, the prophet tells the truth when prophesies result in benefits, when visions are profitable, like those of Steve Jobs of Apple Corporation.
Steve Jobs followed in the footsteps of Thales of Miletus, a scientific philosopher in Ancient Greece. People laughed at him saying, if he was so smart why was he not rich. So Thales predicted a rich olive harvest after studying the weather and kept the knowledge to himself. He reserved all the olive presses in Miletus at a discount ahead of time and made a huge profit by renting them when demand peaked. All practical, pragmatic, applied philosophy deals with success, which depends on the quality we put into our efforts for favorable outcomes in business, professional career, social relationships, romance, family, personal growth, or peace of mind, whatever we find desirable to achieve in life.
Philosophy, speculative and critical thinking, offered benefits and philosophy begat religion and science. Early on the two were mixed up. “The stars themselves proclaim the birth of kings,” as Shakespeare wrote; and so it happened at Bethlehem when the King of Israel was born. This outlook is astrology. You’ll be surprised to find out how many people today follow the connections between the stars and human lives. Are you a Capricorn? I’ll tell your prospects today. That is taking naivety to extremes.
Setting naivety aside, even in careful scientific observations, the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty applies: the act of measurement distorts our findings.
The situation is more certain in religion: our particular faith is true; all else is heresy. It is easier to accept this position because religious truths are inside our brains, not in nature outside. These religious truths are subject to the rigid rules we make up, just as in mathematics. The validity of mathematics and of religion depends on their usefulness.
We all accept as true often not what is useful but what we’re told by those we admire, respect, love, or fear. We assume our parents’ beliefs, at least until we reach our rebellious teenage years: our being Jew, Christian or Muslim depends on our parents.
Our parents also teach us to be truthful, to be honest; if we are truthful, they can control us more easily when we’re growing up. At the same time, they tell us about the tooth fairy and the boogeyman, again to control us. Honesty is the best policy, unless we have an alternative action that serves our purpose better. Whatever we claim as the truth, we should write it down, publish it, advertise it repeatedly; most people will believe us most of the time.
We tend to think some statement is true if it’s written down, printed and published. Jesus often began teaching by saying “It is written.” He meant, of course, written in the Hebrew scripture or writings. Every nation, every culture, every religion has a scripture, those writings revered by members. Mao issued his little red book, held up high by his followers. Gadhafi had his green book. Hitler, “Mein Kampf.” Hindus admire the Mahabharata and Muslims the Koran. Mormons hold up the revelations in the Book of Mormon by their prophet, Joseph Smith. What is written has prestige and is believed to be true. This notion comes from the time when few people could read or write, literacy being mainly the province of priests or government officials. Only a few men possessed the arts of writing and reading until a few centuries ago, and it’s still so in many parts of Asia, Africa, and South America.
The artistic domain intersects mathematics and religion. What is the utility of all our arts? What makes an artistic expression in music, literature, painting, or dance a true one? What is the meaning of the word truth in the arts?
Truth in Latin is veritas and in Greek, aletheia. In English, truth is what is real and also what possesses fidelity or loyalty to an original standard or ideal. If you’re a true lover, you’re loyal, faithful, and constant. Shakespeare in Hamlet wrote: “…to thine own self be true…thou canst not then be false to any man.” Is fidelity real or an illusion?
Art produces things of the imagination, illusions. The artist is a magician, impressing audiences with sleights of hand.
In his famous sleight of hand, the poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” John Keats penned “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” That which is beautiful and pleasant is generally beneficial. We have evolved in Nature to survive by enjoying ourselves unless we do it to excess. That which is adulterated is ugly; it doesn’t lead to joy. Similarly, truth is beautiful when truth is profitable, but only if it’s pure, genuine, and novel.
In the arts, we find repulsive those pieces which are imitations, copies, and fakeries. Ernest Hemingway told his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Your writing will be good when it’s true.” The romantic artists of the eighteenth century dealing with imagined subjects were followed by the realists in the twentieth century. Emil Zola with “Nana” followed Victor Hugo of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Then we had the reaction of surrealism with melting clocks and other oddities.
We enjoy romances, realistic stories, and even surreal presentations, even though we may admire and practice reason. Logical derivations if correct always turn out to be true. Why? Because logical rules are based on universal experiences which we have derived as a species to survive in a hostile world against better equipped competitors, such as saber tooth tigers and fierce lions.
By comparison, much of what is said in the media—political, business, personal—involves lies, half-truths, and equivocations, changing the meaning of a term in the middle of an argument. Much writing and speaking is riddled with ambiguity, vagueness, and prevarication. Whatever its defects, logic–classical and modern–is clear and free of nonsense. Logical axiom: something is or is not, not both. All axioms of logic are also useful in thinking clearly and dealing with the world. Codified by Aristotle, the axioms evolved in human minds based over millions of years experiencing the world as it is and surviving in it.
In popular writings, however, we see much stuff about myths, things not true. For example, we read about the five myths of dieting, or the seven myths of economic growth, or the six myths of success. On the other hand, what works is called a law: the five laws of success, the three laws for a happy marriage, and the eight laws of effective management. The word law is used to lend some scientific weight to the argument, a phony weight.
In popular media, truth is an emotional thing. In the 1955 film “High Society,” Bing Crosby sang Cole Porter’s “True Love” to Grace Kelly, moving us sentimentally. “For you and I have a guardian angel with nothing to do, but to give to me and to give to you love forever true.” Here again we find truth as fidelity, loyalty, and constancy of affection.
A young girl wonders about the love of her boyfriend. Does he love me or does he not? She picks up a daisy and plucks the flower petals one by one. He loves me, he loves me not. The last metal picked reveals the truth to her about her lover. Or does it? Is love a random event like that? Love is caring for someone, caring consistently and constantly, seen in the lover’s behavior over a long period of time and under easy and difficult circumstances. We cannot know how another person feels. We can only infer love based on behavior towards ourselves and others. The more observations we collect of behavior the greater our confidence in a person’s true feelings, but we can never be absolutely sure.
When in love, however, we feel sure of the truth and validity of what we feel. It is an internal truth, not an objective fact that can be considered certain. Emotions have an internal validity and are objectively true if they lead to the survival of the genes in family, nation, race, and species. People who are effective with affective states possess emotional intelligence, not measured by the Stanford-Binet IQ tests. We have all seen cases of emotional intelligence in people we know. Yet, projecting emotions such as love or hatred to the outside world as if they are real objects can lead to irrational behavior. That’s why people say, “He’s madly in love.”
Truth is not what the world wants us to believe; truth is what we want, need, think, feverishly desire, and know from personal experience. Much of what is reported in the media (newspapers, radio, television, Internet) is mere propaganda by vested interests. Truth is a word, a tool for transferring information, which needs to be beneficial for our survival or at least convenient.
Societies promulgate as truths those statements that serve their purposes. Does a doctor say to a dying patient the truth that she has three months to live, or does the doctor refer her to the City of Hope?
Is it true that a pastor is the shepherd of his flock of parishioners, his sheep, guiding them to green pastures, protecting them from wolves? The good shepherd in the sheepfold of heaven separates the sheep from the goats, putting them away from the swine. Is it also true that a shepherd fleeces some of his sheep and consumes their flesh?
We are not insects serving a queen, but in human society too we adapt to what those in authority require of us as a means of survival, as the hero of George Orwell’s “1984” eventually did. We find it expedient to accept a statement, true or not, forced upon us by those in power. A fallacious statement from an authority is called an argument from force (argumentum ad baculum) in logic. But the logic of power is more potent than that of Aristotle or Kant.
The Stockholm syndrome usually holds for those in captivity, those in the power of others, as Patty Hearst learned from the Symbionese Liberation Army. Did Patty actually believe in the truth of the SLA doctrine? She did believe, because she had been brain washed, closeted, raped, tortured, and threatened with the loss of her life; and she did survive and made a life for herself with bodyguard Bernard Shaw, after she had served 22 months of a commuted sentence in jail for participating in SLA robberies.
More importantly, was the SLA doctrine true–that of liberating oppressed blacks and other minorities through violent revolution, financed with robberies from banks, the pillars of capitalism? Was the communist doctrine true, that of establishing a workers dictatorship, killing or exiling those who ruled previously, and controlling the lives of people for their own good?
The communist doctrine holds much truth, although abhorrent to us, because it has its roots in ancient tribal living and village society sharing resources for the benefit of all. To leftist revolutionaries, such as Lenin, Mao, Castro, and Chavez, captains of business and industry and their government minions, even educated professionals, were bloodsuckers bloated by exploiting the sweat of the common worker—an ideology which at one time led to the atrocities of the Great Cultural Revolution in China, and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
On the other hand, the rightist doctrine declared workers to be stupid, lazy, and constantly agitating for higher wages and benefits without producing more goods, lacking in family planning and proper care of their health, boozing and wasting their money on junk and gambling—a class of people needing a firm hand from a strong government, continuous discipline and frequent incarceration when they behaved badly with liquor and other drugs. Where does the truth lie? The truth is where we choose to put it for our convenience in the circumstances we’re in.
People in the professions (medicine, law, sales, accounting, advisory services, and politics) all are tend to put the truth where it serves their interests first, their client’s interest second. Much of what they say is a mixture of truth and falsehood. For example, a heart specialist is likely to push for an angiogram, angioplasty, stents, even a bypass, to a patient suffering from arterial blockages, rather than a program of therapy with diet, exercise, stress management, and avoidance of stimulants. The specialist is acting according to the training received in Medical School and in such a way as to earn higher fees. It’s not conscious lying; with most patients medical intervention is the only course of treatment that works, because most people most of the time are unable to change their behavior sufficiently and in time for a natural treatment to be effective.
To what extent do we need the insurance coverage our agent recommends or is our agent pushing for bigger commissions? Our plumbing contractor recommends re-plumbing our house with copper—good to last for fifty years. Could we fix the leaks in our galvanized pipes with much less money? Does our car really need the repair our mechanic recommends? Our stock broker arranges that we sell this stock and buy that stock; are we going to profit from the change or are the investments being churned? We go to the dentist to have our teeth cleaned. The dentist suggests deep cleaning, which will cost us three times as much as regular cleaning; do we really profit that much from deep cleaning?
Health advisors in newsletters tell their readers what they want to read about their health. “Calories don’t count; eat as much as you want, but take this supplement I recommend. Grapefruit has negative calories and grapefruit extract will slim you down.”
Shall we believe there is a cure for arthritis, cancer, diabetes, or aging? Many writers or pill pushers are out there ready to convince us that there is, if we’re suffering. Suffering does not add any evidence to the truth of things. We will forever have with us snake oil salesmen offering us cure-alls for a small or large price as long as suffering augments our credence.
Beware of all broad statements and claims. The Post Office warns us, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” Any offers of “free gifts” tied to subscriptions are suspect; free gift is an oxymoron, the same as a free lunch.
There is nowhere to be found pure 24 carat gold; any sample of gold has impurities. However, when a gold coin company is advertising .24 pure one-ounce gold coins for $100 each and we buy these, we need to have an eye examination or a mental one. A store is advertising its furniture for sale 50% off. What was the original price and was that price low? It can be anything. The advertising isn’t false, but it’s sucker bait.
Politicians rarely tell the truth to the voters. They tell them what voters want to hear. Those politicians are elected who can fake their positions best. Politicians and their trainers know voters are naïve.
Naivety is alive and growing among stock market investors. Nothing is more uncertain than new stock issues and the penny stocks, largely manipulated for profit by those in the know at the expense of the rest of us suckers. Will the price of Google go up some more? Will Facebook investments prove profitable? It is safer to look to the stars for guidance rather than follow investment advisors who predict explosive growth in the price of a stock issue.
Advisors in general make predictions of what will happen for our convenience, for what suits us, for profit, and what makes us feel good. That is the way of the optimist and the soothsayer; the truth they see sooths our fears and pains. All predictions are chancy, because they deal with the future, always uncertain to a larger or smaller degree. Historical events are much more certain when we have good records of what happened; otherwise, history is largely speculation, filled with falsehoods and errors, which justify the point of view of the powers in place. The past is misty and so is the future; the present is also misty because our perceptions are poor; yet, we must rely on our perceptions when getting around because they’re all we have.
Using perceptual data we obtain measurements of an object which we classify it as true or as false; the classification presumes a clear separation exists between the objects which are false and those which are true. We find the boundary between the two classes and measuring the distances of the unknown object from the centers of the two clusters, we assign the object to the class of false or the class of true based on the shortest distance. We assume the classes don’t overlap; but they often do, making some things partly true and partly false.
More generally, we receive sensations from outside our minds that we organize into clusters of data so that we can see them as familiar facts, fitting them into prior knowledge, inherited or acquired in past lives. We see the things that fit into prior knowledge as congruent and true. In the meantime, the world has changed and what we find as true may not be so.
Much of what we see now is what we have seen in the past; we fit, aptly or not, our new sensations to what we conceived in previous experiences. Our pre-conceptions, our prejudices, and our automatic responses rule our beliefs and behaviors. Periodically we need to stop in our tracks and ask ourselves whether this thing is true now or has it changed into something not so true.
We must stop and think because what we perceive as real depends a great deal indeed on our mental state, our reasoning and our active emotion. Fear, anger, love, hatred, envy, pride, all these color and change the object we see. A powerful and feared enemy is seen as bigger and more menacing. When a shocking event occurs we tend to deny the truth of it. When a beloved child, brother, sister, parent, or friend dies suddenly, we blurt out, “Oh no, no, no!”
In court we’re asked to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. How can we know the truth, mere mortals, and separate it from falsehood so well, refine it to such a pure state that it becomes nothing but the truth? Deception among people is common; self-deception is everywhere. People deceive themselves about getting old, about dying, about the worth of their children, about being afraid and about being selfish, about having everything change around them and in their lives. Above all we want comfort and stability. Here’s some pertinent dialogue from the 1992 film “A Few Good Men,” starring Jack Nicholson:
Col. Jessup (Nicholson): “You want answers?”
Kaffee (attorney): “I want the truth.”
Col. Jessup: “You can’t handle the truth!”
We believe in the truth we can handle, what we find convenient, useful, comforting, familiar, and free of unpleasant consequences. But it is in the nature of reality that consequences follow, like them or not. During the Libyan revolution, NATO bombs crashing around him, Colonel Gadhafi believed his people loved him and his enemies were rats. “Sing, dance, celebrate,” he exhorted his people, who cheered themselves hoarse in his presence. He was convinced of his own importance and righteousness until the rats shot him dead.
Not unlike Gadhafi, the so-called “Greats” were not really great. Alexander, Peter, Kathryn, Elizabeth, Napoleon were largely despicable people much like Hitler and Genghis Khan, their cultural contributions small compared to their large killings. They believed themselves to be gods or demigods guided by the stars; these Greats proclaimed doctrines and made naïve followers believe, leading nations to war and havoc.
These greats should have looked at their miserable selves in the mirror more often. Each one of us should take sodium pentothal, truth serum, alone in front of a mirror at least once in life before it’s too late to discover the truths about ourselves we’re unwilling to admit openly. We should then face our moment of truth.