Monday, April 7, 2014

"What If The Truth Is Not What It's Cracked Up To Be?"

Last time out, we discussed what appear to be two differing varieties of truth – the truth grounded in evidence, and the truth emanating from belief.  There is no apparent common ground between these two approaches.  Their conclusions differ wildly, allowing the consequential strategies little room for compromise.

This split-down-the-middle is a little sad.  But at least the above paragraph assumes one universally held understanding – that the “truth” actually exists (there are just differing ways of discovering it.)

The question for today is,

“What if the truth doesn’t exist?

(And we are wasting our time looking for it.)

Hey, Earlo, what do you specifically mean by “the truth”?  

“Do you want an answer?”

“I want the truth!”

“You can’t handle the truth!”


Or, as my dictionary defines “truth”,

 “…the true or actual state of a matter.”

But you already said that people have differing ways of determining what’s true, leading to differing conclusions.

There is some agreement.  Like in court.  The witness raises their right hand and they’re asked,

“Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

They never say,

“What do you mean by that?”

They know.  They have to.

Otherwise, you can’t have a trial.

ATTORNEY:  “Was what you just testified to the truth?”

WITNESS:  “From a belief perspective, though not an evidentiary one.”

ATTORNEY:  “Your Honor, I object!’

JUDGE:  “I don’t like it either!”

For a society to function at least minimally, there has to be some overall agreement on what’s the truth.  My question today, however, is not is that agreement concerning the truth correct.  My question today is, is the whole idea of the truth entirely made up? 

And as a consequence,

Does the truth actually make any difference?

We could at this point go straight to placebos, sugar pills that have no medicinal properties but which, if the patient believes they’re effective, can, surprisingly often, improve their condition.  The truth is:  It’s nothing.  The consequence is:  It works. 

Pragmatist psychologist William James, in fact, proclaimed,

“The truth is what works.”

Which confuses me.  What if a lie works?  Does that make a lie the truth?

But let’s leave all that aside and plunge into the roiling waters of religion.

A person has these deeply held beliefs.  And those beliefs bring them spiritual comfort, moral direction, and the community and support of a likeminded group of people, allowing them to bear life’s uncertain travails and sleep peacefully at night.

I am speaking, of course, of the atheist.

You see what I did there?  I made it sound like I was talking about a religious person when I was really referring to the opposite. 

Oy, what a character!

I did what I did there on purpose – to show that it cuts either way.

For quite some time for most people, a verifiable proof for the existence of God – they don’t bother with it anymore.  Nobody outside of a Philosophy class talks about the ticking watch discovered on the beach.  (Which is so complicated in its construction, you must reasonably posit a “watchmaker.”  Apparently, now, you don’t.)   The truth about God’s existence… it’s pretty much up in the air.  The believer accepts it; the non-believers does not.

The consequences of one’s belief in God’s existence or non-existence, however, are tangible, energizing, meaningful and real.  Posing the question,

If the consequences make you feel better – and do no demonstrable harm – does it make any difference if whatever it was that produced those consequences – for example, your belief in the existence of God – is actually true?  

(Maybe that’s why they gave up on the proofs.  They didn’t really matter.)

What do you think about this?  Does the sentence

“There are different ways of looking at the truth”

Make any sense whatsoever?

And if it does, 

Is the truth as we have come to define it not an overrated and irrelevant idea?

The thing is, if the truth as we have come to define it is not the determinative word on matters,

Why do they keep looking for it in court?

And other places. 

Like on this blog.


Johnny Walker said...

I've had this thought process myself many times, and I came to the same conclusion as you.

You might use logic and reason to argue in the non-existence of a god, but someone can equally use logic and reason to prove the benefits of having a belief in a god. (Almost every study on the matter have shown that religious people are happier than non-religious people. Religious people live longer. Regular church attendees recover from illnesses quicker than those who don't, etc, etc.)

An author I admire greatly, Alan Moore, made the point that, even if the rituals and beliefs of religious people are illogical, we know we can improve our lives using them. Even for the most skeptical, isn't it worth being temporarily "illogical" and engaging in rituals in order to get those benefits?

(An analogy that occurs to me is those people who refused to welcome in the new millennium on January 1st, 2000, because *technically* it wasn't 1000 years since 1AD. I'm sure their millennium parties in 2001 were just a *hoot*.)

Our ancestors weren't any less intelligent than us, and they willingly took on spirituality because they could see its benefits - not because they were stupid, or because they didn't have the internet, or an iPhone, or X-Factor, or the million other modernities we falsely assume make us superior to those that came before us.

And in the good times, when everything in their lives was right and they didn't need a god, they knew to respect the spiritual needs of those that were struggling (instead of attacking them for needing something they don't).

Living in modern London, I feel like I'm surrounded by militant atheists. It's probably the people I know, but I often wonder if they should be exploring WHY they care so much if their neighbour is (in their eyes) illogical. That they care is, in itself, illogical to me.

Who cares what someone else believes -- provided it doesn't impinge on someone else?

In the dark of the night, we're all the same. Nothing about the human condition has changed since the beginning. It makes no difference, when you get right down to it, if we understand what happens at the centre of black hole, what's at the bottom of our deepest oceans, or how many neurons are in a human brain. Science is not there to offer us spiritual fulfillment, but as human beings, we need it.

Anyways, sorry for the long rant. It's probably more of a response to things I hear in my daily life than to what you wrote, but hopefully it's still relevant :)

I'll just finish on another Alan Moore observation (riffing on Picasso): "Artists use lies to reveal the truth."

Johnny Walker said...

"What, he's got MORE to say?"

Yes, just a little. I just wanted to zoom out and offer my answers to your wider questions raised by both today's and yesterday's posts.

You wrote: “In the context of our understanding of the truth, what matters more – evidence or beliefs?”

I think as a human being this is where you conscience should help you decide: If your version of the truth affects other people, then surely you owe it to them to get the evidence based version.

Even if the evidence is wrong, it's likely to be less wrong than your beliefs.

If your understanding of a truth only affects you, then believe what you want! :)