Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Story-telling and Truth

Originally posted on November 5, 2013

People keep up their interests by wondering about what happens: Did it have to happen that way? What was behind what happened. Why did he do it that way and why did she take it this way? What might happen next and what might lead up to that? Which factors contributed to this situation? What might have happened if she had only…? Or if they had reacted this way?

In a way, this is an amplification of Plato’s “parable of the cave.” It’s about the way people see stories in the shadows projected on the cave wall—or, in contemporary terms—on the television or movie screens. We take these events be “reality,” even though they have been edited, highlighted by lighting and camera effects, and so forth.

In addition, people don’t differentiate truth from speculation. We tend to supplement actuality as if it really was the way we’ve perceived it—that others may perceive it differently requires a degree of sophistication not practiced by most humans. Rather, what happens is always supplemented by a thick narrative of what ifs, what did it seem like to others, what else, where will this all lead, what other factors might have been at play, and so forth. So truth is packed with what Moreno called “psychological truth”—which involves all these other elements, plus our reactions to them. I mean, if this did matter, if that were heading in a certain direction, and so forth, then we might be thrilled, or dismayed, hopeful or fearful, and so our judgments that this or that even portends good or evil is part of what we imagine to be the truth of the event.

Of course if often is nothing like that, and a good Buddhist might go further and say that this is all illusion, the stories we tell ourselves about raw perceptions. And those stories get us into trouble, yank on our desires, play on our fears. And though they’re not real in the ordinary sense of what can be observed, the way people interpret these experiences often determine the way they react. So in that way they have a certain type of truth-value. They also have an illusion or non-truth factor, because others might interpret the same external events differently. (The idea that there may be several types of truth operating at several levels is not widely appreciated. The illusion is that there is one actual truth and all “should” recognize it. But that type of “ought-ism” is nuts. It’s like confusing the ideal that we should all have peace on Earth with “realpolitik,” the reality that people more often than not do not do what some abstract ideal thinks they should do, or feel, or think.

So a degree of skepticism about truth is needed, since so many people get so insistent on their own thinking—interpretation—of what is “obviously” true, and so much indignation and bewilderment about the way others are so blind, stupid, wicked, or whatever in that they don’t agree with that seemingly obvious truth. (The operative word is “seem,” as it “seems obvious” that what is perceived and interpreted is indeed what it seems to be and there’s no way, or so it seems, that any other perception or interpretation can be done. But of course, the other side feels just as innocent, righteous, indignant, and puzzled!)

All this then is to call to your attention the elusiveness of what seems obvious and truthful. This is not perverse shilly-shally-ing, manipulation of simple truth, academic sophistry. The truth really is terribly elusive, especially when there are many people and viewpoints at stake. Different economic interests and sub-cultural values adds to this divergence. We have lived for centuries assuming that there is a single truth and sincerity and clear-mindedness can penetrate it. We want this to be so. We don’t always get what we want, and harder to understand, there’s a higher rationality that notes that the universe is not really obliged to satisfy our petty wants any more than parents are obligated to desire their young children’s deep desires, however unrealistic. (“I don’t want our dog to die! Daddy, do something! Make it all better!”)

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