Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Myth of Truth

Originally posted on April 5, 2011

Recently I wrote about the problem of truth. For many centuries the search for truth has had its own value. It seemed virtuous to be in search of truth, but villainous to question whether the goal of seeking truth was foolish. Yet I am daring to ask this, and to suggest that in light of current ideas about complexity and mind, truth is an abstract ideal that never theoretically be attained. 

While on one level it may be useful to seek to find more truth about oneself and about nature, I think that truth as an abstract ideal is a myth, like goodness, purity, any ultimate abstract category? It points to some vague virtue, and it suggests that it is reachable, at least in theory. Yet I question whether there is a single example of this being entirely achieved, ever. Part of the problem is that life is incredibly complex and living organisms are so multi-faceted—humans even more so, because they partake more fully of the even-more-multi-faceted nature of complex mind.

One might claim that truth transcends myth—or at least, theoretically, it ought to. But is this so? What—if anything—has ever been found to be absolutely true, for all times, for all spatial realms, for all peoples?

Admittedly, there are some relatively meaningless statements such as “Well, that’s the way it goes,” or “You win some, you lose some,” that have a ring of truth. But they’re so generalized, they’re platitudes, and often they’re trivial. At the right moment, though, they can break the tension, shift the level of focus, generate a bit of disengagement, so to that degree they feel really wise and true. But, then, so can a hug or a laugh.

Although there is a degree of materialism that I can’t relate to any more than I can relate to the dogma of religious fanatics, but I’m reaching beyond this: It seems to me that they still imagine that truth does exist, somewhere, out there, objectively, and theoretically grasp-able by the human mind. They don’t consider this belief to be mythic. Stated another way, I suspect that much of what various subgroups consider as “common sense” is actually a pre-modern or modern myth that its beliefs are absolutely true.

I am a bit anxious about raising this perspective as I fear that true believers will lump me with those who hold to views more extreme than my own—i.e. postmodernist and relativistic views that can be clung to foolishly in ways that are also fundamentalistic—that is, clinging literally to certain assumptions. I’m more playful and practical, weaving in a valuing of kindness and a more relaxed and inclusive worldview that realizes that worldviews still have a way to go in their evolution and integration.

This is not nihilism! I believe in a constant process of co-creation, an unfolding common experience that is meaningful. Yet there is an awareness of the profound complexity of individuality, so that it is fair to say that in a sense, every individual’s experience operates within his or her umwelt    Experienced subjective reality. I tend to hold with Ken Wilber that subjective reality isn’t all of reality, yet reality needs to include this dimension, as well. It makes it impossible to make generalizations about all of reality for everyone, and perhaps that isn’t all that necessary. (Only a few centuries ago the idea of people believing things that were not orthodox, approved by the authorities, was an act of heresy and punishable by torture and agonizing death; it was needed if the belief that alignment of belief and conscience is necessary for the stability of society; but since then, the second assumption has been abandoned. Perhaps the next step is to let go of the necessity for a definable universal truth as measuring-unit.)

It’s not necessary to threaten chaos, cruelty, approval of being nasty. A certain degree of civility and kindness and all that stuff is still compatible. What isn’t needed and in fact is not even used is the ideal that there is a way of absolutely determining for all people in all cultures and all times some final measurement even at the micro-level. What is used is the legal process, civil proceedings, mediation, negotiations, arbitrations, or, as our mothers said, “you kids work it out!”

What if we expand the process of negotiating, problem-solving, conflict resolution, using the tools learned by psychology and group dynamics? The point is that we need not confuse our present laws or even constitutions (much less sacred scriptures) with final judgments for all people in all situations at all times. It may not threaten a total breakdown of culture to allow people to negotiate and explore better solutions. Indeed, what gets softened—and perhaps needs to get softened!—is the inflexibility that comes with the illusion that my side is ultimately “right.”

In other words, I see the myth of objective truth operating as the basis for fanaticism. Another problem with this ideal is that it denies all possibilities of alternative viewpoints, frames of reference, considerations of the source of judgments, biases, non-rational feelings, etc. All these, we now know, are crucial in moral judgments, but increasingly such world-views are in collision. Clinging to the ideal that one is right or that there is a single right answer is folly. Kindness, mercy, forgiveness, letting go of entitlement or greed rationalized as virtue, willingness to encounter, such maneuvers are more appropriate for the 21st century, and they’re incompatible with a firm belief that truth is definable by words or the human mind.

So that’s where I’m at with epistemology—a big word that describes the endeavor to assess what we know for certain. I’m opened to a carefully reasoned critique. You can do that with a blog.

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