Anyone who knows me knows that I value truth greatly. My respect for, even idealism of, truth has always been clear to me.

I’m not entirely sure why this is so.

I suspect my parents teaching me honesty is part of it and, of course, my dad having introduced me to the life of the intellect. But it seems to go beyond just those factors. There is something about my personality or my life experience that has caused me to value truth more than even my dad who spent much of his life in academia. As a conservative Christian, he would probably put before truth any other number of values: love, obedience, service, etc. Most people would put something or another before truth… which is to say that most people would rather assert their preferred values as truth than to value truth itself.

I don’t personally know any other person who puts as much emphasis on truth as I do (not to imply that I live up to my own ideal). Even my life-long best friend doesn’t think about truth in the way I do, although he comes closer than most people. My desire for truth at times can be a visceral impulse, something felt at the core of my being. I experience life and look out upon the world through the lense of truth-seeking. It truly bewilders me that others don’t share this inclination, this way of being in the world.

Truth as a value often seems out of fashion. We live in an age where righteous fundamentalism competes with skeptical relativism. It has become the norm for all sides to question truth as a value worthy of respect, especially in terms of the Enlightenment. We have collectively loss faith in truth, that it exists or can ever be known. Instead, doubt has become dominant and pervasive. Truth has become a mere personal issue. There are just claims of truth, but no shared sense of truth or even shared value of truth.

Yes, people argue over what is true. But such arguments have increasingly become battles of rhetoric. As a society, we’ve become cynical. Psychological insight has taught us how weak is the human mind. Simple reverence for truth is beyond most people these days. It sounds nice, if a bit naive. With propaganda and advertising, we are always looking for the angle, the spin, the manipulation. Claims of truth seem loaded, potentially dangerous even.

The Nazis knew their truth. The communists knew their truth. Islamic terrorists know their truth. And conservatives like Bush jr know truth in their gut. Or on the other end of the spectrum, New Agers know their own version of truth. People who claim truth are to be considered with suspicion or maybe just seen as simpleminded. Truth has become nearly synonymous with blind faith and dogmatic righteousness. In the media, truth is decided by whichever side wins.

There are so many competing claims of truth that we’ve forgotten how truth has a closer relationship to questions than answers. To question is to be weak. People who question don’t become powerful, wealthy or famous. Even in academia, it is the preson who proclaims a new theory or interpretation who gets attention from his or her peers. To question without offering an answer seems dissatisfying or boring. It is an argument between people declaring opposed truths that is exciting, that gets attention. Pick a side and fight for your team or else stand alone on the sideline as the valiant skeptic demolishing other people’s truths.

There is a new kind of lifestyle truthiness. You look for the truth that fits your life, rather than conform your life to truth. Claims of truth are how you know which group someone belongs to. There is Christian truth and Atheist truth, Republican truth and Democratic truth. Every group has their experts. Other experts are mercenaries who work for the highest bidder, usually think tanks.

I try not to fall into too much cynicism because the ensuing despair can be paralyzing. I have faith in truth, if faith can be used in this way, but I don’t have righteous certainty about any particular truth.

In my understanding and experience, the discussion of truth certainly isn’t about rhetoric or talking points or dogma. It isn’t even about philosophy and rationality, not ultimately at least. I see truth as a basic human experience. We may be confused about truth, change our minds, and be deluded more than we’f prefer. Still, the desire for truth is there and it can’t be denied.

Ever since the Axial Age, humans have become transfixed by the notion of ‘truth’. Revolutionary thinkers showed up on the scene and told their fellow humans that wisdom and knowledge matter more than kinship tribalism, more than obedience to authority, more than rule of law and tradition. This was when the seeds of modern civilization were planted. These seeds eventually grew into the Enlightenment. And now we live in an era of science. Truth as a value has become the background of modern society. We take it for granted which is why it is so easy to be cynical about it.

It is strange how the value of truth has played such a major role in social development. There seems to be something in human nature that corresponds to the notion of truth. Even before the Axial Age, peopl had various views of what ‘truth’ meant, even if they don’t correpsond to anything that we now recognize as truth. The moment humans could speak and draw cave paintings, the human desire for truth was off and running, although rather blindly at first.

My own sense is that truth as an idea and ideal touches upon the archetypal. There is an experience of a truth, a desire of truth that precedes any particular claim of truth. Truth-seeking matters because it springs from an impulse deep within us.

4 thoughts on “Truth

  1. I think all we can do is search for the truth, always realizing we will probably never find it in its entirely, only bits and pieces. This requires an open mind, and the ability to try to see the big picture. I agree with you that in the world’s eyes to question is to be weak, and that people who question don’t become powerful wealthy or famous. But if we’re talking about truth is that really the right yardstick to use as a measure? The powerful, the wealthy, the famous are very focussed on attaining just that, and tend not to see the big picture, probably because it would be too much of a distraction and hold them back from achieving their goals. The other point which you only allude to is that truth does not = certainty. Nothing is certain, as least as far as I can tell, and I think that’s just part of the human condition. Those who proclaim certainty are the ones we need to be suspicious of.

    • Hello Bob, nice to meet you.

      You are right to ask that question. My answer is implied in what I wrote. I only brought up power, wealth and fame because of their being such wretched standards by which to judge truth. Of course, they are the standards that most people use, in particular as demonstrated in the mainstream media.

      There is a context to this post which I didn’t mention. Why should a genuine standard of truth be limited to individuals? The Axial Age prophets and the Enlightenment revolutionaries didn’t see themselves as merely seeking a private sense of truth. No, they wanted totransform all of society and they thought this was possible.

      It seems we’ve collectively resigned ourselves to living in a society of deception and lies. It seems we’ve given up on the hope that truth can transform the world. With our lack of vision, by default we’ve ended up accepting very low standards.

      I did allude that truth isn’t certainty. Stated with cynicism or apathy, this would just mean yet nother lowering of expectations. What you’ll notice is that I briefly brought up the issue of faith. Ironically, being a truth-seeker isn’t something a reasonnable person would willingly choose. To align oneself with truth is the most radical action a person can take.

      So, truth isn’t certainty but neither is it uncertainty.

      Truth obvously can be many things, expressed in many ways. The one clear attribute of truth is the experience itself. Truth is ‘true’ because we desire it to be true, need it to be true. It cuts to the core of human nature. Humans would cease to be human without this impulse. All of civilization wouldn’t exist without it.

      The relationship between truth and faith fascinates me. I sometimes call myself an agnostic gnostic. Whatever meager faith I may have would be most accurately described as a faith in faith itself. In ths light, truth-seeking is its own truth. We know truth not by finding it for any truth found would inevitably be a lesser truth. Truth is found within, not outside of, the impulse for truth. The impulse is all we ultimately have to go by.

      In saying all this, I don’t mean to be esoteric. I’m certainly not just philosophiing. I’m trying to get at the experience itself and put it in words or rather to use words to point in the general direction. But nothing I can say would make any sese if one doesn’t know of what I speak.

      • I think I understand what you’re saying. The search for truth might be part of the human condition, we want to know how things work, and we think there is an objective explanation for it. I think you’re saying that what is important is the search for truth, not actually finding it because maybe that is impossible because our understanding of truth is constrained by the limits of our intelligence. And our notions of what is true can change as new information becomes available. I guess I would consider myself an agnostic gnostic also, my faith has always been tempered by a bit of skepticism, or that its a metaphor for something beyond our ability to understand.

    • If you understand what I’m saying, then I congratulate you. My attempt at communicating here may be a bit muddled. The sense of truth I’m trying to get at probably would seem abstract to most people and detached from tangible reality.

      I was writing this not because my thoughts were clear but because they weren’t. Also, I simply felt a strong desire to communicate which can be frustrating with a subject like this. My thoughts continue to coalesce and your comments are forcing me to explain better what is behind my thinking.

      I mentioned a major context of my thinking. The notion appeals to me of a collective vision of truth, a vision that transcends the individual and opens up new possibilities for society, even more intriguing a vision of the world that is of the world and that emerges from our lived experience of being in the world.

      There are two parts to this vision of truth.

      First, although the impulse is felt in the individual, it is a universal human experience. It is at the core of our nature and inseparable from our perception of the larger world, perceprion of both other humans and of nature. Human nature, of course, comes from nature. Hence, the human impulse for truth isn’t separate from the world. This sense of truth is intertwined with how we relate to and identify with one another.

      Second, although a vision, it isn’t a mere ephemeral dream or mystical woo. As it connects us to the world, it is part of the tangible world and so can have a tangible impact on the world. Cosider the Enlightenment thinkers who believed that truth mattered. Whatever one may say about them, one can’t deny they forever transformed all of human civilization.

      A such, even as I speak of truth as an impulse, I mean so much more than that. My thinking for this post formed while I was walking. I walked through the woods, through a cemetery and through neighborhhods. Then I stopped at a small park where I sat on a bench while parents played with their children. My thinking was in response o the world around me. I was looking at people and wondering what motivated them. I also imagined what would happen if only for a moment all these people suddenly awoke to whatever highest sene of truth they have in then.

      Maybe I should clarify something.

      I do indeed love questions but I also love answers. The impulse of truth-seeking certainly doesn’t end in itself. I don’t absolutely demarcate truth from knowledge and rationality. However, in writing here, I wanted to emphasize truth as an impulse which isn’t limited to any single outward manifestation.

      Often when I contemplate the world, I see everything around me with the eye of knowledge. I’m insatiably curious. All the world is knowledge and therefore everything is potentially knoweable. The truth impulse would be meaningless if it didn’t lead to knowledge. Every experience is a knowing. We learn about the world by being in the world. We learn about others by interacting with them.

      In this way, the truth impulse is a very mundane thing.

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