Friday, July 6, 2012


“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”  - Richard Feynman

The previous post on beauty leads to the obvious question of truth in human existence.  The following are some personal notes suitable for cutting through the mental thickets surrounding Truth.

Truth would seem to be a nice simple idea compared with “everybody has their own idea of” Beauty. However, looking at some quotes I dug up suggests otherwise.  The Bible talks of misleading external appearances, the “whited sepulchers,” suggesting beauty can camouflage what is ugly and evil.  Which is just another way of saying that beauty is “skin deep.”  The beautiful “gold digger” and the “diamond in the rough” are well worn phrases describing the disconnect between truth and beauty.  “In vino veritas”, suggests that truth comes from honesty and transparency, not to mention drunkenness.  Occam’s razor states that truth is related to simplicity.  Truth can be “ugly” and “brutal”, and Churchill famously said that the truth was so precious during wartime, that it had to be surrounded by a “bodyguard of lies.”  I could go on quoting from the “marketplace of ideas,” and noting the ideas that have “stood the test of time,” but the “cliché meter” would blow up so I’ll stop here.

Perhaps the degree of truth is related to the institution that proclaims “truth”.  For instance science tells the truth, while novels don’t.  Actually that definition doesn’t really work either.  Scientists 100 years ago considered Phrenology to be a serious science.  As physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”  Conversely, novels often convey a deep human truth imbedded in a pudding of lies.

I think I need to state some basic principles here.  I believe that there is a consistent truth out there; let’s call it capital ‘R’ “Reality”.  What we call truth is our human attempt to capture, model and record that “Reality”.  The model that we hold in our mind which reflects “Reality” is what we call “Truth”, let’s give it a capital ‘T’.  While “Reality” is unlimited and unchanging, subject to some deep but partially knowable laws, “Truth” is subject to the whims of our emotions and self interest, and our limited senses and brain.  It is charmingly naïve to believe that there is some perfect beauty.  It is not so charming, and it is certainly naïve to believe that human “Truth” equals absolute “Reality”.

While “Reality” is unknowable it is a consistent sounding board for our pursuit of “Truth”.  If your idea of “Truth” leads you to burn your finger and stub your toe, you may be on the wrong path.  So are we back to the “eye of the beholder”?  Not quite.  Whereas beauty can be very personal and idiosyncratic without harm, “Truth”, if it wanders too far from “Reality” can get the individual killed, or can condemn a group to extinction.  A poor person or a soldier on the battlefield had better have a close connection between his idea of “Truth” and the reality of “Reality”.  A rich person can get away with criminality or addiction which would destroy a poor person.  Similarly, a country with an out-of-touch ruling elite can make life miserable for everyone, and get themselves killed into the bargain.  From Caligula and Ivan the Terrible to Hitler and Stalin, absolute (and absolutely insane) rulers have run roughshod through the masses (for the good of the masses of course).  Without the “hard” truth of “Reality” to drag us back we would live in a fantasy world of our own making.    Perhaps someday technology will advance far enough to create such a “science fiction” virtual world, but I would recommend keeping a life jacket handy if you ever sign on for that cruise.

So “Truth” will always be at best an approximation of “Reality”.  We are stuck looking at Plato’s shadows in a cave.  My own rules for “Reality” are:
1. Always test your conception of the “Truth”. Read the opposition, and compare both sides with historic examples, related studies and human nature. “Truth” is found via skepticism.
2. Understand that, although hard science is the most rigorous model of reality, scientists are still only human, subject to confirmation bias. Feynman has a point.
3. Social Science is always fascinating, but is challenged by both confirmation bias in the scientist and “spinning” by the subjects of the study. On this field traditional morality and progressive values fight.
4. Religion, politics, art and business are all simply rationalizations of our instinctual moralizing. The foundation of nearly everything we do or think is wrapped up in our basically emotional brain. Doesn’t mean it is right or wrong, just means there is a lot of contradiction, Ad Hockery and outright lies.
Final admonition:  That we aren’t busy killing each other in small primitive groups is amazing. The peaceful daily life of civilization is an anomaly, and we should be thankful for it, and careful that we don’t undermine it.

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