Truth is a slippery thing.
Throughout human history, philosophers, scientists and holy men have tried to find it, yet it still feels like we’re only scratching the surface. There’s this sense that the answers to the deepest questions are hidden somewhere beyond our reach. That attempting to answer them is futile, or perhaps even arrogant.
There’s good reason to think this way, we’re not particularly well equipped to understand the universe after all. Our limited perspectives and even more limited minds, mean we can’t even confidently answer questions about ourselves. Where we came from, what we’re doing here, where we go afterwards, how far can we get if we can’t even tackle these questions with any certainty?
To solve this problem, we’ve set about accumulating information. The 21st Century is the Age of Information. Our children have access to more information than entire nations did only a few hundred years ago. A Google search can turn up thousands of articles in favour of any position imaginable in a few milliseconds. And you can find thousands which say the opposite in just a few more. This is the problem with information as opposed to truth; information can contradict itself.
Faced with all of these overlapping or contradictory “facts”, it begins to feel as if truth itself is an illusion, and this might well be the case. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on finding it. Maybe truth, like perfection, isn’t a goal to be reached, but an ideal to be strived for. Something we work towards getting incrementally closer to, even though we know well never quite reach it.
So how exactly do we do that?
Well, first it might help to decide what truth is not. Truth, if it exists at all, is not subjective. There is an increasingly popular idea, popularised by Oprah I think, that truth can be owned. That there’s such a thing as your truth and my truth and Oprah’s truth. This might seem like a nice idea, but it makes no more sense than the idea that there’s your gravity and my gravity and Oprah’s gravity. Oprah might be rich enough to have her own gravity, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is simply gravity. There is simply the truth.
Recognising this is also to recognise that our view of the world is incomplete. Which is true and unsurprising. All we have are our five senses (which are easily fooled) and our mind (which we can barely control). How could our view be anything but incomplete?
I’m reminded of the parable of the blind men touching an elephant at various points, each of them convinced that they know what an elephant is like. “An elephant is hard and smooth like a spear.” says one, touching its tusks. “No, it’s long and flexible, like a thick snake.” says another touching its trunk. “You’re both wrong, it’s hard and solid like a wall.” says a third who was touching its side. And so on.
Some people interpret this story as a recognition that each of us can be right whilst still disagreeing, but I think this misses the point. Which is that all of the blind men are wrong. They all believe that their limited experience can encompass the whole of what an elephant is. They think that they can define not just a part of it, but the whole of it from where they sit, and because of this mistake none of them has an accurate sense of what it is.
This parable beautifully illustrates how important it is for us to share our subjective experiences without becoming too attached to them. To realise that we almost certainly aren’t seeing the full picture and talk to each other as if we had something to learn from each other as well as if we had something to teach. If the blind men had done this, they would have arrived at a much truer picture of what an elephant is than any one of them was able to by themselves.
If you and I disagree, it isn’t because we have separate versions of reality, we aren’t both right in our private domains of “truth”. One, or more likely both of us is wrong. For humans, wrong is the rule, not the exception. The idea that we each have our own truth is just our ego’s attempt to avoid admitting this.
We all have a unique perspective, but the truth is true from all perspectives. So it’s a given that we can’t comprehend it alone. The solution isn’t to wall ourselves in, but to reach out and learn how other people see things. To get better at expressing ourselves so that we can share what we experience with others. The truth is difficult to grasp because we’re all just blind men and women touching an elephant. Let’s try to figure out what it is before it walks away.