(What is truth? … The truth shall set you free)

The story of cosmology is the story of our search for the ultimate truth

Produced using Cloudart
Produced using Cloudart

This quote comes from a recent episode of one of my favourite BBC documentary programmes, ‘Horizon’, which was titled ‘What happened before the Big Bang?’. It centred on the thinking, with the aid of mathematics and string theory, of a handful of professorial academics from around the world, who have developed some new theories. One such theory suggests that the expansion of our known universe since the Big Bang, nearly fourteen billion years ago, is only one ‘bounce of a ball’, of a cyclic series of events and that its apparently infinite size is merely a minimal starting point for the next Big Bang. I don’t know about you, but I find this, at the same time, utterly mind boggling and totally fascinating. It also serves to bring into perspective the true meaning of our lives and, in particular, the meaning of truth, which, in consequence, is only a relative term, particularly when it comes to this area of science. There may be a myriad of learned tomes, on the subject of truth, written by countless thinkers and philosophers over the millennia of human existence, but, setting aside the search for the true answers to scientific and mathematical questions about the origins of our universe, it is on the most basic social and spiritual level that I choose to focus.

My first prompt for this piece occurred three years ago, when I observed, amongst other exceptional acts of forgiveness and the search for truth, the effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in post-apartheid South Africa under Nelson Mandela’s leadership. The second prompt is that constant irritation: politicians! To be fair, this affects all those in positions of influence, with vested interest in maintaining status quo or personal wealth, who are so often inclined to be ‘economical with the truth’, if the truth is likely to compromise their position or possessions. This probably includes all of us from time to time. However, if you are in a position of power, when your decisions affect whole populations, then being economical with the truth may be considered, at best, morally wrong, if not downright contemptible! So much depends on the ulterior motive. Difficulty arises when you listen to words spoken by someone, whose allegiances are unknown to you, and therefore leave you with the dilemma of whether or not you believe they are speaking the truth. For me, sometimes, the solution to this is to do your own research; it is your call.

The third prompt is meat to those who, in telling lies, would argue that the truth is relative to its context. As true as that may be, there are some fundamental questions, which it may be helpful to ask. These questions and their answers rely heavily on my own life’s observations and experience. I’ve presented this, for clarity, in the form of a mock interview …

What is the truth?

The truth is without bias, in conformity with fact and reality, and is concerned only with honesty and integrity.

What defines truth?

The truth is not only defined by its context, but also by your ability to address your conscience*, head on, assuming that it has not been corrupted by external bias (i.e. vested interests). Equally important is an ability to face reality, however unpleasant or painful that may be.

How do we justify the limits we place on our honesty about the truth?

We justify limits on our honesty in many ways: by joining a tribe and deferring to its rules; by focussing on our own self-preservation or our vested interests; and by denying voice to our conscience.

How do we know what the truth is and how do we recognise it?

In order to know what the truth is, it is necessary firstly to cast off our natural bias and prejudice; to open our minds; perhaps also to become pantheistic in our outlook.

How much of the truth can we individually consciously face head on?

Knowing your limits is a safe harbour, but may also be a block to discovering the truth. So, it may be necessary to be courageous in the quest.

What strategies can we devise to help us get to the truth?

Somehow we may not only have to overcome personal prejudice and swallow our pride, but also face the facts and stop echoing and repeating popular myths that come from the pens and mouths of those around you.

How much do we have to sacrifice both to seek and to tell the truth?

We have to set aside our need for material things and kick the habit of consumerism. We also need to examine, evaluate and better understand our pride and prejudice (with apologies to Jane Austen).

Who will speak the truth?

Any of us can speak the truth, but, before we do, we will have to develop the inner strength to resist and cast off all those temptations that beset us with envy, greed, carnal hunger and cognitive bias.

I recently attended a concert, in which the headline act were a folk and roots duo, whose talent and performances we have come to enjoy. The unusual and refreshing part of this concert was that the supporting act, who came on to ‘warm’ us up, was a poet, whom I had first met last year through the Sheffield WordLife movement, at the opening of the Sheffield Literature Festival. The poet is Joe Kriss. One of the self penned poems he read, concluded with words to the effect: stop talking, start thinking and listen to what lies between your ears; only then will you know what’s true.

There are many parts of our lives for which exposure of the truth, if shared with the majority and if reconciliation was achieved, would make for a better world. I wonder, however, if finding the truth in every part of our lives would challenge our humanity. If that truth were too unpalatable to face – the prospect of our own imminent failure, the discovery of a skeleton in our own cupboard, life threatening illness and death … would we still want to know the truth?

Perhaps you might let me know if you have found your truth … and whether you feel it set you free? 

_________________________

* The defining of conscience could, no doubt, be the subject of a veritable treatise. For now, suffice to say that conscience is defined as “the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual”. Put more simply, it is “the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action: to follow the dictates of conscience“.

© 2014 John Anstie

John_in_Pose_Half_Face3JOHN ANSTIE (My Poetry Library and 42) ~ is a British poet and writer, a contributing editor here at Bardo, and multi-talented gentleman self-described as a “Family man, Grandfather, Occasional Musician, Amateur photographer and Film-maker, Apple-MAC user, Implementation Manager, and Engineer. John has participated in d’Verse Poet’s Pub and was an early player in New World Creative Union. He’s been blogging since the beginning of 2011. He is also a member of The Poetry Society (UK).

*****

Petrichor Rising Book Cover.phpd'Verse Anthology Book CoverJohn has been involved in the recent publication of two anthologies that are the result of online collaborations among two international groups of amateur and professional poets. One of these is The Grass Roots Poetry Group, for which he produced and edited their anthology, “Petrichor* Rising. The other group is d’Verse Poet Pub, in which John’s poetry also appears The d’Verse Anthology: Voices of Contemporary World Poetry, produced and edited by Frank Watson.

Petrichor – from the Greek pɛtrɨkər, the scent of rain on the dry earth.

9 thoughts on “Quid est veritas? … Veritas vos Liberabit

  1. Yes, yes and yes again I think, Corina. I agree with all you say, but two things strike me most in your comments. Firstly, the “do your own research” statement is spot on. ‘Borrowed’ knowledge or, worse, borrowed truth is no better than gossip; it is at best, misleading, at worst, damaging. Secondly, Jamie pointed out Jack Nicholson’s “my version of the truth”, which I think was alluded to in this piece, but, allied with that is the fact that the version will change and should be edited with changes in fact and reality that result from progress. Thank you for you input here. All of these comments have made this piece so much richer and more interesting.

    It is also interesting that our personal truth – that is the one that should set us free – is the truth I was primarily focussed on here; to discover this should never entail arrogance; it is maybe a part of ‘finding one’s own unique identity’. Truths that are associated with facts and realities that impact us as communities and populations, on the other hand, are a different kettle of fish. The tidal wave of national statistics, for example, used in decision making processes employed by national bodies and governments are all riddled with bias to some degree, however, rigorous the research, analysis and interpretation of results. We will never find the perfect truth, but what this tells me is that, as individuals, each of us needs to be be more conscientious in discovering more about the workings of the world before making our own decisions on which way to jump.

    Thanks again, Corina.

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  2. “do your own research” <—This. And always consider the source and possible biases or agendas said source might have.

    Truth, being subjective, is also elusive. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't strive to seek it, but I think it's important to understand that truth can change, just as people change. It can evolve, just as faith or scientific theories can evolve. When truth is superseded or disproven in some way, then it is no longer 'truth', correct? I understand that it certainly depends on the context, but especially in the scientific community, it can be arrogant (perhaps even dangerous in some circumstances) to label anything as "truth".

    Have I found my own, personal truth? Many times. 🙂 I imagine there will be many more to discover before I 'shuffle off this mortal coil'. Did it/they set me free? Yes and no. Sometimes when one accepts a construct as truth, it means that something else is proven to be an untruth. I would always rather hear the truth, even if it hurt or made me uncomfortable.

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  3. I guess I cannot take any plaudits for this, Jamie. There’s nothing new really, just presented in a different way that might just provoke a little spark in someone’s brain, that might make little more than an iota of difference, but I’d be unkind to JN, if I were to say I’d never buy a second hand car from him! Better to say that he’s right, because the only truth for each of us lies between our ears.

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  4. I am reminded of a line delivered by Jack Nicholson to his romantic interest in the movie “Somethings Gotta Give: “I’ve always told you some version of the truth.” I think, John, that you have circled in quite well and quite appropriately on the dilemma, the rigourous – perhaps painful – explorations needed to ferrit the real deal out. Well done …

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  5. Thank you for your long comment, Pat. I’m glad you found it thought provoking, because that was my hope in posting it. I’d also be interested in what your job was? … stop press, I just read the ‘About Me’ on your blog; now I’m clearer on what you are saying above, thank you. I also left a comment under the ‘About The Blog’.

    Yes indeed the fundamental crux of truth is not only knowing the facts and the reality of its context, but also having the honesty and integrity and, dare I say courage to confess it; and getting to the truth in your job, I imagine, is a prerequisite for a successful outcome.

    As for the relationship between truth and faith, now here’s the rub. It could be concluded that one man’s medicine is another man’s poison, I guess, but I would much rather aspire to higher ground, where we are not polarised and where truth, whether we are talking about scientifically proven evidence or social realities, can and, I would argue, should sit alongside faith, whichever faith a human may have been brought up with or choose to follow. I think the need for faith is indisputable, if for no other reason than that we are all of us fragile. Although some powerful intellects and personalities would claim to be in control of their lives, I would beg to differ; none of us are and we need a faith as a backstop, as a prop, as a daily guide, when we are too tired or stressed to make rational decisions and, above all, to bind us to a community with a common purpose and moral compass. The truth is what it is (at least in so far as it is described in my first ‘interview’ question above) however unpalatable or painful it may sometimes be, but it does not need to be in conflict with faith, any faith. What do you think, Pat?

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  6. Hmm, thanks for the steer, Priscilla, I shall look Alan Watts’ book up. I didn’t touch on ego directly, because I was trying to be as objective as I can, but you are right in pointing out how delusional some people can be in the pursuit of their self-interest, or, if not delusional, at least misguided. Pat talks about the relationship between truth and faith, which I shall answer for her as a separate comment, but, in a certain context, it could be argued that religious extremists are deluded. Thanks for your comment, Priscilla.

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  7. Thank you, John, for this very thoughtful and thought provoking essay. I don’t profess to know the truth, but it is what I aim for – and I don’t think it is possible to have personal freedom without truth. I agree with you that freedom is impossible when we deny truth because we prefer personal gain. We then become the prisoner of our own greed and the outside powers we have to appease to maintain our own power.
    I don’t think power leads to denial of truth, but power without integrity does. I had considerable power when I was working and I loved it. I received the power through hard work, being somewhat intelligent, having a natural talent for doing my job, and aging. What I loved about my power was how it made it possible for me to make good things happen, to get people to do right and solve problems. And it required that I discern truth and be able to communicate that truth so others could understand. Does communication of truth lead to trust between those who aren’t corrupted by greed? Of course it wasn’t always smooth. I ran into people who so passionately knew the “truth” (usually a matter of faith instead of truth) that they attacked me when I said I didn’t know the truth because the issue was so complex. You elude to the relationship of truth and faith/religion, and I would like to hear your thinking on this.
    Anyway, thank you for stimulating my thinking. I think I’ll come back and think some more with you. 🙂

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