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“ The story of cosmology is the story of our search for the ultimate truth “
This quote comes from an episode of one of my favourite Science 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 minuscule 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 in 2011, 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?
“ Where there is pride, prejudice or profit, there you find lies. Where there is poverty, poetry and death, there will be 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 or contrary opinions.
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 and accept that this might make us vulnerable.
How much of the truth can we, as individuals, consciously face, head on?
Knowing your limits is a safe harbour, but this may also provide 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 find 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 and memes that come from the pens and mouths of others.
How much do we have to sacrifice both to seek and to tell the truth?
We have to set aside our need for unnecessary material things and kick the habit of consumerism, because this provides an immediate pride, prejudice and (perhaps) a greed for status. 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 singer/songwriter duo, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman 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
This article first appeared in the BeZine three years ago under the title: “ Quid est veritas? … Veritas vos Liberabit “, which translated means: “ What is truth? … The truth shall set you free.”