Doggedly seek truth in all things, while maintaining the simple truth that I am wrong about most things. Embrace mystery and paradox.
A handful of years ago a blue chair was dropped off at my house. It was a gift; it was a curse. The reason for the latter is because my wife began calling this blue chair the “green chair.” At first I thought she meant a different chair entirely. I’d poke and prod about our apartment, thinking to find some portal leading not to Narnia but to this mythical green chair of which she always spoke. Soon I realized she was just wrong, and it was one of those peccadilloes, cute at first, that begins to drive one mad. After about five years of marriage I could no longer take things sitting down and finally got up the courage to tell her what a misguided fool she was—I think I probably used about those words; yeah, I’m pretty good at this whole caring husband thing. And she laughed at my colorful correction. Hers was the mirth of certainty, for she thought I was in the wrong.
A few months back her brother and his girlfriend came over for dinner. Small talk somehow turned to this girlfriend saying of my wife’s brother, “Yeah, Josh is totally color blind. He thinks everything is green.”
The Hallelujah Chorus erupted in my head. Val-I-Dation! Val-I-Dation! I politely told everyone to shut up, and I took his girlfriend to our basement and asked her what color the chair was. I asked that she whisper her answer, and, though quiet, it was quite clear: “Blue with a hint of gray.”
Next, I brought my wife’s brother down to the interrogation room. You would have thought it was a Mensa Exam. He hemmed and hawed, scratched his chin. Paced. Finally, after much deliberation, he said, “I want to say green. I’m thinking it is blue, but I really want to say green.”
There is nothing better than being able to tell a person you love once and for all that he or she has been found deficient in some way. Back upstairs I did just that to my bride. “You can’t see colors properly,” I pronounced contentedly. I had her dead to rights.
Only her reply was defiant. “Well,” she began her discourse. And then went on to describe the scientific factoids concerning colors, the nuance of eye shape, and any other lofty, distracting thing she could find in the green pastures of her mind. She was using knowledge—and a fair bit of it—to usurp obvious blue wisdom.
It is the equivalent of what has occurred in every time and place ever. Truth is perhaps the most precious thing on earth—finding it, wielding it, learning it, telling it: there is no shortage of important things we do with truth. Most importantly, though: we follow it. Or we ought to. But we don’t. Instead we drag it along behind us on a very short leash. We bend truth to the subjective when we can. When it is inflexible, we just swap it out for a “truth” of our own design. Truth is in “the eye of the beholder” or, to use the modern vernacular, we call it “my truth” and “your truth” like it is a multiple choice test with myriad correct answers.
Some of this convenient conjuring is done through a mangling of language.
You know how we use the word “literally” to mean “figuratively”? The way a person—I picture one who is part of a sorority—shares with her friends, “Ugh, I literally ate like a thousand pancakes this morning.” First, why were you counting? I mean, if you had just focused on eating, who knows? Maybe you could have eaten fifteen-hundred pancakes? Second, no you didn’t. You literally mean figuratively. We’ve got a word all dolled up to masquerade as another word.
And that is what we’ve done with “truth.” Truth actually means, as we use it, opinion.
By mutating opinion into truth, it ends the conversation. You can’t mess with truth. Truth is immovable, sacred, untouchable—or at least the old meaning was. So when we flout our opinions as truth, it ceases all learning and, you know, actual truth from being realized. Blue chairs can be green or purple or no longer even chairs at all.
I think I know what you may be thinking—who made all those pancakes? I don’t know. But to answer another pithy question—“What’s the point?”
First, I want truth. Like the real thing. Which means I have to doggedly seek it. Discovering truth is akin to an ancient setting out on arduous journey to find and explore some new, unknown land. It is dangerous; it is full of the unexpected. And it seldom goes how one plans. Nor does it stop—not for the truly curious explorer. He doesn’t find the new land and turn ship and head home. No, he burns boats and walks on. Further and further inland, deeper and deeper into the unexplored, unexplained country. Further up and further in–there is always progress to be made in the realms of truth.
And this leads to a second matter of importance concerning truth—I don’t know it all. And neither do you. Of course, we say “aw shucks” and agree with this sentiment. Humility, we know, is an admirable trait. So we fake it as often as we can! But often we live like we know everything about everything. We live like arbiters of truth. Like little fickle gods ruling little feckless kingdoms.
This is why discourse has become wildly toxic. This is why every conversation on social media turns to an either-or. It is because people are certain about their certainties—all of them. Notice how my brother-in-law’s girlfriend gave a better answer regarding the color of the chair: “blue with a hint of gray.” Yes, truth gives room for mystery, paradox, both-and, and nuance. But my truth stopped short of all that. I had an axe to grind, and I needed things to be absolute in totality: The chair is blue and only blue and always blue. I needed to be right absolutely. We do this. We pompously have a need to be right in all ways. Always.
Take gravity, for example.
Because of gravity things fall, but also gravity is the means by which we fall upon so many other truths concerning our cosmic understanding. One of our earliest written and followed theories of gravity comes from Aristotle. What he said exactly? I don’t know. But in general, he said things fall to earth because that is their home. They want to be where they belong—to go to their home. It is the same theory Happy Gilmore preached to golf balls.
And it isn’t right. In a logical or technical sense. My phone has no feelings about the number of times I accidentally let it fall to the earth. Or maybe my phone is some sort of sadist and is just trying to create more and more discomforting conversations around my house about me dropping my phone (again)? But probably my phone is just, you know, an inanimate object without preference or knowledge that it is actually a thing bound gravitationally to earth. Maybe my phone just has an external force pulling it towards the earth’s center?
That is what Newton says. He published that very notion, in fact, like thousands of years after Aristotle let his own views fall to earth. So for millennia very smart humans “aced” tests with an answer that was actually quite wrong. Then came Newton who was pulled in a better direction. He developed the idea of a pull force and matter and mass and all the rest.
It took thousands of years, but finally we had it! Huzzah! We should all do trust falls to celebrate.
Only then Einstein came along. Just a few hundred years after Newton, a wild-eyed, wilder-haired genius started yammering about a space-time curve. Quantum mechanics and a whole lot of other things I don’t comprehend came spilling out of this guy’s brain. The only thing left to drop was the mic. Einstein had done for gravity what Shakespeare did for poetry. We are gravitationally good to go.
But I wonder what people will say about Einstein’s theory in five-hundred years? Will it still defy gravity and fly on?
Probably not. And remember this: gravity is a scientific thing that we have some certainty about. The thing we are sure of is likely unsure!
So if truth is such a difficult thing to come by, what is the answer? Here are a few of mine:
- I don’t know.
This is an unpopular sentiment. Humans walk into a room and want to hide vulnerabilities. And we all know that “knowledge is power,” right? So we go in and puff ourselves up. About everything. If we don’t know about something, we fake it—seriously, how many times this week will you play up your knowledge about something? Where are you overblown? Where do you gaslight? Where do you rely on “facts” you really know very little about? Or how about this one—how often are you willing this week to say “I don’t know” and then just listen?
2. Consider biases.
My mind is loaded with hindsight bias and confirmation bias and appeal to authority and conflicts of interest. The more I’m aware that these biases live within me, the more I’m willing to admit that “I don’t know.” And this opens me up to actually listen to others. It doesn’t mean these others are right about everything, but it does mean that now I can hear them for what they are saying, rather than what I think they are saying or what I feel they should be saying. Bias awareness allows the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon to kick in. This is the thing where you, say, buy a car and then you see that same kind of car everywhere. Once we spot a bias in ourselves—and, incidentally, in others—it becomes far easier to spot and diminish its negative returns.
3. Be wary of truth claims for people trying to sell me something.
I’m not just talking strictly salespeople here. No, often those are the people I trust the most of this group—at least what they want to sell me is evident by their company polo or whatever. What I mean is that almost every cultural entity is trying to sell me something or use me as an unwitting salesforce for them. Celebrities are a brand—they aren’t my friends, as much as they play on my desire for that unreality. Companies, by and large, don’t care for me as a person—they care that I buy or consume or endorse their products. I can “like” their posts and drink their drinks and buy their products, sure. But I should be careful that a worldview isn’t smuggled in for free as part of the deal.
4. Test truth for sturdiness.
GK Chesterton was an orator and author who said the following:
Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it is suitable for half-past three, but not suitable for half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not the clock or the century.
I want to take newly discovered “truths” and rub them in the dirt. I want to kick them along down the road a bit before I sign my name on the line and give them my mind, my soul.
This is the great threat of fad. This guru or that, this self-help author or that, this preacher or that, comes peddling some new, inspiring, tweetable thing, and we are like famished cows at the salt lick. Then the whimsical “truth” floats into the ether and we are left to start again with the latest “expert” on the scene. And that is if we are lucky. There are some unfortunate souls lost and left wandering from following neon signs for truth that ended up pointing in all directions but leading to no real destination at all.
5. Feelings are bad guides.
Feelings are good. Knowing thyself—valuable. But allowing our feelings to hijack our reason is a sure path to destruction in every phase of life. It will bankrupt us financially, mentally, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. The world says, “Follow your heart.” Wisdom says that the line of good and evil runs through every human heart. That the heart is deceitful. That the heart has some wickedness in it. Ever follow a blind guide? The answer is likely “yes” whether you know it or not, for blind guides reside within us, clamoring for us to follow this or that path. The pit awaits.
Knowing this, I can more accurately know myself. I can realize that my feelings are worth considering with diplomacy, but I should not allow them to become dictators.
The green/blue chair caused a stir. It wasn’t the first chair in motion for me.
In High School I got out of a real science course by taking Aviation instead. A large bulk of this class, it was well known, was piloting computer flight simulators. Another weekly ritual was taking turns in “The Chair.” This was a homemade chair, based upon a famous one that had won the Nobel Prize. Basically, it would spin. Boy, Nobels used to be pretty easy to come by! The way in which it would spin minimized drag and surface tension and other hints that would alert the senses that one was spinning. So we’d take turns sitting in the chair blindfolded and our classmates would set us to spinning like an overzealous contestant on Wheel of Fortune. We were supposed to lift our hand when the chair stopped its spin. Easy, right?
The catch was, we’d lift our hands, take the blindfold off, and find that we were still in full spin, the grinning faces of our comrades, along with our spatial awareness, a total blur.
The reason for the chair—and the Nobel Prize it had earned—is to show pilots that they can’t just trust their instincts. Pilot’s Vertigo (or Spatial Differentiation) occurs, leaving the pilot uncertain of the direction of their flight. This is a big deal and why many a plane has been on the wrong end of a meeting with a mountainside.
Pilots must study, must learn, and must balance what they think they know and how they feel, with some external information sources: instruments.
The same is true for us. We must, if truth is our target landing strip, be checking the gauges, making corrections, and balancing data on the literal fly. Still we won’t always know the truth in all things. Like gravity or pilots, we might not quite know the difference between up and down—at least not perfectly. But knowing this, we fly on, we look on, we keep finding, wielding, learning, and telling. We keep seeking a truth to follow.
Doggedly seek truth in all things, while maintaining the simple truth that I am wrong about most things. Embrace mystery and paradox.
(Quick Virus Application (QVA-19) – This one is pretty easy, right? Not only have I pretended to know more about this thing than I do, I’ve taken my cues from experts and journalists and politicians. It is a gaggle of voices, laden with biases, telling me everything about everything, only to have all that everything change totally to something different tomorrow. I’ve taken to reading a few news sources from one side of the political spectrum, then a few from the opposite end, hoping in some ways to find some middle-ground modicum of truth. It is Id and Superego, and I’m left fighting for Ego. It is frustrating but it confirms that seeking truth is a determined fight. One must vigilantly pursue it, question things, and keep the faith that there is a truth out there that is worth finding. Something pure and durable and right and good. Something beyond and above and untainted.)