The Nature of Truth

March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

I attended a meeting this week where a close friend of mine introduced me as a believer in relativism as distinguished from truth as an immutable concept from which any aberration is, by definition, an error at best and a sin at worst.  My friend’s intention was to provoke a discussion.  He succeeded.

I had not been asked to defend myself on this ground for several decades.  I once practiced law with a lawyer who was the product of a Jesuit education.  He delighted in baiting me into arguments about this subject.

I have an advantage in these arguments because I don’t recognize any idea as permanent or immutable except those based on mathematics and physical science [2+2 is now, always has been and always will be 4, if those symbols are expressed in the decimal system].  So far as concerns physical science, the truth concept is more complicated.  Scientific principles are always stated with a caveat  warning label reading, “until proven otherwise”.  This caveat  came in handy when Einstein proved that light does not always travel in a straight line,   related velocities depend on a relationship with the speed of light and space is curved, not rectangular or circular.

Despite these complications, scientific discipline insures a kind of objective reliability because its principles must be reproducible, regardless of the instutional context in which they are accessed.  The laws of physics are the same in a Catholic cathedral as in an opium den.  The same is true for Chemistry’s Periodic Tables.

Relativism, for me, is not frightening.  In fact, as a trial lawyer I had no trouble with the duty of opposing lawyers to argue with equal vigor and enthusiasm that each of two opposing  propositions is true.  I did not see that as evidence that lawyers are liars for hire.  Their skill is to frame facts favorably for their clients’ interests. There are many examples of this phenomenon.  The Civil War settled the most significant conflict of this kind:  The South contended that natural law protected their property right to own slaves.  The North contended natural law protected black people from being deprived of their liberty without due process.  Before the war overruled him, Mr. Justice Taney, in his Deed Scott decision,   argued that natural law favored the South’s position.

The Concepts Which Frame My Judgements and Perceptions of Reality

In college the ideas of Thorstein Veblen made sense to me.  He was a rebellious dissenter from most of the underlying principles offered to justify capitalism.   He spent his academic life teaching and writing about the logical faults and hypocrasies offered to defend capitalistic methods of distributing wealth.

I learned about Veblen in two semesters of a class taught by Clarence Ayres, a follower of Veblen.  He taught me to  view social and economic activity as composed of two different but related forces:  technology and institutions.  Technology is the dynamic force that results from human curiosity and creativity.  It drives and shapes the way humans engage in work, play and form relationships.  Institutions change in  in  response to technology, but they lag behind technological changes.  Thomas S. Kuhn’s long essay, The Structure of Scientific  Revolutions, describes elegantly the way these two forces interact.  Here is a link:

As I read and thought about these ideas, it became apparent, at least to me, there was no place in that analysis for truths unaffected by these forces.  The most powerful institution in our western culture has been and is religion in all its thousands of forms.  The Roman Catholic Church, relying on its historical roots in Greek philosophy as interpreted by Thomas Aquinas  as well as Jewish/Christian religious teachings and writings, is a major defender of absolute truth and a system of morality based on that concept.

The Church’s conflict with Galileo is a good and, I think, a fair example of the Church reacting to the relativistic ideas I discussed above.  Galileo’s study and telescopic exploration enabled him to see that the Earth revolved around the Sun, an idea in conflict with the Church,  which believed the Earth to be the center of the  solar system.  When Galileo tried to explain the basis for his research, he was threatened with the horrors of the Inquisition.  He recanted but was imprisoned for the rest of his life in his home, where he continued to study and write.

I mention this well known episode because it illustrates the way truth is impacted by technology.  Galileo did not learn how the solar system worked because of divine revelation.  He did so because Hans Lippershey, a Dutch scientist , invented a serviceable telescope.  Technology illuminates  the darkness protecting institutional “truth”.  The process never ends because curiosity is hardwired in our brains.

Stephen Crane has captured this idea in a short verse:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never — ”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

Our Brain is a Universe

Because we are human beings our universe is perceived with, and is subject to the limitations of. our brains.  We are not capable of experiencing “reality” as it is perceived by other species of life.  For example, we can guess, based on the structure of their hives, the bees do not perceive reality as 90 degree angles.  A bee-probably  functions efficiently in a “reality” that is structured as a hexagon.   The eyesights of an eagle as well as a fly are fundamentally different from ours.  It seems likely to me that those creatures see a reality different from the one we perceive.  If this is true, then their “truth”, based on their reality is likely different from ours.

In the same way, when, through our technology, we change the way we can perceive reality, it seems obvious to me that our conceptions of morality and reality also change.  For example, when the wagon and buggy were replaced by the automobile and the railroad,  we changed the way we regarded the sexual relationships that affect the process by which we choose mates.  The size of the available choices increased because the distance  from our birthplaces increased.  The rituals of courtship changed because they included interactions with a much larger and more varied set of people.  The days of people on farms living their lives within a hundred miles of their birthplaces were over.

This steadily increasing mobility has resulted in a culture that bears practically no resemblance to the one in which our grandparents and great grandparents lived.  And, it seems to me that when culture changes, cultural norms also change.  Our literature is filled with stories about these changes.  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is only one example that illustrates this fact.  People “going native” are common themes of fiction as well as accounts of characters changing their attitudes after becoming involved with and aware of cultures different from their own.

In our own lifetimes, we have seen a dramatic change in the cultural attitudes toward black people, homosexuals and women.  I think these cultural changes are accompanied by changes, not only in our moral judgments, but also in the way we perceive the world.  Of course, I acknowledge  these changes do not occur at the same rate for all of us.  But I don’t think the cultural norms claimed to be “natural” and immutable were universally accepted.  That is the reason those “norms” had to be so vigorously defended and imposed with the force of law and threats of eternal damnation.

The Structure of Brain Change

The process and mechanics of how our brains make changes in these fundamental principles is a matter of endless fascination to me.  I don’t pretend to know or understand this subject but my amateur exploration has convinced me it involves brain science, psychology and religiosity.

My impression of brain science is that the extent of acquired and taught behavior and attitudes is steadily decreasing and the extent and importance of genetically hard wired influences, the result of evolutionary endowment, is correspondingly increasing.. I no longer think of my “mind”, my “soul”, my “body”  and my “brain” as being separate parts   or places somewhere inside my skin.  I believe my entire self is the result of a constant total interaction of my brain connected by neural networks to my entire body.  Consequently,  what I think and feel and how I react to my environment is a function of this totality, as all parts of it constantly interact.  I also believe that we know only a very small part of the way our brain, as it interacts with the rest of us, works or is capable of working.  I think, with respect to thenature of our brain’s capacity, we are like Columbus when he stepped ashore on to an insignificant island in the Caribbean. little  did he know that he had stumbled on to a vast continent with potential of which he could not have conceived.   If we survive long enough I think we will discover ways our brains work that will fundamentally change the way we interact with each other and with the universe.

The Lakoff Effect

My opinion about this was affected when, thanks to my daughter, I read a book by George Lakoff, The Political Mind.  This linguist has written many books about the way our mind works,  To vastly oversimplify his basic thesis:  When we confront an occasion requiring a choice, we make it instantly, based on  previous wiring in our brain.  Then, a nanosecond later, we rationalize the justification for our reaction.  These reactions as well as the rationalizations have been acquired by repetative exposure to similar confrontations in the past.  That means we can change our way of thinking  the same way we learn to type:  By practicing making the connection between a letter and the movement of our finger.

The result of this analysis is:  In order to change reactions, e.g. a political judgment, it is necessary to expose a person, over and over and over, to a particular judgment and its rationalization. According to Lakoff, and he has convinced me, the Tea Party succeeded because it selected a particular way of perceiving political activity and created thousands of groups all over America where these  ideas were expressed, without any deviation or distraction, for over ten years.  That is the way the Tea Party swallowed the Republican Party and changed it from conservatism within the boundaries of traditional American politics to its present form as an uncompromising  combination of religious fundamentalism and devotion to unregulated corporate domination.

Lakoff contends that Clinton style center left political “triangulation” will no longer work.  He argues we must undertake the same kind of brain rewiring used by the Tea Party.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung was a follower of Sigmund Freud.  Freud developed the idea that we have a subconscious mind in addition to our conscious mind.  He was a doctor and his focus was on methods of treating patients with particular mental problems.

Jung was also a doctor and he used Freud’s techniques but, in addition, he postulated an unconscious mind in addition to Freud’s bi cameral theory.  Jung believed this unconscious mind was the repository of the collective consciousness of the billions of human beings who inhabited our planet after separating themselves from other species in the evolutionary process.  He based this thesis on a painstaking and wide ranging study of myths and folktales which were part of primitive cultures.  He found commonality among these myths and folktales in primitive  cultures regardless of whether there had been any contact or interaction between them.

He therefore postulated a medium of communication  between primitive cultures other than physical contact.  He theorized the existence of a collective unconscious.  According to Jung, this collective unconscious was populated with what he called archetypes.  He identified personas like “The Wise Old Man”; “The Sage” , “The Wizard” et al..  There is a book called The Red Bookˆ that lists and describes many of these archetypes.  Jung believed our brains contain this collective history in our unconscious and that its  presence affects the framework of our perceptions of reality.

    Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian writer who wrote a series of books in the 1960’s and 70″s about the way the form of communication affects the thinking patterns of its viewer or user.  One of his books, The Gutenburg Galaxy, analyzed the way the printing press changed the way people thought .  His insight was that receiving information in a totally controlled medium, like a book, by reading, line by line, from one side of the page to the other, was a fundamentally different experience from receiving information visually, like a picture or spoken or sung words or songs.  His books were written as television was beginning to dominate public forms of information.

As I read and thought about McLuhan’s ideas, I concluded that, by switching from print to TV and, later, to digital pictures on iPhones, iPads and other forms of computers, we were returning to the culture and mores of civilization that existed for millions of years before the advent of the printing press.  During that time, and later for much of the world’s inhabitants who did not have access to TV or computers, the campfire, the cave, the tavern , the church or the meeting house, tent or tepee served as the TV and the internet consisted of myths and stories recounted and repeated, from generation to generation in social  gatherings.

As McLuhan explained, this reversion from print to picture changed the reception of information from an individual, rational experience to a mass emotionally experienced reaction to broadcast and telecast performances.  He predicted, and subsequent evens have affirmed, this change has enabled demagogues and skilled manipulators to evoke fear and emotions that  threaten the Constitutional democracy we enjoy.  The truth, to return to the theme of this essay, is no longer a matter of rational thought and reason.  The truth has become the consensus of brain sponges. trained through repetitive  exposure to visual and oral stimuli, to react emotionally; not individually after rational contemplation.

We are back to ancient Rome when tyrants ruled with bread and circuses.  Our bread is the false promise of prosperity and our circus is our television set.  Orwell’s 1984 has creeped into our lives, quietly,  wrapped in the veneer of entertainment, and bastardized our language, captured our politics and disempowered our ability to resist.


To summarize this effort: Our beliefs, attitudes, conceptions of morality – the qualities that fashion who we are – do not result from our acceptance or rejection of some specific rules and perceptions of the truth.  It seems to me that what is true at any given time depends on the context of technological and institutional forces that affect the nature of our culture.  As I contemplate the history of these forces and the significance of the changes in the way culture perceives truth, I am unable to discern or imagine any meaningful system of timeless truths unaffected by those changes.

Is there a timeless truth that murder is wrong?  In our system, the answer is “Yes” unless it  is done in self-defense; not self=defense in reality, but self-defense as perceived by the killer.  And unless it is done by an armed peace officer; not only if the victim was doing anything illegal; but if the officer thought the victim was  doing, or was about to, or was running or walking away from, having done something illegal, provided the illegal act was one classified as sufficiently serious to warrant deadly force, or if the officer thought it was that kind of illegal act; or was nor responding to the officers’s command to stop or was a threat to the safety of the officer.or was perceived by the officer to be a threat to his safety . . . .   I have not exhausted this subject  but I hope my reader can understand that, to me, it is nonsense to say that an immutable truth is that murder is wrong.  This  Byzantine  thicket of nuance and exceptions is only true in our system of justice  Every  country has its own rules and, without being sure, I have every reason to believe the justice systems of other countries are at least as complex as ours.

I cannot see that searching for and identifying universal timeless truths is likely to benefit anyone except those like, Mr. Justice Taney, who are arrogant enough to believe that their  beliefs are  coincidentally  and  miraculously coterminous with Natural Law and absolute truth.




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