Truth is so rare
that it is delightful to tell it.
— Emily Dickinson
I’ve maintained before that our reality is a story we tell ourselves, and a lot of it isn’t necessarily true in any deeper sense. It is also not particularly consistent.
Imagine a tapestry around yourself as an individual. This is your world, and you’ve decorated each bit as you choose. You may have taken care that things that are close together go well together – let’s call it locally consistent, and that gives you the illusion that it all harmonises. This is only because you never actually see different parts of the tapestry at the same time.
Recently Sam Harris pointed out that we associate wood fires with comfort and well-being, whereas of course smoke from a wood fire causes cancer, asthma etc. We just think of it in the context of warming ourselves by it, of cosiness and relaxation, not in the context of health hazards.
Typically, we expect others to adhere scrupulously to any rule or law, while allowing ourselves just that little bit of leeway. When I am five minutes late it becomes one-or-two, when you are are five minutes late I make it around-ten. Even when we are aware that we are tweaking the truth just a tiny little bit, this does not stop us from doing it.
Our judgement on any situation or action depends strongly on how we feel towards the person concerned. The same story, “I was late…” will provoke a “you just couldn’t help it, don’t worry” (to a friend) and an unspoken “well, I guess you just couldn’t be bothered” or “like you always are” (about someone we don’t like). And the same interaction will be judged differently, depending on which side we are on.
Amazingly, many people seem completely unaware of the double standards they use, saying things like: that was completely unacceptable/unfair/inexcusable etc., without even stopping to realise they themselves do exactly the same thing sometimes. Of course, when they do it themselves, they judge it rather more charitably.
Remember Bernard Woolley’s irregular verbs? Bertrand Russell called them “emotive conjugation”.
|I am firm.||You are obstinate.||He is pig-headed.|
|Bernard Woolley (Anthony Jay & Jonathan Lynn)|
|I have an independent mind.||You are eccentric.||He’s round the twist.|
|I am honest.||You are outspoken.||He’s abrasive.|
|I am diplomatic.||You are evasive.||He’s a liar.|
|And some of my favourites from a competition:|
|I peeked in your medicine cabinet.||You nosed around in my stuff.||He violated my personal space.|
|I’m devout.||You’re a heathen.||They’re infidels.|
|Nowhere Man, Nowhere,CA|
|I am a soldier.||You’re an insurgent.||He is a mass murderer.|
Can you think of more?
I believe Vaihinger once wrote “our brain is not developed to know the truth, so it’s not good at it.”
Being able to see connections between events is a survival advantage. Say your sheep get restless before the tiger comes. Not seeing the connection may bring death: if you don’t get to safety before the tiger comes, you’ve had it. The penalty for going into hiding when the tiger doesn’t come is… a loss of face, perhaps?
How we believe this connection works, usually doesn’t make a difference, as long as we get ourselves to safety in time. Even if we believe the tiger comes to punish the sheep for behaving badly. And if we kill a few sheep for “naughtiness” and throw them to the tiger god, it may even stop us from being eaten.
So we learn to see the connections, and we make up stories about them. Homo narrans, the story-telling ape. And we acquire a need to explain things. To ask “why?”
Our reality is the story we tell ourselves about the world and everything in it. Unless we’re looking very carefully, we don’t see the world. We see the tapestry of stories we’ve woven around ourselves.
When we meet a new idea or theory, what counts is not whether it is true, or even helpful. What matters is “do I like this idea?” and “does it fit in with the ideas I already have?”
No, it’s not about the matrix. And I don’t think life is a dream. I’m not even talking about Kant’s Ding-an-sich / Welt-für-mich. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the physical world we experience really is the way it seems to us. Even then:
– Heresy n°1 –
98% of reality is simply what we choose to believe.
2%of our world is what I call “imperative reality”. This is reality that we ignore at our peril. Not respecting it carries swift and sometimes fatal punishment. Illusions that you can fly off a tall building generally don’t last long. So we can easily agree that things fall down. This does not mean that we need to agree on gravity. If someone chooses to believe there are invisible imps that push things down, however ridiculous that belief may be, there’s nothing to stop them. There is no natural penalty attached to ridiculous beliefs, only to ignoring the “imperative” facts.
Another 8% of reality consists of scientific, or testable, facts. These however can be ignored with impunity. Evolution e.g. is easily proven to anyone who accepts the scientific method, but there are still people who reject it. These people don’t drop dead, indeed they can live long and healthy lives. A bit annoyingly, they can enjoy all the mod cons provided by science, with their minds firmly stuck in the dark ages.
The remaining 90% of reality are things like expectations, abstract ideas, value judgements, philosophical theories, psychological explanations: This time I’ll do better. What is justice? Or freedom? It is good to help others and bad to be late. Does God exist? Is epiphenomenalism true? Do we have free will? What is A’s real motivation? Is B a true friend? Why did C do that?
What does “true” mean?
For the first 10% of reality, I have an idea of what it means for something to be true. Something is true if adding it to my worldview allows me to make better predictions about the future. This also gives me way to decide whether something is true. Choose something relevant, make a prediction with the idea, and with it’s negation. Then see what really happens.
Personally, I find the old “adaequatio rei et intellectus”, the correspondence of mind and reality, a bit circular. How do we check the correspondence? We can only compare our mind with … our idea of the thing – which is still our mind.
And while a coherent world-view may be elegant, I think our views are at best “locally coherent”, i.e. they don’t obviously contradict the other ideas we commonly are aware of at the same time (I’ll come back to this another day).
As for saying that something is true, if it’s satisfactory to believe it…
What about the other 90% reality? What does it mean to say “epiphenomenalism is true”, or even “God exists”. These are statements that have no testable consequences, so my own definition above doesn’t work. The classical definition of truth fares no better: you can’t have an adaequatio rei et intellectus, because there simply isn’t a res. The same goes for value judgements, or statements about abstract ideas.
Without a clear idea of what it means for 90% of reality to be true, maybe we should just accept that it’s largely subjective. Then we can stop arguing about it. This does not mean it doesn’t matter what we think, or that there is no reasonable way of choosing between two conflicting views. Just that the way to do it is not their “truth” value.
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