The Modern Survival Guide #50
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I think they’re true. But then, I would, wouldn’t I? Sir Alec Guinness’s famous line from The Empire Strikes Back has always resonated with me:
With that in mind, this article is about truth, and how it can trip you up. Pay attention. I might be lying.
Our Perception of the “Truth”
Let’s start with what “truth” is. When I say something is “true,” what I mean is that it is an accurate reflection of reality: the thing, as I have told it, is as it is in the real world. Truth is the bedrock of social order and sanity. Knowing what is true allows us to form meaningful relationships and contracts based on mutual trust and expectations. It allows us to form expectations for the future, to forward-plan, and to predict consequences of our actions. It also informs us of what is “real,” which is helpful if you don’t like talking to pink elephants. Although they are lovely conversationalists.
This concerns you directly in your life as a citizen, as a friend, as a partner in a romantic relationship, and in regard to your mental health. Knowing what is true is vastly important. So it’s a fairly serious problem that, philosophically speaking, trying to find “truth” is like trying to nail down the wind in a hurricane.
The core problem is that we are not omniscient; we can’t know everything, we can’t even know most of the things. What we consider true is therefore a function of trust in many cases; I can’t know for certain that most of what scientists tell me is true, for example. I don’t have the math for much of it, and I don’t have the chemistry for the rest. I place trust instead in the scientific method as a means of determining truth, but then I have to trust that its practitioners are using it correctly.
The problem gets even worse in metaphysical matters. Anyone who considers a religion to be “true” is inherently placing a huge amount of trust on some very dubious foundations. Anyone who thinks that moral definitions of good or evil are “true” is doing the same thing. Given this uncertainty, it would be nice to think that we could fall back on the old “if I can see it, taste it, touch it, it’s real” logic, but even that is suspect, given what we now know of the human brain.¹
Inevitably, we fall back on our perception of “truth” being utterly subject to our own point of view. What we think is true depends on where we are, what we’re doing, and who we’ve become.
Take the picture at the start of the article, for example. Most people would say that it’s beautiful, and for them that’s true. I think it’s beautiful. But it’s worth noting that I think it’s a pretty picture because I’m not, for example, viewing that same scene in person from a height of 30,000 feet in freefall with no parachute. That would change things significantly. It’s a beautiful scene in this sense mostly because it’s a picture; experiencing it directly would take most of the beauty away and replace it with terror. But put me in an airplane at 30,000 feet, and it goes back to being a beautiful scene in its own right. And all of these viewpoints are true. From a certain point of view.
This isn’t to say that there is no objective truth. There absolutely is, and science shows us quite a bit of it. It is objectively true that matter is composed of atoms, for example, and if you have trust issues you can do the experiments yourself and form your own conclusions. But even objective truth breaks down at the limits of our comprehension. While it is true that matter is composed of atoms, and atoms are composed of quarks (and so on, and so forth), and all of this is a result of e=mc², we rapidly run out of objective truth after that and re-enter the realm of supposition. We are limited by our ability to know.
This has impacts on our ability to fully trust even demonstrable objective truth. If you can’t do any better than turtles all the way down, every objective truth must necessarily rest on a foundation of sand. And this, too, is true, and validated by our use of science to keep peeling back the onion layers of the universe. Everything that we know to be objectively “true” is built on a shifting base of assumption, assertion, and theory.
Nonetheless, atoms exist.
The Reality of Truth: Objective and Perspective
The reality of truth is that some things are true because they exist, and some things are “true” because we agree they are. Atoms exist. We can go back and forth on why, we can go around the bush on whether or not atoms exist in exactly the ways we perceive them, but nonetheless… atoms exist, and we can prove it. An atom’s existence is an objective truth. And the thing about objective truth is that you don’t necessarily have to go to micro scales for a macro object to be “true” — we don’t have to know everything about every part of an atom to confirm that, yes, there are atoms. But to have an objective truth, you usually need to reference something that physically exists.
Some things don’t exist physically. Those things are only true as long as we have consensus that they are true, and these are perceptive truths.
“Justice” doesn’t objectively exist, for example. If you grind down the smallest particle to its smallest unit of existence, you will never find any physical structure that corresponds to “justice.” This is a concept, not a physical phenomenon. Nonetheless justice exists; as long as we can all agree that “justice” refers to some standard of fair behavior or treatment, justice exists because we say it does, and because we enforce that statement.
Distinguishing between objective and perceptive truth is kind of a big deal, because all too often people confuse one for the other.
The Dangers of Truth Delusions
When people get confused about what kind of “truth” they’re talking about, bad things can happen. I call this a truth delusion: you think something is objectively true, but it’s actually only perceptively true and that means it’s a concept that is vulnerable to shifts in interpretation. There are at least three areas where this often happens: politics, religion, and romantic relationships.
Part of the job of politicians is to convince their constituents that objective truth and perceptive truth are interchangeable. Donald Trump is a fucking master at this, which is why about half of the nation is absolutely gobsmacked at the behavior of the other half roughly 100% of the time right now. Politicians generally do this in order to convince people to do things that they might not otherwise want to do. This is broadly termed “ideology,” and it’s a subject of books in its own right.
I personally find propaganda posters fascinating for this reason; they are a perfect summary of the political act of re-framing narratives and controlling perception. We don’t see too many actual paper posters anymore (their job has been subsumed by memes), but in their day you just couldn’t beat them for their ability to influence perceptive truth. For example, here’s a WWI propaganda poster that shows the view America wanted to portray of Germany. Notice anything? Anything at all that might not be objective truth?
Yeah, the Germans at the time were not actually baboon-like ape monsters. Strange but true, the US in WWI was very much on the fence for quite some time about whether we would even enter the war. But once the Germans became the enemy, it was vitally important to turn them into the bad guys. Fast. But the thing was, they were basically just like every other participant in that conflict: a grasping, Eurocentric colonial power. That description also perfectly fit the US at the time. The only objectively different thing about them, morally, was that we were fighting them.
Enter the giant ape monster, and suddenly people could hate “The Hun.” It wasn’t quite that immediate a shift, but it was impressively fast, all things considered. Politics altered perceptions, which altered the “truth” about Germany (at least for Americans).
Now, the important thing to remember about this story is that this stuff still goes on all the time. The migrant caravan story happening right now is a great example.
Back to why this is a survival issue: you are a citizen of a country, and the actions of that country affect you. Politicians are trained to use truth delusions to garner support for particular actions; sometimes for your benefit, sometimes for your detriment, but it’s their bread and butter regardless. So it behooves you to ensure that you are paying attention to objective truth, noting where it differs from the propaganda, and if necessary preparing to act if the perceptive truth turns against you.²
Religions are built on perceptive truths, because objective truth doesn’t work in this arena. There is not now, nor has there ever been, any scientific consensus that any one particular religion is correct. There isn’t any scientific consensus that God, a god, or gods exist. The best that anyone has to work with is belief.
With that in mind, it is a survival trait to avoid thinking of religious matters as objective truths. We know what happens when people start thinking about religion as an objective truth, and take it too seriously: we’re just now cleaning up after ISIS. Don’t be like ISIS.
Most mainstream religions walk this line fairly well, which is why they’re mainstream. The Church refers to the Holy Mysteries for a reason: Christianity (or most of its denominations, at any rate) has been around long enough to see what happens when people start thinking about dogma in terms of objective truth. Beware of any religion that seeks to claim a perceptive truth is an objective truth.³
It is so hard to think of anything that happens in your relationship from an objective standpoint. There’s too much emotion bound up in it, and when emotions turn on the brain tends to turn off. This leads to an over-reliance on perceptive truths, with some fun examples including:
- Rationalizing obvious problems with compatibility⁴
- Ignoring obvious problems in the relationship
- Thinking an issue is your fault when it’s not
- Thinking an issue is your partner’s problem when it’s not
This is not an exhaustive list. The point is that much of our time and energy in romantic settings goes into what we perceive is happening rather than what is actually happening. Periodically one party or another will dial in to the objective truth, but they generally have to then convince their partner, which is hard.
This causes a lot of relationship failures — it might look like communications problems or conflict resolution problems from a safe distance, but what actually happens is that a lot of people simply don’t see the world the same way as their partner does, and they are unable to reconcile these viewpoints.
Reconciling a True Point of View
Forming an objective viewpoint is hard. It takes a degree of mental conditioning, a willingness to accept uncomfortable facts, and frankly enough education and luck to land on reliable facts. It also means that you have to be willing to recognize and internalize the simple fact that we do not know the truth about a wide variety of subjects.
That’s difficult in and of itself. It doesn’t come easily to people. It certainly doesn’t come easily to me. Ultimately, it’s always going to be the case that even our objective truths are all going to end in the statement “Because,” once we get down to the areas we still don’t know. But that’s ok. It doesn’t reduce the objective truth of the things we do know.
By the same token, there are some things which will simply never be objectively true. Matters of morality, issues of justice, concepts of love and friendship — these things and many more are all heavily dependent on our own point of view and perception. They cannot be viewed objectively, because they don’t exist objectively. Nonetheless they can be true. From a certain point of view. Ultimately, it’s always going to be the case that some things that we think of as “true” might change in a day, or a week, or a decade. The moral truth of 2018 bears only a general resemblance to the moral truth of 1818, or 1618. And that’s just a cold hard reality.
Keeping these two viewpoints straight is a major survival advantage. This lets you identify those things that can be trusted implicitly, and keeps you aware of those things which must necessarily change with times and cultures. It also keeps you aware of who is trying to hoodwink, influence, or convert you — failing to realize this has been the downfall of whole cultures historically, so it behooves you to pay attention.
And remember — the very people who tell you that what you find to be true is greatly dependent on your own point of view… those people may be the biggest liars of all. I’m looking at you, Obi-Wan.
¹Specifically, that we can only comprehend about a millionth of reality through our senses.
²It’s important to remember that atrocities haven’t stopped happening. The Rwandan genocide was in my lifetime, the Rohingyan genocide is happening now, and the world as a whole is experiencing a turn towards authoritarian governments. People who say “that can’t happen here” are deluding themselves.
³This is, of course, a constant battle within most religions. Objective truths are tempting and tasty; they give certainty. Many, many people are part of a religion for the certainty of knowing what comes after this life. So it’s very seductive to view a religious claim as an objective truth; it’s a defeat of the fear of death, and a clear path in life.
⁴I’ve been in a couple of attempts at a relationship where I was attracted to women who were obvious drug abusers. This is an objective red flag for me, which I rationalized in each case for a few months before reality set in. Hormones, man. They’ll getcha.