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What Is Truth?

March 14, 2011

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written a philosophical post, and tonight I decided to write down my current thoughts about the nature of truth and knowledge.  So, let’s get right to it – what is truth?

This may sound like a meaningless statement.  After all, truth is, and there’s no more to say.  What exists, exists.  I consider truth to be everything that exists.  Even so, I don’t think that sort of definition and conception of truth helps us out very much.  Why?  Well, we have to learn about the world, and we only slowly acquire a small tidbit of knowledge throughout our lifetimes.  And besides that, our knowledge is oftentimes faulty and in error.  So what is truth to us fallible human beings?  How do we learn it?  What is it and how does it differ from incorrect beliefs we hold?  What are the limitations of human knowledge?  What can and do we know?

I don’t plan to take on those questions in their entirety.  What I will do, however, is talk about the nature of the vast majority of what we humans do know.  To begin with, truth is something which permeates our entire being.  This may at first sound at bit mystical, but by the time I’m finished explaining what I mean, it shouldn’t be mystical at all.  I chose to write this post after reading Bertrand Russell’s The Analysis of Matter, in particular after coming across the following passage:

“It is fairly clear that all our elementary intellectual processes have pre-intellectual analogues.  The analogue of a general causal belief is a reflex or a habit.  A dog goes to the dining-room when he hears the dinner-bell, and so do we.  In the case of the dog, it is easy to suppose that he has merely acquired a habit, without having formulated the induction:   “Dinner-bells are a cause, or an effect, or an indispensable part of the cause, of dinner.”  We, however, can formulate this induction, and we shall then suppose that it is because we have done so that we go into the dining-room when we hear the bell.  In fact, however, we may be just as merely habitual as the dog.  The elementary inductions of common sense are first habits, and only subsequently beliefs.  We may say that if, in our experience, A is accompanied by B either often or in some emotionally important manner, this fact causes first a habit which would be rational if A were always accompanied by B, and then a belief that A is always accompanied by B — the latter being a rationalization of the pre-existing habit.

General propositions may thus form part of our thinking from the start.  Such general propositions are merely the verbal expressions of habits.  The hand-eye co-ordination becomes firmly fixed as a motor habit, and then, when we think, we conclude that what what can be seen can often be touched — in fact, that it can be touched in circumstances which we know in practice, though we might have difficulty in formulating them exactly.  Such general propositions are synthetic, and are in a certain sense a priori; for, though experience has caused them, they are not obtained by inference from other propositions, but by rationalizing and verbalizing our habits;  that is to say, their antecedents are pre-intellectual.  The trouble with them is that they are never quite right.  Common sense, do what it will, cannot avoid being surprised occasionally.  The object of science is to spare it this emotion, and create mental habits which shall be in such close accord with the habits of the world as to secure that nothing shall be unexpected.  Science has, of course, not yet achieved its ideal: the Great War and the earthquake in Tokyo took people by surprise.  But it is hoped that in time such events will no longer disturb us, because we shall have expected them.”

I think this short passage captures what truth is in us humans.  The process by which we come to understand the world starts at an unconscious level.  First our eyes gather light from the external world and this light creates pulses which make their way through our brains, like a series of complex parallel circuits.  I mention light in particular because over 50% of our brain is dedicated to visual processing alone, and most all of these processes happen unconsciously.  But, other parts of our body are also sending signals up to the brain as well, and these signals are being processed in the same way.  This includes our hands, feet, ears, etc.  A great deal of complex processing takes place and we’re not conscious of any of it.  It’s mechanical and simply happens.  To a very large extent, we live in a biological robot.  This becomes obvious once you study neuroscience and observe what happens to people when various areas of their brain are damaged.

Consciousness, which is the world you and I feel and experience, is like the tip of an ice-berg which is submerged in the ocean.  Only a small tip sticks up from the surface.  About three years ago I did a pretty detailed study of the works of Sigmund Freud and I believe there’s a great deal of truth to his iceberg theory.

For example, you’re conscious of thoughts bouncing around in your head, and you’re also aware of being in a 3D world, of objects existing around you, such as your computer chair, books, a coffee mug on the desk, etc., but we all know there’s a great deal more to our brains.  Take your memories for instance.  Have you ever had a moment where someone asked you a question, and you knew that you should know the answer, and then you waited for your mind to remember the answer?  A coworker may ask where your other coworker is and you remember her telling you where she went but you can’t remember what she told you.  So you sit there for a moment, waiting for your brain to process its memory databank and spit back up the information to your language systems so you can tell your friend where your coworker is.  None of that happened at a conscious level.  You didn’t experience any sensation as your brain chugged through its database of information, querying for an answer to the question you were asked.  It just happened.

There are lots of things like this.  Take love for example.  To a very large extent, love is involuntary.  It just happens.  Fear simply happens.  Feelings of guilt and shame simply happen.  You don’t typically induce them through will power.  I certainly never have.  I’ve never been successful at making myself romantically attracted to someone, no matter how much I may think it over at the conscious level, telling myself, “She would be good for me.”  One of Freud’s biggest insights was that a lot of our desires, wishes, and past memories exist at an unconscious level, and that by linking them to words you can bring them up to a conscious level, and then you can better understand why you’re having the feelings you’re having.  I find that sort of thing fascinating, and it actually lead me to read most everything the man ever wrote.  🙂

But before we find ourselves going too far astray, the main reason I bring this up is because most of what we know and understand is at an unconscious level.  It seems to be of an informational-processing type nature, taking in raw sensory information, and processing it, and then relating it to past experiences (our memories).  This incredibly complex process is done for us automatically, without any thought or effort on our parts.  Our brains build up a vast database of information and experiences, which it organizes and sorts in various useful ways for us.

This brings me to one of Steve’s comments which he left on my post Albert Einstein’s Beliefs Toward God,

From what I’ve read of and about Spinoza, I’m still not sure I comprehend what he meant by “the intellectual love of God,” yet the expression resonates deeply with me. Ken Wilber thinks Spinoza’s philosophy was flawed because it relied too much on reason and not on more compelling mystical apprehension for its insights, but I suspect that, at least for some of us, the intellect, properly used, is the royal road to understanding ultimate reality or, at least, it’s an approach that compliments the intuitively or transrationally mystical one.

I’m not 100% certain what a mystic insight entails, but I personally interpret this comment as referring to unconscious brain activity and its relation to consciousness.  If that’s the case, then I feel that love, joy, and even the experience of seeing the world around me is a mystical insight.  But how does this differ from the rational world?  The world of intellect?  The world so often associated with learning and education?

I think it’s unwise to make a sharp distinction between the two mainly because if you study the brain which generates both, they’re all interconnected in a giant, complex parallel circuit, where the wiring goes both forward and backward between brain areas.  It’s all connected together.  Everyone knows that learning by experience is the most powerful form of learning.  But why is that?  Why can’t you learn by simply reading books?  Why is it so important that you go out there and have experiences, instead of just reading about the experiences of others in books?

Words can only relate these unconsciously generated mental objects together.  I know I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s such a good one that I want to use it again – when a couple is in a loving relationship with one another, there is a lot more existing in their brains than the word “love”.  As the two spend time together, a vast neural network is being established, literally binding the two people together, almost like a wireless connection.  There is a lot more to it than words.  There is a lot more to it than the “rational” logic, words bounding around in my head, sort of understanding.

You don’t have to be able to define love to know what love is.  You can find a simple country farmer who has been happily married to his wife for twenty five years and ask him, “Define love for me”, and he may be unable to.  It’s likely that he’ll respond, “You know, I never really thought about it in that way.”  But that doesn’t matter.  He understands love and I would argue he does so a lot better than many romantic poets who have lived with seven different wives and fathered fourteen illegitimate children.  That’s because knowledge does not have to exist at the level of words and logic in order for a person to possess it.

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

– Oscar Wilde

Many of the brain’s operations perform logic and complex processing unconsciously and can lead to a deep unconscious understanding of things, even if that knowledge does not reside at the level of words and mental objects which we describe with words.  Many people may like to run off with this and claim to understand all sorts of things which they have no clue about, but it’s a subtle concept.  In the case just described, the unconscious understanding of love the farmer has for his wife would be how well he treats her on a day to day basis, even if he’s not consciously striving for a definition and organized set of principles behind his loving actions.

Also, the converse is true.  Someone may be able to regurgitate a beautiful and flawless definition of something yet have little understanding as to what it really means.  If you spend too much time in books, and not enough time living, getting out there generating new experiences, your knowledge will be of this sort.  You’ll be very bookish, and appear to understand a great deal, but when you’re around others who actually understand the subject at a level deeper than mere words, as the conversation progresses on, it will be apparent to them that you really don’t understand what you’re talking about.

We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for 10 or 15 years, and come out at last with a belly full of words and do not know a thing.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

So what is knowledge?  I think all of our knowledge has its roots in the unconscious mind, and only a small fraction of it surfaces up to consciously as the world we experience, such as the objects we’re perceiving in the world around us, and the words bouncing around in our heads.  I said before that truth permeates our entire being.  What did I mean by that?  I mean that it’s more than words.  I feel it’s the entire process of how our body reacts to the situations it’s placed in.  Take knowledge of my house for instance.  As I walk through the hallways toward the bathroom, information related to the layout and structure of my house is all stored in various areas of my brain.  (I’ve written a little bit about these areas before).  In fact, though you probably don’t think about it, your brain has mechanized motor procedures which it executes to perform the tasks you do everyday.  I sometimes make myself pay attention to these simply because I’m so interested in mental cognitive processes.  For instance, when I go to brush my teeth, I notice that I always use my left hand to open the bathroom mirror, my right hand grabs the toothbrush, my left hand then frees itself and grabs the toothpaste, and so on.  I then situate the toothbrush just so, put the toothpaste on the head of the toothbrush, screw back on the lid, place it back in the proper place in the bathroom mirror, and so on.  It’s a procedure which my brain has memorized and executes again and again, flawlessly every time.  When I was a little kid it was trial and error and my mom had to oversee me put toothpaste on the toothbrush and help me through it.  It was difficult. (In fact, I remember my mom doing just that!)  Now I can do it effortlessly, and since I do this frequently, my brain has no trouble remembering it.  Most of this knowledge exists at an unconscious level, but it’s also possible for me to link the process to words and explain it all to you, as I just did.

There’s a vast library of information existing within your brain about all kinds of things from your everyday experiences.  It includes things like the proper force to apply with your arm to open the shower door, how to situate your hand as you grab a knife from the kitchen drawer, and exact arm and hand movements to put your car keys into the ignition.  I can speak briefly about all kinds of things I know, but I’ve never really felt compelled to utter in words.  I know the exact feel of my computer chair, how it feels on my back and rear-end, the feel of my house-shoes, the taste of orange juice, the smell of burning wood from the fireplace, and the list goes on.  If we were to think in terms of data storage on a computer, I’m sure there’s terabytes of information in my brain, all filled with information like this.  Most all of my brain is dedicated to “understanding” and dealing with these sorts of things.  Most all of our brains do so flawlessly.

Unfortunately we don’t celebrate this form of knowledge, though I believe we should.  The other day I mentioned that in the future I think we’ll celebrate the fact that we’re conscious and alive.  I don’t want to talk about the typical education system, which would be very difficult to fully discuss, but I want to bring up one point – a lot of what’s taught in schools and universities operates using areas of the brain which are dedicated to logic, abstract predictions of future events in very complicated scenarios, and language and speech, all of which utilize a VERY small fraction of what our brains are “intended” to do.  Most of our brain power is allocated to do other things.  We’re taught the definitions of many bold-faced words and regurgitate them back on our exam sheets, work for hours memorizing calculating procedures, and sit quietly as idle spectators as professors lecture to us.  Don’t get me wrong, the things we’re taught in school are the greatest gifts we could possibly be given.  That information and training allows us to do things and control this world in ways previous generations could have never dreamed.  Even so, that doesn’t mean that learning by these methods is enjoyable.

Whence it comes to pass, that for not having chosen the right course, we often take very great pains, and consume a good part of our time in training up children to things, for which, by their natural constitution, they are totally unfit.

– Montaigne

I find it strange that we have a brain which can do so many things well, yet we don’t praise the things it can do.  Our brains are terrible at performing logic and doing computer like computations.  I’d go so far as to say our brain’s ability to do such things is rather pathetic.  Very little of our neurons are dedicated to doing those sorts of routines.  But even though we have bodies which can do amazing things, such as move around incredibly complex environments, avoid obstacles, identify and eat food, dance, sing, run, and play sports, we don’t feel such things constitute true “knowledge”.  That sort of thing is too easy, and near everyone can do them.  Considering that people always want to feel superior to others around them, we’ve invented things like IQs, and tell those whose brains are a little worse at performing these logic and computer-like computations that they’re no good.  If you can tell me whether an infinite alternating series converges or diverges, then you’re intelligent and we’ll label you a genius, but if not, you’re not “smart”.  I feel this is because most people lack a knowledge of how the brain works and they don’t appreciate all the other things it can do.

No matter how intelligent you may become, I bet that the vast majority of your knowledge is about everyday events.  As for the other small percentage which we consider “higher” knowledge, I think even that is heavily rooted in everyday experiences.   For example, the thought experiments and analogies you’ll be using to help understand the higher, more abstract concepts will be rooted in these experiences.  To most all of us, this is what truth and knowledge entails — our knowledge of the little pocket of the universe which we’ve experienced.  I feel strongly that this is the mystical reality — the world we’ve been given.  You may not like it, it may be boring, but it’s the world anyway, and the fact that we’re alive in a place like this is by far the most mystifying thing I can think of.   If we forget that this knowledge is the most important form of knowledge (mainly because it’s what we experience on a day to day basis), we lost sight of reality.  I personally feel that the higher forms of knowledge should be focused on improving the day to day experiences of people’s lives.  It’s also important to dream and think big, mainly because big ideas set our course for where we’re going in the future.  But we can never forget about our everyday lives.  I feel that every atom of the universe, by the infinite relations it holds to other atoms around it, and the laws which govern it, contains the secrets of the universe in its entirety.  If you look close enough at the everyday events around you, you’ll soon start to realize the secrets of space, time, and everything else.  To understand great things, you don’t pursue “big” ideas, you pursue a god-like understanding of what causes the “trivial” everyday events around you.

Topics: Philosophy, Psychology | 1 Comment »

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