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Some Musings on “Truth”

We use the word, or its derivations, every day. We know what we mean when we say them. But the person we say or write them to, might not accept our version of truth, whether it is about a profound belief, or simply what you saw or learned that day.

Humans have been searching for eternal, incontrovertible truth since the dawn of the species. Some believe they have found it, perhaps in a religious text, or their own mystical experience. Others may accept or reject that. Trying to convince someone else of what you believe, or think you know to be true, is almost impossible in many cases.

The opposite of “true” is “false.” But there are gradations when it comes to various matters. There are polls where people are asked if a statement is “always true,” “mostly true,” “rarely true.” Say this enough, and it is like a childhood game where if you repeat a word enough, the meaning seems to disappear.

Most people search for truth. Now, the question is, are they searching for eternal, irrefutable truth, or just their own truth, and for that particular moment? We could ponder these matters, and many have. Religion is a place where some people find truth. But there are different religions. Science is another place where one might hope to find truth. But Thomas Kuhn, in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” wrote of “paradigm shifts,” where the way that some aspect of science had earlier been perceived, can change with new experiments or perceptions, and slowly replace or modify the earlier theory.

Some people delight in attacking Dr. Fauci and the other leading scientists trying to deal with the covid pandemic, by saying, “He said one thing, and how he is changing that.” And the answer always is that the scientific method relies on data, and as the data is greater, the conclusions or recommendations might change.

Many are very frustrated in general that the “old truths” are questioned. They seek certainty. They hate what they call “humanistic relativism,” which might seek to contend that there is no absolutely right way to view or deal with a situation, it depends on various factors.

The philosophy or science of phenomenology sees reality as a function of how it is perceived by people. What you see might not be what someone else sees. Perhaps you can agree that somebody is sitting down on a chair, but you might see the emotional state of that person differently. What you see, is your reality, unless someone can argue you out of it; or if you are open-minded, you learn more facts which perhaps alter your earlier perceptions of the person’s emotions.

We search for things we can rely on, or at least base our actions upon. When Matthew Arnold wrote the great poem “Dover Beach” in the 1880’s, he was at least in some part lamenting that the “sea of faith” was receding, and that there was no certitude, but just ignorant armies clashing by night. A more powerful poetic imagery can scarcely be imagined. The only thing that the poet can hold on to at that moment is that he and his love must be true to one another, because there is no certitude or light beyond that. I am not religious in the way that Arnold was, but I can feel the despair felt in the late Victorian era at the sense that religion was waning, to be replaced by relativism, doubt and fear.

The search for truth went on, of course. To bring it closer to this time, and in a more secular way, many people in the 1960’s inveighed against what they saw as the falsity and pretension of 1950’s life, which they would describe as “plastic.” They sought for deeper truths, piercing the artifice. Grace Slick wrote, “When the truth is found to be lies/ and all the joy within you dies.” John Lennon wrote, “I’m sick of hearing things from uptight short-sighted narrow-minded hypocrites/ all I want is the truth/ just gimme some truth.”

So much of the ’60’s were about searching for truth, in various ways, and by various methods. Eastern Philosophy, music, drugs, were some of the ways. Others tried to learn as much as they could, and not be as constrained by convention or social mores as in past eras.

Esalen, in Big Sur, was a place where people might come to enhance that search. The “Human Potential Movement,” of which Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow were leading figures, championed a greater openness and honesty, a “congruence” between how you felt, and how you presented yourself. There were many workshops which sought to explore and experiment with these concepts.

I was not part of that, most of it took place before I was aware of it, or mature enough to handle things like that. And looking back, some of it was probably self-indulgent and done without real knowledge as to its effects. I would like to have done it though, at a later age, particularly with the ability to go against the tide in such situations, and not just accept people who took on a role as a “teacher” or “guru,”, and what they championed as a brave new world.

Stuart Miller, an erudite Englishman, was one of the people invited to be part of the early workshops at Esalen. His book “Hot Springs,” and its sequel, gave me a good sense of how it was then. I did study the history of encounter groups, and I briefly met Will Schutz, who was one of the leaders of the earlier groups there, which at least as far as I have read the sequel so far, were described by Miller as a brave experiment done by people who really had no certain idea of how it might come out.

Apparently, the people in these groups, most or all of whom were scholars or practitioners in this field, so not novices, were urged to be completely honest, and say whatever they felt. The more intense and confrontative this was, the better; the search was for “breakthroughs,” a higher level of honesty and truth. Fritz Perls, the gestalt philosopher who did teaching at Esalen, was known for saying, “Get out of your head, and come to your senses.” That would be something that I never completely accepted, and I think I was right about that. One should not overintellectualize, but one should not just emotionally react, without boundaries or at least sometimes thinking it through.

When Schutz gave a talk to people in my study field, he had just written a book which urged complete honesty, saying whatever you felt, perhaps your “truth” at that moment. I asked him something about constraints, and he said, “Why not just always say what is on your mind?” or something similar to that.

And that was the ’60’s and ’70’s, carried forward, though this was in the ’80’s. I have mused about it, and of course it is liberating and also simpler, to always say what you feel. But is that “truth,” even “your truth”? If you were with someone you cared for, and perhaps you were bored, or brooding about something, would you just say that? Apparently this was part of the ethos of some people in that era; you said how you were feeling at any time, even though it might be fleeting, replaced by another thought or emotional state.

Somehow this was supposed to lead to greater understanding and intimacy, a breakthrough to a higher plane. But it also could lead in some cases to hurt, and frustration, and misunderstanding. After all, what is “the truth?” That you felt bored ten minutes ago, but it was evanescent, and that you mostly felt affection; and of course you would not want to be told that for five minutes they felt bored; or that you had told that story before.

So what is your truth, even any moment? The more immediate feelings, or the more overarching one which subsumes it? Some people, in private life, or in their roles as broadcasters or talk show hosts, say whatever comes into their heads, maybe because they are so taken with their role, and the praise they might get from some parts of their audience. They think that they are protected by that, there will always be some who say, “You go, girl! (man!)”. More significant than that, is their conveniently self-indulgent belief that all they have to do is say what they think at any given moment, and they are doing a great thing, they are just being themselves.

And in one sense that is true; and in another sense, they seek to avoid the consequences of what they say. I’m not just referring to Whoopi Goldberg; every day we are provided more stories of someone saying something stupid or inaccurate or simply untruthful, and then either being compelled to apologize for it, or obstinately repeat it. “The truth” becomes less important, what gets the most attention is the sideshow. Speak first, and let someone else sort it out later; like they used to say about shooting in the Wild West.

This essay was not intended to “solve” anything, how could one figure out the maze of “what is truth”? It was just meant as something to perhaps mull over a bit, as we get ready for another week of Republican lying about everything, and more of their philosophy of “alternative facts,” much like their idea of “alternative electors.” John Lennon may have said it about as well as anybody. Maybe in many cases, the truth is rather obvious, if you are sane and perceptive and have some knowledge and historical perspective to see it.