“What is truth?”

Philosophy asks questions in pursuit of truths – a principle that is also the driving-force of science.  Divisions arise over which questions are potentially answerable; although answers don’t stem the flow of questions, nor does a recognised truth come with a full-stop, as if to put our questions to rest – as if the truth is definable by its defiance of contradiction.  In fact, reality greets us with an avalanche of contradictions: the earth is and isn’t solid, the universe is and isn’t infinite, gravity is and isn’t a force, life is and isn’t just chemical activity, we are and are not merely stardust, a thought is and is not the same thing as a brain process, causes do and do not explain effects, change is and is not more of the same, the present does and does not shape the future, the governing constants and absolutes do and do not control what happens next.  Furthermore, change proves to be more fundamental than any ruling truth.  It means that the truth-content of our answers doesn’t negate the fact that change can be radical, that there can be wholly different answers in different contexts, that those contexts stand out as different dimensions of existence which we partially understand as energy, matter, life, consciousness and thought.  And doesn’t life show us that the facts can defy reason?  Indeed, there is more to existence than we can reduce to the axioms of our logical explanations.  Then if there is to be a resolution that applies to everyone, might it not be this: don’t dismiss ‘the impossible’ simply because it contradicts your aspirations to countenance possibility on your terms – don’t dismiss as impossible the truth that changes to become more than it was.

Mike Laidler

The premise of truth

Who can say there is no such thing as truth without professing the truth of the denial?  It may be that we don’t see the contradictions locked into our truth narratives because they are mediated by something much closer to our hearts, something that serves as a subjective antidote to internal conflict and contradiction – belief.  Few people notice the contradictions within their own beliefs, because they believe otherwise.  Indeed, some believe that we now live in a ‘post-truth’ era, which they justify by appealing to the facts seen to verify ‘the truth’ of their claim.  Yet even ‘the plain truth’ is open to conjecture because the naming and telling reflects a subjective outlook striving to show that the facts are speaking for themselves when they are not.   It seems that we have always had a rocky relationship with ‘the truth’, which may be due to the unsettling fact that our objectivity is a state of mind – essentially, a creation of the imagination.

Most of us deal with truths in situ, believing that we obtain our understandings from what is ‘out there’ – from matters of fact that become understandable in terms of what they mean.  However, meanings, understandings and beliefs are facts we put into circulation, and no truth is evident without the accord granted of our recognition.  Likewise, the world is and is not imbued with meaning, only we would rather be at the nurtured end of the nurturing, which is why so much pathos gets attached to the ‘quest for meaning’ or the lament that we can ‘find no meaning to life’.  And we continue to wonder about the truth behind the compelling belief that there is something more ‘out there’ – a belief shrouded in the paradoxical truth that there is no ‘out there’ until there is an ‘in here’.  Hence we might need to explore the question of a wider reality by taking a converse look – to look at what we mean by ‘in here’ in order to ask: is subjectivity a greater or a lesser fact of existence – in the recognisable order of its becoming.

On the whole, belief augments the understanding of things we don’t understand.  Collectively, we exist in a peculiar reality, as a feature of existence trying to understand itself.  Arguably, ‘reality’ is not a fixed state of existence and just as realities change and grow, so can ‘the truth’.  For instance, life did not previously feature in the chemistry that now includes it – so what are we to believe about the nature of life?  What if there is more to reality than the here and now – that everything is in a state of becoming more than it was, including ‘the truth’ – including ourselves?  Perhaps there is more to existence than the ‘external’ facts by which we behold it – because the beholder, unwittingly or not, introduces a new reality of observation into a world that never before observed itself.  So the perception of truth is fraught with the same difficulties as the perception of ourselves – the problem of gaining an inclusive point of view – the problem of understanding the subject by way of the meanings we express through the glimpses we obtain as a part of something bigger than the focus of our attention – even as that focus rests upon ourselves.

Mike Laidler


Being Realistic

Who can claim that there is no such thing as truth without affirming the truth of their denial? Who can attest to the absence of meaning without upholding what they mean? Whose experiences can lay claim to the facts? Who can countenance the mind of God, or know by default that there is nothing to behold? How can we know what is ours, even of our thoughts – does it suffice to think that that our brains are doing the thinking for us? Can we see the bigger picture in its elements, by recognising the greater in the lesser or the end in its beginning? Does reality reveal to us its beginning and end in our realisations?

Mike Laidler

Words of Reason

If there was no ambiguity about the nature of ‘the real’ there would be no need to single out or believe in the fact of it. As it happens, most of us live in a literal reality – our understandings being shaped by the words used to divine ‘the real’, with the intellect aspiring to truths couched in words of reason, echoing facts said to speak for themselves. Yet words are but foils for ‘the truth’, expounding a logic drawn from the precepts of which we explain our understandings – or is it understand our explanations? – in any case, being expressly validated as a outlook that defers to the facts, as if the facts tell us what to know. But this derived form of realism sidesteps the real task of philosophy – to expose the fictions and unseen contradictions generated by a reasoning that sees no greater truth than itself. For despite knowing that the reasons of today can turn into the regrets of tomorrow, we dutifully abandon our doubts and rationalise away problematic truths with ever more sophisticated forms of sophistry – thereby to convince ourselves that the rhetoric of reason remains our ultimate mentor – as if it is ‘the truth’ that abhors the contradictions – as if the intellectual impasse of contradiction also delimits the nature of ‘the facts’.

Mike Laidler

Believing in Belief

What is truth?  How do we know that we know?  Is it all a collection of beliefs?  Even science may say one thing today and another tomorrow, so an individual who follows yesterday’s precepts might now seem ridiculous – as if today’s explanations are closer to the truth.   Then does that make the truth, even factual truths, belong indefinitely to tomorrow’s understandings?

Then how do we truly know that we know?  Should we stick to our senses, or is there more to know?  We live and learn, and form opinions based upon experiences that lead to differences of opinion, even among experts.  Facts can be inconclusive, but they can’t make our decisions for us in any event.  Experiences are far from simple and those we take to be conclusive are usually filtered through tacit decisions about what counts, the primary filter being belief.  Our confidence in the facts is really a confidence placed in our tacit beliefs about the facts, certainty playing second fiddle to these beliefs.  Hence belief enables us to make decisions when we don’t know any better, the belief supplying the feeling of knowing better.

Knowing anything strikes a balance between the knowing and the knowing otherwise. The balance point is determined by belief.  Beliefs fabricate our certainties based upon images of reality.  Beliefs are the active mental screen on which those images are projected, together with the elaborated images of our senses.   Sometimes we recognise our beliefs, seeing belief as a form of thinking for tidying-up our thinking.  But if belief is a power we exert over our own minds, it is also a power exerted over us by the collective mind of our culture.   Often we can’t tell the difference or don’t bother to try.

We see as we believe, believing we see as we see.  Believing in belief flourishes amidst the urgency to know.   In a paradoxical world, belief is the possibility inviting us to entertain impossibilities that just might be true.  Not knowing is the only restraint we can exercise, but the exigencies of decision making may not allow us the scope for this luxury.  And the various forms of disbelief, non-believing and unbelieving all function as forms of belief serving as alternative social co-ordinates bearing an aura of superior neutrality.  Meanwhile the question about what is truth converts into an issue over what may stand as proof – as if proof is the unequivocal imparter of knowledge that remains independent of what we believe.

If it is ‘true’ to say that belief is the last refuge of the individual, then knowing that we believe is the last refuge of our integrity as individuals.  Then what of truth?  Perhaps belief affords a more pragmatic approach to truth – in accepting that truth is greater than our knowledge, and that the truths we make do with reveal more about our tacit systems of belief than we can ever discover by looking to the facts as absolutes, as decisive matters of fact.  But the same applies to the truth about our beliefs, for we cannot find an absolute in their content simply by believing in our beliefs.

Thus it may be true to say that knowledge is power, especially within our various spheres of influence and cultures of belief, including the religious, the political, the economic and the ‘factual’, but who can say that knowledge is truth?  Alternatively it might be more prudent to consider a more basic truth about knowledge:  knowing that we believe is the safest form of knowledge, believing that we know the most dangerous.

© Mike Laidler 2015

Definitive illusions

Life teaches us that there is more to every fact than the fact of it. So the fact that philosophy can’t give us “the answer” teaches us a useful lesson in reality – that the definitive truth is an illusion of the fact we try to make of it – as if everything is either/ or: this or that, true or false.

Instead, philosophy opens up a reality of multiple truths about a world that is simultaneously one thing and another. It teaches us that the belief in the ultimate “fact” or “truth” is a residue of what we have gleaned from someone else’s bad philosophy.

Mike Laidler