This marks my third attempt at trying to tackle a subject that I started over a month ago. Part of me feels like it was a failure that I couldn’t do this in one try. Another part of me feels a bit foolish for thinking I could create any semblance of a summary on the topic (regardless of attempts). And yet another part of me appreciates that I took a crack at it and for having learned a few things along the way.
For over a month now, I’ve been asking myself why truth and reality matter. I’ve been reading other peoples’ interpretations of the matter. I’ve watched TED talks on it. I’ve talked to friends about it. And I’ve even revisited uncomfortable conversations where this was the theme. I keep coming back to the same thing:
If truth and reality don’t matter, what does?
That’s the answer that popped immediately into my head the first time I asked it. I thought it was a novel response, but also a bit of a cop out. Answering a question with a question is always a bit cheeky and I was looking for something a bit more concrete anyways. But I kept coming back to that. Finally, I thought to explore that direction a bit further. And as is usually the case, while in the shower, I made progress.
It comes down to this frustration of mine. When people feel that we’re all entitled to our own truth and our own reality… that we don’t all share a truth and a reality… I lose the ability to connect with them. The example that comes to mind first is talking to religious fundamentalists about the age of the earth. The scientific consensus is 4.5 billion years old while various religious texts suggest only a few thousand years old. If you were to approach one of these individuals and suggest that the earth might be much older than they believe, they might tell you that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. If you were to provide them with evidence which challenged their belief, they might respond by saying that god put that there to test their faith. If you were to provide them with logic which challenged their belief, they might respond by saying god put you there to challenge their faith. No matter what you might do or say, it only confirms their narrative. Rather than continuing to try and understand the reality which we all live in, that person has committed to their tribe’s interpretation… one in which I struggle to find common ground.
I suspect this theme is well understood by those who work at mental health institutions with more extreme disorders. When someone shares a reality with you, there’s an alignment. With an alignment, things like communication, empathy, intuition, and chemistry are possible; and can even become effortless. When that alignment is absent.. I’m picturing a therapist trying to communicate with someone who has severe dementia. They exist in two different worlds. Both have a genuine belief that their world is real, but the two exist in vastly different interpretations of the same reality.
Without a shared reality, we lose the ability to connect with one another. If we were chess pieces, reality would be our chess board. If you’ve decided that you’re a checker, we’ve likely lost the ability to interact in a meaningful way. And if too many people start to think they’re playing checkers, we lose the ability to play chess. Chaos.
But how do we know we’re chess pieces and not checkers? Isn’t it important to explore alternative explanations? Is that not a primary purpose of freedom?
The hard truth is that we’ll probably never know for certain whether we’re playing chess or checkers. The way in which our minds sense, interpret, and then hallucinate our realities, there always exists the potential that this is all a grand dream (or a simulation being run by advanced aliens). And the hard truth we must accept is that this possibility will always exist and we must understand it to move forward. Yes it’s a possibility, but one which has only ever existed in theory. Everything we’ve ever observed would suggest that our reality is real. Technically it is still an assumption, but it’s the assumption that all other assumptions are built on. If we can’t agree on this, nothing else that we might agree on would have any basis in reality (because we couldn’t first agree on reality).
I often look at the universe through the lens of building blocks. Matter has building blocks. Math and physics have building blocks. Even logic has building blocks. When I’m thinking about connecting with old friends, things are seamless. The building blocks of trust and familiarity are already there. If I presented a new idea, it would be received fairly. If the information was good and the logic was sound, my friends would look at that as an opportunity to learn and expand their understanding of the universe. If it was bad information and faulty logic, they would make fun of me relentlessly. Either way, this requires us to understand that we all live in our own interpretation of a shared reality. What truly exists in my reality also exists in theirs and vice versa. None of our interpretations are entirely accurate or complete, but some interpretations are more accurate and more complete than others.
If I were to try and have a conversation with strangers in which I was challenging their beliefs, one would hope that we would still agree on the basics. Basics like the laws of physics, the value of logic, and that we all exist within a shared reality. I would go so far as to say that if we all had a deep understanding of each, we’d be far more constructive in resolving conflicts and learning about the world around us. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. Instead, I’ve found that people prefer to maintain their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or reason. And that’s where you start migrating away from the reality which we all exist in and start to build walls around the interpretation of reality you’ve created for yourself. While potentially harmless at times, I can’t help but think that this, as a way of life, is deeply counter-productive to humanity’s goals.
I think I’ve made a case for why reality matters, but truth isn’t necessarily the same thing. I’ve been grappling with the difference between a true statement and a universal truth. Coming up with definitions we can all agree on is important to conversations like these.. otherwise we’re using the same words but talking about different things. It’s important to have that common ground. While there are nuanced differences between a universal truth and a true statement, I think that from the right perspective, they’re both the same.
A true statement would be something to the effect of looking down at your shoes, seeing red shoes, and then saying that you are wearing red shoes. But what if your shoes weren’t red? What if you had a genetic variance that caused you to see your green shoes as red? You would see red, meaning that it was a true statement. But if everyone else saw green, are the shoes not green? I think this is the nuance between a true statement and a universal truth. A true statement is an honest recollection of your interpretation of our shared reality while a universal truth is something which is true for everyone, whether or not they realize it. And I can’t help but think that they are still the same thing. Something to the effect of when someone makes an inaccurate ‘true statement’, it’s an act which occurs in reality. If something occurs in reality, that action is true to everyone; ergo, the statement is false but the action is true.
And perhaps therein lies the monumentally confusing feat we’ve been struggling with. With all of our genetic and cognitive differences, we’re bound to interpret our shared reality differently from one another. It’s like we’re photographers, all taking pictures of the same scene. While only one scene exists, we’ll produce a variety of pictures. Some will be a difference of perspective, some will be a difference of equipment, some will be a difference of technique, and some will come up with their own wacky shit. That’s not just OK, that should be encouraged. But we must remind ourselves that our pictures are not the scene. Our pictures are glimpses of the scene, just as the worlds which our minds project are only glimpses of the world we all live in.
Logic is how we find truth. Truth is how we find reality. And perhaps finding reality is a good start to understanding our place within it.