Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 3)

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.

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 2)

I take small breaks from writing here and there, but this one was different.  I had written the first half of this entry with the intention of writing the second half shortly after.  I struggled though.  The rest of my life continued to bombard me with questions about what I thought truth and reality were.  I wanted to be sure before I wrote anything else.  I’m still not.  But fuck writers block…

 

Last night, I was hanging out with one of my favorite people who happens to be going through some of the same challenges I’m going through.  She came from a more conservative background, earned a business degree, worked in insurance for a while and eventually came to realize that there was a more liberal side to life that she had been missing out on.  She’s now a yoga teacher who recently competed her schooling on holistic nutrition.  She made the transition from the corporate crowd to what she calls the ‘woo woo’ crowd.  It seemed like she was pretty happy about how it was all going.. peace and love to everyone.  What could be wrong with that?

She dove in head first.  She was greeted by sisterly love, magic, wonder, positivity, gratitude and all kinds of good vibes.  From what I understand, it can be a very nice place.  But she started to struggle a bit during some of the teachings when things got a bit religious.  Ironically, much of this ‘new-age’ crowd borrows from ancient practices.  From crystal healing, to chakras, to rituals that largely sound like witchcraft.  At one point, she was at a yoga course which taught her to save the blood from her menstruation and pour it by a tree in a counter-clockwise fashion under a full moon.  I might have gotten some of that wrong, but the point stands.

She told me that some of this was starting to feel a bit ‘witchy’.  Something wasn’t sitting right.. and like that itch that you just can’t seem to scratch, she started asking questions.  Some of those questions were directed at her peers.  Some were directed towards me.  As the weeks have gone by, we’ve both been trying to reconcile the spiritual with the scientific realm.

We know that science exists because science is simply the practice of accurately explaining our reality.  If spirituality also exists, and exists within our reality, it can also be explained through science.  Again, just because it’s possible to explain something through science doesn’t necessarily mean that we have those answers today.  I think there’s something powerful to the idea that spirituality can be explained through science.  Perhaps this separates those of us who are looking for the truth from those who aren’t.

When I think about the idea of science explaining spirituality, I think of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  Reading that book is the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.  It laid out the facts of the universe in such an eloquent way that you couldn’t help but feel a connection to everything else that has ever existed – A ‘oneness’ with the universe.  Simple facts like there being more bacteria cells in your body than human cells can make you question who you really are.  Suggesting that the same breath of air you’re taking now contains molecules of air which were breathed by the likes of Napoleon, Beethoven, and Lincoln reminds us of how interconnected our planet is.  And knowing that we are stardust brought to life… provides all the beauty, wonder, and magic that I need to feel good about my place in the universe.

What were to happen if I were to bring these ideas to someone who was fundamentally religious?  Would they keep an open mind?  Would they engage in a genuine conversation in pursuit of the truth?  If what was discussed made sense to them, would they consider changing their beliefs?

Probably not.

The scientific community has become fairly accustomed to writing off the religious crowd as unreasonable when it comes to challenging their beliefs.  They might be reasonable in other areas of their lives, but their beliefs are their beliefs.

Never in my life did I consider myself to be religious.  I spent most of my high school and university years considering myself an atheist.  Eventually, I realized that despite all the knowledge and understanding that humans have acquired over the years, we were still in no position to determine whether or not ‘god’ is or was real.  As far as I’m concerned, we’ve still yet to come up with a definition of god that we would all agree on.  I liked this perspective though.  It left the unknown within the realm of the unknown.  No undue assumptions.. no beliefs.. just an appreciation of what we know and a sense of curiosity and excitement for what we may learn next.  Add in a learned appreciation for a metaphorical understanding of the universe, and I started calling myself spiritual.

What I knew of the spirit was that while it may have no weight, emit no energy, or cease to exist when our physical bodies die, it was an intangible representation of what made us unique within the universe.  Perhaps there was a connection to the realm of philosophy.  That was an element of myself which I was glad to explore.

As the idea of spirituality started to grow outside of the religious crowd, I was happy.  Being able to understand what’s beyond what we can see and touch is important.  I was very much looking forward to connecting with these individuals and having these conversations.  While I’m glad to have this perspective and share it with those who would listen, I seem to be the odd one out in the world of spirituality.  As I’m starting to learn, spirituality has evolved into its own brand of religion.

When I think of the ‘spiritual crowd’, I’m starting to see them as a counter-balance of the religious right.  Both can be a rather delightful crowd of people, especially if they consider you to be part of their tribe.  But the further you go into the fringes of these demographics, the more radical their viewpoints become.  Hmm… maybe that’s what I’m up against.

One of the more extreme views of the left seems to be postmodernism.  As much as I’ve read, I’m still having a hard time defining it.  Perhaps that’s the point.  In the world of postmodernism, nothing is real.  And if nothing is real, logic and reason can’t really exist.  And if logic and reason don’t exist, truth becomes subjective.

…. And everyone lives their own truth.

There it is.

 

Originally part 2 was going to be my explanation of why truth and reality matters but it looks like I’m going to make this a trilogy.

 

Truth & Reality, and why it matters (Part 1)

Over the last few months, I’ve been bumping heads with the co-founders of my company.  Since I joined, the business has grown beyond their skill-set.  We’re now at the stage where we’re looking to clarify roles and responsibilities and it’s looking like I’ll receive the role of CEO after we close this capital raise.  In that transition though, it’s been challenging for the co-founders to navigate what it means to give up control of their business, for the sake of a better business.

A couple months ago, we brought in an executive coach to help sort things out.  Part of that process was a series of 1 on 1 interviews.  During mine, we touched on something that keeps coming up in my life.  Figured it was time to write about it.

One of the co-founders is a bit ‘woo woo’.  She’s an awesome person in so many ways and we get along far more than we butt heads… but we do butt heads.  As she would say, science and logic can’t explain everything.  As I would say, any true explanation is inherently scientific and logical.  I was hoping the executive coach would help bridge this gap.

When I did the 1 on 1 interview with the coach, I told her that I wished our co-founder would have a stronger appreciation for logic and my affinity for it.  I told her that logic in its purest form was the pursuit of truth.  She replied, “well that may be the case, but everyone lives their own truth.”  I paused for a moment, having heard that a few times before.  Something about living your own truth sounds noble, and righteous, and harmless.  But it didn’t sound very logical.  I asked her to elaborate.  She said, “My favorite color is blue.  That’s my truth.  No matter what you or anyone else may think or feel, that is true to me.”  Without thinking, I replied, “But if it’s only true for that person and nobody else, how true is it?”  She replied that this was going to become a very philosophical conversation very quickly and that we should probably get back on track.  I can’t help but think that we need to start making the time for these conversations.

I’ve given a considerable amount of thought to this idea of living your own truth and her example of someone’s favorite color.  I’ve always weighed it against the concept of truth from Plato’s Republic which behaves as a great illuminator.  One seems subjective while the other seems objective.  I was always under the impression that the truth was inherently objective…

When considering the example of someone’s favorite color, I think the word truth might be a misnomer.  Someone can say that their favorite color is yellow and for that to be a true statement, but does that make it a truth?  Maybe this is the difference between a true statement and a universal truth.  Or maybe there isn’t as much of a difference as I thought.  When someone declares that they have a favorite color, as long as it is in fact their favorite color, that’s not only a true statement but a universal truth.  No matter where you are in the universe or how you might look at it, that person has a singular preference towards a certain color.  I guess where I struggle is in suggesting an equivalency for the truth that is someone’s favorite color, and the truth that 1 + 1 = 2.  Technically speaking, both are true.  But one of these is a rather arbitrary statement of someone’s preference while the other is a fundamental building block of how we understand our shared reality.  I don’t think it’s fair to refer to them both as ‘truths’.

Many years ago, I was introduced to the idea of hallucinating your reality.  It was novel at first, but once I gave it more thought, it made so much sense.  Your body receives sensory input from our senses and our brain does its best to make sense of it.  It’s why certain types of brain damage can drastically change someone’s perception of reality.  It’s why hallucinogenics can change your perception of reality.  It’s how cognitive differences can change your perception of reality.  It’s why simple bias can change your perception of reality.  Your favorite color, in this context, has nothing to do with the qualities or value of that color, and everything to do with your perception of it.

I like the acknowledgement of everyone hallucinating their own reality because it really does remind us that our understanding of reality is only as good as our ability to perceive it.  It helps make sense of a wide range of perspectives and how cognitive differences can lead to honest, yet flawed interpretations.  There are several cognitive disorders which cause people to hallucinate things which only exist in their reality.  Is that a truth?  If that hallucination only exists in their reality and nobody else’s, is it fair to refer to this as a reality?  There’s a lot of validity to the old saying, ‘perception is reality’, but maybe this is where we need to work a bit more on understanding the difference between reality and our perception of it.

Perhaps truth and reality should be synonymous.  From my perspective, what’s true is  real and what’s real is true.  And that’s separate from perception.  What’s real is the shared reality we all perceive and look to understand.  That’s inclusive of what each individual’s interpretation of it may be.  But that doesn’t mean that someone’s interpretation of our shared reality creates our shared reality.  That would be like saying that because someone’s favorite color is blue, that blue is a superior color.  Yet I run into this all the time.

A few weeks ago, I was at our office with the co-founders and they brought in some special rocks.  They had talked about crystal therapy before and I was skeptical but never went out of my way to rain on their parade.  When they brought them out, they started talking about the energy they could feel from the rocks.  Then they asked if I would like to try.  I said sure, why not.  I followed their directions, tried to sense something, and got nothing.  I was told that I probably just didn’t have what it takes to sense that energy.  I laughed it off and we moved on.

Afterwards, I reflected on why I didn’t take crystal therapy seriously.  Generally speaking, it was because it wasn’t prevalent in western medicine.  I assumed that studies had been conducted and no verifiable evidence was found.  I had also seen more than one debunking show where someone went into a crystal healing session and came out rolling their eyes.  But in this day and age, it’s not enough to rely on the opinions of others.  For all the progress that western medicine has made, it’s deeply flawed in many ways.  It’s no longer reasonable to assume that something is without merit just because western doctors haven’t adopted it.  Reflecting on it now, that was probably never an intelligent assumption to make.

In this day and age, the world of information is at your finger-tips and it’s important to do the research ourselves.  So I did.

I found a study where a group was given crystals, were asked to meditate, and report back on any positive effects they may have experienced.  What they didn’t know is that some of the crystals were real and some were fake.  People reporting on things like tingling sensations, warmth from the rock, or a general improvement in their well-being had no correlation with whether they were holding a genuine crystal or a fake.  There was however a strong correlation between those who believed that crystal therapy was real and the perceived positive effects.  That strikes me as a rather simple, yet reasonable explanation.

Here’s where things get interesting though.  If perception is reality, and their bias towards the validity of crystal healing allowed them to perceive an improved well-being, is that not valid in some way?  Your state of mind can be one of the most powerful factors in promoting healing within the body.  If crystal therapy induces that positive state of mind, and that positive state of mind helps to heal the body, would it be fair to at least consider the crystals to be a catalyst?

This perspective seems to be the most reasonable of those that support this mode of healing but I can’t help but think that this also demonstrates the reality of crystal healing: its a practice designed to deliver placebo effects.  The scientific community and western medicine are quick to dismiss placebo effects when it comes to determining the efficacy of medicine.  Perhaps they’re right to do so.  I think it’s important to recognize the body’s ability to heal itself and to study this element of the human design to its furthest reaches.  That said, I don’t think that healing practices which have only demonstrated placebo effects under controlled conditions should be promoting themselves as ancient, mystical, new-age medicine.

I find it curious that everyone acknowledges snake oil as being a ‘fake medicine’ and that we should avoid recommending it to friends or family for its benefits.  If snake oil was able to act as a catalyst for the sake of delivering placebo effects, would that change things?  And if we can place crystal therapy in the same category as snake oil, why would the ‘woo woo’ crowd be so quick to embrace one yet so quick to condemn the other?

Yesterday, my co-founders showed up to our morning meeting and one of them brought out a pair of rocks which had been infused with ‘quantum energy’.  Admittedly, quantum physics seems to be beyond my intelligence so I hadn’t a clue what it meant.  That said, I was still skeptical that someone had ‘infused’ quantum energy into a pair of rocks that looked like they had been picked up at the beach.  They both held the rocks and said they didn’t feel anything from them, and joked that infusing rocks with quantum energy seemed a bit silly.  They offered the rocks over to me and I declined… something to the effect of “No… no… I”m good.”  And maybe that’s where I should’ve left it.  But I didn’t.

I told them about the study I had read after they brought those rocks out the last time.  I said that its very difficult for me to think that something like this is real when the science behind it would strongly suggest otherwise.  They reacted as if it was a personal attack.  Their responses included, “Not everything can be explained by science”, “I know what I know and nothing that you can say will change my mind”, “well how do you explain psychic mediums who talk to the dead?”, “well from my perspective, science and religion are the same thing.”   It was like being in the twilight zone.  Worse yet, I never seem to have a chance to actually have this conversation with them.  They’re always quick to say this is unproductive and we should get back to the meeting.  When I suggest setting some time aside to discuss this stuff, they tell me that they’re too busy for that right now.  Maybe I should just let them live in their reality while I live in mine?  That doesn’t seem right either.

“Not everything can be explained with science” is a curious perspective.  As far as I know, science is the practice of explaining things.  That’s not to say that science can explain everything here and now.  Our understanding of the universe is in its infancy.  So much so that every time we make a big discovery, we illuminate that much of the unknown.  But that doesn’t change that every true explanation of our reality is inherently scientific just as every true answer to the question ‘why’, is inherently logical.

“I know what I know and nothing can change my mind.”  I suppose this should’ve been a red flag.  Anytime someone says that their mind cannot be changed, you’re dealing with someone with a closed-mind.  I wish I knew how to open those minds.

“Well how do you explain psychic mediums who talk to the dead?” I responded with psychology.  I’ve seen mentalists break down the techniques that they use to work their craft and it’s absolutely fascinating.  Those who seem to be the best at this have a remarkable understanding for how the human mind works.  What I didn’t say though, is if someone had the ability to talk to the dead or read minds, why aren’t they putting those talents to better use?  If someone legitimately had those skills, it doesn’t make sense that they would be doing palm readings for $100 a pop or doing shows in Vegas.  If your intention was to make the world a better place, there are plenty of unsolved murders which the police could use a hand with.  If your intentions were to make money, the stock market would be low-hanging fruit.  This idea that psychics have applied their talents outside of these endeavors seems a bit convenient for me.

“Well from my perspective, science and religion are the same thing.”  She has a point.  In theory, science and religion are supposed to exist at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  In practice, it’s much less so.  I find that people often believe in science, that is, they accept it as true without understanding it.  Too often, I see scientific studies with poor methodology coming to questionable conclusions.  Yet to the untrained eye, this science is just as valid as any other.  That’s just not true, and I can’t help but think that this misunderstanding is a catastrophic failure of the educational system.  When you get people to believe in science the way they believe in religion, science becomes vulnerable to the same control mechanisms that exist in religion.

Earlier this week, a mining magnate from Australia was discovered to have been a primary source of funding for scientific studies aimed at denying climate change.  Last week a study funded by the dairy industry was released outlining that dairy was once again good for you.  We don’t have to go all that far back to remember the tobacco companies funding tobacco studies that suggested that tobacco was perfectly healthy.  Perhaps the individuals conducting these studies were scientists in title, but I have a hard time seeing them as scientists in spirit.  They were given a narrative to confirm and that’s not how science works.  Science comes from a place of skepticism.  You look to connect the dots to help explain how the universe works, and once you have a working theory, you do everything you can to disprove it.  Once you’ve done that, then your peers look for different and perhaps more creative ways to disprove it.  And if your theory is still standing after all that effort, the science community grants you a scientific consensus that says ‘yes, this is probably the best explanation available’.  But even then, your theories will be continue to be tested as our knowledge of that subject and the tools available to analyze it evolves.  The idea of this approach being applied to any religion seems absolutely foreign… as it should be.  Religion requires belief and faith.  Science requires understanding and skepticism.

I would be surprised if someone hadn’t come up with this before me, but I’m rather proud of it.  I can draw a rather simple line between science and religion.  Belief is to religion as understanding is to science.  To take that a step further, when you present new information to someone who believes something, they’ll adjust that information to fit their existing beliefs.  If you present new information to someone who looks to understand something, they’ll adjust their understanding to accommodate the new information.  When someone believes in something, there’s often nothing you can say or show them that will change their mind.  When someone looks to understand something, the only thing you need to show them to change their mind is evidence.

Sometimes I consider that belief is some sort of default of human cognition.  You have a certain perspective of the world, you feel more comfortable around information that confirms that perspective, so you seek it out and adopt it.  If your goal is to seek out information which confirms your view of the world, why would you apply the rigor of the scientific method? Why would you work so hard to prove your perspective to be untrue?  My answer is simple. it’s because truth and reality matter.  In part 2, I’ll try to answer why.