Hungry for truth

We live in an age where truth is elusive. Silent, even. Past generations dealt in absolutes and certainties. These were often spurious certainties, mind: the inevitability of social and technological progress, the superiority of one group over another, the rightness of imperial aims, the belief that science could solve all ills, among many.

The genie is out of the bottle

Few people view such claims uncritically today. We’ve all become just that bit more sceptical, accommodating doubt as the lodger in our front room. This change is in part due to the influence and insights of the late twentieth century postmodern philosophers, Jaques Derrida and Michel Foucault (and others) who undermined the very notion of objectivity.

“‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements. ‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.” – Michel Foucault

Though few can claim to have read these great thinkers from cover to cover, their ideas are widely disseminated and taught in courses across the world. Their influence permeates and encompasses the entire spectrum of the social sciences and the arts.

Like pollen, postmodernism is carried on the wind. In our present time, almost every political and social commentator can’t help but see the world, at least in part, through the lens these philosophers left us. And, in consequence, that is the way we all see it – in our art, graphics, architecture, advertising, film, the internet and TV, and, of course, in our speech. Those who profess to be sure, to claim certainty, to possess objectivity are as anachronistic as steam lorries.

Postmodernism did us all a great favour. It unpacked the cultural assumptions that underpinned the heady claims to certainty and objectivity of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, exposing their cultural arrogance, and revealing them as tools for the assertion of power and dominance. This unpacking helped liberate the oppressed and gave expression to the unheard. From race studies to feminism, we are indebted.

There is no such thing as neutrality, however ardently it is proclaimed. “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” – Michel Foucault

However, there is a downside, in that doubt has now spread from the front room and has taken over the whole house. Notions of progress and objectivity are seen to be just that and no more. Science is questioned in the same manner that religion once was. We are left sceptical and directionless, searching for answers where there are none.

Why the need for truth still bothers us

In an age of relativism, truth and knowledge are defined by the social, cultural and historical context. The possibility of having to deal with finding the truth in 7.5 billion different contexts is stressful. There is no Highway Code to guide us – and navigating the streets of life without one leaves us floundering, struggling to communicate with each other, to agree, to commit, creating internal dissonance. This problem is both personal and social. Is our truth their truth, and how much of “our truth” do we really share? We are not able to adequately deal with this multidimensional complexity. In consequence, we are constantly searching for simple answers.

In postmodernism, nothing is mere accident, all is artifice. “Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture.” – Jaques Derrida

So, despite the inevitable relativism of our age, we still have a need for truth, even if we don’t know where to find it. Indeed, now that it has gone missing, truth seems more important now than ever before. The fragmentation of social solidarity combined with the influence of the internet and social media has resulted in a maelstrom of lies, fakery and distortions.

All too often, our leaders are seen to no longer care whether they are telling the truth or not. One lie piles upon another, one tweet at a time, adding to the general confusion.

This is made worse by the fact that populism is in some senses an equal and opposite reaction to postmodernism. Many of today’s leaders view the relativism of postmodernism as specifically embodying the very worst of what they hate about liberalism in general. This leads them to actively promote absolutes, however absurd and contradictory. George Orwell would have loved the doublespeak of “going back to the past will make us great again” or “keeping people out will make us all stronger.” At the same time, populist leaders have no better sense than the rest of us what is true and what is not. This is clear from what they say and what they let happen.

We are being bombarded by conspiracy theories from all sides in this age of Covid: it was a plot by the American government, or the Chinese military; the illness is caused by 5G, or the virus was genetically engineered in a laboratory; it’s a strategy for world dominance, or a ploy to win an election. It is Russian disinformation, or British. It is none of these things. Or all of these things. On and on and on . . . And truth is still missing.

We all hunger for a new way of recognising the truth.

Has objectivity passed its sell-by date?

Just at the very moment when science and experts are no more trusted than snake oil salesmen, governments suddenly start appealing to scientific objectivity. “We are being guided by the science,” they tell us.

And the chorus replies, “What science? Who’s guiding you? What do they want of us? And why?” No longer do claims of objectivity ring true, nor do “facts” go unquestioned. Suddenly, the appeal that “I am solely responding to the science” seems weak and disingenuous.

Does this matter? Clearly it does. It matters viscerally. Our bodies and minds automatically simplify things, eliminating what is not immediately pertinent, categorising reality in manageable chunks. Too much information would cause us to overload, so we cut it out, automatically, without thought. (see my post on how we miss things out: It’s as if we are programmed to default to binary principles: right and wrong, good and bad, hot and cold, wet and dry, dangerous and safe.

The confusion that results from having to work hard to discern the truth in even simple matters is exhausting and can cause us enormous stress – a factor that makes life seem really difficult for many at present. Each one of us is slowly becoming an armchair epidemiologist, political philosopher, scientist, and analyst. We have to decide for on a moment by moment basis what is true and how to act on this truth. Do I wear a mask or not? Do I keep a distance of one metre or three? Is the risk greater from children or for children? How long does the virus live in the air, or on metal, or on my clothes? Is it killed by ultraviolet light, or humidity, or heat, or none of these things? Do I visit the needy, or keep distance? Do I say hello, or avoid eye contact?

None of us want this. We want and need an answer we can trust.

Read one way, this might be a definition of relativism: “Search for what is good and strong and beautiful in your society and elaborate from there. Push outward. Always create from what you already have. Then you will know what to do.” – Michel Foucault

A call for integrity

With truth lost in the undergrowth of culture, integrity means much in today’s world. The person who exhibits congruence in both what they say and what they do is a lighthouse in troubled seas – they make our complex world navigable. The thousand questions we need to ask to unravel what is what and why, and who and how, are reduced significantly; we trust people with integrity to have already have done the questioning for us. This is why we look to our leaders to show just such integrity – we want to know that we can trust them. If we can, this way lies simplicity. Leadership as stress relief.

When they don’t show integrity, however, when our leaders lie and deceive, this is more than merely disillusioning. We recoil physically. Our animal self knows instinctively that this threatens our very safety.

Many of us find ourselves left struggling with some very big questions:

  • What is being done to prevent the climate crisis from overwhelming us?
  • How dangerous is this pandemic and what will its impact be on society?
  • Can I trust the government to tell us the truth?
  • What should I do?

So, without integrity, we are caught in a trap somewhat of our own making. On the one hand we know, intellectually, that we must constantly question. On the other, we tend to favour the default binary option. We are too easily lazy as well as under-confident in our ability to ask the right questions. So we don’t. The result is confusion and bewilderment.

The only way out is down the path of integrity.


There’s a gorilla in the hallway

Have you heard of the gorilla that everyone fails to see? If not, watch the video from the link at the end of this post (1) and you’ll see what I mean.

We humans are renowned for our plethora of cognitive biases (2). Our brain, in sorting out the world and simplifying it, is doing us all a favour. If we were to absorb all the information coming at us day and night, we would be unable to respond. We would be sitting ducks, lunch for any predator that happened to be passing, unable to reach decisions, always suffering from acute information overload. So we simplify, greatly. Not to say, on occasion, grossly. We don’t expect to see Gorillas, so we don’t. (Do watch that video again, if you are not yet convinced.)

This is why the tabloids love to give us simplistic answers: they do so because we love things simple. We don’t wish to know that the world is a thousand shades of grey, with no absolutes, no clearcut answers, far too many variables for most of us to make sense of.

We are not computers – at least not in the conventional sense. We don’t take all the data in and then analyse it – not even the most logical of us. Our gut responses act far faster than the mind can process. We react before we think. We flee before we analyse. The thinking catches up, later, maybe.

To put this another way. The world is a lot, lot more mysterious that we give it credit for. We are so good at filtering out, dismissing the inconvenient, shrugging off the things that don’t fit, that we often miss the gorilla in the hallway.

The majority of humans for the majority of human history have been aware of the mystery at the heart of life. Cave paintings, Stonehenge, world religions all testify to this. Yet, since the Enlightenment, we in the West have decided to package up this mystery as inconvenient and have chosen not to address it. We do this numerous ways, by giving primacy to the rational and the empirical, by saying that such things are unprovable, and by claiming the mysteries at life’s heart have little or nothing to do with what really matters in life. It’s as if we just decided the occasional gorilla in our midst is just too inconvenient to consider.

Yet our search for meaning continues.(3) We, of all the world’s creatures, are the only ones who need meaning and keep searching for it, whatever the circumstances. This is the gorilla in the hallway. We can’t move on without recognising it is there.

Maybe if we start listening to life’s mysteries, reincorporating them into our view of reality, we might be able to start undoing the damage we have done to this planet and all life on it. By this, I don’t mean that we should give up science, chuck out rationality and start again. I mean we should have a broader world view, incorporate the mysterious, and listen to what nature is saying to us in a different way. This requires not just measuring how much CO2, SO2 and NO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere (though that too) but how we sense nature is responding to us. Both complement each other, one does not negate the other.

Some will be uneasy with this, as if I am letting in gobbledygook by the front door (no, that is not the name of the gorilla!). Yet, many of us feel more at peace when in a natural environment than we do otherwise. Many say they find walking in the countryside to be deeply relaxing, even healing. The Japanese have turned this into a meditative technique and natural therapy called Shinrin-yoku that they believe brings physical and psychological benefits (4).

Science shows us that our brains respond very positively to greens and blues(5)(6). We can feel “at one with nature”; likewise, the expanse of the sea, or the sky at night, or a mountain-top view can give us a sense of the infinite. This is not an appeal for pantheism, far from it, but merely an illustration of how we sense more than we immediately understand. Cutting ourselves off from this experience is to deny the very core of us.

So, I guess this all boils down to a rather simple thought: when listening to nature, when seeing it more clearly, we might also begin to see ourselves more clearly. This is a matter of listening in a much deeper way than we are used to. It requires admitting that occasionally, just occasionally, the unexpected intrudes, blocking our way forward. We are now at such an impasse.

Putting the world to right can’t be solely a matter of recycling, cutting carbon emissions, and changing lightbulbs. It also needs to be a way of recreating harmony where we have wrought disorder and disaster. That harmony will be manifest in the peace we make with nature and in the peace we make with each other and ourselves.

None of this will be possible without letting the mysterious and the unknown back into our lives. Let’s give that gorilla a hug.

  • (1) Selective attention:
  • (2) For a long list of cognitive biases, see Wikipedia:
  • (3) Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946. An account of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, the finding of a purpose for his life, and how he turned this into a psychotherapeutic method.
  • (4) Website on Shinrin-yoku:
  • (5) Technical paper on cognition:
  • (6) New Scientist on healing properties of green light: