So here we are at number three of the article series, How to find the truth in a world of lies. In the first article I challenged you to question your beliefs. In the second I had you challenge your own mind. Now I’m going to challenge what you understand by “truth”.
The map is not the territory
I like philosophers. They’re funny. They’re kind of tragic at the same time, though, because they waste their time building structures on false foundations. I think most people, actually, intuit that there is something wrong with philosophers, but they’re not as cocky as me so they just assume that if a guy spends four years studying something, he knows what he is doing. I disagree: I think a huge amount of people really are capable of doing something so spectacularly useless.
The fundamental problem with philosophy is that it takes thoughts too seriously. Thoughts, which are made of words, are supposed to be able to perfectly reflect truth. Actually, I think many philosophers miss a subtlety and assume words to BE truth. This is one of the tricky tendencies of the mind you need to be aware of. In NLP they address it by saying “the map is not the territory”.
People who miss this can have a tendency to get really uptight about questions such as “Can you cross the same river twice?” My answer to that question would be “Who cares?” If pressed further, I’d explain, “What part of reality are you trying to map? When I understand your motivations for asking a question then I can provide an answer that has meaning for you. But there is no such thing as an absolute truth in the form of words.”
Every word has a meaning defined by the dictionary. The definitions, in turn, are all words defined by the dictionary. There’s no connection to reality there. The dictionary isn’t authority. A word is assigned its meaning when we point to a thing in reality and use a word to describe it. You really can’t ever define anything in the way a philosopher wants to. You can only point to things.
So when you talk about something you have a meaning you want to impart. With the words, you attempt to point at the meaning. Meaning is what really has value in the world. Not logic structures.
Reading behind the words
I think, therefore, it’s best not to read something from the frame of finding out if it is true or not. Instead, look for meaning. When someone says something, depending on how they say it they could be imparting a thousand different meanings. Don’t trust the words. Read behind the words.
When I read a book I have a process I go through. First my head fills up with ideas. The more ideas I have, I know, the less I understand. So I sit down and work on finding the meaning of the book. Not just the meaning the author wanted to impart, but the meaning for me (for this reason, many books I’ll leave halfway through. There is no meaning for me at this moment). I might sit with my journal on my lap and condense entire chapters into a few sentences which I’ll scribble down in my own words, making the ideas mine and integrating them in my own map of reality. It’s not that the book only contained a few sentences of value (usually). The larger body of writing gives you context and helps you understand. But finally you leave behind the words, them having served their purpose, and you’re left with the meaning which this book held for you.
When you “read behind the words” you find a funny thing. Different views of reality stop becoming mutually inexclusive. For instance, you could be both Buddhist and Christian at the same time. I see there is truth in the words of Jesus and truth in the words of Buddha. They might not say the same thing, but that doesn’t matter. They’re both looking at reality from a different viewpoint. Consider Rumi’s story, which I paraphrase from memory:
A group of people were brought into a dark room with an elephant in it and asked to describe the animal.
One touched its leg and said, “This animal is like a tree trunk.”
Another touched its ear and said, “This animal is like a giant fan.”
Another touched its trunk and said, “This animal is like a snake.”
Rumi’s story was meant to illustrate that God could be approached in many different ways, but that didn’t mean that any of them were wrong.
I have another example which I’m working with in my current life. Right now I’m interested in getting my diet right, and I’m faced with a seeming choice between many different viewpoints: the raw foodists who experience incredible results from eating only raw food and forgetting all else, Edgar Cayce’s dietary rules which cured many people of diseases, and Macrobiotics which seem to have had similar successes with other people. I even know of a viewpoint which says most diseases are karma, somatizations or learning experiences and your body is capable of living off light, so you can eat whatever you feel like and it’ll only make a difference if you think it will. Which should I follow? Well for now I take a little bit of all these approaches. I eat as raw as possible while consuming grains, miso and salt to ground myself as per Macrobiotics, looking out for some of Edgar Cayce’s specially recommended foods and laughing a bit at the whole process at the same time. Each viewpoint can be seen as contradicting the others, but I don’t take any of them as gospel truth. I consider each to contain a certain amount of meaning, and forge my own approach from that.
Steve Pavlina calls this using different “lenses” to look at reality. Each belief system is a lens through which you view things. Each one is likely to have some blind spots and some things it is good for. The greatest empowerment comes from being able to use different lenses depending on the situation rather than grasping onto one and refusing to accept the others have any value.
Beliefs as tools
This implies a shift in the way you look at your perception of reality. Instead of your beliefs being your best attempt to understand the world, they could be seen as just tools. If a belief empowers you or brings you joy, you can accept it as true. If a belief doesn’t, then you can throw it out.
There are many ways to ascertain what is most likely to be the “real” truth – which I’ll go over in a later post – and I do believe that it’s best to believe what seems most likely to be correct. On the other hand, many times we still can’t be that sure. In fact we can never be sure 😉 But anyhow, if you’re in a grey area of truth, you can look at the possibilities of believing that which is most useful to believe.
Consider you have the intense desire to become financially free. You have been brought up with the socially implanted belief that it is impossible to survive doing anything other than submitting to an external boss and taking up a tyrannous and mind-numbing weekly schedule. But you feel that that is unacceptable. And other people suggest there might be a way. Who do you believe? I for one chose to believe I could achieve what I wanted, because that was the belief that was most likely to help me do that. I didn’t have much in the way of evidence, though like a good fundamentalist I then went out and found some to support me in believing what I wanted to believe.
Many beliefs have a way of making themselves correct. If you believe you can or can’t do something, as Henry Ford said, you’re right. In a similar way, other people have a way of fulfilling our expectations of them. There are other, even more curious reasons why this can be true, which I’ll challenge you to explore later. But for now, have a think about that. What if you seem to be so right because the world likes to show you the part of it that meets your expectations? What can you achieve by changing the way you look at things?