Thinking Truth

Neil Gaiman, an articulate, imaginatory writer. He makes a claim:

Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

Neil Gaiman

To me, this is a problem with correlating imagination with truth. Moreover, many a war was lost on the story that it could be won.

Of course, we can still play the metaphor game. I’ve been a fan of metaphor since Joseph Campbell. Metaphor is strength. There was a time when I read Jung and had a stronger interest in Depth and Archetypal Psychology. And fairy tales per Marie-Louise von Franz or her more contemporary cantadora, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Archetypes are metaphor, but this doesn’t render them real. Still, we can operate as if they are. The trick is to remember that they are not.

Story Time

One primary function of language is to convey stories. As Yuval Noah Harari notes in his Sapiens, one reason humans have evolved to be seemingly above other species is the ability to construct narratives—particularly narratives about some vision of the future as well as metanarratives about the past and how we got here. His other two factors were money and religion; rather, these are merely special instances of story-telling, and so it’s all about stories.

The human brain responds to narratives, but it does not seem so concerned with the truth element. We are often deceived. In fact, there are notions like cognitive dissonance and escalating commitment where we fabricate rationale around some implausible story or we entrench our thinking when counter-knowledge might otherwise alter our perspective.

MC Escher

In fact, truth is merely another narrative we’ve been fed—rhetorical legerdemain. But it’s just a story: cognitive dissonance envelopes the notion and we build some heuristic defences around it; escalating commitment kicks in when someone attacks the notion.

The concept of Truth underlies entire societies, governments, and legal systems. Idiomatically, we employ small-t truth to represent a sort of relative proximity to match our senses to some observation. If I am asked if a book is on a table when a book is on a table—ignoring semantics of what constitutes a book, a table, or the concept of on—, and I say that it is, this is considered to be a true statement. Of course, this statement is concerned with the correspondence of observation and some shared reality. But this is tautological or analytical. In the end, it’s petty.

Capital-T Truth is more universal (or multiversal), is so much as it would be inviolable. Besides, the Truth of Truth, there are the notions of Trust of Justice or Truth of Duty or Truth of Integrity. Truth of any archetypes, really. Yet these are unobtainable—because there are imaginary concepts.

Classically, archetypes are forms from which physical objects sort of spawn. A table to an instantiation of some archetypal table. Archetypes follow from Ancient Greek pathological notions of perfections—perfect forms, shapes, harmonies, relationships, virtues, gods, and on and on. The notion of perfect itself is an archetype in this sense.

But the causal relationship has been inverted. Empirical observations taken to imaginary extremes generate a notion of the archetype. Mother is an archetype—the perfect mother—, but it’s not that mothers are formed by some archetypical mould; it’s that the aggregation of mothers and how a perfect mother might be is the definitive. In Jungian psychology, all mothers are compared by their children against this archetypal form. In the Greek tradition, the virtuous mother would attempt to live up to this expectation.

Christian religion plays this up, too. Jesus and God are archetypes. Humans are fallible, but the virtuous strive to be like them; WWJD. Buddhists have their own archetypes of Buddha and Enlightenment, the realization of perfection in nirvana. Again, this is just a story.

Language itself is a human construct, and so anything within it is also constructed. It doesn’t matter whether language acquisition comes a priori or a posteriori. The language itself remains a fabrication.

Post Truth has been a popular topic recently. But what is post is the belief by many in the concept of truth. Although couched this way by detractors, no one is claiming that all truths are equally valid. The claim is rather that many truths are. To claim that women are equal to men and women are inferior to men cannot be evaluated because it would require a complete set of dimensions. Besides, even with this complete set of dimensions, a couple of dimensions are place and time, both of which are subject to change. Beauvoir pointed this out in Second Sex, where she noted that in hunter-gatherer societies physical size and strength may have made males ‘superior’ in matters of protection (a specific context), but that industrialization and automation have rendered this factor insignificant.

So why is any of this important? Well, it’s not. As I’ve said, evidently truth was not necessary to become evolved to this point. And since it’s a figment, there is little reason to believe that it will ever become necessary.  My point is merely to point out that the emperor of truth is wearing no clothes.