What is Truth? Science, Identity, and Imagination

During a stout and whiskey session with one of my regular interlocutors, JV, the kind of session where you push each other through various adversarial positions on philosophy and politics, the inevitable question came up: What is truth?

At that juncture in the floating debate, JV was in the pure science posture and the question was thrown at me. How can I assign any truth value to mythological systems (including religious ones) that have no scientific basis? And if I persist in such foolishness, how can I turn around and defend science against its contemporary critics from the Right (of the anti-evolution, climate denier sort) and from the Left (the “you don’t know my truth” identity politics that rejects the universals of science and reason and shared humaness, and indeed anything science might say that is politically unsavory at the moment, as vestiges of a racist patriarchy)?

To which I pled guilty on all three counts – the defense of mythological systems against science-based attacks, the defense of science against attacks from today’s political Right and Left, and, most boldly, claiming no contradiction to my impromptu epistemological system.

On the first count, I believe reality is more than just a collection of objects in this space we call the universe. Sure, that’s a big part of it, but lived reality is more complicated – at a minimum we can say it includes objective and subjective aspects. Science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and that there is nothing else to our lived experience. I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons.

It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

Imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love, electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc. Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain? It seems to me that the scientist observing the arc may have her finger on an objective correlative to the feeling of falling in love, but it is still just an objective correlative. She can use it to study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

The scientist gives us truths about the objective world, but the great mythological systems offer “truths” about lived experience that fall outside the scope of science. I put “truths” in quotes to avoid confusion. Myths do NOT give us scientific truths and indeed are often demonstrably false from a scientific perspective. I am not saying that they can compete with science on its own turf. No, when it comes to explaining the physical world, science rules. But “truths” about lived reality can be found in Greek mythology (for example) nonetheless. Indeed, the narrow definition of “truth” in the sense of scientific fact has only become the dominant sense in the past few hundred years. For most of pre-Enlightenment history, the pursuit of such truth about the physical world was a mere sidebar to the study of what were perceived as deeper inquiries into spiritual and intellectual truths.

In saying that science rules in determining truths about the physical world but that a broader sense of “truth” is needed to get at lived reality in its fullness, I have already segued to the second charge against me. How can I defend science against today’s critics from the political Right and Left? The defense against the Right is easy. Evolution and climate change are physical world studies. To claim, e.g., that the Bible has equal stature to science in studying the objective mechanisms of the physical world implies a gross misunderstanding of the difference between physical reality and lived reality, between the two senses of truth (the narrow sense, wherein science rules, and the broad sense, which concerns lived reality more broadly). Whether you agree with me or not, it is easy to synchronize this defense of science against the political Right with my defense of the great mythological systems. My defense of those systems in no way suggests that they be called upon to provide factual data about the physical world.

The defense of science against the political Left takes a similar path. There is a tendency in postmodernism (and I don’t want to reduce it to this tendency but this is the relevant tendency in the present discussion) to see truth as socially constructed. And if truth is socially constructed, science as an arbiter of truth is a social construct that can and must be interrogated. Now apply identity politics to this interrogation and you might conclude that science (and other Enlightenment formations) are not the conduits of general truths about physical reality but are formations that serve the dominant ideology (i.e., white supremacist patriarchy). This, if I may quote Henry Fielding, is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.” It is my position that the scientific method, no less than math, helps us to draw universal conclusions about the objective world. By “universal” I don’t mean “certain.” Theories need to be revised, and science can sometimes be hijacked for political purposes, but the basic conclusions of evidence-based science, like gravity, apply regardless of what this or that tribe or social demographic thinks. A very large point of the Enlightenment was to articulate tools that can get us beyond those tribal definitions of truth and worth, which had locked people for so long in darkness and prejudice and distrust across demographic lines. I believe my friends on the identity politics Left make a mistake when they try (however inadvertently) to lead us back down that road.

The final charge against me – the potential contradiction of my defense against science on the one hand and my defense of science on the other – should have resolved itself in the previous paragraph. For clarity, though, I will add that my defense of science against today’s political Left and Right does not negate my earlier defense of those image-filled systems that explore what Carl Jung calls “the subjective inner world … the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.” Indeed, to the list of ancient Greek mythmakers and modern visionary poets, I will add this thought by LSD guru, Timothy Leary: “Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”

Gaston Bachelard, sometime science professor who became the Chair of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, talked at times about two axes in his epistemology: “the axes of poetry and of science.” The power driving the first axis, the axis of poetry, is imagination. If today’s seekers of truth are going to right the ship of planet earth, they need to give up the politicized definitions of truth. They need to respect the tremendous capacity of science to give us valuable information about our world that transcends tribe and reminds us of our shared humanness. And they need to recognize imagination as the power than can exceed science as it harnesses the vitality of those “invisible roots of consciousness” to visions of social reality that transcend tribal divisions and bring us all together for the next stage.

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Civil Rights is Dead

The original Civil Rights dream of integration and racial harmony, which was slowly and fitfully gaining traction in the 1960s and 70s, has now been derailed. Derailed as much by us-versus-them identity politics on the left as by the persistence of race and gender stereotypes on the right. There’s only one way out now, only one way to resuscitate the beautiful dream. Timothy Leary had it right: Drop out, turn on, tune in. When it comes to race and gender, we need to “drop out” of politics, left and right, “turn on” the lights of heart and imagination, and “tune in” to each other as brothers and sisters, starting with the simple, childlike guidance of those two lights.

Three Takes on Time

(1) A linear flow from past through present and into the future. This sense of time allows us to plot things from start to finish, birth to death. It gives us telos-driven thinking, such as Aristotle’s entelechy, where the growth of the acorn tends toward the oak it will become, with the destination, the oak, as the final cause of the acorn’s process of becoming. And it gives us the eschatological religions with a clear endgame for the soul’s voyage.

(2) A cyclical flow of endless recurrence. This sense of time, often associated with the continuous death and rebirth imagery of Eastern religions, gives us patterns, seasonal renewal, do-overs, the possibility of the karmic wheel.

These can be presented as opposites, but also can be presented in a kind of symbiotic tension. Joseph Campbell might well play with both, as one can see the mythic structure of the hero’s journey in both eschatological and cyclical aspects. And myth is a well-suited lens on the concept of time. “Myth,” opines Timothy Leary, “is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”  And no doubt we have been exposed throughout our evolutionary history to both linear and cyclical patterns in nature.

If you’ll permit me getting a little cosmic about it, both patterns can be related to the journey of the mother ship, planet Earth, which rotates cyclically around the sun, but which is hurtling with the sun and its fellow planets across the universe in a linear path (either out from the Big Bang or back in, depending on our location in the life cycle of the universe). Thus our sense of movement through time is an elegant cognate to the Earth’s movement through space. Space and time lose themselves in a space-time flow. Einstein wins again.

Really, though, if you plot the rotation of the Earth against its linear path away from the Big Bang, the linear and cyclical movements form a spiral in three dimensions. So perhaps it is best for us to view time itself as a spiral. So why do we always hear about “linear” and “cyclical” views of time and never hear about the “spiral” view? We need an advocacy group for the spiral.

Wait! We’re almost there. Now another funny thing happens. Our cosmic spiral still presupposes an absolute reference point, in relation to which we are moving at such-and-such a velocity. But relativity tells us that there is no ground zero, no absolute reference point. Even the Big Bang cannot be plotted to a “point of origin” in space. This conundrum brings us to the third view of time.

(3) Kant philosophized in the late 1700s that time and space had no objective reality but were subjective categories we use to organize an otherwise chaotic flux of experience. He starts at the breaking point of empiricism, which had risen to dominance in the previous century. If your five senses are the fundamental inputs of knowledge, they tell you nothing about the objective world but only about the imprints some presumed world out there makes on our personal sensory registers. Color is not something “out there” but is rather the idiosyncratic way our retina interprets certain wavelengths, etc. Similarly, all our acquired knowledge is based on interpretations made by our own subjective processing plants. So we need subjective ways of organizing the chaotic flux of stimuli, and plotting them into the self-constructed categories of “space” and “time” is our most fundamental organizing strategy.

I am obviously not a scientist and do not offer these three takes as scientific hypotheses. My interest is in the human experience and human conceptions of time. If my astrophysicist friends want to figure out how space and time work in their purely “objective” aspects, let them do the math. I’m sure they will generate many useful ideas along the way. But somewhere deep down, they too emerged from the subjective space of myth, they too are engaged in the hero’s journey. And somewhere along in their figuring, they will have to pass the dragon of the Kantian possibility – that time and space are subjective categories after all. So Joseph Campbell wins this one, with an assist from Kant.

Two Saws by Leary and a Very Small Poem

I’ll be disappearing into the black forest villages of southwest Germany for two weeks. To mark the time, here are two choice quotes, familiar I’m sure to those in the inner circle, from cultural visionary and philosophy-of-life guru, Timothy Leary.

“Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”                                                                                                                                 —

“Consciousness is energy received and decoded by a structure. There are as many   levels of consciousness in the human body as there are anatomical structures to receive and decode energy.”

And a very small poem of my own…

        Adam and eve on delacroix island

Biting fleas, picking pecans, their voices
touched and words hung like crystals
glistening through the horizon line
dreaming the smell of wet earth

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