Thursday, February 19, 2009


I met an old acquaintance the other day and I was surprised at how grey and defeated he appeared. He was shrunken, pale and demoralised. It turned out, astonishingly, that his suffering arose from his preoccupation with an abstract concept: the truth. He admitted to me that he was overcome by the discovery that either the truth was unobtainable or if it was obtainable, it was so ghastly as to be best ignored. This individual had been a professor for most of his life and was now discovering that according to new criteria of professional excellence, his work was judged as not up to scratch. He had acquired a string of prestigious degrees from a no less prestigious string of universities. He was a highly cultured man, a linguist and philosopher who had an impressive list of publications to his name. He had devoted his life to improving the cultural awareness of the young, convinced that this awareness would do something positive for mankind as a whole; a worthy and a wordy person. Now, as we sat in the pub drinking water, these ideals – which were derived from his humanist background – appeared to have withered away, to be replaced by a kind of nihilistic moroseness. The reason was fairly simple to see: his truth, which was a matter of words, had begun to wither, too; and since devotion to THE TRUTH, as a collection of statements, is devotion to the ego – i.e. self-love – when the sense of the absolute finality of one’s truth is shaken, the self-love suffers also. I tried to tell him that this was potentially a wholly positive state of affairs; but he was not in a mood to accept such a view.

We talked for awhile and it became apparent that he was much occupied with the fanaticism of religious, suicide-bombing extremists. He saw these people as having discredited, or even destroyed in some fundamental way the whole concept of truth; and his own truth appeared to him to be cast in a similar sickly light. That these people could believe so uncritically such destructive and primitive nonsense and call it ‘the truth’ he found discredited humanity as a whole, for whom truth is a very precious notion. But as we talked it became obvious that this individual, intelligent and cultured though he was, still believed in some ultimate set of sentences in which THE TRUTH about life, the universe and everything would be encapsulated. And this, it seems to me is precisely the problem with our notion of truth. His choice of religious extremists, as those believers in truth who most slandered the very idea of truth, was revealing. The religion concerned still works with the view that there is an absolute truth about the world expressible and expressed in a specific human language and accessible to speakers and readers of that language. Now that degree of literalism in the approach to truth illustrates precisely what is wrong with the whole concept. That a few words in the very fallible sentences of one human language should be invested with such potency says much about the delusions to which humans are prey.

This human obsession with some perfect formula, some magic code, some incantation, some spell or whatever form of words that will open up the entire inner mystery of the universe is as old as language-using primates. For the whole of recorded history and probably for the whole of the unrecorded history of our talking ancestors, human beings have been in search of some right form of words that would give them, firstly, access to knowledge of the inner processes of the world and then, as a consequence of this knowledge, access to control. The inner structure of most science and most religion is just this: the articulation in some language, natural or symbolic, of the supposedly essential principles of reality with a view to controlling it, by technology or by ritual. Some religious believers happen to believe that words in some language, uttered by some prophet, do this job. Some physicists believe that scientific papers written in a mixture of natural language and mathematical formalism will do it. Pagans believed that an incantation or a spell would perform the task. Christians believe that the Bible does it; Moslems believe that the Koran does it. But this needs saying: such belief in the absolute power of language is simple idolatry. How a few sentences in natural language or a few algebraic equations could be expected to sum up the whole of reality is a mystery. An even greater mystery, however, is the resilient human belief that such a thing is possible. The religious throughout the world cling to forms of words and kill each other over them; the scientific imagine that the inner processes of reality will one day be encapsulated in a very big binary number. Both have this conviction: that a number of marks on paper, a number of sounds issuing from the larynx, a number of calculations constituting a mathematical model, a long string of 1s and 0s, will constitute the definitive and final accomplishment of what humanity has been striving to achieve for millennia: namely, to utter the ‘open sesame’ that will admit humanity (or at least the egos that believe such stuff) into the inner sanctum of reality and to the levers of universal power. Such a conception of truth has danced before the human mind for as long as we have been able to speak. It is an illusion. It is a delusion. It is a dangerous obsession that turns us into idiots. And it is time we unmasked it for what it is, as a first step in abandoning it forever. The notion of truth that has obsessed us throughout history is a will o’ the wisp that, if followed, will lead only to discord and disappointment at best, universal conflagration and the termination of the species at the worst. This fusion of truth and power-lust is a work of the devil; and the devil’s name is Ego.

Those who believe in this outdated, linguistic notion of truth will at some point in their lives do one of two things: they will either admit defeat, like my friend, as they see the cacophony of voices, religious, scientific, political, philosophical, that all claim with equal certainty to speak THE TRUTH; or else they will decide that just this form of words, just this theory, just this ‘holy’ book, just this sentence or whatever, is THE TRUTH and they will defend it by all means possible. They will denounce those who do not believe it as liars, cheats, delusional imbeciles, or by the use of any other term in the truth-believer’s arsenal of insults; and the sad tale of human conflict will continue as insults turn into murders.

Bu there is another way and it is this: it is the development of an understanding of the inability of any language, natural, mathematical or whatever, to come to any final truth on any matter. Language is just a bunch of sounds or a bunch of symbols in which we humans couch the traces of certain experiences for their communication to our fellows. We have done this for as long as we have been language-using animals; and for most of that time, as long as the communication was for practical purposes – the hunt, the making of tools, the organisation of groups etc. – language has served us well. Unfortunately, it served us so well, that some of us began to develop immoderate ambitions for it: we developed the notion of THE TRUTH. As long as truth was simply the opposite of the lie, i.e. as long as truth remained in the purely practical sphere of description of concrete facts and its opposite the misrepresentation of those facts, truth was an inoffensive notion. Unfortunately, certain ambitious dreamers and hotheads extended the notion of truth thus established to pronouncements concerning matters of which no-one had any experience at all and claimed to speak of the inner essence of reality. When this happened, the whole idea of truth became a quagmire of potential and actual conflict.

What is the legitimate use of the concept of truth? It is in the descriptions of our experience that allow us to make things, to make tools, to make art, to make machines, to make institutions, to make business deals, or whatever. Truth exists and this is its definition: IT IS WHAT WE MAKE. It is provisional and subject to development and improvement, just like our technology. Of course, misrepresentation is possible in these spheres, too. Lies can serve practical ends, too. But the disputes that arise in this way are amenable to resolution: if the theory works, it can be regarded as true until a better model is developed. This is a pragmatic conception of truth and the criterion of its truthfulness is the extent to which a form of words or symbols representing experience functions in a practically successful manner: technology is developed, institutions are established and improved, law is written and modified, trade is conducted and the economy regulated and so on. Truth has exclusively practical value, unless – and this is the big proviso – unless it be subjective truth about which nothing will be said here.

What is the illegitimate use of truth? It is in the pronouncement of so-called ‘absolute’ verities about the universe and reality as a whole. The phrase ‘absolute truth’ is an oxymoron and can be used with reference to knowledge of the world only by a moron. When anyone claims to be articulating ‘absolute truth’ about the inner essence of any reality that we can in any way grasp, such a person is both a fool and a liar. He or she is a liar simply because the wholly legitimate pragmatic notion of truth as a provisional, modifiable form of words possessing practical usefulness has been turned into its opposite: an immutable encapsulation of the absolutely veracious and definitive account of the heart of reality. There is no such thing as this sort of illusory ‘truth’ accessible to human language of any sort; and for that reason, it is a lie.

Why then, if such a conception of truth is equivalent to its opposite do we as a species continue to be obsessed by it and continue to kill each other in its name? The answer to this question is found in the powerfully delusional nature of the human ego. The ego’s sense of its own existence is bound up with what it believes about the world. Since the ego’s inner nature is the wish to live for ever and exercise absolute control over the world, it will elevate any belief that gives it a sense of identity into an absolute theory concerning the universe that seems – even by symbolic means – to do this job. Since the ego, moreover, is closely connected with the flight and fight mechanisms of the mammalian brain, its pet theories will lead it either to retreat into mental reservation and untrustworthiness or else to open warfare with those defenders of an alternative truth whom it considers to be its mortal enemies. The ego is a self-adoring mechanism; its principal emotion where its truth is concerned, therefore, is a sense of rhapsodic camaraderie with those who share its truth, on the one hand, and a sense of enraged offense at the existence of those who defend another truth. The ego that believes in definitive truth will therefore strive to create ever greater groups of co-believers in order to be able to take flight into the protection of the herd; or else it will express violent hatred for and opposition to those who do not believe and strive by all means to destroy them.

How can we wean people from their devotion to such ruinous notions of truth?

The answer to this is ‘by critical education’. Criticism of the very concept of ‘truth’ should be at the heart of the educational process. Truth exists; but it is not what many people think it is. Knowledge likewise. There is no such thing as sacred, inviolable, immutable, truth; nor is there ultimate knowledge. Most believers in such truth suffer from some sort of possession, possession by words. They also suffer from purblindness. This might be the purblindness of the Moslem or Christian fanatic; or it might be the purblindness of the autistic defender of a scientific orthodoxy. ‘Purblindness’ here means the inability to break out of the charmed circle of a certain form of words, a certain string of mathematical reasoning. But let us be quite clear: any formula, any sentence, any theory, any doctrine is never what it claims to represent. This should be obvious; but it is not. Those who believe doctrines expressed in words as if they were absolute truth suffer from the delusion that the theory can replace the reality. Thus the first stage in ridding humanity of the scourge of that kind of metaphysical belief that becomes an instrument of oppression is to educate people in the artificiality of theory and the weakness of its powers of representation. The holiest religion, the most exact scientific hypothesis – both of these can never be more than mere metaphor, mere metaphysical stammering. To invest them with the aura of absolute truth is an indication of a very primitive state of ego-consciousness. The next stage, therefore, in weaning people from their devotion to such truth is the abolition of the ego.

It is one of the greatest and most persistent delusions of the ego to believe that humans posses ‘absolute truth’. The ego is a deluded mental structure that worships itself and that is convinced of its own absolute value, that wishes more than any other thing for its own immortality and divine power. To come to the state of mind in which the ego is seen for what it is – the unwarranted projection into the representative sophistication of the cerebral cortex of primitive fight and flight emotions that belong in the limbic system – is the first stage on the road to a new conception of the human self. Humans need to become aware of the gigantic distortions that take place when the projection of such phantoms into the realm of symbols occurs. One merely has to observe the ego’s phantoms in order for them to evaporate. The egoless structure of the human self involves the awareness, on the part of the individual, that he or she is not some split-off atomic unit of humanity, but an aspect of the whole biological process that is humanity, an aspect of the whole process that is life on this earth, an aspect of the universal process of evolution and change that is the universe. We are no more separate from the universe than an eddy is separate from the river. We are intimately connected to the entire movement of life on earth and, in the wider context, to the process of universal seamless change. There is no definitive truth expressible in human language; and there is no ego that needs to defend it. Once the ego is seen for what it is – a delusion – then its pet notion of truth goes along with it. Truth is a matter of immediately useful belief that allows us to achieve practical goals; and any attempt to characterise it as something ‘higher’, something ‘absolute’ is a device of the ego to achieve its delusory goals of world domination and control. Merely being aware of the delusions of the ego and the dependence of the ego on ‘truth’ for its delusions leads to a withering of the ego and to a consequent shrivelling up of its crackpot notion of truth.

So what would we be left with if we abandoned the ego and its darling, THE TRUTH? We would be left with the language machines that we have always used to enable us to manipulate our world, for such a use of language is an integral part of the success of the species. But all other uses of language – for example to express our emotions at the nature of life and of existence in the world as a whole – would be left to poetry. Poetry would continue to satisfy our metaphysical urges; but we would not dream of killing those who use a different poetry. When one considers the inter-communal violence that still sullies our history, one is struck by the fact that precisely this is happening: people are killing each other because of poetic notions. This was very clear in the use made of poetry in the Balkan wars of the nineties. Of course there are economic factors involved to enflame the situation. But these are practical matters that can be sorted out by discussion. The essential problem is the attachment of the ego to certain words.

The ego with its addiction to its precious ‘truth’ is the bugbear of history and responsible for the entire dismal phenomenon of man’s inhumanity to man. Abolish this villain of history and humanity would be well on the road to solving its most intractable problems. Human life that is unclouded by rigid, ego-bolstered belief can be creative and harmonious. Of course creative living in the timeless present is a state that is achieved by passing through all the delusions of truth in language. That’s what has happened in our history. So language, and its various formulations of the notion of truth, is vital to the process of increasing consciousness by which the human species passes from mere consciousness to self-consciousness; and ego-consciousness seems to be an inevitable, if regrettable, part of the process. Once the ego is put in its place, however, and seen for the delusion it is, all truth becomes the provisional structure it is in essence, its value being that of its usefulness. Truth is a ladder to understanding; it is not the understanding itself. Any understanding that is based upon the holiness or the orthodoxy of a formula or a form of words is understanding that is on the way to disaster. Essential understanding is wordless. The essence of human understanding is a wordless awareness, derived from perpetual discovery, that the individual self is an integral part of the entire movement of the cosmos; and this awareness is not a function of language though it may grow out of language-use. It is as extra-linguistic as the irreducible sense of self and as incommunicable as this. But this awareness is the heart of an activity that is as creative as the rest of reality, for it is an integral part of reality and not a split-off strident, deluded, time-bound, truth-obsessed ego.

The self, because it is not tied to a form of words that needs defending, can live its creativity, can indeed be created in exactly the same manner in which the world as a whole is continuously and uninterruptedly being created. The ego is uncreative because it is rigid and sclerous. Until the self achieves dominance in human life and affairs and as long as the ego continues to rule, the problems of the human race, its entirely soluble problems, will continue to haunt us.

Destroy the ego, establish the creative self: there’s a plan for a less pain-filled consciousness and a less conflict-filled future. I tried to explain all this to my friend; but I failed to convince him.

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