Truth! Now there’s an interesting word! We're told it's from Proto-Indo-European dru through Sanskrit dhruv, meaning firm, fixed, and Latin durus, meaning hard, hardy (hence durable) – through Old English trum, meaning strong, firm, and into modern English usage as true. What is true, our ancestors tell us, is that which stands the test of time.
A fact, I think we would say, is a species of truth, for we also think of facts as durable; they too are that which has stood the test of time. But facts are slippery things; more and more so, as the pace of life accelerates. In our attempt to keep facts fixed, to nail ‘em down – to keep them, as it were, beyond the reach of tricky fingers and wayward minds – society has throughout our history adopted various defensive strategies. Chief among these has been the appeal to authority. There are fashions in authority, as there are also fashions in facts. Tradition is the word we normally associate with the guardianship of facts in the pre-scientific age. The word has almost a negative connotation today, doesn’t it? Religion is part-and-parcel of tradition, and religious authority, too, is on the wane in the West, but in its heyday religion had mastery of most of the important facts that ruled men’s lives. Today religious authority has been largely supplanted by the authority of science, whose province, you could say, facts are. You want to know a fact? The indisputable truth about something? Science will tell you.
That, at least, is the populist view. Scientists themselves are not so adamant. In science, on the contrary, nothing can be proved true. It can only be proved not to be false – yet. But it is the populist view that claims our attention, and science provides the authority today for much that we believe in, i.e. that which we hold to be true. So it’s really this populist view – that facts are hard and fast and immutably “out there” – rather than the scientific view, which I want to examine, because it is this (pardon the heresy) erroneous faith in the permanence of facts which is opening us to abuse by the very authorities in which we have put our trust.
What, then, are facts?
My New Oxford English Dictionary pithily defines a fact as “a thing that is indisputably the case”. Who would quarrel with that? And yet this definition contains within it the Achilles Heel of all facts, the one fatal flaw which ruins them all, namely that they are disputable! What human beings find to argue and kill each other over more than anything else are, precisely, those things that they had always taken to be facts - until someone came along and questioned them. It is their very assumed indisputability that is itself the cause of the greatest acrimony. One could – almost – turn the definition on its head without loss of meaning: “Facts are assumptions, and the more dogmatic the assumption the greater the disputes that will be generated as, sooner or later, it is called into question.” Not as pithy as my Oxford English, perhaps, but you get my drift.
And now, by way of contrast, let’s look at what popular belief says about ghosts. Ghosts are almost universally accepted as real throughout the so-called developing world, but as almost completely rejected by the West as non-factual, at least among followers of science. The West doesn’t believe in ghosts because we have a label for everything we’ve invented, and we’ve invented an awful lot. There’s very little out there that escapes the mesh of our preconceptions. What little there is (UFOs, psychokinesis, spoon bending, precognition, ESP…) is quickly explained away by the ever-watchful censor in our brain, which slaps a label on these things (“weather balloon”, “gravity”, ”sleight of hand”, “amnesia”, “coincidence” …) before they can do any damage to our cultural immune system. Our resulting world view is crowded with theories we call “facts”: mostly things which have duration, velocity, mass, and so on, which can convincingly be said to exist apart from ourselves. This, we say confidently, is the objective world, of which ghosts do not form a part.
To one not brought up in the scientific tradition, however, a lot happens that is as yet unlabelled. While in the so-called developing world the subjective is thoroughly understood, the objectivity so familiar to the West is considerably less real. In such a mental environment there’s lots of uncharted territory the void of which our imagination is free to fill. There is, in a word, plenty of room for ghosts.
The movement from a world dominated by the subject to one dominated by the object appears to be an evolutionary one. The latter world view simply explains things better. The benefits of science in every walk of life – in food production, disease control, transport and communications – are too staggeringly beneficial to humanity for us to doubt this. But at the same time you’d have to be blind not to notice that things are going horribly wrong in this objective world of ours. It’s becoming a cliché that our wisdom doesn’t match our power. Destruction of our habitat is occurring at a speed and to levels unprecedented in human history, driven not just by population pressure caused by scientific advances in medicine and food production, but equally by the rapaciousness which it is technology’s gift to gratify. Meanwhile, the scale and manner of killing that our armies now engage in – dispassionately of course, but overwhelmingly of innocent civilians – would not be possible without laser guided bombs, missiles, depleted uranium, and a utilitarian mindset, and although scientists are not to blame for the nuclear disaster resulting from the Japanese tsunami of March 2011, the overconfidence that placed six nuclear power plants in its path was that of scientists as much as politicians.
So the movement away from subjective interpretations of the world towards the objectivity of science, though an evolutionary advance, still leaves our world view manifestly skewed. While traditional religions may be fighting a losing battle against the seduction of technology, the hubris which haunts science will not allow it to admit its own limitations, which are in the long run more dangerous to the planet, involving as they do the misuse of more and more material power.
And what are these limitations? There is really only one: as the subjective realm claimed universal dominion in the past (“Thou shalt have no other God but me”), so science - having relegated humanity to a small planet in an insignificant orbit round an insignificant star in an insignificant region of an insignificant galaxy, in a universe which, scientists now tell us, may be but one of many - claims that crown today (“Science answers all questions worth asking”). The doctrine of objectivity lays claim to everything, but (and here’s the limitation) unalloyed objectivity is amoral – it cannot tell good from bad. It cannot, for example, even make the claim, which I have just made on its behalf, that it is an evolutionary improvement on institutional religion, because “improvement” is a value term, like “better” and “worse”, and there is no value in objects qua objects.
But scientists make value judgments all the time. They just don’t see that in so doing they are routinely flouting their own rules. The trouble starts when they examine these value judgments in the same way that they do science – as objects. As objects values disappear in a puff of logical smoke, and the scientist, thereby confirmed in his belief in the lack of objectivity of values, continues building hydrogen bombs and depleted uranium weapons, splicing goat genes into corn, testing drugs on indigent Africans, and anything else his financial masters tell him to do, with a conscience that is not so much clear as non-existent.
Where subjectivity alone is blindly passionate, a world of utter objectivity is one bereft of meaning. Rigorous objectivity purges value from everything, leaving a “flatland”, as Ken Wilber calls it.
What the world seems to need, therefore, is some kind of synthesis of subject and object, with neither claiming supremacy. But how are we to achieve this, when each, to be true to itself, must claim the whole of reality?
There is a way. Radical empiricism, though a bit of a mouthful, is a Western remedy for a predominantly Western mental disease. It cuts the Gordian knot by declaring that both subjects and objects are mental constructs, mere inferences derived from the primary reality that is experience itself. In the words of Robert M. Pirsig,
everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided.
That is a deceptively simple statement. Please read it again. It is analysis – thinking - that divides the world into subjects and objects. To make ourselves whole again we have to unlearn the prejudice created by our addiction to facts (i.e. our belief that the world we experience is different from what we are), which causes us to feel separate from the world. And if we lack the meditative ability (as I confess I do) then we can at least use the intellect itself, which created this illusion in the first place, to see through this crazy, destructive, false distinction between ourselves and what we deem to be our separate surroundings.
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