Sunday, April 24, 2011

What is Truth?

I am not Dr Clam.

Or, I am not the same Dr Clam who wrote the rest of this stuff. If I am a Dr Clam, I am a different Dr Clam, probably simpler and less interesting. Or you may find me more interesting. I do not know. But time has moved on and I am no longer the same person. After all if you write exactly the same sentence at fourteen, at twenty-seven, at forty, it will mean different things. You cannot step twice into the same river, yadda yadda. 

That is why I feel that I can come back here and make this post, despite my assertion that Dr Clam and President Wossname cannot exist in the same universe. I am not *that* Dr Clam. Nor, perhaps, is President Wossname *that* President Wossname. 

Long ago I told myself that I would spend the first twenty years of my life gaining all the knowledge and skills to do all the things I wanted to do, and the next twenty years doing them: and anything after that would be gravy. Well, the gravy years are here! I am pretty well satisfied with how things have gone. And I will try to be fearless and exultant through whatever bonus years are given to me.

I endorse this statement of William Blake’s: “Everything that can be believed is an image of truth.”

And I more strongly endorse this restatement of my own: “Everything that can be disbelieved is an image of error”.

What do we mean by ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’? As you know, I favour the definition provided by the 19th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce: “A belief is a habit, i.e., a readiness or disposition to respond in certain kind of ways on certain kinds of occasions.”
With this definition, it should become evident that there are some things that cannot be disbelieved. We cannot disbelieve F = GMm/r2, in that we cannot habitually behave as if it were not true: each time we behave as if it were not true, we are likely to injure ourselves, and if we attempt to make it a habit we are sure to break before the universe does. 

I recently tried to reread Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea” books and got as far as the bit in “The Farthest Shore” where Sparrowhawk voices the opinion that good ruling consists of the ruler only doing what he has no other choice but to do, and nothing else. I thought this was a dumb opinion, when it comes to ruling; but in terms of deciding what to believe I think it is a good guide. We should believe only what we cannot disbelieve.

I have decided that I am an a-gnostic (with a silent ‘g’). I am an anti-gnostic. Nothing irritates me more than the idea that there is some gnosis, some hidden knowledge, that separates some cult or caste of elites from us muggles here below. There is no gnosis. If we take pains to believe only what cannot be disbelieved, then we will asymptote towards truth.

In the same time as we cannot disbelieve F = GMm/r2, we cannot disbelieve that life is better than death. Believing this, which means acting upon it, we cease to exist.

I think the idea that death is better than life is one of a small number of beliefs that, believed in a Peircean way, will destroy any functioning society, and so collectively cannot be believed. The antithesis of these beliefs is what C. S. Lewis called the “Tao”: the nugget of ethics common to every ethical system we know about.


If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

- A. E. Housman