Fundamental Truth in a post-truth world
In the sixth and final message of the six-part summer series Wisdom Tales from Around the World, Rev. Joanne tells us the story of “Fire, Water, Truth, and Falsehood.” It comes from the African tradition in Ethiopia.
Long ago, Fire, Water, Truth, and Falsehood lived together in one large house. Although all were polite toward each other, they kept their distance. Truth and Falsehood sat on opposite sides of the room. Fire constantly leapt out of Water's path.
One day they went hunting together. They found a large number of cattle and began driving them home to their village. "Let us share these cattle equally," said Truth as they traveled across the grasslands. "This is the fair way to divide our captives."
No one disagreed with Truth except Falsehood. Falsehood wanted more than an equal share but kept quiet about it for the moment. As the four hunters traveled back to the village, Falsehood went secretly to Water and whispered, "You are more powerful than Fire. Destroy Fire and then there will be more cattle for each of us!"
Water flowed over Fire, bubbling and steaming until Fire was gone. Water meandered along, cheerfully thinking about more cattle for itself.
Falsehood, meanwhile, whispered to Truth. "Look! See for yourself! Water has killed Fire! Let us leave Water, who has cruelly destroyed our warmhearted friend. We must take the cattle high in the mountains to graze."
As Truth and Falsehood traveled up the mountain, Water tried to follow. But the mountain was too steep, and Water could not flow upwards. Water washed down upon itself, splashing and swirling around rocks as it tumbled down the slope. Look and see! Water is still tumbling down the mountainside to this day.
Truth and Falsehood arrived at the mountaintop. Falsehood turned to Truth and said in a loud voice, "I am more powerful than you! You will be my servant. I am your master. All the cattle belong to me!"
Truth rose up and spoke out, "I will not be your servant!"
They battled and battled. Finally they brought the argument to Wind to decide who was master.
Wind didn't know. Wind blew all over the world to ask people whether Truth or Falsehood was more powerful. Some people said, "A single word of Falsehood can completely destroy Truth." Others insisted, "Like a small candle in the dark, Truth can change every situation."
Wind finally returned to the mountain and said, "I have seen that Falsehood is very powerful. But it can rule only where Truth has stopped struggling to be heard." And it has been that way ever since.
In this clever tale, the storyteller personifies fire, water, truth, falsehood, and wind to symbolize the multiple aspects of human experience, perceptions, and motivations. In the story, truth and falsehood are portrayed as being mutually exclusive of one another. If X is true and Y is false, both cannot exist at the same time.
Rev. Joanne reminded us that for many, truth is a relative term. She cites a Pew Research poll from 2016 that says that 65% of American adults believe that “fake news” causes confusion in our public discourse. Now, three years later, that number is likely much higher. But what exactly is “fake news?”
Fake news may be described as something that is factually incorrect, whether inadvertent or deliberate. It may also be described as some news item that does not conform to what we may already believe to be true, or would like to be true. This second description brings into play the very long list of human cognitive biases that can color our perception of the world that is not representative of the facts. There are more than 200 cognitive biases described in the modern psychological literature, broadly categorized in three main areas:
- Decision-making, belief, and behavioral biases
- Social biases
- Memory errors and biases
Rev. Joanne read a wonderful letter purported to have been written by Albert Einstein to his daughter, where he set out his opinion that the most powerful “force” in the world was the power of love. What Einstein said in the letter sounds like a wonderful spiritual principle “proved” by one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Many people circulated this letter on the internet in the belief that the letter was genuine and that by sharing it with others that the power of love would prevail over evil. Except for one thing . . .
After reading it to the congregation, Rev. Joanne revealed that the letter was a complete fabrication. This “meme” circulated on the internet is an example of at least four biases:
- Confirmation bias - The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions;
- Optimism bias - The tendency to be over-optimistic, overestimating favorable and pleasing outcomes;
- Authority bias - The tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion and;
- Naïve realism - The belief that we see reality as it really is – objectively and without bias; that the facts are plain for all to see; that rational people will agree with us; and that those who don't are either uninformed, lazy, irrational, or biased.
While the above story is a benign example of cognitive bias clouding our perceptions - there is no real harm done in wanting love to be the most powerful force in the universe - it does not take too much imagination to think of other situations where allowing our biases too much free rein are not so harmless. Personal relationships, health decisions, political discourse, financial planning and other important areas of our lives are all affected by whatever biases we do or do not bring to the situation.
Given how complex the world is and how equally complex every person is, is there such a thing as truth free from bias? Is there a difference between something being “factual” and something being the “truthful?”
Definition of fact (Merriam Webster dictionary)
- something that has actual existence; an actual occurrence
- a piece of information presented as having objective reality
- the quality of being actual
- a thing done
Definition of truth (Merriam Webster dictionary)
- the body of real things, events, and facts
- the state of being the case
- often capitalized: a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality; a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true
When Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), as his character Johannes Climacus, ends his writings: My thesis was, subjectivity, heartfelt is the truth, he does not advocate for subjectivism in its extreme form (the theory that something is true simply because one believes it to be so), but rather that the objective approach to matters of personal truth cannot shed any light upon that which is most essential to a person's life.
Objective truths are concerned with the facts of a person's being, while subjective truths are concerned with a person's way of being. Kierkegaard agrees that objective truths for the study of subjects like mathematics, science, and history are relevant and necessary, but argues that objective truths do not shed any light on a person's inner relationship to existence. At best, these truths can only provide a severely narrowed perspective that has little to do with one's actual experience of life.1
Kierkegaard’s description of objective truth v. subjective truth is in accord with what Unity teaches. It is important to note that he specifically states that objective truths, that is facts, are relevant and necessary and should not be discarded.
Unity’s Five Principles are statements of Truth:
- God is all there is, present everywhere, and absolute good.
- Human beings are created in the image of God and our very essence is divine; therefore, we are inherently good.
- We create our life experiences through our way of thinking.
- Our lives can be changed and transformed through the power of prayer.
- Knowing these principles is not enough; we must live the truth we know.
Rev. Joanne reminds us that no one can “prove” these truths to anyone else. What one knows to be true is not always provable, and often it is not desirable to try to reduce personal truths to a type of 2+2 = 4 factual statement. Thomas Aquinas said “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
Inherent within each of us is the Christ Spirit that lives and breathes and guides our being. This Christ Spirit is not measurable and therefore is not provable in a factual sense. However, that does not make it any less true.
Some have said that we now live in a “post-Truth” world, meaning that feelings are paramount over facts. Sometimes that is the case. In the context of this discussion, however, I believe it would be more accurate to say that sometimes we live in a “post-fact” world. Personal Truth as described by Kierkegaard and taught by Unity is not subject to raw data or logical syllogism (All birds lay eggs. A swan is a bird. Therefore, a swan lays eggs). This is not to say that we can disregard facts that we do not like or wish were not true, but it does mean that despite whatever external forces may be acting on us, our Truth is immutable.
Where truth stands, falsehood must yield. Swahili Proverb
This week, become aware of times when you hesitate sharing your truth. Become aware of what is standing under that hesitation. Then choose to move beyond your hesitation. Take a breath. Connect with the Spirit of Wisdom within and speak your truth.
Speaking one’s truth can be very challenging. When preparing to do so, connect with Divine Mind and know that the outcome for having spoken your truth will be for the highest and best good. What personal truth will you speak this week?
1Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992