Truth Fairy Revisited

My colleague from three companies ago, Anthony, lives near Atlanta making his living as a “storyteller, speaker, humorist and writer.”  When I first encountered him as a professional trainer, he was (and presumably still is) engaging, funny, warm, articulate and full of insights he was most eager to pass along to us; he was good at what he did.  We engaged in a brief exchange of ideas as comments in last week’s blog, in which we went back and forth with a fundamental divergence of opinion – would that all opposing views could be discussed so genially.  Later in the week Anthony published the current edition of his “Waypoints – Guideposts for Fellow Travelers” entitled “The Truth Fairy.” It is herein attached; please give it a read.  Link to Waypoints.  Back arrow to return to this post.  Sign up, and he will add you to his email distribution list.

His ideas, so amicably held and voiced, when juxtaposed to mine, lead us to what I believe is the crucial divide of our times – a rift that cannot be reconciled, but can have mutual understanding and respect among people of good will.  Religious and agnostic; progressive and conservative all distill down to this:  utilitarian positivism and moral relativism in stark contrast to the concepts of revelation and natural law.

Postmodern ideals and ethics evolved through the Enlightenment and later the Nihilism and “God is Dead” philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the Existential writings of Jean Paul Sartre and many others.  Perhaps the positivist roots go even deeper into thirteenth and fourteenth century scholastic writings and Father Wilhelm of Ockham of “Ockham’s Razor” renown.  These seminal ideas developed parallel with the ascendency of the scientific method as the sole arbiter of truth like a robotic meshworm boring through the ear and into the brain of Western Civilization until it insinuated itself into the synapses and impulses, unhinging us utterly from any absolutes, and as Waypoints would have us say, “Are there any truths or are there merely facts?  To say that a thing is true is to definitively and confidently declare it both undeniable and incontrovertible.”   Just so.

The argument of the positivist is that without empirical evidence nothing can be known as true.  In the beginning, those like Father Wilhelm would exempt the unknowable complexities of God and miracles from the strictures of positivist dogma because revelation and faith are by definition of a different nature of truth.  As all ideas have consequences, fledgling positivist thought eventually overran all that Creator folderol and pontificated loudly “Gott ist tot! – if indeed He ever existed – and He is therefore irrelevant to the discussion.”

“Ultimately, the problem with militant neo-atheism is that it represents a profound category error.  Explaining religion – or indeed the human experience – in scientific terms is futile.  It would be as bizarre to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love.”  Bryan Appleyard writing in the New Statesman

My contention is not that Waypoints expresses the thoughts of a dyed in the wool positivist, clearly Anthony chooses an alternative faith, that of Emerson and Thoreau and “The Little Prince”, but only that positivist thought inculcates our culture and fashions our perspectives.  If we wandered through most of what passes for education since the mid twentieth century, it is the sea in which we swim and the lens through which we see.

My objection lies in the dismissal of those who are of a different faith as “blindly giving all that I have to you” and foolishly relying on “an anthology of ancient stories, screeds and scriptures, all of which are subject to great debate and drastically differing translations,” and thus to Anthony ”both silly and pointless.”  This seems to me superficial and smug, unworthy of such an intelligent mind.

“Don’t lay no boogie woogie on the King of Rock and Roll!”   Long John Baldry

As an aside, the utopian visions of Emerson, which have their foundation in transcendental principles not provable or disprovable in physical experience, were tried and found wanting in the communes of the nineteenth and twentieth century, and the gulags of the Soviet Union.  Emerson and Thoreau were among the guiding lights of Brook Farm, but only visited; they didn’t live there, being far too bright for that.  No utopian society existed that did not deconstruct into discord, chaos, tyranny or dystopia.  As for the “Little Prince”, unless one reads Antoine Saint-Exupery in the original French, we are relying on one of dozens of translations.

The library we call the Bible, the meticulous translations from the original languages and the tens of thousands of books written about it and the faith it represents are among the most comprehensively analyzed, discussed and thought about subjects in human history.  Thomas Huxley, the famed agnostic biologist of Victorian times, put it this way, “Take the Bible as a whole; make the severest deductions which fair criticism can dictate for shortcomings…, and there still remains in the old literature a vast residuum of moral beauty and grandeur.”

Is truth exclusive?  In other words, if two things are posited and are exactly opposite, is it only my truth and your truth with no objective judgment possible wherein one position is right and the other wrong?  Or is objective truth itself a self evident impossibility outside the laboratory?

For the ancients of Western Civilization, the existence of a Natural Law of incontrovertible truths set deep in the DNA of human kind by its Creator was a given, far before the amazing body of Christian literature on the concepts by the likes of the brilliant Aquinas and Augustine.   No lesser light than Aristotle put it this way, “There is in nature a common principle of the just and unjust that all people in some way divine, even if they have no association or commerce with each other.”  As C.S. Lewis wrote, there are sometimes differing interpretations of what “fairness” means across cultures and times, but there is universal agreement that the concept of “fairness” is of high value to a healthy society.  No one contends that a culture rooted in injustice or unfairness would be a good one.  Or for that matter one rooted in cowardice, lies and the murder of the innocent.

So, dear friend, we can disagree about the mores and morals of our current culture, but please don’t admonish us to “think about it”.    We do.

Law is “the highest reason, implanted in Nature, which commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite.”  “Right is based, not upon men’s opinions, but upon Nature.”  Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Truth Fairy Revisited

  1. Jack,
    Ignoring the advice of Rodgers & Hammerstein, I am going to start at the end, jump toward the beginning, and hit a few middle points along the way. Somewhere in the midst of all that I hope to make a point or two, so let’s get at it!

    “So, dear friend, we can disagree about the mores and morals of our current culture, but please don’t admonish us to “think about it”. We do.” Now I am not certain for whom you speak with the collective pronoun, but I certainly agree that you think about it. You think period. It was your intelligence, thought processes, and clear-headed reasoning that made you memorable for me across the years since we met. Those are among the main reasons that I regularly read and thoughtfully consider your essays. You are a thinker. Unfortunately there are many out there who are not, and it is they, not you, whom I encourage (not admonish) to “think about it.” (And it should be noted that I end every Waypoints essay with that same phrase [Think about it!], and that it wasn’t used exclusively in this issue to achieve any special or singular purpose related to the content.)

    “His ideas, so amicably held and voiced, when juxtaposed to mine, lead us to what I believe is the crucial divide of our times – a rift that cannot be reconciled, but can have mutual understanding and respect among people of good will.” Agreed! Such rifts will never be reconciled (and yes, I realize that is a bold statement, but based on human history to date I am confident, but nonetheless disheartened, that it is and will remain true for quite some time to come). To juxtapose is to place side-by-side for comparison, and that is a crucial first-step toward understanding, for doing so can illuminate not only differences, but also similarities. Here’s the problem in two parts: 1) Respect is earned, not given. And 2) Understanding is based on three elements: empathy, open-mindedness, and acceptance. Until “we” are able to allow ourselves to understand the points of view of others, it will always be difficult for us to respect their opinions. Much less the individuals involved.

    “My contention is not that Waypoints expresses the thoughts of a dyed in the wool positivist, clearly Anthony chooses an alternative faith, that of Emerson and Thoreau and “The Little Prince”, but only that positivist thought inculcates our culture and fashions our perspectives. If we wandered through most of what passes for education since the mid twentieth century, it is the sea in which we swim and the lens through which we see.” I wrote that I found comfort in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Exupery, not that I used their words as the foundation for any faith. And I am certainly not a positivist. You might, perhaps, accuse of being somewhat of an optimistic existentialist, but I am, and always will be, open to the possibilities of the metaphysical. How can one not be? That would entail the exact sort of close-mindedness against which I rail! In fact, one of my main theses is the necessity of the open-minded exploration of possibility – Such is even incorporated in my mission statement. Education, or what passes for it, does a poor job of encouraging or supporting critical thinking and exploration. (And for the record, yes, I own a copy of Le Petit Prince in the original French and have read it several times with French-English dictionary at my side. I am tri-lingual, speaking English, Spanish and Southern, so the French is a challenge, but worth it.)

    “My objection lies in the dismissal of those who are of a different faith as “blindly giving all that I have to you” and foolishly relying on “an anthology of ancient stories, screeds and scriptures, all of which are subject to great debate and drastically differing translations,” and thus to Anthony ”both silly and pointless.” This seems to me superficial and smug, unworthy of such an intelligent mind.” Once more you have taken my words slightly out of context. What I labeled as silly and pointless was framing one’s dogmatic and/or political philosophies around the translation of a translation of a passage from a document… Be it the Bible, the American Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States, or even The Little Prince. (Of course in this instance I was referring specifically to the Bible, but you get my point.) Read the document or text for yourself, mull over it, ruminate, think about it critically, and then if it still seems to make sense, to resonate, to touch your core, and does not violate the life or liberties of another, then I am prepared to stand beside you and fight for you and defend your right to believe and live as dictated by your chosen code, and to follow the needle of your moral compass to wherever it may lead you. But if you blindly follow without thought or question, then I have a problem. Not with the person, but rather with the behaviors. Examples abound, but take the unthinking and thoughtless members of the Westboro Baptist Church… Please!

    Confession: Empathy runs in my family and (curses!) I inherited a great big chunk of the stuff in my genetic Dopp kit. You may freely ask anyone who knows me well and they will tell you that I practice both understanding and tolerance. They would also tell you that I am guilty of frequently making statements designed to induce a mild cognitive dissonance with an end in mind of encouraging people to think. And if you were to consider the words from the opening paragraph of my essay in that light, perhaps they might even take on a different tone.

    “The library we call the Bible, the meticulous translations from the original languages and the tens of thousands of books written about it and the faith it represents are among the most comprehensively analyzed, discussed and thought about subjects in human history.” Yes, and… Many of those who blindly use the Bible as both shield and sword; cudgel and carapace, know nothing of its history. Council of Nicaea? Council of Ghent? No – Not even the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (is that still around?)! (And yes, I realize that you know about these things and so many others. But again, you were not among the members of the demographic targeted by the most recent issue of Waypoints. However, since it did inspire you to think, then at least it wasn’t a waste of your time and my job here is done!) And come on, not all translations and copies are meticulous! Some of those cloistered monks doubtless made mistakes. And frankly, if I’d been spending days upon hours bent over a desk in a dimly-lit room, quill clutched in cramping hand, I just may have goofed around a little bit just for giggles. After all, are we not men? But I dijest (portmanteau = digress + jest. Sorry, just goofing for giggles!) My point, once again: read and ruminate; consume and cogitate, and then make up your own mind – Think about it! Do that and, assuming what I mentioned earlier about rights of others to be true, you will have my agape, undying support and well-earned respect. Otherwise you will have my empathy and my best wishes, along with as much understanding as I can possibly muster.

    Finally, okay, penultimately then, allow me to quote myself from the latest issue of Waypoints: “I willingly recognize and lovingly support each individual’s right to her opinions and beliefs – That is the heart of freedom and liberty. I only request, that in light of those choices and beliefs, they also provide the same respect to those whose beliefs and opinions diverge from or even potentially refute their own.” Seems easy enough… Everyone should be able to eat their chosen chicken sandwich together and in peace with their husband, wife, or domestic partner. But not all three, cause that’s just wrong! And note that I make only a gentle request – No admonishments, enjoinders or imperatives. That’s just the way I roll.

    Okay, that’s it! (Although, I could go on! But perhaps I’ve at least caused a chuckle or two along the way to make the ride a bit smoother.) Thank you, Jack, for sharing your thoughts, as well as for dedicating this week’s issue of Quo Vadis to a well-reasoned and welcome response to my latest Waypoints essay. I continue to respect you, your honesty, your thoughts, and your integrity. I look forward to continuing our long-distance, electronic relationship as a reader, commenter, and hopefully, if I earn the privilege, friend.

    Anthony

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  2. Anthony,

    I never harbored any thoughts that you were a positivist; clearly you have no issues with metaphysics, only organized metaphysics. The suggestion is that a bias inclining towards empirical evidence permeates our culture and certainly academia; whether we are aware of it or not, it colors our perceptions to one degree or another.

    We all have a faith in something or Someone, whether a body of knowledge or a particular religion or philosophy or a unique eclectic amalgamation from Ralph Waldo, Henry David, Antoine, Rolling Stone, Mother Earth News, the Huffington Post and The Nation or for that matter: Augustine of Hippo, Pope John Paul II, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul, the Evangelists, The Law and The Prophets, and, yes, F.A. Hayek, the Wall Street Journal, Crisis Magazine, National Review, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and the Weekly Standard. To believe this astonishing universe dropped ex nihilo out of some unimaginable inevitability of physics and the complexity of life and landscape relied on mere chance and a very, very long time is every bit as much an act of faith as to believe Someone created it. As old as I feel, even I wasn’t around for the opening curtain.

    As to the “we”, it was decidedly not the editorial or royal version; it started out first person singular, but edited to encompass the many, many thoughtful, educated and faith filled friends it has been my privilege to know, who pray, read, digest, study commentaries and form their consciences and will around the “Way, the Truth and the Life”. They don’t blindly follow, but inform their minds with their well understood faith. Faith seeking reason is a life’s work. And within that all have direct experience through prayer with a conversation with their Creator that is every bit as real as a conversation with a loved person in their lives. Those are my “we”, and I will not denigrate their thoughtful faith by calling it blind, but it is rock solid.

    The transcriptions of the monks from everything I’ve read were meticulous, as meticulous as love and firm faith would lead them. That being said, no one is perfect, however most of the definitive translations in current use (New American, Revised Standard, et al) were the result of starting with the oldest pre medieval documents in the original languages (mostly Hebrew and Ancient Greek) and as a work of many years of brilliant scholars, editorial peer review and agonizing over the accuracy of every word. It is far from “whisper around the world”.

    Finally, I certainly do consider you a thoughtful friend, albeit a long distance one and enjoy very much our electronic dialogue. Besides you make me smile, and that is always of great value. Thanks for taking the time for your, as always, well considered commentary and addition to the ‘great discussion’. I’m seriously impressed that you would slog through “Little Prince” in the original with nothing but a dictionary and an ear for language as a guide.

    Best, j

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