Meditation on truth

How do we meditate on the idea of truth? Philosophers have written about it for many centuries. We will not revisit the theories of Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Kant, Frege, Derrida. We don’t need to remember anything if we think for ourselves. Take a long breath. Truth is a property of statements, not of things. We distinguish statements that are necessarily true like mathematical theorems and such that depend on their context like statements about the world. Is there anything we could know with absolute certainty about the world? Can we discover context-free truths about the world?

The law of gravity, or the second law of thermodynamics are true statements about the world, given a universe that was fine-tuned in a specific way. Otherwise we can only speak of their absolute truth in terms of mathematical models, not in the physical world. There seems to be no escape from this, but the debat becomes rather hair splitting at this point.

Let’s breathe some more. Is this meditation going anywhere? Should it go somewhere? It seems like there is some sort of instinct at work when we think about truth, and we could try to explain this instinct in terms of evolutionary pressure. Under primitive circumstances, when survival is not guaranteed, the propagation of true statements is clearly beneficial. A tribe must discover and share the truth about poisonous plants, dangerous animals, terrain, water sources, and the individual who discovers such truths can’t benefit from hiding them by telling a lie. This is different in complex societies. Lying can become a strategy to get what you want. False beliefs in others rarely endanger the survival of the group, but can be leveraged by shrewd individuals.

From the possibility of gainful lying arises the idea of truth telling as a virtue. The Enlightenment considers this self evident, but we know of cultures that explicitly allow lying as a strategy to enhance the influence of a religion, which itself is considered the highest truth. The problem of lying in the service or truth ought to be taken seriously, even if we don’t believe in some overarching, eternal truth. We only fully understand the virtue of truthfulness if we also understand there is no such thing as truth-in-itself. Our line of defense against untenable, universal relativism, is an informed vantage point of irony, from where some statements are clearly more true than others, but none is entirely and unequivocally true.

Meditation on truth was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: White Lie by Abbas Beydoun

Today I read the poem White Lie by the Lebanese poet Abbas Beydoun, born in 1945. As usual, I write freely why I think this poem is a good one.

The truth is also blood.
And it might be a piece of tongue
or someting severed from us.
We might find it in semen
or in dust if these two things
are not simply appearances
and if the blood does not suddenly
vanish or whiten as a lie.
Should we let the roses
or the strokes against the chest consume
those who lost their truth
as they fought their lies?
Is it the alarm clock’s fault
or do we not permit
our clocks such precise appointments.
The sun is our tryst and
we do not know what it gathers now.
We are the meeting of strangers
and we do not ask why love drives free souls
and then abandons them, to scatter,
beneath the heavy rain.

So we are separated from the truth, it is literaly cut off from us like the piece of our tongue or a limb. But it can also lie in the distinction between ourselves and semen (reproduction, love) or dust (demise, death). But only if these two things aren’t ‘simply appearances’ and the blood is real, thick, red blood. What has been said so far? The true essence, the ‘thing itself’ is distinct from us and that is why they become candidates for the truth, which is understood in a Heideggerian way as aletheia or disclosure. The movement of disclosure is the severance of the tongue, which precludes speech and so discloses its ownmost truth.

A ‘white lie’ is of course an unimportant lie told to be tactful or polite, but in this poem every lie ‘whitens’, becomes a less important, frivolous and temporary disruption of the truth and its ‘forcings’ (Badiou). The next question is an ethical one: How do we treat those who lost their truth because they were fighting their lies? Those who got too confused about the world? Should we write them off and let them be consumed by cheap consolances by roses and ‘strokes against the chest’?

The confusion might be caused by the alarm clock (time) or the way we deal with time. It’s not the fault of ‘those who lost their truth’ but consequence of the human condition that we can’t properly discern truth when we are on a deadline. The next line is mysterious: All of a sudden we are going to have a romantic rendezvous with the sun? What is happening? “We are the meeting of strangers”. That sounds lovely. Strangers don’t know each other, they have all the opportunities anew to tell each other white lies. It’s in the unknown, in the Wagnis (risk), in the encounter of ‘free souls’ that we find a shimmer of truth.

The conclusion of the poem with heavy rain sounds commonplace. I see disillusioned lovers clad in heavy raincoats pace homeward, alone. Their search driven by love (not necesarrily ‘for’ love) leads to the meetings that constitute ‘We’. Now we can look back at the question. Isn’t it about those who betrayed love in the name of love? Or can it be read much more down to earth, as a tryst of two lovers where one came late and the other fought the lies she made up (“He will have a reason to be late”). She won’t admit he is disloyal to her and lost her love: the love (which is identified with truth in this poem) is lost. But we shouldn’t be to hard on these lovers, who live by white lies they fight, because that is the essence of being human. The philosophical idea of Truth as Wagnis and I would say event in the sense of Badiou is here expressed in the image of free, longing souls who might experience our essence, the truth that we are the meeting of strangers, only to be abondoned by it for a reason we can or should never ask.

Reading: White Lie by Abbas Beydoun was originally published on Meandering home