The Truth of the Matter

the Hyperion Chronicles

“Now translated in over 34,000 dead languages"

#113 The Truth of the Matter

"Your mind understands what you have been taught; you heart, what is true."
Anonymous (from a fortune cookie)

What is truth?

For as long as there have been stars up in the heavens, or fish in the ocean, people have believed things to be true. Before the written word I’m not sure what they believed, since, oddly, nothing written has survived from that time frame. The earliest recorded history shows us that humans believed that numbers were holy, and they believed in the supernatural, and took both things as fact.

As history moved on and there was more knowledge in the world, what was taken as true grew too. Religion and supernatural belief still dominated, but there was a written history that people began to trust. In some parts of the world the words of their leaders were taken as absolute fact, although in fine human tradition, many people just pretended to believe their leaders, and then later cursed them over a tankard of ale.

The Renaissance eventually came to the world (in the form of an overpriced fair), and people started to trust science more and more. This continued until today, where science reigns supreme, as we are able to see to the farthest reaches of the universe, and the tiniest molecules of our body.

And yet, through all that, I think we today are seduced into believing we understand fact more than any other era. Science is so profound, and measurement so exact, and we have the ability to record events. In first audio and then video and now in 3-D, we can now capture something for all time. Between History, the Press, and Modern Science, not to mention Anthropology, Archeology and every other "ology," we are pretty sure we’ve unlocked the mysteries of the past and the secrets of the future.

Well, maybe.

I’ll admit scientists have done a good job isolating the ingredients and baking instructions of a Twinkie. The Press does a good job of giving us a look at what war looks like up close. Historians have been able to give us clues into other cultures and beliefs thousands of years ago, which in turn help us understand our world better today.

And yet…

I go back to that term seduced. For we really are seduced, or maybe we’re just arrogant, but while Science is quick to point out there is much to discover, and Archeologists will caution that they are only giving their best guess, the concept that we’ve got it figured out seeps in and permeates the entire culture.

Let me explain what I mean. We believe in facts. And they just don’t exist. Now, I’m willing to say that the Lottery Numbers are such and such, and that by all accounts Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is that we have come to believe we live in a factual world, and that there isn’t much room for error.

And we’re wrong.

Example: 79,000 people are at the Super Bowl, with another 2 billion watching on TV. The best officials in the world work the game, and there are at least 50 cameras covering the play on the field. And yet, for all that, there are still several plays where nobody, not the officials, not the people in the stands, not the people at home, not even all the cameras, can agree on what actually happened.

Better Example: your history book. It’s different than the one your parents read and it’s different from the one your kids read and grand-kids will read. Is that because we’re learning more? Partly. But it’s also because there is not “actual” history. It is perishable. Once history happens it’s gone. You’ve heard that history is written by the winners. This is true. It’s also written and experienced by people, and people aren’t machines. Even machines don’t know what they’re seeing (the cameras we just talked about), and only do what they are told.

There is a famous story about a professor teaching a class on memory. Right in the middle of his lecture someone comes in and robs the professor at gunpoint, and runs out (all arranged ahead of time). After the class takes a collective breath, the professor asks his students to describe what they saw. 50 bright people all watching the same event, and there are invariably 50 different accounts. Because it happened so fast. And it was exciting. And stressful, and everyone sees things different. That’s what history is.

Think about it: you and your wife can’t agree on something you talked about last night, let alone last month or last year. Are you both lying? Maybe. But more likely you just remember things differently. And that’s how history works. The fact of something, if it ever exists, is gone the moment it happened. Most of history revolves around people, who even if you had absolute faith that they were honest and remembered things correctly, are long dead.

Even current events get skewed. Remember a few weeks ago, when everyone was thinking one way because they thought the war in Iraq was going well, and then in a day they swung the other way because it was now going poorly. The truth is, neither was right. We had pictures and accounts and reports that weren’t necessarily inaccurate, but they are only small pieces seen from human eyes in a few locations.

There is an old Eastern parable that explains what I’m talking about: Seven blind men encounter an elephant for the first time, and they are able to investigate it by feel. Each one touches it at a different spot. Afterward they fall into an argument about what it was they have experienced. One has touched its flank, and is sure it was a wall. Another has grasped the tail, and maintains that no, it was a rope. A third, who has felt the sharp tip of the tusk, knows that it was a spear; and so on--the ear was a sail, the leg was a tree, the mouth was a bag, the trunk was a snake.

Do you see what I’m saying? That’s history, or any other thing we cling to as “fact.” We’re colored by our human nature, which means we see things as they relate to us, and we filter them through our perspectives. And everyone does this, whether they are writing history or living it, whether they are studying the world around them or ruling it.

So I return to the original question: what is truth? I submit to you that truth is not necessarily fact. Truth transcends fact. When the facts of a matter are examined, they are often either unknowable, unverifiable, or out of our realm of experience. But truth, boys and girls, truth goes beyond that.

Because of the world we live in, it is difficult for us to imagine how something can be true if it didn’t happen. But what I’m telling you is that the facts of history are lost in the mists of time, if they ever were there to be grasped in the first place. What’s left is what’s true.

Let’s bring this closer to home. I used to argue with my mother all the time about the Creation story in Genesis. She maintains it is literal while I said it had to be figurative. But one day it hit me. For everyone (like me) who might have trouble taking the story literally: it doesn’t matter. Whether or not the story actually happened is a matter of religious conviction. And, if it did happen, the people who would know are long dead. What’s left is Truth. And for me, the Genesis story is very true. People are stupid. They get seduced into doing what they shouldn’t because they think it will be better. When they find out how wrong they are they feel guilty and usually hide. Then they lie. And blame each other.

Can anyone argue that these things are not true? And that’s my point. No matter what your religious persuasion, or natural skepticism, or anything, anyone with any knowledge of other people can agree that people are morons, they screw up, feel bad, run, hide, make excuses, and blame their husbands or wives. It’s the story of every marriage!

All kidding aside, I want to get this across, and I’m sorry if I seem redundant, but sometimes a sledgehammer works better than a feather. People: if you remember nothing else from these Chronicles, remember this: what we think of as fact, what we take for granted, is just today’s best guess. I sure hope that one day they won’t find out that DNA isn’t all that unique or that the Moon Landing was faked, but what we “know” right now is just our best guess about our world. What we know about the past is our best guess combined with the people in the past’s best guess. That’s a lot of guesses.

Now, I don’t want you to use this as an excuse to not study for your next history test or lie in court, but I do want you to understand that facts are fleeting. Truth, however, remains. Truth is eternal and transcends our limited understanding of what we are seeing, hearing, and experiencing. 50 years from now there will be 5000 new theories, but what is true will still be true. Three of these Truths are:

  1. All people—not just teenagers—are morons when it comes to relationships
  2. Yoda is the best character ever
  3. My readers are the best audience of all time.
These things are true. They transcend fact. They are eternal. Now you know.

Now go and tell others.

April 15, 2003

Align Right
This was going to be my lead picture, but the one up top has become one of my absolute favorites

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