The whole truth and nothing but
–that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth. Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ.–
Doctrine and Covenants 88:6-7
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free
We are emerging from an age that put value above all else upon the ideal of truth. But what exactly is truth? Is it absolute? beauty? freedom? enlightenment? facts? data? reason? principles? unchanging? Is something that is true for one person necessarily true for another? Is truth to ourselves at one point in time necessarily true to ourselves at another point? The terms modernism and post-modernism are used and abused in these kinds of arguments all the time. I am not sure what these terms mean exactly. To a certain type of person post-modernism is moral relativism and the devil, while to another type, modernism is rigid, unyielding, black and white thinking in absolutes. In the end I think both sides are largely talking past one another and caricaturing the other side. This is not my desire. I just want the truth.
What’s that you say, Jack?
“The truth!? You can’t handle the truth!!”
For me, the problem with perceiving truth lies with the mind. If certain neuroscientists are to be believed, consciousness itself is an illusion. Our will is a delusion and trick of natural forces. While this is all quite controversial and will have people arguing for a long, long time, the limits of our thinking are less controversial. We will fill in missing articles to make sense of things whether it is sounds or vision, we fill in missing detail in an attempt to make cohesive sense of what we see or hear, even if it isn’t there. The simplest example of this is our blind spot, the hole in the retina where the optic nerve leaves the eye. We don’t see that we can’t see it because our mind fills in the space.
But it doesn’t end there. Memory is the same way. We fill in the gaps with whatever is available. Many studies have shown that eye-witnesses in court testimony are unreliable. 30 years of memory research has shown being fed misinformation clearly and reliably distorts our memory. Emotion is a much maligned method of seeking truth. We have all had experiences where emotion may have led us to a bad choice or wrong conclusion. One need do no more than factcheck the latest Facebook meme making the rounds to see this in action. Well it turns out that certainty itself has proven to be an emotion.
What are we left with? Well there is always logic and reason, valuable tools in the search for truth to be sure. I recall an old Radiolab Podcast where the story was told of a man who developed a tumor in a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. Once removed it cut off the reason and logic part of the brain from the emotional circuits. This man was free of the shackles of emotion, a real life Mr. Spock. No one could have more access to truth, right? Well, the truth is he was paralyzed. He took hours analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of signing a document with a blue or a black pen. He could not decide on a box of cereal in the grocery store, as the wheels of logic spun round and round forever in his head, never able to come to a conclusion. We like to think of emotion or feelings and cognition and logic as separate but in reality they are intricately intertwined. If our own senses, memory, emotions, and logic are untrustworthy what does that leave us with?
Well I guess there is data, measurement, and Science. The problem here is that data and testing hypotheses requires interpretation of data and here we are again limited by the human mind. Data and measurements mean nothing in and of themselves. We have to be able to infer meaning from them. Designing experiments involves an action of the mind even more mysterious than inference. It takes imagination.
Furthermore, it turns out we are learning there are limits to what science can know. Newton’s laws of motion were long thought infallible until Einstein proved there are instances where they fall apart. However, to our experience Newton’s laws are good enough to at least get us to the moon, but Newton cheated. He created used a completely unexplained mathematical fudge factor, a force called gravity to fix all his equations. Einstein and modern physics have worked out that gravity is not actually force at all but a warping of the fabric of the universe by the objects in it.
Believing the Earth is flat works for what we need until we can fly around the globe or become so economically linked as a planet that we need time zones. The sun revolving around the Earth seems common sense to direct observation. However, when the assumptions mankind made based upon this were shattered by Copernicus, bad behavior ensued. We don’t like having our reality challenged because it works. It’s obvious. It’s comfortable. “Everyone” knows it is true.
Heisenberg learned by equations that it is impossible to predict where a particle is and what its momentum or speed and direction of movement is at the same time, developing what is known as the uncertainty principle. It is somewhat esoteric but basically it means mass and momentum of the super small subatomic particles is apparently random. If you think you understand this principle and you don’t think to yourself “there is no way this can be right,” then you don’t really understand it. Albert Einstein himself was very upset by this principle, proclaiming “God does not play dice with the Universe.” Schroedinger developed his famous thought experiment with the cat that bears his name in an effort to show how ridiculous the theory is. Yet, the math and the data hold true. When matter gets small enough there are things we just can’t know and for all intents and purposes appear unknowable.
It also turns out that our understanding the universe itself has hit a brick wall, as there is a moment in time in the Big Bang theory that all of our physics mathematically breaks down, leading scientists to wonder if the laws of physics are actually laws at all. Were they randomly determined? Could we have easily had a universe with a completely different set of laws governing its motion? The reason we can study the origins of the universe is because of its distance. We are just receiving light from the edges of the perceptible universe from so long ago that we truly have not the slightest idea if any of these conditions still hold now. If the power of a theory comes from ability to predict, I am afraid there comes a point in study of the universe where we are unable to test the prediction of anything.
Which brings me to God. Yes, I know his existence is a matter of controversy and there is limited evidence, but for me, like gravity to physics, nothing makes sense without him. To the critic, religion and myth are just defense mechanisms our brains use to make sense of the world, much like the tricks of the senses I linked to above. This may be. I cannot prove otherwise conclusively, but it also appears to me that the need to use religion and myth is an inseparable part of our makeup as human beings. If I am to ever abandon this part of my humanity, I will need one whopper of a reason to do so.
If we take it on faith that God exists, clearly, it is undeniable that we, as humankind, cannot comprehend all that God can comprehend. This being self evident, why even bother trying to learn of God?
I come from a faith that teaches emphatically that God reveals truth to us as we are able to bear it. This is where the Holy Spirit, intuition, Zen, and all kinds of religious, mystical, or new age concepts come in. In Mormonism, God wants us to know and understand him. He comes down to our level and opens truth to our mind as we are prepared, as we seek it, as we will let him, as our minds are open and as we exercise faith.
This communication is described as concepts that enlarge the soul, burn within us, bring inner peace, open our understanding, or ring true. It is subjective, but more than just emotion in my experience. I don’t believe we have any way to definitively decide which of the subjective inner workings of the mind is valid or invalid. It seems plausible that, like Newtonian physics, our mortal mind and our religious sense are good enough for God’s purposes. This method of obtaining truth is messy to be sure. It leads different people in seemingly different directions. Religion has historically led many to conflict, violence, abuse, and tyranny all done in God’s name.
In spite of all of this, I still feel that revelation is central to how we obtain the intangible truths of our existence. There is a way to avoid the hazards. The key is humility. We have faith and hope in what we have learned, but we also realize that our picture is imperfect. Paul wrote, we see through a “glass darkly.” While I believe all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole, we are never going to be capable of receiving it completely with our human limitations. Because of these limitations, we should not force our understanding upon or denigrate the ideas others who disagree. Instead I think it works much better if we share what we believe and listen as others do the same.
When we find something that enlarges our soul, stretches our mind, and enriches our life, we have to hold onto it. To refuse to do so is to betray ourselves. I believe we have to remain humble, ready to accept there may be many particulars in which we are mistaken, but I also maintain faith that core truths will remain. We can learn much from diversity. Different cultures, different faiths, different perspectives are a strength when it comes to learning truth, if we can just allow ourselves to glean from them. It is a tricky balance. Too often people act out of fear that to acknowledge the other is to deny yourself. If there is one observation I have made in life it is that fear can make humankind one ugly animal.
I believe that spiritual truth in mortality is not linear or absolute. We are all on a journey to somewhere. Like any good Mormon I have faith that we are in the process becoming something greater. Some principles, though formative and helpful initially in the journey, we may outgrow as our understanding increases. Shedding them can be very frightening or painful but I cannot believe that this necessarily makes such principles untrue. They are a necessary step to greater understanding. As such, it pains me to see some individuals who shed their old beliefs with bile and bitterness. They disdain all those suckers who believe as they once did and those evil people who feed such lies to them. I think this kind of self righteousness, distorted by cynicism, can only lead to profound unhappiness and suffering until some state of forgiveness and at least tolerance of everyone’s “ignorance” can be achieved. Even better is a state of love and acceptance with an appreciation for the strengths and benefits of the old position even while recognizing new truth.
Among Christian religions, Mormonism is unique, in that, while affirming that Christ is the way, the Truth, and the life, and that no one can return to the Father but by him, we also believe in a mechanism for all mankind to receive that gift eventually if they desire it, even if they do not reach that point in this life. We achieve this through ordinance work for the dead, which gives me hope that our search for truth continues beyond these mortal limitations. Of course, there is a danger of self righteousness that by doing the ordinances we might think we have “better” truths or become self important in authority. Humility is a very tricky thing. Still, the idea is remarkably inclusive if you think about it. It is as inclusive a Christian narrative as I have ever known. Joseph Smith taught that we embrace all truth, wherever it may be found. There is a wonderful universalist, humanist streak in Mormonism that rings very true to me. As I study truth, I find it everywhere and yet I know I have much yet to learn. For the few who are still reading this lengthy, wordy beast of a post, best wishes to you in your own spiritual journey.