What is really happening when a set of symbols, such as a statement or a thought, “gets at the truth,” as we like to think of it? What is it for symbols to be in touch with the facts? The use of symbols to uncover the truth about truth is bound to be fraught with paradoxes, and if a noncognitive experience of oneness with the mapped territory is the answer, this experience may not be as the Buddhist would have it. Instead of feeling at peace as a quieted mind at one with the sea of interconnected events, we might feel obligated to lament our absurdity with a round of horror or embarrassment on our impersonal creator Nature’s behalf.
Three Faulty Theories of Truth
At best, this conception of truth appeals to a metaphor, comparing a mind-to-mind relation to a mind-to-non-mind one, but the comparison is weak not just because of the obvious and relevant dissimilarities, but because of the dubious origin of this way of conceiving of our role in the world. If a mind such as God is the ultimate reality, and God created us according to a plan which would have us use natural facts for our benefit or to demonstrate our worthiness to spend eternity with God, then a factual description of something might be one that indirectly puts us in harmony with God. God’s artifact, that is, the world we describe, would be aligned with our artifacts, namely with our utterances and mental representations, and so this conception of truth would be no mere metaphor. Just as mortal minds can agree with each other, so too they could literally agree with the divine mind. But if we assume atheism, as we must when practicing philosophy while being faithful to the spirit of our time, we’re faced with the awkwardness of any attempt to salvage this theistic projection of ourselves onto a horrifically-impersonal world. Assuming theistic religion was perpetrated to further sundry inauspicious agendas, such as early Neolithic warlords’ domestication of large populations, the tainted remnants of that sort of religion are unlikely to augment a pure-hearted pursuit of knowledge.
Next, there’s the coherence theory of truth, which says a statement is true if it coheres with other statements such that the system’s self-consistency rationally justifies us in believing any of the cohering statements. As you can see, this theory merely reduces truth to an epistemic criterion of reasonableness. One sign that a speaker may be onto something is if her statements hang together so that she’s not contradicting herself like a deranged person. For example, if someone’s narrative of what happened the night she witnessed a crime doesn’t change when the police press her for details, a jury would have reason to trust her report. We assume that the world doesn’t contradict itself, that we occupy a natural order bound by some metaphysical logic, not a chaotically-shifting pseudospace, and so we think our belief systems should mirror this rational wholeness of facts.
However, this second conception of truth is abortive for at least two reasons. First, there are plenty of cases in which a coherent worldview, the internal order of which gives us some reason to trust it, turns out nevertheless to be wrong. Monotheism, astrology, Nazism, and the like may all be more or less coherent systems of thought, but none has the merit of being true. At most, coherence is an indicator but not a sufficient condition of truth. Likewise, a statement must be meaningful to have a chance of being factually true, but many meaningful statements are mistaken or even preposterous. Second, coherence in general can’t be the same as truth, because natural systems throughout the universe are coherent with respect to how their components operate, but that doesn’t mean, say, a solar system is a veridical account of anything. Again, the reason epistemic coherence is regarded as meritorious is because natural events in general are assumed to be regular and orderly. This point, though, goes both ways: if a belief system should mirror natural regularities, by being self-consistent, those systems must already be coherent even though they obviously aren’t themselves true with respect to anything. So coherence can’t suffice for truth. And if we say it must be statements or beliefs that cohere for there to be truth, their key distinguishing feature is their semantic meaningfulness but meaning turns out to be just as mysterious, not to mention as originally magical or supernatural as truth.
Finally, there’s the existentialist’s subjective conception of truth, such as Kierkegaard’s which identifies truth with truthfulness, with the virtue of personal integrity. This conception, though, is just a change of topic—which would have been fine for Kierkegaard since he was preoccupied with religious issues. Nevertheless, truth and truthfulness, the latter being part of personal authenticity, aren’t the same. Someone can have worked hard on being honest and can mean well and not intend to mislead anyone, while her statements turn out to be foolhardy poppycock for all that. Take a classic example from popular fiction: the Jedi knights have flawless integrity, yet they proceed from the disastrously-false assumption that all is well on their home turf; instead, an evil Sith lord infiltrates the Galactic Republic which the Jedi are sworn to protect. Double-dealing Palpatine becomes Chancellor of the Senate, manipulating the Jedi at every turn until finally he orchestrates a coup, exterminating the Jedi and becoming Emperor. The Jedi knights may be noble in ways an existentialist can admire, but they’re also naïve fools. And this story resonates because we’re all familiar with individuals who are both scrupulous and idealistic, but also naïve and gullible. Thus, we know the difference between semantic truth and a truthful character.
Imagining the Madness of Conventional Sanity
What, then, can be said to enlighten us about the nature of truth? Is truth an illusion? Why is the concept of truth so difficult to explicate—rather like the concepts of consciousness or of time? This last question can be swiftly answered: because these concepts are so fundamental to human experience that we must abstract even from our personhood to understand them, by seeing those phenomena as they really are. The problem with the notion of truth, then, is that it’s so anthropocentric, so integral to how we experience the world that our intuitions about truth can’t be objectively adequate. A subject can’t comprehend objectivity without losing her subjectivity, and should she somehow accomplish that feat, at that very point she naturally could no longer comprehend anything. This is the paradox of attempting to understand the key terms that stand under all the other terms we use as cognitive tools. There may be primitive, rock-bottom concepts that can’t be explicated, since if you don’t already intuitively grasp their meaning, you don’t yet speak a language or think at all.
However that may be, there’s an indirect way of shedding light on the nature of truth. To do this, we should temporarily entertain the fiction that the nonliving universe has a perspective, after all—albeit one that’s distinguished by its indifference towards us. If we personify nature’s neutrality, by interpreting it as a lack of concern about our fate, we can ask how nature would “think” of what we consider to be truth, the matching of symbol and fact. Then we can dispose of the provisional personification to catch a glimpse backstage under nature’s curtain, as it were. We can use this fiction to quarantine the needed dehumanization for us to objectively understand what we’re doing when we speak of true, adequate, or accurate statements or of corresponding facts, rather like how we can watch a horror movie to be titillated by fear in the safety of our home. The point is that how truth and meaning, consciousness and time, and most other elements of our experience seem to us isn’t how they would “seem” to the rest of the world, if that world were alive to be able to interpret anything. In particular, the idea that we guide our behaviour by thinking in symbols which carry meaning and can form statements that properly align with objective facts is biased in our favour. Any intuitively-satisfying account of truth will be anthropocentric and thus not objectively true, whatever that kind of truth might turn out to be. As a thought exercise, we should imagine ourselves taking on Nature’s perspective and thus being indifferent towards our struggle to survive. Were Nature to turn its lumbering head our way, as it were, how would our scramble to formulate the best symbols seem in her alien, cosmic gaze?
We should start by working backwards, by stripping away the anthropocentric aspects of our intuitive theories of truth. The correspondence theory is that our symbols can harmonize with the natural order, and thus that we can be elevated to the majesty of that order. We capture facts with our adequate propositions, as though we were stuffing each into the right-sized bag. And once we’ve collected them all like so many Pokémon, we’ll have finally conquered the wilderness, fulfilling the prehistoric dream of being able to survive by assigning everything a name that gives us magical power over the world. This magical, anti-natural control happens through technique and technology. We map the territory, study the map, adjust the map so it’s in line with our ideal, and set about making the territory work for us more like that map. This is the pragmatic subtext of the correspondence theory.
The coherence theory settles for relativism that’s consistent with postmodern multiculturalism and individualism. There’s no one, final Truth, but only a plurality of truths as long as each thought system achieves the individual’s or group’s highest priorities. Truth is then entirely subjective. Hitherto, the perspective of old, white European males has dominated, but now that the European colonial period has ended in ignominy, and there’s a global village in which national boundaries are fading or at least being replaced by internet-based cliques, female, foreign, and lower-class perspectives are tolerated as being just as valid as that of those males. In general, truth is regarded as being relative to some perspective. But the multiplicity of perspectives matters primarily to liberals who believe in human rights, who feel sorry for the oppressed and the marginalized, who feel each individual ought to have the chance to flower, to express his or her liberty. In so far as any semantic relation remains between mind and non-mind, this relation is once again part of the Enlightenment project of using enhanced know-how to elevate the individual. A perspective is valid only if the viewpoint itself serves as an Ur-tool, if a set of thoughts helps achieve our goals. Indeed, the coherence theory presupposes the existentialist’s ideal of authenticity, since an invalid belief system would be primarily an inauthentic one that’s brought about by coercion, as opposed to one that arises organically as an expression of freedom. An unjust metanarrative, such as one that’s imposed on a colonized people and that buries the latter’s more traditional, authentic perspective would be “untrue,” meaning that it would conflict with those traditions and so the larger, split perspective would be incoherent. The first step to achieving truth wouldn’t be to conduct scientific research; instead, we should seek therapy to ensure that our deepest convictions are given voice.
So much for the humanistic bias of these theories. We can now eliminate these projections and self-glorifications, one by one. There are no lasting pedestals, certainly none for nature as a whole, and we don’t really capture nature by naming or mapping it. We do displace the wilderness with our industries and cities, but the war between us and the natural environment is in our heads. We resent nature because we’re proud of ourselves, but nature hasn’t declared war on life; thus, our epic conflict with the world must be one-sided. Even if there were a clash between natural and artificial forces, the former would win because any advantage of the latter must be so laughably brief in the cosmic timeframe as to be negligible. As Nabokov wrote, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Imagine trapping Pokémon but the creatures don’t resist: some go willingly into the trap while others wander in and out of it, because the creatures don’t even perceive the trapper. The creatures are part of a landscape that’s older than the trapper and that will evolve for eons after all trappers are rotting in the earth of that very landscape. What, then, becomes of “trapping,” objectively speaking? The pragmatic enterprise must be an illusion. Moreover, the hunt for Pokémon or the cognitive enterprise of mapping the wilderness must really be something else. We don’t know how exactly life emerges from nonlife, and so we don’t know what that something else might be. We know the flow of genes is crucial to life’s evolution, but we don’t know why the genes flow. Perhaps life arises because of the hidden geometry of randomness present in the drift of life-creating molecules, or perhaps the turning of some hyper-object in higher dimensions intersects with noumenal spacetime, causing the emergence of a host of gadflies, that is, all organisms. Assuming that instrumentalism—the nature-conquering presumption of the correspondence theory—derives from hubris, we must be humiliated before we can learn the truth about truth. Liberal values of tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and human rights must likewise go, for us to glimpse how our buffoonery would seem from Nature’s inhuman perspective.
Would, then, Nature laugh at our conceits the way well-adjusted civilized folks laugh at Donald Trump’s boasts and transparent sociopathy? Are we all collectively like an absurd Trump thrown into the mix of galactic evolution, some weird thing which doesn’t belong anywhere at all but which stands out, calling attention to itself with all manner of hijinks? Mercifully, this thorn in Nature’s side will inevitably be removed, and all of Trump’s colossal delusions of grandeur will be forgotten when it will be as if there had never been such a clown that soothed his fears of inadequacy with laughable fantasies. Does the spectacle of Donald Trump annoy for the profound reason that he’s a buffoon who’s gone mainstream and who thus carries the weight of all our existential absurdity, a scapegoat for our vanity? If Nature could think and feel, would she choose to use organisms as clownish scapegoats to atone for her cosmic aimlessness, the way Western beta herds may presently be using Trump?
Let’s return to how specifically our talk of truth might seem to Nature. We believe we can use natural processes to benefit us, because we count ourselves as gods who belong to a supernatural realm. We thus break away from reality with a daydream that’s more tolerable to us than the eerily-indifferent wilderness. We communicate to cooperate, and our symbols are supposed to reach out invisibly to anything we imagine they’re about. Some configurations of symbols aren’t just meaningful, but they lock onto nature’s secrets: they contain information that allows us to predict and thus adapt to what will happen. “Our planet is round and it orbits the sun, which is why we have day and night and different seasons in different times and places”: this ordering of symbols represents part of the universe’s physical structure. But the representation is still a map which isn’t the territory. The notions of body, shape, structure, change, and activity are all human conceptions and fundamentally experiential, metaphorical and simplified. Creatures like us would think in these terms, but thinking itself is a habit that won’t last and thus that isn’t equal to the task we set for it, to encompass the territory. Only a deity could comprehend everything, and deities are fictions that make sense of other fictions, such as those of our human rights and of the cognitive mission to get at the truth. We form representations to cope with stimuli. But even this sort of reductive, meta-explanation of symbols is parochial, because it indicates our insatiable curiosity and desperation to get to the bottom of our predicament: we overuse our rationality, which had evolved for a limited, social purpose, but because we’re programmed to love our life, we’re proud of our accomplishments, telling ourselves we’re the hero of our life’s story, and so we trust that our thinking matters to the world at large. We explain our explanations, telling truths about truth, going round and round in our investigations because we love to talk about ourselves.
Whatever the unknowable specifics of how enchanted Nature would regard our presumptions, we can safely assume that Nature would think us mad. What we call sanity, including the convention that we can use tools to know the truth about things, must be as foolish to Nature as this attempt to put ourselves in her shoes and to imagine what Nature would think if she could think in the first place. The gulf between our mindset and a fictional one that doesn’t really exist is, of course, unbridgeable, just as our symbols go nowhere, far from reaching out to let us “grasp” the truth. We can approach the specifics of the objective truth about truth by turning to some biologically-reductive narrative, by viewing our use of language as a survival mechanism that benefits not us as individuals but the genes that differentiate between species. Some larger process is at work. We think we “understand the facts,” but thinking itself is just an adaptation. Plants don’t think, so not even all living things share that pastime, let alone our penchant for overgeneralizing about our importance. And atoms and stars and galaxies certainly don’t think. From their “perspective,” thinking is a futile epiphenomenon, a clown show that’s wildly unrelated to what’s really going on. In that respect, we might turn thought against itself and dismiss us all as fallen creatures, in the language of a monotheistic myth. We’ve fallen into a well of irrelevance, just by being thrown into the world, and there is no way out: we can’t merge with the territory because we’re essentially thinking creatures, and thinking is made up of maps that alienate the thinker from the territory.
Buddhists proclaim that thinking can cease, after all, that we can shut off the module of egoistic blather so that we can contemplate our oneness with the territory we foolishly seek to conquer with our maps. Maybe we can, but in that case we couldn’t know the truth with representations; at best, we could feel a tranquility that we later surmise is caused by the ego’s cessation and by an ultimate coalescence of mind and non-mind. But why should this transcendent truth be marked by a feeling of peace? If a noncognitive experience of oneness is possible, perhaps tranquility or joy is misleading and a genuine sense of oneness with Nature is typified by the horror of feeling that almost every human activity that has ever occurred has been flatly absurd. After all, Nature herself feels neither tranquility nor fear, so either transcendent experience must once again appeal to anthropocentric metaphors and projections. The Buddhist is humble but not humiliated, not ashamed of having been born into our deluded species. Of course, if the ego’s control over the world is an illusion and Nature doesn’t care one way or the other, we’re not really fallen because there’s no great sin; our true position in the universe is amoral.
But although there must then be no great foul, there certainly has been harm. Buddhists pity those trapped by misleading mental constructions. Indeed, the whole point of Buddhism is to end suffering by providing a way for us to experience the truth; for example, there’s the Zen feeling that semantic truth is just another misleading and futile mental construction. Buddhists are content to bask in Nature’s mindlessness as this is supposedly felt during meditation or once the Buddhist learns to unravel her ego. But if transcendent, nonrepresentational truth is possible, we might find it as well in the crushing sorrow for having been made into a living thing in the first place, or in the embarrassment on Nature’s behalf for her having evolved creatures that would cope with their absurdity mainly by spinning fantasies that make our lives doubly preposterous. We ought to feel horror, sorrow, and embarrassment as we contemplate our oneness with impersonal Nature, not because we’re so important that our doomed species deserves to be mourned, but to honour Nature’s monstrousness. The physical universe is hardly a stable, peaceful place; instead, it’s strange and random. Beings come from and depart into nothingness, due to quantum fluctuations and black holes. And those three melancholy, antihumanistic feelings may be the starting points for a transcendent, objective understanding of something like semantic truth. We can’t under-stand what we are and what we do as long as we remain confined to our subjective viewpoints. We must dispense with all comforts, even if only in a thought experiment, to appreciate that whatever the supposed factuality of some combinations of symbols really is, it must at a minimum be ludicrous.