There is an objective Reality shared and agreed upon by all beings. The world inhabited by a coyote is the same world inhabited by humans, and amoebas. Life has a grand unified Truth that proves itself over and over again in the everyday existence of all beings. It is a reality of things that can be measured and studied and understood. It is a reality made up of evidence and experience, made up of the lives and deaths of countless animals and plants.
But there are skeptics; like Buddhists who say:
Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world
A star at dawn; a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp; a phantom; and a dream.
These skeptical doubts about the nature of reality are interesting to ponder, but on the level of day to day life, we live, eat, sleep, drink and breathe in the objective realities of a real physical world. The nature of those skeptical doubts is well captured in the Hindu story of a guru and his disciple who see a hungry tiger approach. The guru takes off running and after his disciple catches up to him he asks between breaths, “Master, if this world is illusory, then that tiger must also be illusory. Why, then, are we running away from what is only an illusion.” The guru looks back, panting, and says, “My son, this running is illusory also.”
It is useless to get lost in a labyrinth of post-modern debates about “interpretation” and “situated” truth narratives. It is true that interpretation is important; interpretation is what transforms dry data into theories and predictions — but valid interpretations are those which discern Truth based upon reason and logic. These theories and predictions provide us with numerous and repeatable concrete examples of their validity. For example, the Law of Gravity was the result of certain interpretations of the actions of falling bodies; every measurement of a falling body has confirmed the validity of this theory. The Apollo 11 astronauts did not debate the cultural milieu and social identity of Sir Isaac Newton with the ground crew; their safe return was proof of the validity of his equations.
The reality of our senses; what we all taste, touch, see, what causes pain, is the same reality that all humans on this earth experience. Skeptical declarations by those who claim otherwise are not pertinent; if we are running from the tiger then we are dwelling in a world where running is necessary to survival, illusory or not. Truths about the world uncovered by objective evidence are of very great value. Living in accordance with those truths is satisfying and fulfilling and denying them or living in ignorance of them is a life not worth living;
the unexamined life is not worth living
Therefore deceptions perpetrated upon those truths should be corrected and rejected. This must be done with a spirit of humility, fully acknowledging the fallibility of human interpretation; it is a profoundly distressing characteristic of our species that we seem to be perfectly willing and capable of lying about what really happened and what was really observed; even to ourselves and by ourselves.
Diversity in the wording and framing of common universal themes in the world’s mythologies is evidence of their rich and wonderful universality. But they are not, and they don’t intend to be, factual records of objective truth. There is nothing wrong with this; it is possible to spend fruitful and entertaining hours reading and studying about great mythological systems. But this won’t tell us how ancient peoples built their houses, manufactured their pottery or mended their farm implements. Rather, it is a much broader perspective relating to the contents and actions of what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.” Mythology needs no “proof” or defense; it stands very well on its own as it is. But it is not Truth.
The collective unconscious is vast and powerful. Truth is a very fragile thing in the face of the human Shadow. That is why observations, laws and interactions that have been demonstrated by the methods of science and scientific observation are so important. In fact, the most challenging task of all in discerning Truth is to examine one’s own interior experiences. This is fraught with difficulty. The AA Big Book speaks of the “Great Reality Within” and considers discerning this, and freeing oneself from alcoholism, a challenging spiritual quest. Sometimes we can become lost in our own rationalizations and excuses and fail to realize the myriad clever ways we have of deceiving ourselves; of creating our own deceptive mythology. The alcoholic may not come to understand this until after their fifth DUI, failed marriage and prison term. And, for some, death comes before awakening to the “Great Reality Within.” The final Reality.
Self examination is more than recording and analyzing raw data; it is a statement of faith that, like language, interior experiences can be shared and understood. It is a faith in the existence of a community of Truth seekers who are open to, and even grateful for, being proved wrong by new evidence and data because it brings them closer to Truth. As Patricia Mercado Allinger says,
We find the facts behind the theory. When those facts don’t match the theory, it’s time for a new theory.
No one has ever said such a thing about a system of mythology, nor would anyone in their right mind do so. The reasons for analyzing objective evidence are more important than the evidence itself; the insights gained add to the store of knowledge available for the betterment of all. It is a fallacy that this process is a value-neutral exploration of facts, it is driven by a profound human curiosity and desire to know. In its highest form it is the drive to know God; Albert Einstein said,
Whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advance made in the domain of science is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life. The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.
This religious appreciation of Truth is much more than the cold materialism that is often unfairly projected upon science and scientists. A humble attitude of mind is, for example, how good anthropologists and archaeologists approach the reality of human history beyond the written word. Artifacts, buildings and burials do not lie; interpretations of them differ, but it is possible to come to the “right” interpretation of such evidence which gives us insight into the life experiences of those ancient people and can lead us to valuable understandings of who we are as humans and how we have become the way we are.
These “right” interpretations can be distinguished from “wrong” interpretations of that evidence; “wrong” interpretations do not tell us anything worthwhile about who we are and how we got to be this way. In fact, many “wrong” interpretations are wrong because they existed before the evidence and look at that evidence with an arrogant, narrow minded agenda to prove a pre-existing opinion. Those proposing them already think they know who we are and how we got to be this way and are often those who are busy trying to “prove” a system of myths. This, I think, is a primary distinguishing characteristic that separates genuine seekers of Truth from those with a pre-existing agenda; it is Einstein’s “humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence,” the openness, willingness and gratitude at being proved wrong.
Truth is democratic and promotes radical equality; the King can be overruled by the meekest peasant in the realm of logic and reason. Those who affirm the Emperor’s nakedness can only do so for a short while before someone, even a child, forces them to come to terms with Truth. This may make many of them very angry; especially if they have invested much of their energy and effort into maintaining their false position. The Truth then makes fools of them. Angry fools.
Authoritarians rely upon this dynamic. If the Emperor has enough authority to silence the boy and put him and those who agree with him in prison, then the reality of his nakedness can be suppressed. Truth no longer matters in the face of this authoritarian power. Truth and power have an uneasy relationship. Truth seeks to convince by the democratic process of rational and logical argument. Power proclaims, “It is so, because I say so! Disagreement will be severely punished!”
The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. — 1984
Truth requires people who can think for themselves and make decisions based upon their logical analysis of evidence. This requirement can be challenging and difficult. It is much easier to simply say, “It is so because the Bible says so.” Or, “It is so because Dear Leader says so.” Truth requires time and effort and the ability to think logically and rationally. Unfortunately many people prefer doing otherwise.
totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda… lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world… — Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism)
It would be easier if humans were as rational as we like to claim. But studies of human behavior, human brains, and human culture tell a different story. Evolution in tribal survival units has created brains which are exquisitely adapted to survive and turn resources into offspring within that tribal milieu. Behaviors that got one banished from the tribe were not successful evolutionary strategies. Maintaining good relations and establishing a good reputation within the tribe rewarded certain kinds of hard-wiring that enhanced fitness.
Among those hard-wired traits was a highly skilled ability at deception. As Jonathan Haidt says in The Righteous Mind,
We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.
And those who observe chimpanzee behavior are often disturbed at how similar it is to the shifting alliances and power hierarchies in any Fortune 500 company.
So this Truth, this “humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence,” is a fragile thing. Critical, objective thinking occurs in a gelatinous mass of neurons bathed in hormones that arise from primitive hard-wired evolutionary adaptations that promoted survival in the real world. An animal that stopped and thought about an environmental danger signal would have ended up dead, even if that signal were incorrectly interpreted — the rustling in the bush was only the wind, not a tiger. Fearful flight may not have been “rational” but it enable survival during those rare times when it really was a tiger.
Authoritarians know how easy it is to stimulate these primitive survival mechanisms. They do so by submerging the fragile processes of critical thinking, of reason and logic, in a sea of lies. Lying powerfully, often angrily, and repeatedly confuses the minds of followers and distorts their sense of reality. As Hanna Arendt says, they “conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.” Authoritarians first attack is always upon the Truth. “Don’t believe your own eyes and ears, believe what we tell you!”
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’. — Ron Suskind (2004)
The “reality-based community” is under attack; attacks not only from the right but from the left. Many cultish authoritarian leaders have arisen to challenge independent critical thinking; these leaders rule the minds of their followers by making independent thinking akin to blasphemy: “It is so because I say so!”
A good example of this attack from the left is within Unitarian Universalism. UUism is considered to be one of the most left wing, progressive, organized religious groups in existence. And while they have a strong foundation of humanist free-thinkers who have always questioned authority they have become hijacked by an authoritarian cult of anti-racism. Rev. Thandeka, herself a black UU minister, describes this cult:
One: All whites in America are racists.
Two: No blacks in American are racist. They’re prejudiced just like everybody else, but they lack the power of institutional resources to force other racial groups to submit to their will. Thus they can’t be racist because racism in this conceptual scheme is defined as prejudice + power.
Three: Whites must be shown that they are racists and confess their racism.
… whites will always remain sinners because their nature is corrupted. They are thus slaves to …the original sin of racism. Lacking all agency, they thus can’t effect their own salvation. In short, they need a savior. And in the theology, this savior isn’t Jesus but, in a brash leap, ‘people of color.’
Rev. Thandeka described this anti-racism cult in 1999. UUism is still divided today over the actions of true believers and those who question the logic of their philosophy. And the neo-racist authoritarians have a powerful response; white people who question their beliefs are not only racist but lacking in awareness of their own racism and are thus “fragile.” The latest eruption of this tension came in the reaction to a book called “The Gadfly Papers” written by a UU minister, Todd Eklof, questioning the philosophical tenets of this cult, using reason and logic. The response was telling:
We recognize that a zealous commitment to ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ over all other forms of knowing is one of the foundational stones of White Supremacy Culture. Instead of accepting the frame of Rev. Eklof’s arguments and debunking them, we instead affirm the following:
White Supremacy Culture (WSC) is alive and well within Unitarian Universalism.
-UU Minister’s Letter condemning the “Gadfly Papers” (signed by 500 UU ministers the day after it was released. Few, if any, had read the book.)
It is so because we say so! Reason and logic be damned!
Critical thinking, critical analysis is blasphemy within authoritarian cults. And blasphemers are to be excommunicated. The right wing cults of fascism, racism and bigotry find their reflection in left wing cults of anti-racism, safetyism and political correctness. Both are becoming increasingly polarized and increasingly hysterical in their banishment of blasphemers who dare to question the tenets of the cult; who dare to exercise reason and logic.