Two nights ago I had a discussion with a colleague about ‘truth’. Her point of view was that people have different opinions on various topics so we can never claim to be uniquely right. To do so would be arrogant and narrow-minded since people who disagree with us believe equally strongly that they are right. Why should we think that it is only us who is in possession of ‘the truth’.
Uttering the words ‘the truth’ sometimes prompts a certain kind of person to wiggle two fingers on either side of their face to indicate that they don’t believe in ‘a truth’ singular, only in truths plural, and the more plural the better. After all, this is a democracy, not an autocracy. What kind of Nazi would insist on imposing ‘his truth’ on everyone else.
I’m pleased to report that my colleague didn’t say any of that, nor did she wiggle her fingers annoyingly about in the air.
However, as well as voicing the above ‘Who are you to say what is true?’ argument, she also brought up the ‘Even if people are wrong, why not let them believe what they want as long as it’s harmless?’ argument.
There is so much that I disagree with about all this that it is hard to know where to start. I think on the evening I tried to answer it all at once and ended up babbling incoherent nonsense, so let me take another run at it here.
Firstly, just because people hold different opinions doesn’t mean that one of these views can’t be the uniquely right one. If you ask a hundred people who won the 1970 World Cup you will probably get at least a dozen different answers. However, anyone who answered ‘I think it was Brazil’ would be right and anyone who answered ‘Upper Volta’ would be wrong. There is no need to say that since people gave differing views on the matter we have to hold fire on a definitive answer. Some people were simply wrong and that’s an end to it.
Similarly, just because some uneducated people wish to convince themselves that the Creation story in the Bible is literally true and evolution must therefore be wrong does not mean that we have to take these people seriously, nor say that Creationists and scientists each have their ‘own truth’.
In fact the whole concept of there being ‘multiple truths’ is a non-starter. We might all have different opinions on the truth but that there could be different truths simply makes no sense. If one truth was contradicted by another, then at least one them wasn’t a truth in the first place.
Some people like to point out that 500 hundred years ago scientists believed the sun went round the earth. Nowadays scientists believe that the earth goes round the sun. So maybe scientific knowledge is not as secure as scientists like to claim. (Actually, scientists don’t claim that their laws and theories are 100% secure, only that they are true to varying degrees of certainty). But, the sceptic continues, perhaps if we wait another 500 years scientists might revert back to a Geo-centric model of our solar system. Then we can all say, ‘For Christ’s sake, make up your minds!’
The suggestion here is that we never get any closer to the truth. We just change our views from time to time.
This is nonsense. In the same way that children know very little when they are young and gradually learn more, so does the human race. To accuse science of not getting everything right when it was still in its infancy is like expecting a two year old to speak and write perfect Latin. Simply because we haven’t learned everything doesn’t mean we haven’t learned anything since we came down from the trees. To pretend that we know no more now than we did when we used to burn witches is silly.
There are cultural relativists who claim that we believe what we believe only because we are stuck inside our culture, just as other tribes are stuck in theirs. Richard Dawkins once described talking to an anthropologist who believed the following. For us the Moon is a rock that orbits the earth at an average distance of 235,000 miles. Yet for a tribe in Africa the Moon is a pumpkin that their god threw up into the sky. The pumpkin now hangs there suspended in the sky, somewhere just beyond the tree tops. Each tribe, ours and theirs, believes their own ‘narrative’ to be true yet in reality neither one is more true than the other. Each tribe has its ‘own truth’.
Wouldn’t you just like to punch someone who said that full in the face?
Let’s imagine that I agree to show the tribal chief that my tribe is right and his tribe is wrong. He believes the Moon is quite small and only appears big because it is relatively close. So I offer to take him up in my plane to visit it. He has seen my plane flying and knows it has to go fast to stay in the air and assumes it won’t take us long to reach the Moon.
So we take off and head make a beeline for the Moon, which on this lovely night hangs just above the horizon. If his tribe is right we should arrive there pretty soon but the chief soon notices that we aren’t getting noticeably nearer, despite the fact that we have now been flying for as long as it takes to skin a snake.
Primitive people don’t have the advantage of a modern education but they are not stupid. Unlike Father Dougal they understand perspective. He now realises that the Moon must be much further away and be much bigger than his tribe believes.
Even if he still isn’t convinced he can hitch a ride on the next Moon mission and see for himself just how far away and big the Moon really is. He would soon understand that his tribe was wrong and that the white man’s science is a pretty good way of ascertaining fact from fiction. He would now accept this new truth and see that sending a rocket into space and bringing it back to earth again is the surest confirmation that scientific maps onto reality in a way that pumpkin Moons don’t.
The one thing that would probably really perplex the chief in all this is why the bearded anthropologist still insists on telling him that the traditional views of his African tribe are just as ‘true’ as the scientific view. The chief can see for himself that this isn’t the case. Why is the bearded one lying to him?
Regarding my colleague’s second point about whether some false views are completely harmless I find it hard to say. Certainly, some views which once seemed harmless have turned out not to be like the idea that the soul enters the person at the moment of conception. It is partly this belief that stalled stem cell research in America for ten years and condemned thousands of people to die of diseases that stem cell technology might have cured.
Then there is the belief that Muslim men will get 72 virgins in heaven. Where’s could be the harm in that?
Well, a young Muslim man might not be quite so keen to blow himself up if he didn’t believe there would 72 dark-haired lovelies waiting to tend to his every need, just as soon as the ringing in their ears from the almighty ‘BOOM!’ had stopped.
It’s almost impossible to say in advance what beliefs are likely to be harmless and which won’t yet either way, I just don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage false beliefs or let them go unchallenged. Filling the world with lies and bullshit can only have bad consequences. But even if there were no bad consequences to false beliefs I’d still be against them, partly because I want to share the world with reasonable people rather than fantasists and wishful thinkers, and partly because there is something demeaning about believing something simply because it makes you feel good. After all, what reason do any of us have for believing in an afterlife other than it makes us feel good?
Talking of believing things purely for the feel-good factor, a week before this conversation with my female colleague I found myself arguing with a male colleague about his belief that we have souls that are balls of light. I suggested to him that his single experience of this during meditation might tell him something interesting about his own brain state at the time but nothing useful about human souls in general or about the nature of the universe. I said that I thought we were just lumps of flesh with a nervous system that navigate as best we can through our environment. He said that my view was very scientific. I was pleased, but I think it was meant as an insult, ‘scientific’ meaning the same as ‘narrow-minded’ to some creative types.
Anyway, he said, I couldn’t prove that we didn’t have balls of light for souls and I had to concede that I couldn’t, even though it broke my heart to do so. He smiled at this and his eyes twinkled and I could almost see the words “Gotcha!’ glowing through his forehead.
I think what was on his mind was that since neither of us could prove the other wrong, then we must be on an equal footing, each of us having a 50% chance of being right.
If this is what he was thinking then what I should have said to him on the night, but didn’t, was the following. I could claim to be Greta Garbo reincarnated and there is absolutely nothing you could do prove it otherwise. Yet your inability to disprove every mad idea I choose to throw at you doesn’t in the least make my claim any less ridiculous. Apart from that, the onus should be on me to put forward good reasons why I believe myself to be a long-dead screen goddess from Sweden rather than a bald middle-aged English teacher from the East Midlands.
And, I would have continued, just because there are two possibilities doesn’t mean that they are both are equally probable. If F.C. Barcelona played football against my ageing local pub team I would bet on Barcelona winning. Some football teams, like some arguments, are simply stronger than others.
And even at times when it appears that there are only two possibilities there are actually more. Christians like to think that the chances of there being a god are high. They aren’t, but even if they were, the chances of the god that made the universe being the Christian god are vanishingly small. Humans have dreamt up hundreds of thousands of gods since the dawn of history and none of them has an ounce more evidence in their favour than the others. Therefore, it really wouldn’t be wise to bet on it being your particular favourite god that lit the fuse that made the Big Bang go bang.
Likewise, the chances that our souls – if it turns out that we have them – are made of spherical light are no greater than that they are made of Gorgonzola cheese and are rhombus-shaped. After all, my colleague didn’t actually see anything. He only imagined seeing something. Unless that is he has eyes that can swivel round to look inwards at his own brain.