Thursday, December 05, 2013

Seeking the truth

In the ODT a couple of days ago, Educationalist Jeff Smith is reported as urging graduates to 'seek the truth, but also to follow "your own path" and strive to help others.' 

But the headline quotes him as saying 'follow own path' to truth, which was what caught my eye.  Apparently Prof Smith gave the graduates the same advice he gives his own children, 'Beware of people who know the truth.' Which presumably includes Prof Smith, so he added, 'pay attention to his advice only "if it rings true for you."'

Ah, the old postmodern proverb, 'What's true for you isn't necessarily true for me.'  It's touted as a tolerance point of view, but as we know, if anyone crosses those who follow this line, it's soon obvious that what is true for them is the truth.

Prof Smith carries on: 'In this world, people will profess to own a little corner of the truth, and sometimes they will try to convince you that your own life will be better if you follow their path. But you've got your own path to follow. It may take a bit of clearing at times...trying to see just where the path is taking you.'

Okay, so firstly, people in this world (I'm not sure what other world Prof Smith has experience of) will profess to own a little corner of the truth. Hmm. Nope, people profess to owning the truth, not just a little bit of it. That's why there is conflict. As for following a path that you have to clear, I'm sure it's all a metaphor, but according to Prof Smith we have to see where this path takes us. Just a minute, who laid out the path that we have to hack our way along?

The report ends with him saying, 'Your graduation today does not mean you've found the light at the end of the tunnel. It means you've found the tunnel.' Sensible enough comment. But the last line in the report says, 'the truth was "way down there somewhere."  Um?  Sorry, where are we talking about exactly? I'm lost in metaphors here...

What Prof Smith is talking about, I think, is having a philosophy of life. That isn't necessarily the same thing as searching for truth.  And as far as I can see it, truth, if the word is to mean anything, is truth, not what I might think is the truth.  Either a thing is true or it isn't. Truth is one of those words that's entirely itself and not something else. Whatever isn't truth is not the truth. Anything that we don't know is truth is speculation about the truth.

Truth is an objective thing, outside me. We've so bamboozled ourselves in the last hundred years or so with ideas that might or might not be the truth, that we don't know what the word really means anymore.  As far as I can see, you can bang your head against the truth as much as you like and say your truth is what you make it, but at the end of the day, the truth is the truth.

In this world, gravity is a particular truth (its rules are different in other worlds, but they still hold true). The truth that is gravity in our world will make sure that you fall heavily if you fall, and the farther you fall the worse it will be for you.  You can jump off high buildings if you like, expecting to overcome gravity, but all that will do is get your name in the Darwin Awards (where there are plenty of examples of truth doing its thing).

The idea that we should beware of people who 'know' the truth is in part the cause of much of the problem with education these days. Children are told to query those in authority, with the result that they learn nothing that is true, and plenty that's only half-truths. Outside school, they challenge authority at every point, though most of them eventually learn the truth that what authority says goes, like it or not. They soon learn that in the real world truth means working a full day, being honest in your dealings and a bunch of other things adults take for granted - after a bit of experience. You can buck against these 'truths' but in the end they come back to bite you.

The graduates Prof Smith was talking to will discover this too, probably sooner than they'll discover what's down that path they're going to hack their way along. But they'll discover the truth more quickly if they listen to people who've already been around a while, ones who've thought about the truth for a few decades, and have managed to get a grip on it, rather than those who blithely say that what is true for you may not be true for me. Ignoring what people have already learned throughout history and trying to start from scratch is a very slow process, and a very long, dark tunnel.

Update: 
An article detailing another address has appeared in the ODT since I wrote the above. Intriguingly, the speaker in this address, Sir Peter Gluckman, says that science by itself is not the answer.  I could name a number of people who think that science is the answer to everything, so it's good to see someone with the kudos of Sir Peter be forthright about this. 

One of his statements was paraphrased in this way: The processes of science were designed to develop 'relatively reliable knowledge about the natural, built and social worlds.' The only other sources of knowledge were ultimately those of 'belief or dogma' but science alone could not create policy decisions or in medicine or public health, he warned. And science itself was 'never complete.'

I think there may be an unnecessary 'or' between policy decisions and in medicine.

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