Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Does The Truth exert a pull? Can a sufficiently eloquent statement of reason generally land? Underneath the stress and static of everyday life, does truth exert even a slight magnetic attraction? With respect to larger truths - above and beyond skirmishy realms like politics - does the human mind innately resonate, at any subtle level, with that which is True?

It's the ultimate 2017 question (though, again, I'm divorcing it from politics), but it's something I've wondered about for years. And while I once believed that Truth does exert a pervasive mild pull, I no longer do.

What pulls is confirmation bias. This explains the bizarrely selective nature of people's rationality. The most intelligent, rational people are capable of the stupidest irrationality - see Libertarianism, Communism, and neo-Atheism, or most of the other -isms that once swayed populations during the brief period (i.e. the Enlightnment, an intellectual overreaction to the brutally ignorant Dark Ages*), when thunderous intellectuals were mistakenly imagined to hold the magical key of rightness.

* - Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?)

Humans are squishy flesh bags, not crisp computation devices. They feel a deep, visceral pleasure when their assumptions are reinforced, and smart people are especially prone to mistaking this for intellectual rigor. By flattering their preconceptions, you're Truth Telling. You're, like, magical. This explains the fervor for Marx, Rand, etc.

So while an elegant statement of truth may indeed elicit a potent resonance, it holds only for those sharing the viewpoint. And they, inevitably, celebrate the psychic stroking more than the statement itself. Purring like kittens, we deem the petting hand all that's right and true in the world.

Writing about Skinner Boxes, where subjects are rewarded for a certain behavior, I said:
If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.
Disrupt the reward cycle by voicing truths across tribal lines, and you will quickly infuriate everyone within range. Your facility for truth-telling will appear dangerously inconsistent.

So let's forget about pulls, magnetism, and resonance. Those things are entirely about emotional drives - and rarely our more admirable ones. The good news (and it might be the single most solid cause for optimism in the entire human realm) is that while truth doesn't pull, it truly does register.

Smart people don't particularly mind being called stupid. But stupid people sure do; including stupid people who falsely assume - even vehemently - they're smart (same for all dichotomies - crazy/sane, ugly/attractive, etc.). This proves that, at some level, the truth registers. They know. As a self-aware stupid person, I frequently note that
I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be less of an idiot. By contrast, most people recoil quite strongly from acknowledging to themselves any idiocy in their thought or behavior. They'd much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.
Watch those denialists closely, however, and you'll observe that they do know. Deep inside, perhaps only unconsciously, they always do. Pay attention not to their words and their posture, but to their emotions and their insecurities, which always reveal the registration of Truth.

I once told a story about a friend who suffered from mysterious and disabling muscle tears. He'd obviously caused them, himself, via foolish over-stretching. I didn't even call him on it; I just let his own words echo in conversational silence, and watched the rage gather in his eyes - rage directed at me, for having trapped and embarrassed him; for having made him consider the stupidity that had caused this pain and suffering. The hopeful part is that he was dancing his dysfunctional dance in reaction to truth. Perhaps it wasn't a terribly useful dance, and lord knows no congratulatory cigar was offered, but it's not as if the truth hadn't landed.

The truth always lands, but it usually does so very quietly. Writing about distinguishing genuine intuition from the mind's multilayered noise, I noted that, amid the cacophony,
Truth speaks softly, and does not repeat itself.
We engage with truth in many ways - with dances of repulsion as well as of attraction. But truth is always, at some level, recognized. And while this recognition, like truth itself, is quiet and easily missed amid the tumultuous emotional hoo-ha, the latter always passes, while truth, alone, forever endures.

Truth is oh-so-lightly favored, in the scheme of things, simply by virtue of its singular persistence. Over the eons, playing our civilizational game on this minutely tilted table, we can not forever resist that minute, blessed tilt.

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