Thoughts on Truth and Prophets
Let us return to the ancient, ever-enduring question: What is Truth? As my high school philosophy teacher once said, though we may seem to arrive at the very point from which we started when taking up an inquiry such as this, it is possible that we have ascended a spiral staircase, as opposed to merely walking in a circle; our position being the same as initially only from one perspective, while really, more lofty in the end.
I will begin with an observation which is likely shared by all, namely, that certain persons seem better adapted to discerning certain truths than others. From this, we find that there is often a tendency to infer the existence of an inherent intellectual capacity in every individual; an intellectual capacity which is measurable --just as measurable as the strength of an individual's muscles-- and that this measurement is the basis by which the capacity of a person to come to correct, or true, judgments is compared between individuals. From this, it might be inferred that, given equal information, those of higher intelligence would be able to discern truth better than those of lower intelligence, no matter what particular subject matter might be under consideration. However, useful as the notions of intelligence and its measurement might be, it has been found insufficient to describe the entirety of what is involved in the discerning of truth. Mankind has found it necessary to distinguish other characteristics of the individual which bear directly on the matter of how it is that truth is discerned. Wisdom, insight, penetration, foresight, depth, discrimination, freedom in thought, creativity, intelligence, prudence, courage, determination, and rigor, are some of the things which have been identified as relevant to the discernment of truth.
We might imagine that there are an infinite number of different characteristic aptitudes for discerning truth in each distinct subject which the mind of man might consider. This, of course, is not the case with the above listed characteristics; intelligence and wisdom, for example, being traits conceived of as capacities-to-identify-truth in many different but generally relatable matters of consideration (categories which are, though, distinct enough to warrant their own corresponding capacity of discernment). To illustrate the point with a simplified example: intelligence might be said to be that capacity of discernment of truth in the subject of logical relations, while wisdom might be said to be that in the subject of the conduct of people. Also, we find that some of these above mentioned characteristics do not pertain to different categories of subjects of consideration, but, rather, to the manner in which consideration is made of any subject. For instance, caution and boldness. These are two traits sometimes attributed to the process by which the individual forms judgments. Sometimes we find persons praised for coming to discern the truth of a particular matter in a way which exemplified the one, or the other. And here, we seem to have a paradox, (at least from the point of view that the capacity to discern truth is a homogeneous and quantifiable capability, like the strength of a muscle): In one instance, a person might be praised for the cautious, circumspect manner in which they came to discern a truth, while, at another time, the same person might be praised for the bold manner in which they came to discern a truth. So, is it praiseworthy to be cautious, or is it praiseworthy to be bold? These are mutually exclusive qualities. What is the right manner in which we should form judgments?
Another question: How are we to understand the individual who, in one instance, is able to discern and convey important truths, while, at the same time, exhibits the most embarrassing displays of aberrant judgment?
Lately, I have found myself hesitating to indulge in something of which I was once readily willing to partake; namely, to disparage, either openly, or in my own thoughts, what I view in others to be great mistakes of judgment. It is old wisdom that everything good must come wedded with some trace of imperfection; the very nature of being seems to necessitate it. Applying this lesson to the matter of individual exhibitions of contrary tendencies in the realm of good judgment, we may be obliged to reconcile ourselves accordingly. We also might take another viewpoint, namely, the idea that the very thing in a certain individual which might lead him to truth, is also the very thing which might lead him astray.
However, it seems inconceivable that mankind could rest content with such notions, or that it would be desirable to do so; for a modification of one’s ideas about what is true is essential to development, and to survival – of both the individual and of the human race. But, it is not easy to know when it is best to interdict upon the judgment of others in order to undermine their ideas such that better ones might be discovered by them. This is true both of individuals and of groups of individuals. Ill-placed criticism of a person's ideas, even if viewed to be incorrect, might be detrimental to that person's intellectual development. Imagine, for instance, a pupil who is not given the chance to feel out the limits of the validity his preliminary heuristic conceptions, because the teacher insists that only the "truth" is to be taught. It would not be wise to teach relativistic physics before learning classical physics, even though classical physics is known to be "not true" to someone versed in relativity. The question as to the optimal rhythm between establishing proficiency in a more elementary domain of knowledge and the phases in which more advanced, more true, material is to be assimilated, is a question which has, no doubt, occupied many of those in the teaching profession. The same might be said of groups: Ill placed criticism of, or insistence on further deliberation about, the foundational initiatives of a group which is formed to carry out a certain function, might undermine the ability of that group to achieve anything at all. Would, for instance, the christian missionaries who lifted so many out of barbarism been able to accomplish this feat if they had made sure that everything in the Bible was perfectly true before undergoing their campaigns of proselytization? But setting aside the question of the evolution of the notions of what is true which the individual, or group, is required to undergo, let us focus our attention on the question of the judgment of the individual.
The specimen we will examine in hopes of illuminating the questions and problems connected with this matter will be: the prophet. The prophet is rightfully identified as a human universal. In all cultures, we find the concept of prophet: one endowed with a gift of foresight which reaches far beyond that of the majority of those contemporary with him. The prophet is archetypal, and so is his image: He lives on the fringes of society (if not geographically, at least socially.) His clothes are often old and tattered, his face bearded, and his hair unkept --all sign of his utter lack of preoccupation with satisfying the norms of the society in which he lives. His manner is strange, inscrutable, and often ridiculous. He is found to exhibit behaviors which even children find untoward. His ramblings, mostly on abstruse matters, are mostly nonsensical, even to himself, and his derangement is evident. He is regarded by most as a harmless, distracted old man, who has lost the ability to discern things in the proper way. And yet, at certain moments, the prophet becomes enrapt, and, riveted by something deep in structure of reality, cries out a message of truth – one which no one else is able to discern. In certain moments, it is the prophet who is able to speak out, when no one else will, when a profound truth is left hanging, unacknowledged.
I recently watched a film with my wife: The Princess Bride. In it, there is a scene in which a woman is about to marry the prince and become the princess. As she emerges from a palace chamber, gleaming in the garb of royalty, all the people of the kingdom kneel down in obeisance to her – all, but one, that is. The wood dwelling, rag-garbed, gnarled-faced prophetess, unsightly to behold, rises, while all the normal people kneel, to cry out "Boo!- You are not marrying for true love!" The prophetess spoke the truth, while all else didn't even dare to discern it.
The prophet shocks people; for, the people are grown accustomed to hearing nothing but demonstrable nonsense from the prophet's mouth. That is, they are accustomed to hearing untruths, or babble devoid of even the pretense of truth, put forward by the prophet in so many other instances. How, then, is a person, whose grasp on the truth seems so tenuous most of the time, able to seize the truth at moments when others seem unable to do so -- like a horse master who at once seizes a raging steed while others flail about ineffectually. How can the person who is hardly master of his dress, so suddenly become the master of truth?
Are we to take the prophet as nothing but a creature of fairy tales and myths, and, therefore, to judge these questions as idle? I find that the prophet archetype corresponds to certain persons in the real world well enough to assume the reality of this archetype and the usefulness of proceeding to investigate the questions pertaining to it in the way we have initiated above. Examples of prophets from our own times would include Lyndon LaRouche and Alex Jones, perhaps we could call them “prophets of history and politics”.
I will say this for now. It seems likely that the prophet is endowed with something which enables him to seize truth in the peculiar way he does, while others are not. It seems likely, also, that this factor, which gives the prophet his special power, is also the thing which impels him to aberrant judgment in matters in which most persons hold proficiency. That is, the very thing that enables the prophet to see the truths winch others cannot, is the very thing which blinds the prophet to the truths which others can see clearly, and visa versa.
It seems that we can extend this to mankind generally. We often find that a person's greatest strength is also their greatest weakness, depending on the situation in which they find themselves. To what extent might we be contradicting ourselves when we say that we approve of a person's behavior in one instance, but not in another -- perhaps it is the same factor in each instance which animated the individual of whom we speak, and, therefore, we would be praising and disparaging the very same thing simultaneously. We might attempt to collaborate with such an individual so that the causal behavioral factor in question would be activated in its optimal extent in each situation: sometimes being brought to bear fully, while, at other times, suppressed; all determined by what is judged to be best in different kinds of situations.
But what if we are dealing with the process of judgment formation? What if we are discussing the process of forming convictions respecting the truth? Each individual, indeed, has a complex of experiences and internal tendencies which play into this process. Each individual has their own "frame" with which they form their judgments about what is true. Now, it seems evident that no particular "frame" could ever provide a person with the basis to capture all truth, and that, every frame will oblige a person to fall into error. Let us ask the question -- is there always a possibility of reconciling the opposing judgments of different persons respecting the truth --judgments informed by each person's unique frame-- through the identification of a different, higher frame, which captures what is valid in each? It seems that this idea presupposes a tacit assumption lying behind the way most persons are inclined to think. Certainly, mankind has exhibited the successful carrying out of such a process of "higher frame construction" in many different situations, and the results have been quite favorable. (I will note that this assumption is closely related to the hypothesis of objective reality, and absolute truth.) However, what if it is the case that there are certain situations in which two truths were identified by different persons with different frames, and there was no way, in principle, that the frames could be reconciled in a subsuming frame as had been assumed always possible in such situations? What if certain truths could only be discerned through certain frames, at the expense of other truths? Would this mean that there was really no truth at all? No, only that truth has a different "texture" than we are accustomed to ascribing to it (often unconsciously).
The risks accompanying a casual adoption of such a philosophy is evident: all the benefits derived from the process of identifying frames (or, hypothetical constructs; theories) which encompass the truths of partially valid but mutually exclusive frames within a higher schema, would be put in jeopardy. The practice of science, for instance, would be put in jeopardy. But, perhaps there are some benefits of equal or even of greater importance to be derived from a careful pursuit of the new approach, while keeping intact the dignity of the former approach in its particular magesterium.
The connection between the nature of truth and the appropriateness (morality) of human behavior is raised by these considerations. Some have postulated that the truth consists of those convictions which impel man to do the good. Other similar, "behavior based" theories of truth have been posited. Most persons who consider such theories of truth usually find immediate problems with them, easily identifying counterexamples which would tend to render the theory as admitting things which seem obviously untrue, as being true. That said, the behavior based theories of truth seem to cohere more readily with the notion of multiple simultaneous irreconcilable valid notions of truth, than the more commonplace notion which maintains that all that which is true is not mutually exclusive. For, taking the theory of truth as that which leads a person towards good behavior (for example) as valid, it would not be difficult to see how it would be possible, in principle, for two mutually exclusive notions to be true if held by different persons, for, if each of those notions impelled those persons, respectively, to act in ways which were good – ways in which they would not have acted unless convinced of the truth of those notions -- those notions would be, by definition, true (while still mutually exclusive). It would be possible for multiple persons to have completely different ideas about the same thing, yet, at the same time, to find that the behavior of all of those persons arising out of their differing convictions turns our to be “good” and, thus, true. The possibilities become quite complicated when we consider the possibility of defining truth not on the basis of individual behavior, but, rather, on the behavior of groups of individuals, of societies. For instance, if we define the truth as that which facilitates the survival of the society, we find that there are nearly an infinitude of combinations of mutually exclusive ideas which might be called true as long as the total effect conduced to the survival of society.
Truth ever resists our attempts to hem it it. How frustrating, given that the question of truth is the most important that can be considered. Perhaps that is why we heed the prophets, for they speak in ways which impel us to action-- action which we might not have been able to discern (in our solitary rationalistic ruminations) as truly best. The message of the prophet pertains often to our actions-- what it is that we should do, and not necessarily to the “objective truth” as normally conceived, though “objective truths” might be present in the message. However, there be false prophets, no doubt -- some false by intention, some by madness. But, what if from the false prophet comes a truthful message? Who is it that we can claim has the divine circuit, such that the truth can speak, not by accident, but by lawful manifestation? Perhaps we must be content with the idea that the divine circuit is calibrated in each of us differently, but never perfectly.