The Story of Truth (part 2)Stephen Farah
This is an amplification of an earlier post on the subject of truth and the stories we tell ourselves about it, to read the original post The Story of Truth click here.
Let me begin with a story, the story of truth
Once a long time ago in a land far away (well not far maybe), there lived a man who desperately wanted to know the truth.
Eventually he could resist the impulse no longer and leaving his wife and children he left his small and happy home and went in search of the truth.
He crossed river and dale and spent many a night exposed to the elements of nature, cold and hungry in pursuit of his goal – the truth.
After he had been searching for some time he came to the foot hills of a mountain where he had been told he would find what he sought.
He climbed the mountain and just when he thought he could not go on he came upon a cave and in that cave he found the truth.
The truth was an ugly old hag (a bit smelly too), and he was a little taken back at first. But she bid him enter and sit at her feet where she spoke to him.
So enraptured was our intrepid traveller that he stayed in that cave for many a day. By the light of the sun he would go out and gather food and water from the surrounding countryside.
And at night he would make a small fire from birch and twigs he had collected, and by the light of the fire the old woman would talk softly. She told him many things, many secret things, some of which man was not supposed to know.
She spoke of distant lands and beautiful woman, of great adventure and heroism in face of danger, she told him the secrets of the birds and why the sky was filled with stars, she told him why woman cry and men fight, she told him why children laugh, she told him many things…
One day the time came to leave and for the man to go home. He stood at the entrance to the cave on last time to say farewell. He asked the woman what he could do for her that had given him so much.
When you speak of me she said, tell them I am young and beautiful.
The central message of this post
The truth is not what you think it is. And even that is not true, but it is the best that language will allow. There may or may not be something real, something essential, something fundamental behind our perceptions, our thoughts, our ideas, our hopes and our dreams. This is a question which has occupied philosophers since the dawn of time.
The domain of philosophy that deals with this is called ontology, the concept of the real, the domain of the bedrock of reality. The categorisation of how something can be said to be, and what that means exactly.
I am not going to overstep my very humble perch of knowledge and claim to know the answer to this question, to know the ontological basis of our existence. Or even whether there is a true ontology behind or embedded in our personal and communal reality.
Rather what I want to say is even if it is there is, it (reality) is not what you think it is it is, not what you think of as real. What you believe is real is a construct. In cultural studies it is what is referred to as a social construct, but this term can be misleading because it may be social or may just be your personal construct.
The realisation of the constructed nature of reality can be quite frightening, but also very liberating.
The challenge is not simply the courage to face this degree of uncertainty but an understanding of the concept so that it may be applied to some effect in your daily life.
I will touch very briefly on three schools of thought, not unrelated, who give us some insight into this concept.
Immanuel Kant and Transcendental Idealism
Kant the father of modern philosophy developed the theory of transcendental idealism. The full exposition of this theory and how he arrives at it fill a number of very dense volumes, the most well known being The Critique of Pure Reason.
I hope you will forgive me if I cut to the quick and give you the lowdown on this idea.
There are two levels of reality, the noumenal and the phenomenal. The phenomenal is what we experience as real, the noumenal is what underlies that experience and is inaccessible to our direct knowledge. This does not mean it is difficult to know it means we cannot know it.
The reason we cannot know it is because our perception happens in a structured way, it is not pure and unmediated. We know things in a certain way because our minds have a particular way of perceiving that “reality”, what Kant called the categories of perception.
The best example of this is space and time or as we know since Einstein, space-time.
We always perceive things phenomenally as happening in space and time; these are absolutes of our perception. However since the theory of relativity we know that time itself is relative to the perceiver it does not have the objective (or absolute) existence it appears to us to have.
Quantum physics has gone a long way to showing the validity of Kant’s ideas. Many aspects of the reality underlying our phenomenal reality have been shown to be radically different from what they appear. Space-time is one, but also the wave-particle duality and the direction of causality. It appears to us that a past event causes a future one, but not necessarily so the physicists say, in quantum mechanics a future event can exert backwards causation.
Message: We live in a reality constructed by these categories of perception. What we perceive is not absolute or noumenal reality but rather phenomenal. What seems so real and concrete is only so experientially not essentially. Don’t be fooled into thing you know absolutely when you don’t. The universe is more complex than we are able to know or imagine, anything is possible.
Freud, Jung and the unconscious mind
With the “discovery” of the unconscious by depth psychology our fundamental way of understanding ourselves changed. What we learnt is that we are not all that we seem to be, or rather we are much more than we seem to be.
What we hold in our conscious mind is only a portion of the whole of our psyche, by far the greater portion of our mind is unconscious.
What does this mean?
Well simply that you and I and everyone else, behave, feel, think, and do without truly knowing why. We would like to believe, or let’s say an optimistic understanding of ourselves allows, that some of what we do we do consciously, that is that we are aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it.
The truth is we are probably not aware of the why or at best only a portion of the why. But even if we allow for an optimistic version of consciousness which has real sovereignty over much of our lives certainly the larger portion of what motivates us (and hinders us) is unconscious.
Bottom line, we know a lot less about who we are and why we do, than we think we do.
Message: Reality is not what you think it is or what it seems to be. On a personal level your psychology is largely unknown to you, not unknowable, but unknown. The journey of discovery into this unknown area of your self is possible and holds great rewards for the one willing to undertake it. First step realise that your reality is fluid and anything you turn your attention to will change.
The Imaginary, Symbolic and Real
The radical psychoanalyst and French intellectual Jacque Lacan defined three levels of mental events.
The imaginary: this is where we interact with the world inner and outer in a kind of fantasy state what we imagine is going on with us and around us, what we visualise, hear, think etc.
The real: this is opposed to the imaginary and the symbolic it is the place where the symbolic breaks down, the place of maximum anxiety.
The symbolic: this is the categorisation and management of the real and the imaginary through symbols, for Lacan these symbols were made up of words, language.
Lacanian psychoanalysis understands the whole of psychology as a moving between these three categories. So it may look something like this:
- I encounter a serious problem, a problem that resists my best attempts to overcome it or work through it. This is the domain of the real. (Just a sidebar here by real we mean a category of relationality to the world. Not real as in fundamentally real).
- My imaginative capacity kicks in I start to dream and fantasise about a way out or around or through or away.
- Through his creative, imaginative process of play I have the opportunity of discovering a way out of the maze, but I need to capture this way in the form of a symbol, a definite image, for Lacan in language specifically.
- Once successful I am fully adapted and operating once again at the level of the symbolic.
So the real is what is un-symbolised, but the real can almost always be symbolised, not always but almost. For example take death it is about as real event as we are likely to encounter. Death is the domain of the real.
However we symbolise death through the rituals we perform around it, funerals, wakes, prayers etc. in this way we give it a meaning for those of us left behind. And for the person who dies if that person believes that either their life or death is meaningful, let’s use an example of a soldier who dies in defence of his country or a revolutionary in defence of a cause, then the process of dying means something, it becomes acceptable at a certain level it is symbolised.
Stories about the afterlife have a similar affect if we believe them, if we give them credence then death is a lot less traumatic, it can even be beautiful.
The critical thing to get though is this: when you just read that last remark (about life after death) I am betting you had one of two reactions. If you are a believer you thought something along these lines:
“There is life after death, and this writer is obviously ignorant and doesn’t know the truth, the good news so to speak,” because you may have picked up my idea that the story of life after death is functional rather than actual. If this describes you then you are okay; and I really mean that that’s not me being sarcastic. You have symbolised death.
Or, like me, you may have thought,
“Yes but I know that’s all BS and there is no life after death.” What I want you to get is that is not the truth it is just a story about the truth. You have bought into the story of scientific materialism, it’s simply not true, it is just a specific form of symbolisation.
This is not because it’s false either. You see the categories of true and false are themselves a symbolic way of understanding the world, they are not essential (noumenal as Kant would put it) realities.
We do not have access to the realm of the absolute, not consciously and phenomenology anyway. We exist in the realm of the imaginary and the symbolic. When we encounter the real, the Lacanian real, it is simply a breakdown in the symbolic process, it’s not real in terms of unchangeable.
If we can learn anything from history it is this, we don’t know all is there is to know. Be gracious enough to realise that and don’t behave with the arrogance and stupidity of one who believes he does know. The universe has not yet revealed her secrets, the rate at which things are changing today, the future is unimaginable, and things will reveal themselves in the next generation that will fundamentally shift what we call real.
This is already happening only it takes some time for these things to filter through into the general world view.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than dreamt of in your philosophy. – The Bard
I for my part prefer the precious gift of doubt so as not to violate the virginity of things beyond our ken. – Jung
What is Your Story?
I had occasion recently to attend a talk by an organisation focusing on narrative therapy. One of the women who had completed the programme shared a story that illustrates this idea quite well.
She spoke about how she had decided at some point years ago, that her husband was “not on her team” as she put it. And once she had decided this, he wasn’t. That is the power of the stories we tell ourselves.
In her case she had simply told herself this story and then accepting it she had filed it and forgotten about it. Not about the effects of it mind you, she knew he wasn’t on her team, but the reasons behind this decision faded into the recesses of her unconscious until it simply became an accepted truth.
Realising what she had done and how this had impacted on her life and her marriage she was able to un-tell the story and start to create a new one.
Now please don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting it is as simple as all that, it isn’t. A lot of harm is caused by various “gurus” and self help organisations suggesting that it is, I’m telling you it isn’t, it is not easy. In fact the chances are very good that even if this post resonates with you once you go back to your life nothing will change. Real change requires real desire and real application to change.
I know that the stories you carry are real, at least they hove become real, and to treat psychic reality as anything less real than material reality is naive. This is the domain of charlatans and the personal growth industry which is pretty much the same thing actually.
However there are two things I would like you to leave this post with:
Ask yourself the question, what stories do you tell yourself? Are you happy with these stories, are they working for you?
Get the possibility of change, just that, if nothing else. Change is possible, because the reality you live in is a construction. It is as Lacan would put it on the level of the symbolic. And if it is working for you then leave it alone, but if there is an area where your symbolisation has broken down, and you are encountering the real, you don’t need to get stuck there. And the first step is the realisation that the real is not as real as it seems.
This is the first step to transformation.
Until we speak again,