The Story of Truth (part 2)Stephen Farah
Let me begin with a story, the story of truthOnce 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 postThe 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 IdealismKant 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 mindWith 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 RealThe 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.