Does the truth set you free?

As I’ve reiterated endlessly on this blog and in other writings, several years ago I developed a severe case a repetitive strain in my forearms which was then topped off with an overnight onset of a mysterious malady consisting of unbalance and extreme fatigue. As a result, I had to largely stop working, leave Los Angeles and the friends and life I had there, and move in with my dad in San Diego.

But, about a year into my stay in San Diego I became convinced that I had figured out that my dizziness was due to a disorder of the vestibular system. Despite the fact that no doctors agreed with me, the theory made a lot of sense. I eventually met with a doctor who specialized in that system and he confirmed my hypothesis. This actually gave me a great sense of victory; using only my wits and Internet research, I had figured out the cause of an ailment that had beguiled several specialists and doctors I’d seen.

But the more I thought about it, the more I became rather dismayed. In truth, vestibular malfunction was the obvious culprit. It wasn’t that I was so smart, it was that these doctors were that dumb. Now, I’d always been someone who — within reason — respected and even deferred to authority figures like doctors. But as I looked around, I could see that authority figures were failing left and right. This was right around the economic recession of 2008: why had so few economists foreseen it coming? This was also when many Catholic priests were finally being punished for pedophilia — if that’s not an example of mendacious and evil abuse of authority then I don’t know what is. (Currently, we’re watching the implosion of Lance Armstrong, which further drives home the point that our heroes are shams.)

The lesson seemed to be: you can’t trust the experts, you have to do it yourself. Intrigued by what I’d learned about the vestibular system, I dove into the topic of neuroscience. That led me to genetics and physics and all sorts of interesting sciences. Topics that once seemed arcane and impossible to understand became digestible and appealing. I would say science became the second great love of my life, after music. I’ve even questioned whether, on some level, it was all worth it — while I’d had to leave Los Angeles, the location of what I would call the happiest years of my life, I had gained quite a lot in knowledge, in understanding of the universe. And by realizing that so many authority figures are basically retards, I gained a certain sense of self autonomy and freedom.

But, I can’t deny that there’s something unfulfilling about knowledge. You can’t deny that most science presumes that the universe is rather meaningless. In Los Angeles, I had friends, girlfriends, culture* etc. and, while I see those things now as somewhat unreal, you can’t deny their pleasures.

*This is not to say that San Diego doesn’t have culture, just that I’ve lost interest in culture in general.

I’m reading an interesting book now called “Straw Dogs” by a rather dour philosopher, John Gray. He confronts this conundrum — that truth doesn’t lead to happiness — head on. First he summarizes, then rejects, the views of Socrates.

[Socrates says that]… When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfillment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.

We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.

From there, Gray makes a point I’ve seen made by others. That science, rather than being a rejection of religion, evolved out of religion. And whereas we used to look to religion as a source of eternity, truth and freedom, we now look to science. But, Gray argues, science does not offer that.

Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth — and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.

Again, a point I’ve seen made before, but an interesting one: “survival of the fittest” does not mean “survival of those who best know the truth.” In fact, it might mean the exact opposite.

Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disadvantage… Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright*. A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes his promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise. In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage**. The same is true in politics, and many other contexts.

*This brings to mind one of the great quotes from Seinfeld’s George Costanza. “Remember Jerry… it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
** I recall a line to this effect from Gene Simmons’s autobiography (addressing his phenomenal success with women), “I’m probably one of the few people who thinks he’s better looking than he actually is.”

Gray continues…

If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs — inferior memes — will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken. Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error. [My italics.] Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray — by the subtle signs of self-knowledge — the deception being practiced’. As Herbert points out, evolution favors useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very na├»ve view of mental evolution’.

The take-away being that the Socratic notion that the truth will set you free is wrong. Knowledge does not equal happiness, and the unexamined life may well be worth living, and in fact, be preferable.

I’m not quite sure I buy all of this, but it’s certainly food for thought.

5 Responses to “Does the truth set you free?”

  1. John Saleeby

    I read a James Ellroy interview recently in which he said he doesn’t pay any attention to our Culture. It has nothing to say to him and he just doesn’t give a fuck. I’ve been thinking about that ever since and it’s starting to make more and more sense to me. We all agree that it’s all a lot of shit so – Fuck it. And if in the Future this has everybody talking how “out of touch” we are – Fuck em, we won’t be paying attention to what they’re talking about anyway.

  2. Wil

    I’ll tell you… I got out of that shitty Looper film today and walked into a shopping mall filled with fatties and pretty much gave up on society. 12 Monkeys was way better.

  3. John Saleeby

    “Looper” sucks, eh? I had a bad feeling about that one. I was looking at stills from “12 Monkeys” on Google just yesterday. I need to see that one again.

    I was just reading comments from people who had just watched the season premier of “The Walking Dead”. It was apparently nonstop violence and mayhem with practically no dialogue at all. People are ecstatic. But it will get boring again.

  4. Wil

    Well, maybe society isn’t all bad then.

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