(Continued from previous post)
We can acknowledge that every human infant has essentially the same starting point—the same mechanisms for learning truth, value, and meaning—and that our social and cultural environments largely determine the content of our beliefs and truths. However, it’s also important to recognize that environments themselves can evolve over time, and sometimes in additive, progressive steps. That is to say that the past often affects the present, and so one’s place in history can often determine aspects of how truth is conceptualized and experienced.
Technological advancement is one of the biggest influences in this respect. As technology advanced among early communities, populations grew, access to food and shelter increased, interaction with different cultures became more and more common, etc. The cultures who experienced these advancements were more or less irrevocably changed; there could be future changes, but there was no way to go back.
With this in mind, it’s useful to think about what was common among early human societies before technological advancement could facilitate major cultural evolution. We could think of these commonalities as representing the cultural default of the human truth experience, with differences across cultures appearing more in the specific details of belief than in the broader tendencies.
All early human societies, similar to contemporary hunter-gatherer and horticultural communities, shared and experienced their cultural information via stories, songs, art, and rituals. The activities and works served multiple functions, all at once.
a) They usually involved some description of the people’s environment (like the terrain and its fauna) or lifestyle (such as hunting) that would have been regarded as accurate, meaning that the knowledge would enable successful prediction and reliable outcomes.
b) The stories had more latent meanings, often to convey the morals and life lessons considered to be important by the community.
c) The act of telling and sharing the stories, songs, art works, and rituals themselves served as an important psychosocial experience for all involved. Powerful emotions could be evoked, and the sharing of metaphors in these communal activities strengthened the feeling of togetherness among members.
d) Sometimes this bonding was strengthened by the experience of transcendence, a state in which one’s sense of self is reduced, and one’s connection with others (and even the universe) can be heightened.
Importantly, an individual or community would not necessarily distinguish between these different functions. Because a sense of truth is strongly associated with confidence, with trust, and with intense personal value, the multifaceted experience of communal ritualistic engagement could simply be labeled as “true” for those who partake in them.
I argue that the truth mechanism common to all humans is not specifically designed to distinguish literal facts from figurative details. Instead, many different experiences in formative sociocultural interactions tend to be tagged as “true.” Humans are pragmatic creatures, and our search for meaning, including truth, ultimately has do with its value or impact upon our lives. If a story, a ritual, or an article of faith is important to the shared identity of a community, it will be considered to be “true.” If a description of the environment can facilitate prediction and control for easier living, it will also be deemed to be “true.” If a work of art can unlock deeply felt emotions, and transform one’s attitude toward life, it can be said to hold important “truths.” In other words, the human default conception of truth is itself multifaceted.
An important historical innovation, then, was the ability to dissociate and cater separately to these different functions. All humans value the ability to predict and control their environments, but it was those who found ways to increase their accuracy and reliability (i.e., through technological advancement) who would flourish and dominate the course of history. It was eventually discovered by Medieval Christians, Jews, and Muslims that the skeptical investigation of empirical evidence was the most effective way to collect reliable data for the advancement of technological precision and power. Interestingly, although scientific investigation and artistic expression both blossomed shortly afterward during the Renaissance years (sometimes even via the same individuals), they were at this point completely distinct pursuits. Art and science eventually became independent of their traditional religious contexts, and so the earlier functions of communal ritual were split into separate components.
Science and academic engagement proved to be the best way to refine and expand our knowledge of the world that enables accurate prediction and reliable control. On the other hand, many people today turn to the arts and humanities for powerful emotional experiences, multiple layers of deep meaning, and even for feelings of transcendence. As for explicitly religious engagement, this itself has splintered, roughly into those who declare the stories of their community to represent accurate and reliable data, and those who knowingly engage in their shared metaphors as one engages with the arts, but with a stronger sense of communal bonding. In truth, there is more of a spectrum of practices here, with varying ratios of literalism/figuratism in the interpretation of various traditional claims. More on that in a later post.
So, what about this notion of absolute truth? That’s a philosophically thorny position to defend, but if we focus instead on probabilistic certainty, we can conclude that empirical investigation via the scientific method is the most effective way to expand upon and refine our certainty of the world and how it works—specifically the extent to which we can predict and control our environment based on our knowledge. This type of truth is truly general to humans across all cultures, and can affect even those who deny it as a source of truth. In other words, many communities who ignore scientific consensus nonetheless benefit from the many improvements in lifestyle that scientific research has afforded us. That’s about as close to absolute as we will probably get, and so humans everywhere would do well to respect scientific consensus, and to learn about our world in a way that has been demonstrated over and over to be accurate and reliable.
But what about these other experiences that can be tagged as “truth?” I think atheists and skeptics are making a huge PR mistake when they dismiss the myths, traditions, and aesthetic interpretations of a community as “not true.” The claims made by a religious group may not have empirical evidence to support it, and they likely won’t facilitate reliable predictions or technology, but the label of “truth” can, and has, extended beyond accuracy of prediction. Naturalists would do well to appreciate the pragmatic nature of human meaning-making. Even if they don’t agree with labeling artifacts of psychosocial ritual engagement as types of truth, they should at least respect the fact that a great many people really take issue with their cherished cultural artifacts being labeled “false,” or “just a myth.” As for me, I think it’s valuable to consider and cultivate all of the components of traditional cultural transmission, and so a categorical dissociation between “informational truth” and “mythic truth” seems to me to be a reasonable concession.
That said, it’s also important for members of traditional religious communities to reconcile their declared beliefs with what we know about the natural world from scientific investigation. Much more on that in future posts. For now, it is sufficient to say that an understanding of “truth” as a pragmatic tool for the linguistic, hyper-social primate known as homo sapiens would really help to break down barriers to understanding, and could help to foster empathy across traditionally opposed communities. Even if my particular suggestions aren’t used, let’s at least make the effort to find a common language with which to argue!