The Truth of Seeking Truth

IMG_6704One of the most damaging contemporary dicta is that truth does not exist: that all we know is our own perspective, if even that. According to some, if you so much as mention truth, you have revealed your own outdatedness. The pursuit of truth can only lead farther into illusion, some say; to be with the times, one must admit that there’s no ultimate truth at all.

Were it not for its emphasis on being with the times, the above could seem plausible. Again and again, we think we know what happened in a given episode in our lives, only to find out later that our understanding was just a fragment and that the various known fragments do not complete a whole. Not only that, but even if all of the information were available, we could only make sense of it through stories–and stories require selection, emphasis, and sequence. There is no way to convey a full picture, even if it exists; our language, existing in time, does not allow for such complexity and completeness.

Yet much of our experience is sturdy. The bicycle does not turn into a tractor from one day to the next. The slice of pizza does not become a cherry pie in the middle of a bite. If you go to a concert, and you remember it the next day, so do others; if you teach a class, there’s general agreement, the next time, about what the lesson contained, even if not everyone remembers everything. So consistency of experience and commonality of memory point to some reality outside of us, a reality that can be called true.

Moreover, we are disposed to seeking out truth; day after day, we try to find out what really happened, what was really said, what a word means, where a particular thing is located, what causes a particular phenomenon, and what we think; this pursuit is not all in vain, nor does it follow a set schedule. When you find the solution to a math problem, it stays; when you understand a word, the understanding abides, even if it changes over time. Knowing your own thoughts may be the most difficult challenge of all, since you are thinking them even as you examine them. Even so, we probably all have had moments of clarity, of knowing, at least for an instant, who we are.

That we build justice systems, schools, governments, news publications on the pursuit of truth does not, in itself, prove truth’s existence; looking at the history of such institutions, we can find many deceptions and follies. Still, people coming together in a courtroom affirm that through assembling the evidence, hearing the witnesses, and deliberating, a jury can reach a fairer and more accurate verdict than it would without these actions. In the classroom, anyone can make mistakes, but the very existence of mistakes suggests the possibility of accuracy. In newspapers and on news programs, a story can get distorted, but then, over time, others correct the record. At their best, all of these institutions pursue truth instead of claiming to have it–and demonstrate, through their daily work, that such pursuit is possible.

Literature can hold truth, but it does this through seeking. Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” sounds on the surface like a simple telling of truth, but the truth moves before our eyes, changing color and tone, ambling through grief and delight. Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin plays with deception and dissimulation but reaches a kind of clarity. Eliot’s “Prufrock” seeks something too, in a muted and doubting way. I cannot think of a work of literature (that is, a work that I would want to reread) that does not in some way seek truth, integrity, precision, form, completion, or clarity (and their necessary companions). It may or may not reach an answer, but it takes the reader from one place of understanding to another.

The search for truth does not move with the times; it may go against the passions and predilections of a given culture or group. It follows its own timing; discoveries and insights do not always arrive on schedule, but may come when unexpected and fail to arrive when expected. How many of us have recognized one of our mistakes long after making it; how many dramatic works rely on such mistiming? It would be better to catch a mistake in advance, but short of that, we take insight as it comes.

Each of us seeks some kind of truth: some with enthusiasm, some with weariness, some with direction and purpose, some with open curiosity. To respect others is to recognize that they seek just as I do–not in the same way or with the same timing, but for similar reasons: they want to understand what they do not now understand; they believe, as I do, that there is something to learn.

I took the photo when crossing the Zagyva last week. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

Tobias Wolff’s Old School: Truth, Tangent, and Return

After yesterday’s post on yearning and return, I realized I had omitted something that had been on my mind for a long time. Here it is.

If you have not yet read Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School (2003), please read it before reading this piece, which will reveal some of the ending. I also encourage you to put off reading reviews until you have read the book. Though widely praised, it has been strangely misunderstood by some, including Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. Such are the pitfalls of reviewing: the best reviews draw attention to good work (or preserve us from mediocrity), while the worst sacrifice the book to the reviewer’s own needs and frailties. Few reviewers are consistently insightful; they succumb to their own stuff, as we all do at times. That’s how I see Kakutani’s review. Enough of that.

I am writing about this book because, from the first reading in 2003 through the third and most recent one yesterday, I have been carrying it around in my mind. I pick it up (literally or in the imagination) and return to favorite passages. It says more about education than many an education book; it is part of my own education. It is the ending that seizes me, though everything else builds slowly to it—an ending that seems a tangent but becomes a return and revelation. I will look at this return today.

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Tetrahedra and Truth

Let’s say you have a tetrahedron (a polyhedron consisting of four conjoined triangles). You project each of its points onto a flat surface, along lines perpendicular to the surface. Depending on the tilt of the tetrahedron in relation to the surface, you will end up with either a triangle or a quadrilateral.

Now, both the triangle and the quadrilateral tell truth about the tetrahedron, but neither one tells the complete truth. However, if you rotated the tetrahedron and captured enough projections along the way, then you could determine the tetrahedron’s shape from the projections alone (if you already knew that it was a convex polyhedron). In other words, by considering the changes of the projections in time, you could see beyond the projections’ two-dimensional aspect to the tetrahedron’s three-dimensional shape. (You can try rotating a tetrahedron here.)

To even begin this project, you have to suspect that there’s something beyond the flat shapes that you see. You think: “Yesterday it had four sides. Today it has three. Something’s up with that.” Without such suspicion, you’re a prisoner in Plato’s cave, believing in the shadows on the wall because you’ve seen nothing else.

Now, suppose the tetrahedron were not stable in shape. Suppose it were crumbling or melting. Then you could not determine its shape from the projections. You could only approximate it—that is, by observing projections very close to each other in time and trying to spot abnormal changes. A sort of calculus would come into play. The more regular the tetrahedron’s disintegration, the more accurate your calculations would be. The projections would only pick up certain kinds of changes; they wouldn’t show concavities, for instance, if the edges were still intact.

Things get even more complicated if time itself is unstable: if it slows down, speeds up, loops around, breaks apart, or comes to an end (in relation to some other measure). We won’t get into that.

Imagine, now, that the phenomena in our lives are (at their very simplest) tetrahedral. Our instant impressions are limited, as they don’t capture the full shape of the phenomena. It takes time, knowledge, and insight to perceive their shapes.

We should not, then, place much value on the instant update or newest thing (the quick projection of part of the tetrahedron onto paper), except insofar as it adds to our knowledge and understanding. The latest projection is in itself no treasure; we must look to the old ones as well and—since we can’t spend all our time observing projections of tetrahedra—to other people’s interpretations of these shapes.

This is why we study history, literature, science, history of science, mathematics, philosophy, and music. It’s also why our current drive to collect instantaneous data on everyone (where we are, who our friends are, what our emotional reactions are to every possible product or classroom gesture) will do more harm than good. The purposes of such data-gathering are limited, even crude; the point is not to build wisdom or understanding, but to boost sales, test scores, and other quick results.

For example, developers and marketers have been considering the use of biometric bracelets not only in classrooms but in everyday life. Your bracelet will tell some subset of the world where you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re responding to that activity. Marketers and customers, then, can respond to you accordingly. But what happens, then, to friendship, which depends on voluntary disclosure and voluntary reserve?

Suppose I meet with a friend for dinner; what I do not say is as important as what I do, and both are my choice, to the extent that we choose such things. I learn about my friend through the things she chooses to tell me and the things that make her pause or stay quiet. Biometric bracelet data would ruin this. (“I see you were at the doctor’s office earlier today. Is everything OK? … Oh, is that so? I know you had a brain scan there. Why a brain scan, of all things?”) 

We can gather all sorts of data about people, but such data are little more than flat projections. Take that in stride, and those flat projections, maybe, can tell you something. Treat them like the real stuff, and you send your brains rolling down the hill.