Truth and Meaning

Truth and Meaning April 30, 2013

Over the past couple weeks I’ve seen a lot of comments on the nature of truth. Some say it’s objective and knowable, some say we can’t know it so why try, while others say it simply doesn’t exist.

I’m an engineer, not a philosopher. But the English majors’ taunts of “barbarian engineer” haven’t been true in at least 25 years. This is an important topic and I want to explore it.

If you want deep definitions, I’m including links to the Wikipedia pages, which are quite good. But for my own purposes, and for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to use some very brief, very simple definitions.

Truth is that which is. Meaning is that which makes life worth living.

yes, you can fly… but I still don’t recommend jumping

A good way to understand the realities and complexities of truth is to consider the question “can humans fly?” Of course we can – a couple weeks ago I got in an airplane, flew from Texas to South Carolina, then flew back. I’ve flown in my dreams and I’ve flown in visions and meditations. Those experiences are every bit as real as flying by plane.

But if you’re walking along the edge of a high, steep cliff, it’s helpful to remember we have plenty of verifiable experimental evidence of what will happen if you jump off.

Truth is important. But truth is also complex, as this rather mundane example illustrates. Other questions have much less certain answers.

Who built Stonehenge and why? Historian Ronald Hutton discussed this in his keynote presentation at the Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes conference. We know it was built in phases over hundreds of years, we know the bluestones were brought from Wales, we know it aligns with sunrise at the Summer Solstice and sunset at the Winter Solstice. Was it an observatory? A healing center? A necropolis? A worship site? We don’t know and the odds are very good we will never know.

Because we do not know the truth about the origins of Stonehenge, we are free to interpret the evidence in the way that is most meaningful to us. I can envision torch-lit processions up The Avenue at dusk on the Winter Solstice to make offerings to the gods and ancestors and to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun. Who knows – I might be right.

But we are not free to “believe whatever we want.” As meaningful as it would be for me to believe Stonehenge was built by Druids, the evidence shows construction certainly began and likely was finished before the arrival of the Celts in Britain. No Celts, no Druids. Even where truth is difficult to discern, meaning built on demonstrably false premises is fantasy and at the least is less helpful than meaning built on a plausible foundation. At the worst, remember that cliff…

Discerning the truth becomes even more difficult when you move into spiritual and theological questions. Let’s look at just one such question: how many gods are there? None? One? Two? Many? All? Surf around the various channels here at Patheos and you’ll find people making good, rational arguments for all of those concepts. Who’s right? How do you know?

You don’t.

Because we do not know and likely cannot know the truth, we are free to explore these concepts and to come to the answers that are most meaningful to us.

For most people, though, the Big Questions of Life are intertwined with questions of personal and group identity and with emotionally charged experiences and issues. Meaning becomes so strong it is mistaken for truth. This false certainty shuts off the search for truth – why continue to wrestle with difficult questions if you’ve already found the answer?

The conservative branches of the two largest religions in the world – Christianity and Islam – teach not only that they have exclusive possession of religious truth, but that agreeing with them carries eternal consequences. They teach that if you accept their version of truth you’ll live in bliss after you die, but if not then their god will torture you forever. In business terms this is called a “barrier to switching.”

I’m not so cynical as to believe the concepts of heaven and hell were invented solely to keep the faithful in line. But they clearly have that effect.

The Muslims and Christians who believe these things find them very meaningful. But Sunnis and Shias, Catholics and Evangelicals and others all make incompatible claims for exclusivity. Either all but one are wrong, or all are wrong. I find the evidence for all of them to be insufficient, and I find it interesting that the other religions of the world – as well as the more liberal branches of Christianity and Islam – do not make such claims.

I suspect we will never find the full truth of most religious and spiritual questions, not because we don’t have the technology or because we can’t find the evidence, but because these matters are beyond the capacity of our amazing but still limited minds.

Does this mean we shouldn’t care about religious and theological truth? No. Truth is what is. Building our meaning on what is true is better than building on what is plausible, and building on what is plausible is better than building on what is false. Part of our work as religious people is to search for both meaning and truth.

We search for truth with all the tools at our disposal: the lore of our ancestors, the teachings of our religion, the teachings of other religions, the findings of science, our own experiences, and first and foremost, our critical thinking skills. We will get closer to truth by searching diligently for it than we will by unquestioningly accepting what we’ve always been taught or always assumed was true. Not only does the evidence we find give us a better (not perfect, but better) foundation for meaning, but the search itself becomes a source of meaning.

My search for truth and meaning has led me to Nature. It has led me to the goddesses and gods of Nature, and of my pre-Christian ancestors. It has led me to become a Pagan, a Druid, and a Unitarian Universalist. Along the way I’ve found bits and pieces of truth. I’ve found meaning so strong that when I’m caught up in it I have no doubt it’s true. I order my life as though it’s true.

But I still recognize that meaning is not truth. If I find evidence my beliefs are false and my practices are unhelpful, or that something else is better, I’ll change what I believe and what I do.

I wish you well in your search for truth and meaning.

Approaching from the northeast. At the Winter Solstice, a procession would be walking into the setting Sun.
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  • 124,883,534 reactions! Whoa! I hope they’re all positive! 😉

    • Must have been a temporary bug – I don’t see it now.

      • It was fixed about an hour after I initially posted the comment….thus the continuation with the edit. It was quite an amusing number to look at though. 🙂

  • I get your gist, but arrive at different conclusions.

    First, the concepts of truth you use aren’t consistent- what happens when we jump off cliffs isn’t the same kind of truth as how many gods there are. One is an observable fact, the other is en existential unanswerable question. Apples and oranges- one is a true statement to say that jumping off cliffs unaided will result in gravity playing out predictably, the other attempts to speak to Cosmic Truth.

    In the case of the former, verifiable facts are both in plenty, and insufficient to adequately express the realities of the known universe. Science is only able to observe and quantify just 3 percent of all known matter. Much of the terrain and life forms of deep forests and ocean bottoms have yet to be fully explored, many species are still undiscovered, and most space outside Earth is ‘brown matter,’ known to be there, but not able to be seen or measured. So, we know a bit about the world and beyond, but not really that much. Just about enough to get us into trouble, which is what we’ve done as a species.

    In the case of the latter, I think the mistake the original Greek philosophers made in attempting to answer this question definitively was to insist on the sort of scientific understanding of cosmology to insist that it fit into a concrete ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ model, because I don’t think it is supposed to. I think when speaking of Cosmic Truth, we are much closer to describing what you call Meaning, because each worldview speaks to what is meaningful to the culture which carries it. And, through what is meaningful cultures define their ethics, their perceived place in the cosmic pattern, their role, and the nature of their lifestyles. All that is practical is dictated by what is meaningful, and different cultures have assigned cosmic meaning in different ways, coming up with different worldviews and lifestyles. In this view, whether a thing is concretely, literally ‘true’ doesn’t matter, because it is the meaning of it that drives the lifestyle.

    And, of course we are free to believe whatever we like, whether evidence supports it or not. We are free to be wrong, or deluded, or mistaken, or unique in our perspectives. Who’s to stop us?

    I also resonate with what Joseph Campbell had spoken to in The Power of Myth, which was that the purpose of the myths was to construct worldviews based on meaning, and then live -as though- they were true, to live out their meaning. Also in this way, whether a thing is literally true in a concrete sense or not is of less importance than what is conveyed by the worldview as meaningful, and whether or not one agrees with that sense of meaning. In fact, wondering about a literal truth of cosmic matters might even get in the way of finding meaning in them, and living a life of meaning based up on them. After all, as you say, if it is real in my dreams, that is no less than being real right now; flying is flying, either way. Walking into the myth and living it -makes- it real and true, independent of any objective sense of truth, which may well be entirely beside the point anyway.

    • RandomHorizons

      It took me a long time to understand one can find meaning without truth. To live as if something were true even though we probably will never know if it is or isn’t. That is what gives “magic” to my life. This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read on the subject.

      • Thanks, RH. I prefer to build my meaning on truth, but where truth isn’t available, I’m not going to pretend it is.

        • John, why do you call finding Meaning pretending? Why do you assume Truth is one singular, objective reality to be either right or wrong about? A construct does not have to -literally- true in order to convey Truth; that is what symbolism, metaphor, and allegory do and are for. Those are the languages of the myths that convey Cosmic Truth among the various cultures, by which values and lifestyles are determined. Seeing the Truth conveyed in a myth and living it -is- building meaning on truth; one doesn’t have to literally believe we are living on the back of an actual turtle to find truth in a given worldview conveyed through myth. To insist in such literalism to find meaning is the basis of fundamentalism and is needlessly reductionist. Myths can’t be reduced to just their literal parts and made to stand on those alone; they weren’t meant to be understood that way.

    • Éireann, I agree Cosmic Truth and meaning are very similar. But there are some folks who believe Cosmic Truth can be known with the same certainty as the truth of jumping off a cliff. I think they’re very very wrong.

      • I think your mistake is in assuming Cosmic Truth is one, objective thing to be either known or unknown. I think each -construct- of Cosmic Truth carries its own seed of Truth revealed as Meaning, which conveys an idea of Truth to the culture which creates it. Arguing over what it actually -is- misses the point, and in the end, is irrelevant, because it probably isn’t one concrete, specific thing anyway. The various constructs are neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong; they are ideas which speak to a perceived sense of Truth which can be lived by those who find meaning within them.

        • You’re right that I believe Cosmic Truth is objective. Beyond that, I don’t find much in your comments to argue with. We can’t _know_ Cosmic Truth (at least not to my standard of knowing), so what matters is how we relate to the truth we find.

          • I think that we can know Cosmic Truth insofar as we can experience it, but that encapsulating it in the language of objectivity can only reduce it to literal, fundamental terms. I don’t think Cosmic Truth(s) can be readily treated the way reductionist science or fundamentalist religion treats the world, even though both of those constructs have attempted to do so and feel they are at odds with each other in their worldviews. It seems to me that holding each in one hand without the insistence of a purity of either allows for the fuller experience and understanding.

    • Kevin

      I’m getting the impression that truth is being defined as brute fact; and meaning, aka “Cosmis Truth”, is being defined as cathartic make-believe. It’s sort of like a pagan Pascal’s Wager.

      • Truth as brute fact? That’s one part of it, but only one part. Mythic truth and mystical truth are just as real as literal truth.

        Meaning as cathartic make-believe? That sounds like a gross oversimplification, but maybe I’m missing something.

        And I don’t know how you go from that to Pascal’s Wager. The actual Pascal’s Wager is intellectually dishonest and spiritually offensive.

      • Kevin, you’re getting that impression from what -I- wrote? How? How would you care to define the terms?

  • Thanks, Treeshrew. I read your take on this and I like it.

  • Nicholas Fulford

    Truth and meaning do not necessarily align. Something which is false can be meaningful and have value, whereas something which is true can undermine meaning and have ethical ramifications. The question for me is whether truth should always trump meaning, or are there legitimate reasons to maintain what is false for reasons of social utility.

    For example, science is clearly supporting a view that free will is epiphenomenal and hence not supportable as existing. This is not surprising as for free will to exist would imply a freedom from the laws of physics as they pertain to contents of the universe on the basis of intelligence. Unless there is an extra-physical aspect to man such that (s)he is able to act independently from the universe, (on some level), free will is clearly a persistent delusion, and false. That said: The abstract to the experiment at the following link: ; indicates that those who are presented with a paper that argues for determinism are more likely to cheat on an exam than those who simply write the exam.

    Hence we have a situation where what is false and believed has social utility, and what is true and believed undermines honesty for personal gain.

    Should truth always trump meaning, or does social utility of a falsehood trump truth?