Sunday, 15 September 2013

A minority of one: Why it is impossible to communicate truth


Given the constraints - that almost all communication is extremely time limited, and takes place in public (or potentially public) situations - it is impossible to communicate truth in the modern secular Leftist context (by which I mean, essentially everywhere for many or most people).

So all people who are serious about truth are, apparently, in a minority of one.

This is not an eternal human situation - but something new.

It used to be possible reasonably to assume that behind all the constraints and limitations of actual communication - there was a primary unity: that differences were superficial and agreement was profound.

But this is not the case anymore.

What happens is that there are superficial differences of opinion, as there always have been - but it is when we reach back from these superficial differences, to try and settle disagreement on the basis of fundamental principle, that we find the truly vast, indeed oppositional, differences.

Typically there is some kind of dispute at the level of superficial bureaucratic procedure, regulation, law, practice... and an attempt is made to try and clarify what is the deep aim and purpose of these regulations, laws practices in order to settle the case - and it is then that the chasm yawns: when it is realized that superficial disputes are as nothing compared with the vast underlying differences...

The typical modern person has so completely rejected tradition, orthodoxy, common sense, natural law, the validity of the spontaneous... that whole complex of underlying stuff which united 'reasonable human beings' that commnuication has ceased.

On the one side there is the dominating complex of modernity - which is everywhere - and on the other side a tiny and weak individual perception of the monstrous falsity and evil of all this.

The mismatch between the gross and chaotic mass of lies and deceptions and what the individual flickeringly perceives in his own heart, is so huge that questions of persuasion, or explanation, or argument become laughable.

So the traditional human situation is reversed - in the past people differed superficially, there was sin and weakness and bad luck,  but we knew that deep down there was commonality of values and purposes; now we have the reverse. The only things that hold us together are superficial habits, pragmatic compromises - none of which are believed and which are constantly being problematized, subverted, destroyed and inverted.

What remains? In what do people believe? It is not so much they disbelieve in something, but that they believe in nothing: and I mean they believe in it - they actively believe that nothing underpins the human condition. They are convinced that behind the surface there is nothing.

This means that the surface (the habits, regulations, laws, cultures) are on the one hand the most important things in the world because the only thing in the world; but on the other hand we know and believe that they are contingent, arbitrary, incoherent, weak and always changing and inverting.

This is the world we inhabit - as extremely feeble single souls - it is a world in which the idea of communication functions more like a temptation than a possibility - in such a context the hope that there may be a possibility of communication in the public arena (which is ever larger, encroaches ever more) is like a cruel trick.



J said...

Excellent points. Your message was grim but overall I felt lightened having read this - maybe it was nice to realise that my difficulties are not solely due to my spiritual immaturity or other personal shortcomings.

And this blog is a clear exception to the idea that truth cannot be communicated...

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - Personal shortcomings do often have a lot to do with this - certainly they do in my case - but then, there is nothing we can do about our fundamental personal shortcomings, is there? They are a given. We have to work with them, somehow. Probably, these limitations are clues (not obvious) to what we ought to be doing, which is likely NOT what we wish/hope we ought to be doing.

Alex said...

No doubt this is a rather frivolous observation, but I hope it's germane to the topic at hand.

I watched an old film the other day and was struck by how much the story and its dénouement only made sense on the basis of shared moral assumptions (or certainties) which were virtually unquestioned in the society of that time. In a world where people have no deep and abiding convictions about any serious matter, I suspect such a film must be meaningless - as I expect it is to "modern" audiences.

The film I'm talking about was Brief Encounter.

Nicholas Fulford said...

I have for years enjoyed the Sufi tales of wisdom, by they the Indres Shah tales of Mullah Nasrudin or "Tales from Masnavi" by Jalal al-din Rumi.

Below is a translation from Farsi of the tale, "The Elephant in the dark" from "Tales from Masnavi". While variations of this exist in several traditions, this one is a concise and accurate rendition of the lesson.

SOME Hindus had brought an elephant for exhibition and placed it in a dark house. Crowds of people were going into that dark place to see the beat. Finding that ocular inspection was impossible, each visitor felt it with his palm in the darkness.

The palm of one fell on the trunk.
‘This creature is like a water-spout,’ he said.

The hand of another lighted on the elephant’s ear. To him the beat was evidently like a fan.

Another rubbed against its leg.
‘I found the elephant’s shape is like a pillar,’ he said.

Another laid his hand on its back.
‘Certainly this elephant was like a throne,’ he said.

The sensual eye is just like the palm of the hand. The palm has not the means of covering the whole of the beast.

The eye of the Sea is one thing and the foam another. Let the foam go, and gaze with the eye of the Sea. Day and night foam-flecks are flung from the sea: of amazing! You behold the foam but not the Sea. We are like boats dashing together; our eyes are darkened, yet we are in clear water.

Each has a unique vantage point, but sees with limited vision. To frame infinity from any one point of view is to embrace error, and to do so with certainty is to insure that error will become a snare which continuously impedes progress.

Arakawa said...


That may be, but whatever vantage points let the observers know to get out of the way when the elephant goes stampeding (even if they don't understand why) are a lot more objectively useful!

(Partial apologies to Bruce for framing this in fairly negative terms....)