Dec 2009: Truth, Belief, Evidence & Perception – How We “Know”

by Brad on December 1, 2009

“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?
Four; calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”   – Abraham Lincoln

I think a lot about what constitutes “truth,” how we know what we know, about and about how truth and belief are so interrelated. Perhaps because I ponder such things, I’m often confounded by how our society so easily creates “truth” from fiction. An example making the headlines these days has been labeled the “2012 phenomenon.” Briefly, for the few of you who may have escaped exposure to it, the year 2012 has been prophesied to be the end of the world, based largely on details found in the calendar of the ancient Mayan civilization. The just-released movie, 2012, representing perhaps the pinnacle of society’s obsession with hype & hysteria, declares: “Mankind’s earliest civilization warned us this day would come.” And also: “The Mayan calendar predicts the end of time would occur on December 21st, 2012.” In fact, neither is true, yet a two-hour story follows, portraying a cataclysmic end to the world.

A scientist by background, I’m not so drawn to hype & hysteria, no matter the reason. But when hype & hysteria people use science as ‘evidence,’ I tend to go a little nuts. For the record, the Mayans brought the science of their times to new heights. Their calendar, the most accurate of any civilization to date, including our own, recognized “long lines” in the cyclical nature of earth’s motion, incorporating the 5125-year cycle of the solar system’s journey through the galaxy. The current cycle, which began in 3114 B.C., closes in 2012, and a new one begins. Mayans were not alone in this “knowing.” Even older civilizations experienced these transitions as times of transformation and new beginning.

Why do we allow our “thinking” to lead us to falsehoods we freely accept as “truth,” with none of the inquiry, critical thinking or conversation upon which “truth” depends? We tend to accept things like the 2012 hysteria as true, with no inquiry or evidence whatsoever; yet we tend to reject things like ESP and distance knowing as false, despite incontrovertible evidence they are very real. The conclusion I’m led to (which I will state as my ‘opinion’ in this matter rather than as “truth”) is that we believe what we want to believe, regardless of evidence in front of our faces. Further, what we want to believe is that which reinforces what we already do believe. Why? Again, opinion, but one borne of experience: even if only unconsciously, we’re so driven to the perceived safety of predictability in our lives that we would rather accept the false as truth than to accept personal responsibility for living fully in an uncertain world.

I’m a seeker; it’s my nature to expand my perception and perspective to incorporate larger & larger truths. Inquiry is the process by which we seek truth, by transforming the unknown into the known. Invariably, that which I saw as truth at one level is, at the next level, either proven wrong, or just a part of a larger truth. In this sense, there is no absolute “truth.” Truth continually expands, up to the limits of our ability to comprehend.

In addition to a growing framework of the world’s great truths, there’s a whole lot of stuff we don’t know, and probably much we simply can’t know. That’s what faith is for – it offers a structure by which we can gracefully accept that which we cannot “know,” or perhaps a way of “knowing without knowing.” Faith is not absolute either, for each of us has a different need to bridge the unknowable.

Problems arise, however, when we confuse belief and truth. When we allow emotion (which we will always have) to cloud our perception, we make our choices in an environment of confusion rather than clarity. An antidote? Start your own process of personal inquiry. A few questions you may apply to any aspect of your life: By what process did I arrive at this knowing? at this belief? Am I open to the possibility that new experience could change me?  Do I have the courage to seek that new experience? As Ben & Roz Zander note in The Art of Possibility, “Assumptions and beliefs we hold about life tend to block what’s possible for us. Draw a new frame around the same circumstances and new pathways emerge. Find the right frame, and extraordinary accomplishment becomes an everyday experience.” 

A River Runs Through It [Life lessons offered by nature]

Every phenomenon in the universe operates in rhythms & cycles, not as discrete events – tides, seasons, ice ages, day & night, birth & death of stars (and of galaxies), earthquakes, sub-atomic motions, storms, butterfly wings, all of life – animate and inanimate. Many of nature’s rhythms, however, operate over time periods or with levels of subtlety that preclude our easy observation. Also, it seems we’ve lost our ability (and/or interest) in observing patterns, having become far more obsessed with the details of each of life’s events; so we miss the natural rhythms of which these events are a part. For us, it’s almost as if we want to extract every event from its rhythm, believing that we can know it separate from the framework in which it lives. The problem here is that the meaning of life is found in the rhythms, in the patterns, not in the events themselves. Nature knows this well. She doesn’t worry so much about the impact of storms, explosion of stars, or loss of species caused by ice ages. Each of these creates “empty space” for the new to unfold.

What opportunity does this hold for us? Life’s recurring patterns are our best teachers. While they create both order and chaos, they are also home to balance. Birth & death, dearth & abundance, ebb & flow; neither fights the other to achieve an end. One of the reasons we experience recurring patterns is that we need repetition in order to learn. Often, we need repetition in order to notice. Think of a few recurring patterns in your life. These might include loss of jobs or relationships, or they may be repeated openings of a new opportunity, which, because of your need to judge, you may have ignored. Either way, chances are good the pattern will repeat itself until you “get it,” until you see that each represents an opportunity for transformation, should you only “sign up for” the lesson. When you fight natural patterns, you create unnatural results. Your connection with life’s natural order is your intuition; by contrast, your conscious mind needs to judge and interpret, keeping you from finding that natural place of peace inside you. 

Questions: Do you greet the natural cycles at work in your life with acceptance and learning, or with resistance? What natural patterns can you accept with grace; which do you fight? How does your need to label, judge or control inhibit the natural flow of energy in your life? What changes would you have to make to become more accepting of the natural patterns, large and small, at work in your life?

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