What is Truth?

I’ve been studying smart folks from many time periods for a few decades now, and one great, difficult, and helpful rule tends to emerge from savants in fields as diverse as philosophy and quantum physics.

If you want to find the truth (in matters large or small), you are allowed to care about what is true, or you are allowed to care about what is fashionable. You are not permitted to do both.

In one of his final interviews, the all-time great philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell was asked by a journalist what he would say if he could tell young people one helpful thing. And his reply was beautiful; he gave an intellectual rule and a moral one (at the 26:55 mark).

Intellectually: “Ask yourself only what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think could have beneficent social effects if it were believed.” .

Morally: “Love is wise. Hatred is foolish.

As a titanic intellectual who eschewed his noble status and who was arrested for demonstrating against nuclear weapons, campaigning against decades of illegal wars, and more, Russell perfectly exemplified this principle.

Indeed, he was frequently criticized for standing for his principles even when he changed his mind on an issue, but he replied that this is precisely what humans (and all truth seekers) ought to do; when you get more information, you ought to change your mind accordingly. As he noted in one volume of his memoirs, it is very rarely a virtue to think exactly as you did at seventy as you did at twenty.

Anyway, as the world and the media machine seems to spin into what feels like chaos, as old friends start random fights and disappear over religion or politics, I think often of this helpful compass.

Truth Over Popularity, and as Ann Druyan beautifully said, People Over Concepts.*

Weirdly, Shutterstock only has a postage stamp result for Bertrand Russell, but I kind of like it.

*True, there is a danger of fooling ourselves into believing something simply because it is unpopular. Without going down a rabbit-hole, there is a vast difference between popular conspiracy theories (which have become an entertainment genre) and what the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden calls “real world conspiracies.” Additionally, sociologists like to talk about the so-called “wisdom of the crowd”. Even so, the principle is useful and timely.

Images © Shutterstock. Used under license.

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