This episode will introduce the podcasts and try to define Truth.
Knowing what is true is a topical and much debated question, but I will show that there is an absolute truth, which I am going to call the Omnitruth, but how much we can know about it?
Even if there isn't much about the Omnitruth that we can know to be absolutely true, I will argue that we can still know the most likely explanation for what Truth might be if we use current scientific knowledge. When we do this, in later episodes, we will be able to better understand what it means to be human, what matters in the universe, and what really should matter.
Artwork by Conner Griffin: The Plain Creative Agency.
Music: Land of Destiny, from Premium Beat.
Episode One: The Absolute Truth
If you’re an old cynic like me, you might feel there is good reason for doubting grandiose claims like “this podcast will change your life”, or, as in my case, “this podcast will explain the meaning of the universe, and what it means to be human”. You might reasonably think that the opening you’ve just heard is a trick to lure you in and get more hits or reviews or whatever it is podcasters want from their work – I have written other things, but this is the first time I’ve written a podcast. Or maybe you think that no one knows the meaning of life so I can’t possibly explain it, and who knows what it means to be human anyway? We’ll discuss the origin of meaning in the universe in Episode Three when you will meet the intriguing, and mysterious creature I’ve called Nova, an animal I’m going to claim was the most important ever to have lived, and in Episode Five you’ll find out about a meeting, a meeting that took place between David and Jane, which I want to say was the most important in human history, because it led to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, including the fact that human beings have not one but two sex drives. We’ll find out about this surprising revelation in Episode Seven. When you’ve listened to them you can decide for yourself whether you think I’ve achieved what I have claimed.
At this point you might be wondering why it is that if Nova, and that mysterious meeting were so fantastically important, you don’t know about them already, why doesn’t everyone know? It’s a very good question, and the answer is… Well don’t ask me, I don’t know. The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is that we think we know things are true because it’s what we are taught at school and because there are things that everyone knows. In other words, there are assumptions that are embedded in our culture, and while most of those assumptions might be true, some of them may not.
Historically, cultures have had built in assumptions that were obviously wrong. When the Ancient Egyptians mummified their leaders, they scooped out their brains and discarded them while the much more precious hearts, which they believed contained the soul, were left in the body and other organs were preserved in special receptacles called canopic jars where they were protected with magical spells. They had no idea that they had thrown away the important bit. Some South American cultures thought that in order to guarantee good weather and harvests they would have to pacify their gods by sacrificing their children to them. Strangely, or not, we can now forecast the weather with a reasonably high degree of accuracy without ever bothering to tot up the number of sacrificed kids. All cultures make false assumptions about reality, and it would be very odd if ours was the only one that didn’t. I have a degree in philosophy, but I can’t claim to be a professional scientist or philosopher, that said, I have spent most of my adult life trying to disentangle myself from our own cultural assumptions so that I can get as near as I can to the ultimate truth. That’s all; that’s that’s driving this. All I’ve ever wanted to know is just what’s true.
This series of Eight podcasts will take you on a journey to the best possible explanation of meaning in the universe, and what it means to be human. For reasons that will become clear, the engine powering this journey will be science, and the path we will follow will be determined by reason and evidence. The path will not be easy, and for some it might be controversial, for others perhaps, controversial will be an understatement, but science has developed to a level where a clear path has emerged, and its direction is clear.
At turns along the path, different visions of the universe, and what it means to be human will appear, like grand vistas opening before us, although it must be said that the path fades at one particular point, because science does not yet have all the answers we need. We’ll consider that problem in Episode Four. When we get to Episodes Six and Seven we will discover why that mysterious meeting was so important, and finally, in Episode Eight, we will know enough about what matters in the universe to be able to ask what really should matter.
In the instructions I’ve listened to about making a podcast, the beginning of the first episode is where I’m supposed to introduce myself and tell you why I’m qualified to make it. But I’m not going to bother with that. None of this has anything to do with me, or what I want, or believe. If it is, then I have failed completely in everything I have set out to do. My aim has been to base the ideas on those that any moderately intelligent, rational agent like me or you, would find when they judge the case on the evidence before them. This comes with the warning that the destination of the journey may not, be the one that you, or I, would like it to be, but whatever your beliefs, hopes, and understandings might be, I hope you will find your journey stimulating and enlightening and that the visions revealed along the path will make your journey worthwhile.
This first episode is about truth. But is there such a thing as truth? And if there is, can we know what it is? At this point you might be forgiven for thinking that there are things we can all know. I know what my name is, what the year is, where I live etc. but what can we know that is absolutely true without any and all doubt? This question was explored by the 17thC French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes. He observed that sometimes when he was dreaming, his dreams felt real. Was his dream world real, or the one in which he thought he really was living in? He went on to imagine that there could be an evil demon that was deceiving him about the existence of everything around him, even his own body. If I follow Descartes’ reasoning and the universe is effectively a figment of my imagination, how can we answer the question of the meaning of life, the universe and everything? I mean, if he was right, and everything might be a dream, how can we even know we exist?
Fortunately, Descartes had an answer to the question of whether he existed. And, for me, what he did was a stroke of genius, and one of the greatest philosophical insights of all time. Because Descartes knew he was thinking, he realised it would be impossible for the evil demon to be tricking him about that, because if he didn’t exist who was the evil demon tricking? This argument, in Latin, “Cogito ergo sum”, or in English “I think therefore I am” is probably the most famous aphorism in philosophy.
Here I need to say that, there are philosophers who have argued that Descartes was wrong, because if he was thinking in words, and words are part of language, then, because language could only exist for the purposes of communication between people, and because Descartes would have needed to learn a language before he could have even proposed his idea, then he could not have existed in isolation in the way he thought he did, but it was a worthy effort, and because it is such a well known idea, I’m going to use it as a useful starting point, even if it couldn’t have worked quite in the way he thought.
There are a couple of similar tropes that philosophers trot out that cast doubt about what we can truly know, for example it is possible my brain is in a vat with wires attached to it, and all my thoughts and experiences are being manipulated by a bunch of mad scientists.
You might think this sounds completely ridiculous, and I might agree, but try and prove it wrong. Another idea was proposed by an 18th Century Irish bishop called George Berkeley who - if I’ve interpreted him correctly - thought that all that truly existed was him and God. His idea was that the universe was created in his mind by God so that He could communicate with him, presumably part of the reason for this was so that his creator could examine his personal qualities, to determine whether he was good or bad, and to test his faith, in a slightly more sophisticated parallel to Santa’s naughty and nice list.
The problem with all these proposals is of course that they are a trap. They block all knowledge beyond my knowing that I exist. Descartes thought that he had escaped the trap because he reasoned that he had a clear impression of a perfect being, and because he knew he wasn’t perfect, he thought this impression must be coming from outside of him. And any perfect being would be less than perfect if he didn’t even exist, so the perfect being must exist. Hmm, how did he know that the evil demon hadn’t planted that idea in his mind? In any case, I might be able to conceive of a perfect football team, but would that mean that it must necessarily exist? This idea: that there must be a perfect being who must by definition must exist, is a version of the Ontological Argument for God, first proposed by another cleric, an 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, called Anselm. Most philosophers of his period were clerics, partly because then there wouldn’t have been many other people who could read and write. I think we can say that despite his intuitions about what is true, Descartes did not find a convincing way out of the trap. In later episodes I’ll show why human intuition isn’t always the best way of finding truth.
So what can we say that is absolutely and indubitably true? Descartes may not have shown that he existed in isolation, but he did show that something exists, and I know some kind of reality exists, even if it consists only in my thoughts, so let’s give this whatever-it-is it a name, I’m going to call it the Omnitruth: the description of all and everything that exists, has ever existed, and will ever exist. The true nature of reality. Anything that is true is part of the Omnitruth. The Omnitruth could be little more than the thoughts in my head, or it could be so immeasurably vast and overwhelming that no human mind could ever begin to comprehend it, and we can’t really say which or to what extent either of these possibilities are true.
So, what can we say about it? Well, we have already shown that it exists, and we know it is complex because my thoughts are complex and if the Omnitruth was simple, complex thoughts could not exist, because my thoughts are part of the Omnitruth. But the Omnitruth has a special kind of complexity. Every time I go out my front door it is green, unless of course I decide to paint it; it always opens onto the same street, and if I go to the end of my street, I find it connected to the same street as it did every other time I walked up it. If my thoughts and experienced perceptions are organised, so must the Omnitruth. If you think about it, it is conceivable that all that exists is a jumble of particles that have no order, but if all that exists is a random grey scatter, then I couldn’t be thinking because there would be nothing to think about.
And it follows that if the Omnitruth is organised or ordered, there must be something that organised it, whether that something is an evil demon, God or natural forces like gravity. There is an argument that Gods and evil demons need to be organised entities too and they need an explanation for their organisation, but I’ll put that to one side. The Omnitruth therefore has an organising principle, or principles. Of course, it might be that the Universe popped into existence already fully organised, but then the reason that it had to be like that would be its organising principle. We can also say that it is dynamic, because my thoughts change over time. Oops there goes another one: time. But we do need to be careful here, because according to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, time and space are two aspects of the same thing, and there is no clear consensus among theoretical physicists – the people who know about this stuff – about what time is anyway, but I’m getting way, way ahead of myself. All I can say at this point, is that it must be omnitrue, absolutely true, that I understand myself as experiencing something like time.
And that, guys, is that. Sorry, but we simply can’t know anything more about the Omnitruth – at least not with complete certainty – than that. It is still possible that I have in some way fundamentally misunderstood something or that I am being deceived in some way about the nature of my existence, and even the existence of you: the listeners of this podcast. I mean I know I exist, but I don’t know about you lot, so should I stop now and throw my thought generated hands in the air that I’ve imagined around me and give up? Well as I don’t even know you exist, I could, but then I’d have to say I don’t know about Life, the Universe and everything and accept that the answer might indeed be 42.
To move forward from here I need to take a giant leap of imagination and assume that what I am experiencing is real. Except, of course this is not such a giant leap, but a step over a pavement crack. Far and away the most likely explanation for what I’m experiencing is that it has some foundation in reality. What seems to be real just is real. While I can’t prove I’m not in the middle of a dream someone’s created for me, it seems to me that the idea that my thoughts are being manipulated is pretty ridiculous whether that’s by evil demons, mad scientists or erm, God. So we need to make the assumption that what looks real just is real and move on. There just is no way out of the trap. The Omnitruth then, apart from the truths about it that we have already discovered is ultimately unknowable at least in the absolute sense.
It’s worth pausing here to think about what we have just done. We have proved there is an Omnitruth and discovered some things that are not merely true about it, they are more than that, they are omnitrue. But we also know that there is much more to learn. Because we have reached this point, using our reason, and the evidence from our thoughts and experience. This seems to be the most profitable way of going forward. Using evidence and reason we can develop a way of thinking that will provide us with the most likely explanation for what is true and therefore the most likely, best match with the Omnitruth. I think that the best solution to any problem will be found by any intelligent person when they judge the case on the evidence, and this will always provide the most likely answer to what is omnitrue, as long as there is enough of the right kind of evidence available. Let’s call this method of thinking Best Guess Reasoning. For those who know something about philosophy, best guess reasoning conforms to an idea proposed by a Medieval philosopher, William of Ockham, another cleric who thought that the best solution to any problem is the simplest explanation possible, as long as it isn’t too simple to explain it. This way of thinking is called Ockham’s razor, because it cuts through to the most likely solution to any problem.
There are those who think that they can find what they call their “truths” through belief, tradition, authority or the wise counsel of great thinkers. The problem with belief is that it often provides contradictory answers to important questions: Was Jesus the son of God, as Christians believe, another prophet, as Muslims think, or a false Messiah as Judaism seems to imply? Traditional ideas might seem comforting especially if they are held by those dear to us, but that does not really imply “truth”, as people belonging to other traditions might have completely different “truths”. Some might think this a simplistic argument, and it has to be said that many people believe deeply and profoundly that the universe must have some deeper meaning, which they often associate with God. We’ll look at this question in more detail in the final episode, Episode Eight.
And, in respect of valuing the work of great thinkers of the past, many may have been geniuses in providing insights into the way they thought the world worked, but they could not have had access to the scientific knowledge that we have today. While no one thinks science has all the answers, in the rest of these podcasts I will use reason, science and evidence to provide the best guess to that mystery of all mysteries, the true nature of reality: the Omnitruth.
We are now only one step from meeting Nova, and in the next podcast I am going to try to convince you of something that you already know, but perhaps didn’t know that you knew.
Thanks for listening.