Truth and meaning

“There’s a fire backstage, the clown comes out to warn the audience. Laughter and applause. They think it’s a joke! The clown repeats his warning. The fire grows hotter; the applause grows louder. That’s how the world will end,” Wittgenstein says, “to general applause, from halfwits who think it’s a joke.” Wittgenstein Jr, by Lars Iyer

Human life often seems a contest between truth and meaning, and the perception can be that truth best mirrors reality, and that truth therefor should guide us. The house IS on fire, and the joke is on us if we think this is funny…..

One problem seems to be that we are too impressed by the messenger and not the message. The clown makes us laugh, even when he is being deadly earnest. Clowns mean something in human contexts. We take them not as oracles of truth but as cavorting funnymen. To say a person is a clown or is being clownish is to distance them from the stark realities of truth. Capering distraction rather than wisdom and knowledge. Clowns are there to make us laugh, not think deeply or seriously.

So who is there to aim us at the truth? Who is the spokesperson for truth? Who tells us the world as it really is? Whose job is it to cultivate and protect truth from the clowns and their audience?

Because the interesting thing is that it takes effort to get to the truth, and that effort is not often ordinary and its not often compulsory. But this goes beyond our being too lazy for the truth. We don’t just see things as they are. Its not that simple. We have opinions about what we see.

Maybe sometimes those opinions serve us well. Mostly they are merely good enough for us to proceed with what we’re doing. Culture, it has to be said, is often a collection of opinions that are good enough to carry our lives forward. It doesn’t need to be true to be believed. The fire backstage only matters if we didn’t find the exit in time. Our lives are filled with threats that sheer dumb luck has spared us. We only need to be just smart enough to survive long enough to get the next generation on its feet.

Culture is the big safety net of practices that does this, and only in rare situations does reality matter so much that our cultural hacks need to depend on truth. Life goes on. Opinions proliferate. Meaning has a casual relation to truth, not causal. Sometimes, even, our lives unfold in meaningless ways. We ignore meaning sometimes as often as we ignore truth.

But to the extent that our lives describe some purpose, that what we do matters, we are surrounded by meaning. And maybe the difficult thing to remember is that as long as we are content with our present lot the search for something better, or merely different, won’t drive us. Aspirations are not facts, they are the meaning we guide our lives by. The search for truth itself first had to be meaningful and sometimes, sadly, we just don’t know any better.

And somehow humanity survives all our collective and individual stupidity. Or it has so far. Meaning often matters more to the people believing things than does a direct fitness with truth. Error doesn’t always impress us with consequences. Our enthusiasm often makes us clumsy. This is why the truthfulness of facts is a perpetual victim to distortion by our values. We care less about the truth than what things mean to us. We take what they mean to be the truth. Our truth.

Its not always an issue of fitting the facts. Meaning is often a level beyond fitness. Meaning typically only threatens survival in ‘small’ or personal doses, though nuclear holocaust, genocide and racism, and global warming are human inventions that have far profounder effects. The rest we seem able to muddle through as a species. The friction between meaning and fact generally happens on a less universal scale……

But maybe there is also progress. If we compare the modern foothold on truth with that achieved by our ancestors we can see the many advances toward greater understanding of truths, some as part of the wider culture but many sectioned off into esoteric specialized and ‘scientific’ fields of knowledge. Racism, for instance, is NOT supported by valid insight. Peeling away layers of untruth requires constant vigilance. The truth, it turns out, is mostly a matter of discipline, both personal and institutional. Some truths seem to depend on our collective efforts.

“Real people, not actors” Chevrolet

Somehow we have the sense that actors are not ‘real people’, that they are false people. They are fakes. They put on a mask and become someone else. They are the representation of something besides the truth. Acting is not truth. Whatever the message, the messenger spoils it. The clown warning us about the fire is met with gales of laughter. We are in the position of seeing the truth only when we think it comes from a truthful source. But the problem is that we all wear masks, we all have agendas. Just ask climate change deniers. The truth is a casualty of our willingness to believe not just the independent truth.

Ordinary human life tolerates the truth, it seems, but is not truth’s best home. Ordinary human life is filled with clowns and politicians, oracles and supplicants, merchants and consumers. People whose destiny far transcends anything as basic as truth. Ordinary life has to stop and pay attention for truth to even matter. Because truth is the exception, not the rule. And most things we ordinarily take as evidence and therefor evidence of truth are at best matters of fitness with the world. Because meaning fits the facts every bit as well as the truth does. It can even be argued that any human assessment of ‘reality’ is itself a fiction:

The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.

And so we don’t. Human nature exists to provide meaning in our lives, not truth. Our success in the world, our fitness, may fundamentally derive from what the world means to us rather than access to the world independent of us. That is an important distinction to make.

I won’t argue that the truth therefor doesn’t matter or that it shouldn’t matter. The need for good science and truth only increases with our cultural evolution. Instead what I’d like to see more of is an acknowledgment that meaning is a fundamental standpoint of human activity in the world. If we can be honest about that we get to place meaning in a better context, not simply as something opposed to the truth.

The clown shouting at us might just have something important to say. Understanding that our lives are guided by meaning requires that we look deeper than face value. Our own bias intrudes. Know that. In a multicultural world this should be obvious now. The clown wears the face paint and silly wig, but has every human capacity for meaning and knowing that the rest of us do. Actors, it turns out, are real people too. Its just that real people are the best most inevitable actors we’ve got.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts” Jaques to Duke Senior, As You Like It, act II, scene VII

What we take the world to be matters. Meaning matters. Truth matters. Our fitness with brute reality matters, but often precisely in terms of what it means to us. Meaning is a lot bigger than truth. Or different, at least. Sometimes the truth is much bigger than anything we believe. But would there be anything we might describe as human life in the absence of meaning? The search for truth cannot be conducted as though meaning were not a fundamental aspect of our project or our own prosaic nature.

Things to think about, at least…..

Peace all!

Make beauty real!



About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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