So what’s the story? That’s the greeting someone will often be met with if they’re being asked to explain an unlikely or offensive event. The questioner is half expecting some sort of spin on the facts that’s going to get the one in hot water off the hook. We know that events can be told from many points of view, and not always from one that is easily given credence.
To address the problem of stories, problematic from a scientist’s point of view, Stan Sorscher recently wrote an article entitled “Why Physicists Don’t Rule the World”. In it he comes to grips with the power of stories for human beings, something for which he had previously had very little time. Being a good scientist, he even cites research which demonstrates that stories move people in ways that facts don’t. Crucially, at the end of his article, he points out that
Leaders will use a good story to be effective, because that’s its great power over human behavior. We can all also apply critical thinking to look through a good story to see the reality carried within it. That’s our great responsibility.
Since this is one of the main points of my book, I’d like to expand on this theme. It is our most important responsibility to look critically at the stories we use to give meaning to our life. The difficulty often times is that we don’t even realize that we are using stories. We are blind to the narrative that underlies our day-to-day activities. As it has been through the millennia of human existence, our stories are generally a collective affair; that is, we have taken on board a story that is programed into us at an early age by those around us. The current crunch is that now there are a number of stories being used, but those using them, when they aren’t aware that they are stories, insist that only theirs is the true one. Much fighting and acrimony ensues.
This is just as true of scientists as it is of followers of various religions. Each person is convinced of the truth of their story, and considers any other story to be inadequate at best, or deceptive at worst. So how do we deal with this vexatious issue without taking sides, or eliminating our ability to deal competently with physical reality? I would like to suggest a shift of how we use the word “truth”.
When dealing with facts related to the physical world, why not use the word “accurate”? Anyone using measuring instruments can record the accuracy of facts in the physical world. How long is your foot? How deep is the pool? What are the temperatures recorded at a specific place at a specific time? How much money does a person or family have? How many species have ceased to exist in the past year? How much has the volume of ice at the poles decreased in the past year? All these things are measurable and recordable. What is important is that they are accurate and can be demonstrated to be so. Facts are not a matter of opinion. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean they are not accurate, though you do need to be clear about what exactly you are measuring.
There are some measuring devices which can be used deceptively. Statistics are the best example of this. The percentage or ratio of one thing to another can easily be manipulated by using a small sample upon which to base your percentage, or by choosing aspects of a population and their numbers that don’t accurately reflect the overall picture that you are claiming to represent. But generally, assuming a person has not been restricted by a biased understanding of the topic, measurements can be confirmed by anyone else who undertakes the same measuring activity.
On the other hand, “truth” is something that deals with intangibles – beliefs, opinions, stories, philosophies, meaning. Truth can be understood to be those things that can’t be measured physically, but which have huge power to shape our lives and our world. This is characteristic of things like history, in which a story is told that is true according to the observer. With modern recording equipment, we can sometimes ascertain if someone did or did not say something or had ever met someone or been some place. (Though with tricks of technology even this once dependable witness is no longer so.) But the truth of a situation can often vary according to a person’s belief about the world and how it functions. Our opinions can change when our beliefs are impacted by personal experience or incontrovertible facts. Philosophies go in and out of popularity to the extent that they seem credible or useful to most people at a given time.
Thus truth has assumptions, biases, and values upon which it is based. This is why the challenge to critically examine these shaping parameters is so important. There is no such thing as an impartial truth in the same sense that there are accurate facts. We need to look at who gains from something offered to us as a truth. Who does it privilege, who does it cast in an unfavourable light? What does it ask us to assume, and how do those assumptions limit our understanding of reality? What kind of world does it promote – one built on love or one promoting fear?
With this distinction, it will be easier to see the difference between facts we work with, and our beliefs. If something can’t be physically measured, then it is a belief, not a fact. Being willing to acknowledge that many things dear to your heart are a matter of belief, not of fact, is difficult for any true believer to deal with. Whether your world view is based on the conviction that death is the end, that there is nothing after this, or that there is an afterlife of varying description, it isn’t based on measurable facts. Consciousness is something that no one has yet defined or figured out. So what happens to consciousness after the body dies is a matter of belief. Fighting over beliefs is less than useful. We believe what works for us; we change our belief if something ceases to work for us.
So what is the meaning of your life? Facts aren’t meaning, though we can provide them with meaning according to our overall world view. If you don’t think your life has a meaning, that is the story that you use to make sense of your life. If you are aware of the story that gives your life meaning, have you looked at it to see where it is taking you?