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The Art of Truth and Learning

May 3, 2012

If you have ever had any personal relationship with me (especially romantic) please stop reading this right now.

I have quite a bit to say on the topic of truth.  My views range from the philosophical to the physical and the interpersonal to the intrapersonal. But first, I want to talk about an entirely unrelated concept: lies.

Most of us are taught from a very young age by our parents, teachers, clergy and Judge Judy that lying is wrong/immoral/unethical. You should always be honest, no matter what.

Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the whole “is a lie ever justified if nobody gets hurt/is it ok to tell a lie to protect someone” routine. Not only has that conversation already been done to death, but it’s one of those questions that no matter what your opinions are you can always come up with so many irrefutable examples to support your position that debating it serves no constructive purpose.

Many people believe that truth and lies are opposites. People associate truth with good which logically implies that lies are evil. That simply is not true.

I really wish that society would stop lecturing children and young adults about why they shouldn’t lie. First of all, do you really think you’re imparting some profound new information when you tell a twelve-year-old that it was wrong of him to blame his sister for leaving that burning paper bag on the neighbors’ front porch? If he thought it was going to earn him a candy bar and a pat on the back he surely wouldn’t have let his sister take the credit. It’s a complete waste of time.

    (What ever happened to the good old-fashioned art of the ‘evil eye’? My proficiency with this technique is undoubtedly one of the primary reasons for my success as a teacher. I’m not trying to perpetuate any stereotypes, but several of my students referred to it as ‘the angry Black mother look’. All I know is it saves a lot of time and energy. It should be a required course in every college education program.)

Imagine what would happen if your lectures actually worked. The day I can walk into a classroom and implicitly trust all of my students is the day I quit teaching. Seriously, how boring would that be?

We teachers always complain about how much easier our lives would be if our students were little angels, did all their homework and volunteered to clap erasers after school every day, but is that really what you signed on for? You might as well just watch educational movies and read the newspaper all day.  And I think most teachers would agree that there is something very unsettling about a class that is too well-behaved.

Educating students is a war. Every school year, every class and every student is a battle. The teachers are on a campaign to educate each student in their subject. The student’s objective is to get a satisfactory grade with the minimum amount of effort. To ask students to be honest, use proper language, do all of their work and never miss class or cheat would be like asking a peasant army to drop their pitchforks and torches and just let the king’s archers pick them off one by one without resistance. Where is the challenge? Where’s the sport? Haven’t we seen this movie before?

It’s not like it’s going to happen anyway. Sure, a few may take your side, but are they really on your side? Are they playing a double agent? It’s a mystery – a war of psychology and wits.

I love it when my students lie to me. I generally don’t mind when anyone lies to me, because one lie will often teach me more than I could learn in a year of only hearing facts.

I am interested in the big picture. One might call it the truth. But truth is unending and continuous. Imagine that the truth is a huge mural. Each speck of paint on that mural is a fact. Constructing the truth using only facts is just never going to work. How many pin sized dots of color does one need to fill a mural that covers the Great Wall of China?

And how misleading might that be? Suppose all the facts we learn are shades of red. Eventually we may assume no other colors exist. Maybe it isn’t even red at all, we just haven’t found the yellow dots that turn the red into orange – which was always the real color but we never saw it because we didn’t have all the facts.

This actually illustrates something quite dangerous – that if we are fed just the right facts, that mural could start to take the form of any picture we are led to see. Are we being lied to if everything we see is true?

Suppose the mural starts to take the image of a mountain. Is it really a mountain or do we still need to add a lot of paint? Are we only seeing a mountain because we were led to see it? Or did our own preconceptions lead us to draw the mountain completely subconsciously? Whatever the cause, the image was constructed with nothing but facts. Were we lied to? Deceived? By ourselves? By someone else?

Here is my frightening conclusion. If each fact is an infinitesimal dot on an infinite canvas we call truth, than facts alone will never show us what the truth really is. No matter how much we learn, how far we progress, between every two dots lies infinitely many more dots just waiting to be filled in.

Our brains naturally want to connect these dots. But there is nothing more dangerous than believing we see patterns and connecting the dots ourselves because there is always something more between any two facts than we can see.

People often believe that the opposite of truth is a lie. There is no opposite of truth. The truth simply is what it is.  Are lies ‘bad’?  Certainly lies are often dangerous, but a lie is defined by the truth it is trying to steer us away from. Thus the moment we recognize a lie for what it is, we instantly discover more of the truth than we ever could have uncovered by simply looking at facts. And since facts alone will never complete the picture, lies may be our only hope of ever actually seeing the truth.

This is why I love lies.  Eventually I may become so convinced I am drawing a mountain that I start imagining rocks and trees that aren’t actually there.  I will start to convince others that my mountain of truth is complete and correct.  But the moment I realize the lie – whether someone had been whispering ‘mountain’ in my ear for years or it was simply in my own head – I suddenly see so much more than that plain old mountain I thought I was drawing.

There are so many other implications and connections that can be drawn from this model. I have no doubt I’ll be continuing to think about it for a long time. For now, though, I need to get some sleep. Please share your thoughts and feedback.

And take the time to show someone how much you care today – tell them a few good lies.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2012 7:39 am

    Interesting post, Matt. It made me think about LOTS of things and one thing in particular that I was taught growing up; “Believe nothing in what you hear, and only half of what you see”. I believe that teaching children how to FIND the truth is important. Thinking outside of the box and learning to be a detective in seeking what is real and what is not. I’ve heard the expression, “Perception is truth” (people use this in business all of the time) – which always makes me angry – because I think it is BS. My definition of perception is “opinion” or “first impression” and someone’s opinion, or first impression, is NOT truth. I understand what people are trying to say when they use that phrase, however, to me it’s just being lazy and NOT bothering to find the truth.
    In my mind, if children are taught how to use their skills in thinking outside of the box, and question the validity of EVERYTHING that is told to them and shown to them, this world would be a better place. My generation always said “question authority” – which I still stand by. Too many people act like sheep and simply follow whatever agenda is taught them. This is a huge problem here in the US – which is why the younger generation (who I am SO proud of) has pushed the Occupy Wall Street movement. They are questioning authority – what they’ve been told does NOT add up – they are thinking outside of the box – they are searching for truth.
    Thanks again for the post – I love the topics you post and how you stir up controversy inside of my brain!

  2. May 4, 2012 1:40 am

    And I love your responses! With respect to the ‘perception is truth’ comment – I don’t want to say much because I’m already writing about the topic. But as a teaser let me just suggest that the truth in someone else’s perception has nothing to do with what that person is perceiving, but what their perception tells us about that person.

    As for your comments on ‘thinking outside of the box’ – that phrase just cracks me up. Everybody always says that our kids need to learn how to ‘think outside of the box’. And what is their soulution? We stick them in a box 8 hours a day, 5 days a week until they turn 18.

  3. May 4, 2012 10:47 am

    “Perception is truth” is a misconception in and of itself. What one perceives as a receptor is relevant only to their understanding of the message sent and as you said there is much more information between the dots that we don’t see or sometimes bother to hear that remains to be found.
    And what does “think outside the box” really mean but to challenge ourselves to be creative, unique and stand on our own two feet. It is a challenge not to conform to the beliefs, perceptions and ideas of others, to “think” for ourselves and to follow our own path to acknowledge our truth in understanding what’s set before us.

    Great article Mark and thanks for visiting, reading and liking my post. Much appreciation – and please don’t let the poor thing get fat. lol

  4. May 4, 2012 10:51 am

    Sorry Matt – No disrespect meant I called you Mark by mistake, my apologies

    • May 4, 2012 11:04 am

      Thank you, I enjoyed what I have read so far on yours as well. And I’m starting to consider switching to a 1/2 treat per comment rule.

      • May 4, 2012 11:22 am

        Sweet! I’m glad your enjoying reading my posts as much as I’m enjoying writing them. Sometimes it’s hard to accept the “truth” about ones self destructive behaviors but liberating to make the decision and effort to change. Thanks for your support, I like what I’m reading on yours as well and will return to read more.

Every time I get a comment I give my dog a treat!

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