Opinions and truth

This essay was written a short while before I learned about the concept of a “meme”, which is essentially what is being described here.

Within me I notice that there are certain impulses, and certain guidelines by which I choose my actions. However, when I am forced to admit that I have no knowledge of Truth – the nature of reality really – upon what are my actions based?

In the most complete sense, I would include under the term “actions” anything that causes a change from one state of being to another. It may mean moving an arm, a change of emotions, or a progression of thoughts. So that if a situation provokes a certain reaction within me, I say that this is really an action, whose form has been pre-determined by my inner impulses and guidelines.

Yet if I have no knowledge of truth, then these guidelines must also not be based upon truth, and must instead be something more like opinions.

One possible source of these opinions is traditions, or the things I have grown up with; they present themselves to the mind, and from them I extrapolate other conclusions. Since these opinions are based on the circumstances of life, and the particular situations I have come into contact with, it would mean that they are arbitrary, since they depend ultimately on accidental factors.

Whether these accumulated opinions – which are accepted directly, or reasoned from other opinions – coincide with truth is indeterminable, since I lack any form of true judgment. Instead, I proceed through life driven by the arbitrary thoughts and feelings within me, entirely in a stupor, as it were, with regard to Truth.

I must accept, then, that no decision I make is related to Truth. This does not mean that people lack valid guidelines, if only we are willing to divorce the word “valid” from meaning “right or true”. One valid distinction is that between pleasure and pain. A reaction which provokes an escape from pain is a valid reaction, if we assume that the human body is better off not feeling pain. Other valid guidelines might be the decisions we make in order to live longer and healthier. This is pretty much the level we are reduced to if we divorce ourselves entirely from the notion of truth, by accepting that we have no direct intercourse with it. In this sense, our guidelines are not much different from those used by the animals.

A very fascinating phenomenon, therefore, is when an individual claims to know Truth directly, based on some special connection of which the rest of us are deprived. These individuals claim to have a special access to the nature of Truth, since otherwise their opinions would have been, like our own, derived from other opinions. If the claim of these individuals is valid, the knowledge they convey is of a true character and not based at all on prior assumptions. That is, their knowledge is in no way accumulated from without, and must have arisen spontaneously from their connection with the Truth itself.

This provides us with a certain guideline by which we can examine their claim. Due to what was said above – that all of our judgments proceed from arbitrary opinions – it is impossible for us to determine whether these individuals speak the truth. It is possible, however, to try to discover whether their ideas are based on opinions, or something else. That is, we cannot judge their words to be true, but we can determine whether they were just like us in the development of their ideas, or if they were different in some way. Even acknowledging that they are different does not acquaint us with the truth, but it does tell us that they are unique from the rest of humanity, and therefore have some basis for claiming that their knowledge is unique.

Yet since they claim their knowledge to be actually true, at some point we must take them at their word. We can examine their lives and works, and assess that they are different from the rest of humanity. In this respect alone they have many things to teach us, since they bring us new knowledge (new in the sense that we, by ourselves, have been in-breeding our own opinions for so long, that nothing truly novel has appeared for quite a long time).

Once we know that they speak of new things, we can learn from them by setting our own opinions aside and accepting what they say. If they claim that they speak with the voice of truth, how can we respond? If in every other respect their lives are consistent with their words, and their stated conclusions live up to the tests we put them through, we must admit that they speak validly, at least insofar as we are able to judge consistency and cogency as attributes of knowledge.

But we can proceed no farther than this on our own. Ultimately, if we wish to understand the world according to their knowledge, we must accept what they have to say directly. But in fact this is not so strange at all, since all of our original views were derived from even sketchier sources than these. At least these individuals possess something novel and sound according to the tests we have applied to them; by altering our lives in the way that they describe, we are at least breaking new ground.

Some may ask why we should want to break ground at all, wondering if this is the purpose of life. At such a point, logic becomes circular because the only defense we have is that these individuals told us we should do so. And if they speak from true knowledge, opposing them would be to contravene truth. Yet even this assumes that truth is something we should strive for. However, again, we are told this by those who claim to know what the truth is: that if we follow it, we will become happier and more alive, and that on the day when we are finally aware ourselves of what the nature of truth is, we will undeniably agree that it is the most desirable object to attain to.

Let us assume for the moment that we have judged their works according to their own standard. That is, if their words claim to produce courage as a proof of their validity, then the fact that they do produce courage is accepted as a proof. We do not really know ourselves if courage is a worthwhile goal, but their words have made a claim about the nature of courage, and this claim has been manifested before our eyes. This does not educate us about courage, but rather that the words have satisfied their claim.

On this basis, if we accept their words as stemming from the truth, the real question for us as humans is not how we acquire the fruits of that truth – for doing so would only result in further opinions, since we are still not in possession of the truth itself – but how we free ourselves from the opinions inside us which cause us to behave contrary to the lifestyle described by those who represent the truth. This would appear to be the only real achievement we can attain to in this world, until the day comes when we discover the nature of truth for ourselves.

Our current behaviors take the form of actions which result from our opinions. As was said above, these opinions are arbitrary and for the most part derive from experiences we accepted blindly at a young age. Once the phase of blind acceptance was passed, we began to develop further opinions – which we then called our own – from these original opinions. Perhaps we no longer accepted the opinions of others directly, but we still in-bred those original opinions, which did come from others.

These original and derived opinions may have originated with the words of some truth-speaking individual in the past, which were accepted by his followers and passed down through a chain of tradition. When they reached me, I accepted them directly with no knowledge of their truth. This means that even though some of these opinions may be related to the truth in some degree, they were still arbitrarily accepted by me, which means I have no way of knowing which of my opinions are related to the truth and which are not.

When I meet with the words of a truth-speaker, however, I can review the opinions that I have, and realize that some of them produce behaviors which correspond to those described by the speaker, and some do not. Those that produce correct behaviors – correct to the extent that they agree with the descriptions of that individual – I need not worry about so much. The real work to be done is to erase from the tablet of my being all the incorrect opinions I drank down during the time of my childhood.

These incorrect opinions are incorrect because they bear no relationship to the truth. If those who represent the truth claim that men should not hate, then the feelings of hate which arise in me are based upon an invalid foundation. And while the feeling of hate itself may seem like a natural response, consider how great a part perception plays in the development of these feelings. Imagine that we are sitting on the bus, and a man with his children is sitting nearby. The children are making a racket, and our anger begins to stir over how inconsiderate this man is being in not controlling his children. So we turn around to confront the man, justifying our action by the strength of our feeling. As the children are pointed out to him, he looks up in a daze and say, “What? Oh, I’m sorry. We’re just returning from the hospital. Their mother died today.”

Such a response is likely to remove the anger from our heart, and replace it with compassion. In fact, if we had known the details of the situation beforehand, our anger would probably never have appeared. It is our opinion about the situation which produced the anger, and not a natural response.

Thus our opinions are very much related to our perception of the world. If I perceive money to be important, I will pursue it; if I perceive pleasure to be the ultimate object of life, I will seek that. To my eyes, it may seem that the wealthy man is more happy and successful than the poor man. But we know from history that this is not always the case. So much so that there are perceptions existing in the world in which the poor man is viewed as the happier one.

Which do I adhere to? Do I perceive wealth to be a thing related to money, or something else? My answer to that question would have to come from the arbitrary opinions existing inside me. In fact, I can not answer that question myself. I can only state what those who claim to know the truth have said, or what my opinions tell me. If they correspond to truth at all, it is because they were handed down to me from some other individual who claimed to know the truth in the past; but even still it is only a truth-related opinion that I have, and not the truth itself.

It would seem that the whole world is then an interplay between two basic elements: beings with the intelligence to think and hold opinions, and the opinions themselves.

Some of these opinions, whether true or not, are astoundingly ancient. The belief that the Earth was the center of the universe persisted for centuries before it was disproved. Yet none of the individuals who espoused that opinion lived as long the opinion itself.

This implies that opinions have almost a life of their own. They jump from host body to host body like a virus, and are capable of breeding and dying out just as other species are. Since humans are so short lived, these long-lived opinions could almost be anthropomorphized into something like a “demon”, which “possesses” human minds and endures for centuries before meeting its death.

In fact, the idea of a demon which governs the actions of people in order to lead them astray from the truth, combined with the sense of “possession” and “exorcism” as expressed by the church, takes on an almost uncanny resemblance to the characteristics of opinions. We can imagine that one of those individuals who respresented the truth was walking through the countryside, divesting people of their fallacious opinions – some which had been existing for millenia – and it being described as the exorcism of long-lived demons: of insensible creatures, able to jump from body to body, which, once they governed a person’s actions, took over and turned that person aside from the truth.

What a miracle then for an individual to be able to clear away the slate of a person’s heart in a single moment, and replace those opinions with a submission to the truth. Doing so would immediately alter that person’s feelings and behavior, and make them a shining example of the truth promulgated by the prophet. This instant clearing away could only be described as a miracle, since ordinarily it is a hard and painful process to discover and free ourselves from our inveterate opinions.

The question then arises: who am I? If I separate away all the demons, and subtract from the sum of my being every opinion, what is left? Religion again would likely refer to this remaining part as the soul, and the rest as the self. Those who speak the truth claim that the soul was created of Truth, in its own image, and therefore longs to return to it and have a relationship with it. The self, or opinions or demons, is what keeps us from the path leading to such a reunion.

It becomes very compelling then, if we subscribe this choice of vocabulary, that the prophets have told us that we should abandon our “selves” and submit entirely to their will; that if we do not guard against the powers of Satan (and his minions, the demon legions) they will obscure our vision and prevent our souls from returning to their rightful place in heaven.

It may seem like a mythical tale – when one introduces the words “demon” and “heaven”, and portrays it as an eternal struggle between good and evil – but just considering who we are, and the fact that we can give no true justification for our lives other than that we are playing out feelings from day to day, makes it very fascinating that those who claim to know the truth should speak in such terms. Have we ever really seen these various, magical elements of religion? Or are they perhaps describing pictorally the invisible aspects of our own being, which we would be unable to comprehend without some kind of image?

Even the idea of the perdurance of opinions is not quite graspable. As I write about it, and think about how opinions move from person to person through history, I am forced to visualize a kind of mysterious, unknown force, which lives for centuries and governs the actions of men outside their own will. Some opinions have perpetuated wars of incredible duration! When really, were those men to witness the true nature of things as described by the prophets, it would be impossible for any man to draw his sword against another. In that moment of revelation (or “apocalypse”, according to the Greek), the “swords would be converted into ploughshares”, assuming that all the evil spirits dwelling in the hearts of men were purged en masse from the body of mankind.

At the present stage in our civilization, it seems that by far the majority of the world is driven by these demons of opinion. War, hatred, the inequitable distribution of wealth, continue unchanged generation after generation. When actually, if procreation were ever to cease, humanity itself would be extinguished in just over one hundred years: everything would be gone in a century, if it weren’t for the fact that we reproduce.

Thus the entire body of mankind is renewed every three generations, and yet we are not so different – according to our humanity – as we were five centuries ago. The instruments that we use and their technology have improved dramatically, and the systems of government and communication have likewise developed, but we are still afflicted with the same greed, warring and prejudice everywhere we turn.

A true apocalypse, which would cause humanity’s perception to be also renewed, would change the face of the world beyond recognition. Any idea or opinion which was not directly related either to the physical world or the words of a prophet, would be completely effaced, just as the bodies of our great-great-grandparents are now no longer seen.

Religion has told us that the production of an apocalypse of this sort has been reserved to God, and will be brought about at the time of the end. But what shape would such an event take? Would each of us awake from our sleep with a new set of governing principles totally different from the day before? This has never been the case in the past, not with any of the prophets. Each of those prophets of old came with a message of the truth, and it required the sincere effort of their followers to sacrifice the opinions they had previously held.

However, despite the potency of the message, nothing prevented those original believers from propogating new opinions in place of the old ones. At the first the religion renewed the race of people it came to, but afterwards it devolved into yet another sequence of opinions, as individual thought was subjected to the yoke of ecclesiastical oppression.

A true apocalypse would not be something that happens overnight, but it would promise to touch all of humanity before it lost its strength. This would require certain basic elements, if we take the lessons of history as a guide: it would be international in character, and not restricted to any specific people, language or culture; it would not permit a clerical order to withhold people from individual thought; it would in fact encourage independent thinking; it would not allow the opinions of any individual to supercede those of others; and it would provide a mechanism for safeguarding its original message, so that even many years later individuals could relate to it directly without almost no distortion.

If these conditions existed, I believe that the truth revealed by such a prophet would gradually extend to the whole world. At each stage it would encounter great resistance as it met with the more obstinately held opinions, but it would continue to grow in scope, faster and faster, until it had encompassed the whole globe.

At such a time, a new era would dawn for humanity, which would finally be freed from the fetters of the past. Individuals would no longer be governed by demons, who have survived for so many ages, supressing the creative intelligence of mankind. The details of such an age are beyond the powers of imagination, since that world would be based upon entirely different principles from our own.

What I can do in the meantime is to allow that revelation into my own heart, contributing to the numbers of those who have accepted its message. The author of just such a revelation, named Bahá’u’lláh, appeared among humanity in the year 1853, claiming to represent the Truth, and to have been given this mission of erecting the Kingdom of God on Earth. The attributes described above are present in the World Order He describes.

That His message is true, and He is indeed a speaker of truth, must be determined by each individual according to the standards of validity accessible to us. We must also come to terms with our opinions, those which take possession of us, in order to discover if we are gaining ground in our search for truth, or merely contending with the world of opinion, and participating in an argument who premises and conclusions were thought up by individuals centuries ago.