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Opinion philosophy

The Opposite of Fiction is Not Truth (Week 48 of Wisdom)

People excuse their evil natures by doing good things that are trivial. “It is okay that there is injustice in the world, I recycle.” They are hypocrites because they do not see how they are part of the problem, “I did not vote for this imbecile, so it is not my fault that the country is in crisis.”
Implicit in these statements is a feeling of “I”, as a responsible and powerful agent capable of making a change in the world. Yet, to what extent is the “I” guilty of the way reality is constructed, and to what extent is it irrelevant?

Each person understands that no problem can be solved without admitting that there is a problem in the first place. You cannot become wise if you do not acknowledge that you are foolish. You cannot become compassionate if you do not admit that you are cruel.

And yet, few people admit their dark natures, ignorance, or foolishness. But it is silly to condemn humanity for holding dearly to its false virtues– without which, almost nothing can be accomplished. Jung was right that it is necessary to integrate our hidden impulses, but Jungians are wrong in condemning people who do not. There is a practical reason why people require smooth narratives, why they crave a semblance of order in a chaotic world. If they did not hang on to this illusion, what would happen to their identity? Who would they become? Are they contributing to the improvement of the world or are they evil perpetrators? They must make a decision, one way or another.

The need for a solid identity is understandable, and even if it is an illusion, it is a desirable illusion, nonetheless. The world is filled with people who claim to be the true defenders of righteousness and justice. They will portray the other side as evil, of course. But if these people did not take a side, did not become delusional and hypocritical, what progress would be made?

As Nietzsche intuited a long time ago, these conflicting voices are nothing but the struggle for power. One side of the individual or collective personality ganging up on “the other”. The solution cannot be to avoid the conflict altogether – this would be impractical. To ask the brain to stop thinking intuitively and to only think deliberately from now on is no different than telling the brain to think both intuitively and deliberately in equal measure. Likewise, it is silly to ask society to put aside their polarization and allow equanimity and balance to emerge. The only true acceptance is to accept the imbalance, and to allow itself to play out.

What is ultimately the truth? Does such a thing exist? Are our brains built to discover it?

If we take an evolutionary biology approach, then the definition of truth is closer to utility. Something is true if it works – if it succeeds in promoting life. Ideas or myths or fictions are truthful if they help an individual survive, procreate, or be healthy. This is akin to the pragmatic perspective on truth that William James was known for. If you believe in the fiction of money, then you buy into the fiction that everyone else in society has bought into. By doing so, you can bring about real changes. A fictional belief can change your material reality.

Another perspective of truth is more Newtonian than Darwinian. It is the idea that truth exists independently of what we all think, and independently of the result. A proposition is true because it can be validated through experiments. Even for propositions that cannot be easily verified, the same idea holds. Free will either exists or free will does not exist – one of these statements must be true and the other must be false. There is no point in thinking about the practical utility of believing in it. This is known as objective truth.

The problem with an investigation into truth is that we are subjects. If we want to investigate the external world, our conclusions will be plagued with a myriad of biases and mistakes. If we want to investigate the internal world (ourselves), we will run into errors even faster, since it is impossible for a subject to see itself objectively.

The Buddhist solution is to liberate yourself from yourself. Of course, this presupposes that there is a self to begin with. But the idea is to remove one’s attachment to the self – to not identify with the desires or anxieties of the self even if such a thing objectively exists. The illusion is not the self, but the agency that we associate with the desires of the self as if it were some part of our unique identity. In other words, the contents of the self are not real, even if the self may be real.

Only by eradicating the self can one achieve enlightenment and be liberated. But what is the standard we are using for liberation? Which definition of truth are we subscribing to?

If we are thinking about truth in a pragmatic sense, then we must assume that the abdication of self invariably results in higher understanding and compassion. But as Slavoj Zizek points out, there is an ugly history of Buddhist militarism. Eradicating oneself can not only remove one’s identification with destructive forces but can also remove one’s sense of responsibility towards one’s own behavior.

“The standard anti-militaristic cliché about soldiers being drilled into a state of mindless subordination is here asserted as being identical to Zen Enlightenment. Within this attitude, the warrior no longer acts as a person; he is thoroughly desubjectivized, or as D.T. Suzuki himself put it, “it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He had no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy.”

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing

Pol Pot had a Buddhist background and may have achieved the highest level of consciousness – nothing moved him. Many atrocities have been committed in cold blood because the subjects have stopped identifying as a self. And the opposite is true, it is possible to be wholly compassionate and helpful to others and yet maintain the illusion of the self. So, from a pragmatic perspective, which point of view is true?

And what about the Newtonian perspective? Does a self really exist? Psychoanalysis and Buddhism agree here, the answer is no. The difference is that psychoanalysis wants to investigate what caused the illusion of the self to arise in the first place, and concludes that there is no way out ultimately, while Buddhism insists that the only way out is to liberate one’s self identification.

If there are not enough reasons already to be suspicious of how much we really know about the world, and how strongly we should attach ourselves to our conclusions, then a humbling reminder is simply our failure to even know who we are and who we should be.

But the larger point here is our understanding of fiction. The intuitive reaction to any kind of fiction is to dismiss it as something that lacks truthfulness. But this is a misunderstanding.

The opposite of fiction is not truth. There can be more truth contained in a work of fiction than in several “factual” books about how the world works, particularly if the lessons contained in the former can be applied to variety of circumstances. Money is an illusion that keeps the world functional, love is an illusion that keeps the species procreating, and even if you are the staunchest atheist, you cannot deny that religious ideas give meaning to the lives of countless people.

Are we not ultimately built for deception and self-deception? Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, makes the point that nature has selected for deceivers and those who can spot deception. These traits have co-evolved. And to be able to deceive, one must have the capacity for self-deception. In other words, the fact that we have the capacity for self-deception is not a bug, but a feature. A life devoid of all fiction may be truly dismal and empty. So, it is best to be careful when we attack the beliefs of others, and the fictions they hold. Just as how the abdication of self does not necessarily result in endless compassion, the abdication of other fictions does not necessarily result in an improved experience of life.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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