I’m very interested in truth, and I’m also very interested in simplicity. Of course, the world is a complex place, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be simplified for easier understanding. A simple solution or explanation will always miss certain specific nuances, but simple principles can be an excellent foundation for deeper understanding.
So what is the simplest system for determining truth?
Well, I’ve got a working answer, and it comes in the form of seven simple virtues that, if embodied together, will at least bring one a little closer to truth every day. In focusing on these virtues, even in the absence of any other goal, truth can be found (on any or all topics).
Here they are:
Truth isn’t always fun. Discovering a new truth often means that whatever you have been believing up until that point was wrong. And being wrong sucks.
When you discover that you are wrong about something, you face a crossroads. On one hand, you can undertake the intimidating and humbling task of reorganizing your understanding of reality. This means building new habits, amending past mistakes, and abandoning a way of thinking that you have likely invested a lot of time and energy into. In short, becoming a new person
Given that challenge, the urge to take the alternative path and stick one's head in the ground, hoping nothing bad happens, is understandable. But the simple truth is that however hard making the change to new information is, the consequences for avoiding that change are exponentially worse.
As an added bonus — once you go through this process a few times, it gets a lot easier. As you seek truth, you start to get less attached to the knowledge you have on the assumption that it will probably be replaced at some point. More on this later in the list.
Courage is also necessary because when you do adopt new knowledge, perhaps knowledge opposite to what you once believed, your peers may react negatively. If some of your fundamental assumptions are changed, the relationships you built upon those old assumptions may be strained. This is, for me at least, the hardest part of the pursuit of truth.
Just know that a friendship that is so rigid it crumbles at the first intellectual challenge likely wasn’t going to last anyway. This is certainly a grim way to look at the issue, which makes it a great example of why courage is necessary.
Being courageous often just means realizing the truth about whatever you’re afraid of . . . which, of course, requires courage. There’s a conundrum.
This is perhaps the most important virtue on the list. Here are a couple little equations to explain why:
Time + Curiosity = Truth
Time - Curiosity = Untruth
With curiosity, you will eventually get to the truth. Without it, you never will. The key to figuring stuff out is to question it. Take it apart, hold the pieces in your hands, get to know them, then put it back together again. Watch it work. Understand how all the pieces fit in and contribute. Then take it apart again and build it better.
Boy howdy, let me tell you. There is a part of you that not only doesn’t care about truth, it actively hates truth. We all got it, and it is quite powerful. This is the part of you that smokes. This is your sweet tooth. This is the part that hits snooze on the alarm. This is the part that exists to trick you into doing what isn’t actually good for you, for any number of reasons.
This little turd would destroy each and every one of us if it could, and its all we can do most of the time just to keep ourselves alive despite it’s constant attempts to deceive us. Unfortunately, it’s also occasionally useful, but that’s a topic for another time.
The point is, we all gotta figure out a way to deal with this little sucker. Some people advocate negotiating with it, but mine is way too stubborn for that. Some people advocate just strapping in and wrestling with it until you win. Mine is also way stronger than me.
I imagine mine as the stereotypical image of a rebellious teen. Whatever I tell it to do, it does the opposite, and there is nothing I can say or do to change that. As long as I’m trying to control or influence it, it’s unyielding, pulling with all it’s might in the other direction. But as soon as I take my hands off, listen to it a little, and just let it run around, it eventually chills out.
Whatever your method, you have to find some way to keep this part of you in line and make sure that you are actually acting upon the truths that you spend so much time and energy discovering.
This part is also key. Here’s another equation to explain why:
Truth + Love = Revered master of knowledge who changes the world and is remembered through time.
Truth - love = Asshole that nobody listens to.
Love colors what we do with truth - whether we use it to genuinely help ourselves and others, or whether we use it to be better than others. The difference between that vegan jerk that nobody talks to because he’s all high and mighty about being vegan, and the guy who will openly discuss it with you if you ask, is love. (Note: not an endorsement, or condemnation, of veganism.)
This one used to be honesty, but honesty isn’t really the right word. Honesty connotes not lying. Candor connotes if there is a truth to tell, you gotta tell it. No skirting this by just not saying anything.
Truth is useless if we don’t use it and spread it. Candor ensures that this happens.
(Warning; don’t forget about love. Candor without love lands you back in asshole territory.)
If you have a plate of your favorite meal in front of you, hot and ready to eat, you don’t generally go looking for food.
The same is true of knowledge. If you think you know the truth, you won’t ever look for it. And, as much as I hate to say it, odds are you don’t know the truth. As an example, this list is probably bogus, or could at least use some serious improvement. But I’ll only figure that out if I’m humble enough to realize that I don’t know shit, and just about every person in the world has something to teach me.
Here’s a scenario you have probably heard before. Let’s say you have a bowl of M&Ms, but one M&M is poisoned. Would you eat from the bowl?
Most of the people who would have said yes to that are dead - natural selection in action.
So let’s modify the scenario. You’ve got the same bowl, but it’s the only food you have access to. Would you eat from the bowl?
Anyone who would have said no to that is dead.
Some of the people who said yes are also dead, but some of them aren’t.
So it is with truth. Humility is important, but you must also act upon the knowledge you have, thus why I am writing this article despite having just said that it is likely imperfect. If we just wait for perfect truth to come along, we will all wither up and die waiting. Yeah, you're gonna be wrong sometimes. But being wrong is better than never even asking.