Aspects of The Truth – or Individual Truths?

An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician were on a train heading north from England, and had just crossed the border into Scotland. They saw a single black sheep grazing outside the train.

  • The engineer looked out of the window and said “Look! Scottish sheep are black!”
  • The physicist said, “No, no. At least some Scottish sheep are black.”
  • The mathematician corrected, “In Scotland, at least one side of one sheep is black.”

None of these men are wrong, necessarily. But their statements are also on top of a mountain of assumptions and presuppositions that may well not survive close scrutiny. Even the pedantic mathematician is guilty of not questioning numerous assumptions about what constitutes a sheep or the color black. 

In other words: they each have their own individual “truths.” I wonder: is a complete “Truth” the sum of individual truths?

In another parable, we have blind men and an elephant. Each man feels a different part of the elephant and claims to know what the elephant is – a wall or a trunk or a tail. This is used to advance a classic notion that we each may be able to perceive a piece of Reality without necessarily being able to grasp all of it. Like the passengers on the train, each man perceives a part of the underlying reality.

Of course, part of the humor of the metaphor is the conceit that if the blind men could only see, then they would see the elephant and they would get the full picture. Or would they? An elephant is itself a mental construct, a shorthand label for what, to a mouse or an astronaut, is very different indeed, than the same elephant is to an African pygmy who has to live with the beasts.   In other words, the full “truth” of the elephant involves everything from zoology to physiology to biology to physics and environmental science, a study of the parasites that live on the elephant, the fables and art and religions about elephants… it is truly an endless list.

If the understanding of “elephant” contains endless iterations and permutations then is it even meaningful to claim that there is a single basic Truth about the elephant, or anything else?  Would there be any point to trying to achieve it?

I came to this question after thinking on Deuteronomy. The Torah has Moses retelling the story of the Jewish people from the Exodus until the day of the speech. But this retelling is not the same versions we heard before; indeed, the Moses-specific version comes with very substantial differences! In Numbers, G-d orders the people to send representatives to assess the land of Canaan. In Deuteronomy, those same people were labeled spies – and instead of G-d commanding them to go, it was driven by the agitated people themselves, driven by their fear of the unknown and the human need to avoid risk and plan the future. In other words, the two versions are actually wholly incompatible with the other.

Yet the Torah presents both. Neither version says the other is actually wrong.

I think there is a lesson in this, but it is not an easy one for most religious fundamentalists to handle: Moses’ version was true – for him. And the Torah’s earlier version was also true. There was not just one way to tell this story. There was not only one true rendition. This is true about ALL stories, of course. The story itself actually becomes much less important than what the participants and later listeners decide to make of the story!

The Torah seems to be telling us that it does not really matter how many sheep in Scotland are black, or whether the elephant is a wall. Instead it is telling us that what WE think of sheep and elephants is what actually matters. Moses’ version was entirely legitimate because that is how he saw it and retold it. In the Torah, “spin” is not only acceptable; it is an important life skill. Being able to find ways to see things from different perspectives in a constructive and positive light is a key part of being able to grow as individuals and as society.

There may – or may not – be an actual “Truth.” I think such an objective reality is itself an unprovable religious belief, but more dangerously, it is also a distraction from what really matters. G-d in the Torah makes it clear that He cares, very much indeed, what people think! It really matters how people choose to act based on what they think. Our thoughts and assessments and decisions matter, to us and to G-d and to the world – even if what we think must be wrong!  

We can laugh at the physicist or the blind man, but if we do so, it is we who are the real fools. Because while we are snickering at their foolishness, they are proceeding into the world based on what they think they know. And, the Torah is telling us, that is good enough. There is beauty in the breadth of human experience and belief; our different understandings are a feature, not a bug.  We don’t all need to synchronize our knowledge and work in lock-step like angels or automatons; all we need to do is find compatible parallel stories that allow us to work together and achieve great things. Thanks to the Torah, we have a touchstone to keep us from straying too far afield.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!

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