Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves.
—Nāgārjuna, second-century Buddhist philosopher
The Meditation (My Trip into Crazy Town)
Truth is a provisional construct, the integrity of which is only as good as the reliability of the source. We all know this on some level. Without some basic agreement about what we see, about the world around us, we would not be able to understand each other at all.
Consider the color blue: You and I are walking along a trail when you notice a butterfly with blue wings. We stop to take a closer look at the butterfly. It has inexplicably ceased its typical, mind-bending for human observers flight behavior, and is now perched on a branch of deerweed. Thank you butterfly.
Your perception of the color blue on a butterfly’s wings is not the same as mine. Aside from the fact that neither our eyes nor our brains are identical, we are not standing exactly in the same place. The view angle, the light and several other inputs that shape for each of us what we see, are a little bit different.
Blue sky. Blue eyes. A western bluebird. The color name is a place-holder for all the variations, it has become the vessel that allows our mutual understanding: Blue is a sensory experience as well as an abstract concept that we can agree upon, even though we know that each of us may see a different shade of blue. So much potential for growth is seeded in our infinite shades pooled together, but we must not let go of the reference point we rely upon to sustain universal understanding. The “truth” of blue is that reference point, however complicated and multi-shaded its iterations may be.
Our species has, over millennia, developed the ability to communicate through language. Words serve as accessible wrappers for ideas and meaning. The tool of language enables us to agree on some universals, including a baseline understanding of the color blue.
We can agree on the presence of the color blue, unless one of us decides to confuse or complicate the matter. For example, suppose I insist that the butterfly’s wings are not blue, but yellow. Playing the devil’s advocate can be useful if the goal is to determine whether facts are missing or our understanding is flawed. In response to my claim, suppose that you suggest that we ask others on the trail what color they see on those so very patient butterfly wings. Perhaps there is a wisp of yellow somewhere.
But what if I do not care about the input of any others on the trail unless they agree with me? Maybe I will choose to disagree in spite of the majority consensus gathered among our trail-going peers because I simply disagree with the assigned color names. Ridiculous scenario of course, but I feel entitled and empowered to do this as a high-level member of the Blue is Yellow party.
Or perhaps I take you aside and state off the record in a most dreary tone that my true purpose is to sow confusion:
I do in fact see a color that past precedent has established as blue, but I choose to say blue is yellow from now on to further the Blue as Yellow party’s goal of confusing everyone on this damned, buggy trail and beyond about whether they are seeing blue or yellow.
A general consensus regarding facts, of truth built squarely upon those facts is necessary for a civil, humane society to continue in its project of becoming more civil and humane. I hope that is still our project? Presenting fictional narratives as factual, distorting evidence-based science and promoting lies based upon such distortions, is to facilitate and expedite our species’ descent into barbarism.