An Honest Player
There is an invisible game being played, a game as old as language itself. The battlefield is your mind, and the prize is your heart. It is a game of control, played over who gets to dictate to others what to believe is real, and to the victors go the power to shape the future of our beautiful planet. Think of it like chess; Those who aspire to dictate what is real are like the players moving the pieces, and the rest of us are like pieces being moved by an unseen hand. We all have a place on the board, and we all have a choice in how we play the game.
As for myself, I want to be the hand that moves my own piece. The master of my own inner game. Of course, who wouldn’t want that? So here is the real challenge for those of us who fancy ourselves to be the captains of our own souls: How do you know the hand that moves you is not in fact the hand of a more skilled player disguised as your own? How do you see through such a well constructed lie? The key is this; All deception is self-deception. Nothing can deceive you without your consent. I don’t expect you to believe this just because I said so. I am going to prove it.
Learning to think for yourself means reclaiming your autonomy in full. That is your birthright. Can you imagine being immune to all forms of external manipulation, coercion, and control? Trying to compel you through dishonesty would be futile, like trying to push around the wind. There is nothing to exploit because every move you make is intentional. Your ally in this would be the most powerful force in existence, a force that is uncontested and unstoppable; I am talking about truth. Once you understand the nature of truth, aligning your life with it becomes a choice. Truth will immunize you against any and all forms of deception. Truth is the ultimate vaccine. It will cut free all the puppet strings you never knew you had until you experience the freedom of their absence.
If you want to ally yourself with truth you must first understand what it is. The kind of truth I am talking about is not material truth as seen through the eyes of science, nor is it faith as seen through the eyes of religion. It does not require you to change your beliefs or to conform to any particular values system or ideology. I’ll say that again: Aligning with truth does not require you to change your beliefs, no matter what they are. Truth does not need to be defended nor does it need to prove itself to anyone. What is required is the cultivation of genuine self awareness and an unfettered love of reality. Truth is powerful because it is real. When you ally yourself with truth you inherit its power. The cost of this alliance boils down to just one thing: Honesty.
The Web of Trust
There is a big word in philosophy called epistemology. Simply put it means; why do you believe the things you believe? Most people would answer that they believe the things they do because those things are true. But what is the actual basis for knowing that a thing is true? The process you use for ascertaining truth is epistemology. If you don’t have a process, you don’t have an epistemology. Without an epistemology, you are essentially outsourcing your thinking process to forces outside of you.
Outsourcing your thinking process — and thus the basis for your beliefs — is actually very useful and practical. For example, you might believe a certain food is healthy because your doctor tells you. You trust that your doctor has a valid epistemology which they employ. Likewise, your doctor outsources most of their thinking to the medical journal to which they subscribe, and to the larger scientific community who ongoingly use the scientific method to form the best conclusions they can. Human civilization is built upon a complex web of epistemological trust. The material disciplines which developed around the scientific method have allowed the technological progress of our civilization to be multiplied by orders of magnitude. In this way, individuals will never be able to advance as quickly as collectives.
Yet in doing things this way we have also had to make some concessions. Science by its very nature has a history of being wrong again and again. In our efforts to align with truth we have had to adjust course and change our beliefs many times in the face of new information and new experiments. But change and humans have always made for strange bedfellows, and while most people are somewhat resistant to change, a collective such as an institution, society, or nation-state are even more so. There is great wisdom in this resistance, it prevents too much change from happening too fast. It clings to what has worked well enough in the past, because it is aware that despite the best intentions, change often has unforseen consequences and could make things worse. This force of resistance is natural, but it cares nothing for truth, only preservation of the status quo. In this way, collectives will never be able to advance as quickly as individuals.
What if we could have the best of all worlds? Most of us are already striving for a healthy mix of collective sensemaking balanced by individual skepticism, but something is often missing, and that something is honesty. Honesty here means aligning your beliefs with reality. So while it makes sense that you must outsource a portion of your beliefs through the web of trust, any subsequent claim about those beliefs being unquestionably true is not realistic. It can’t be. You didn’t go through the epistemological investigation yourself, you simply trust that someone else did. Science is a method, and the people who employ it are fallible. Even if you do the investigation yourself, the same constraints apply. And as you will soon see, science is not the only way to investigate truth. Honesty begins with acknowledging that most of the time you don’t actually know if your beliefs are really true; you simply trust that they are. In these cases the only unquestionable truth is that you do actually trust that these beliefs are true; that is the only honest claim you can make. Making that kind of a claim takes courage, it makes you a lion.
Truth is a Three Headed Lion
Now lets examine this from another angle. I’m going to share with you a part of my personal epistemology. The goal of this epistemology is to develop an intimate relationship with truth, to ally with it, to respect it, but not to lay claim to it. I need my belief system to be useful, functional, and clear. I don’t need it to be perfect, but I do need it to be good enough. Above all I need it to be honest. To this end I choose to organize truth into three distinct domains. If you want to befriend truth as a whole then it is helpful to first get to know each of its faces.
Semantic Truth Domain: Truth of Definition
Truth in this domain is based on semantics, or the meaning behind the language. A truth claim here is evaluated by using logic and deductive reasoning to determine if the claim being made conforms to the definitions or not. A logical proof in this domain is not limited to a spoken language like english but can also be expressed using the language of mathematics. This domain is similar to what is referred to in classic philosophy as an “a priory” truth; knowledge which can be obtained purely through reason. It is possible to form conclusions with absolute certainty in this domain. Integrity in this domain requires careful attention to language, precision, and clarity of definition.
A simple example of a semantic truth claim would be: Johnny is an adolescent. In order to evaluate this claim we would first need to define an adolescent. So lets define an adolescent as: Any person under the age of 18. Assuming that we know for a fact that Johnny is indeed a person and his real age is 17, evaluating this truth claim is easy; Johnny conforms to the definition of an adolescent and thus the claim is true. If he were 18 or older then the claim would be false.
Now lets make things more interesting. There is an argument between two people, and one claims that Johnny — who is still 17 and still a person — is an adolescent while another person claims he is not. Who is right? The problem here is that these two people are from different countries, and one country regards an adolescent as a person age 18 or under but the other country considers an adolescent to be a person age 16 or under. So based on their respective definitions of an adolescent, they are both correct. As long as the language is clear, there is no logical contradiction. They do not even need to agree on a singular definition, they just need to understand the definition being used in each claim.
Often times it is necessary however to agree on a singular definition, such as in a court of law. I call this semantic alignment. Semantic alignment is when all parties voluntarily adopt an identical meaning of key terms for the purpose of being able to evaluate what is true. In this context the definition itself is neither true nor false, because all definitions are ultimately made up. Finding the truth does not require us to use the best definition, but rather to agree on a clear definition and use it consistently to mean the same thing, so that we can then evaluate what might be true relative to that definition. With enough clarity and semantic alignment, the truth will often times just fall into your lap like a ripe apple from a tree.
Now of course we could easily complicate things further in a variety of ways, for example by having Johnny lie about his age, or provide a fake ID. But none of this changes the truth, it only makes it more difficult to evaluate. The astute reader may have already realized that evaluating truth in this domain requires that we do have certainty about some initial things such as Johnnys real age; these fundamental assumptions are called axioms. But what if we lack such certainty? This takes us to our second domain of truth.
Material Truth Domain: Truth of Evidence
Truth in this domain is based on material evidence. A truth claim here is evaluated through observation, experimentation, and inductive reasoning. This is the dominant truth domain of our era, sadly often to the exclusion of all others. Science is a popular methodology used for evaluating truth claims in this domain. This domain is similar to what is referred to in classic philosophy as an “a posteriori” truth; knowledge which can be obtained through empirical research. In this domain you can form conclusions with relative, not absolute certainty. Integrity in this domain requires careful attention to conditions, limiting variables and sticking to the methodology without cutting corners.
Evaluating material truth claims requires a lot of work. Proving what is true in this domain is much more complicated than the semantic domain, and yet, the methodologies used here can still benefit greatly by clear and consistent use of language and definitions. But this domain of truth does not accept logical proofs alone, evidence is required.
A simple example of a material truth claim would be: Eating apples is healthy. But making a claim like this is really setting yourself up for failure from the start. How many apples? What type? When do I eat them? How often? What if I have an allergy? Are we talking about a diet restricted to only apples? How do I define healthy anyway? Setting up a single experiment to prove all variations of that claim would be complicated beyond measure, so we need to simplify the experiment by first expanding on our statement.
Here is the new claim: A random sampling of males aged 17-23 were shown to have their serotonin levels boosted by an average of 0.024% after eating an apple every day in addition to their normal diet over the course of 30 days. Now that is quite a mouthful! It sounds like the abstract for something you’d read in a scientific journal. And that is exactly my point; truth claims made in this domain need to be very specific and limited, because setting up experiments to accurately evaluate them is exceedingly difficult.
Now it is quite common that after the aforementioned research study is published, you may see a news article which follows and makes a claim along the lines of: Science proves that eating apples is healthy! But a discerning reader is going to need to understand that this sweeping claim has little evidence. The experiment did not prove that eating apples is healthy, it proved only that a random sampling of males aged 17-23 were shown to have their serotonin levels boosted by an average of 0.024% after eating an apple every day in addition to their normal diet over the course of 30 days. But many people tend to take a little bit of evidence and use it to rationalize whatever they already want to believe. This is just human emotion hijacking the fruits of science to re-affirm our need for a sense of certainty. But honest science rarely statements of absolute certainty, so claiming that science proves eating apples is healthy is a dishonest move and it’s not even necessary. This takes us to our third and final domain of truth.
Functional Truth Domain: Truth of Belief
Truth in this domain is based on functionality, or what is most useful to believe in order to satisfy a given purpose. In this domain people evaluate truth based on their personal experience, feelings and intuition. Integrity in this domain requires careful attention to reporting your own experience and intentions accurately.
Hold on, stop the ride! We’re still talking about truth right? Stay with me, because I’ve got a surprise for you. This is in fact the most powerful domain of truth, because the claims made here can evaluate true in all three domains. It is no accident that this domain seems to have been wiped from the history books, and you won’t find this in classic philosophy. Remember when I said earlier that to make truth your ally you didn’t need to change a single belief, but you just needed to start being honest? This is where it all comes together.
The methodology for evaluating truth in this domain is based on assessing usefulness. A functional truth is something that is helpful to believe, and for that reason it tends to be very personal. Where the previous two domains of truth require consensus, this type does not, but it does require the personal experience of the person making the truth claim to align with reality.
Let us take an example where Bob claims that he believes that rain is actually the tears of Thor, and if you stand in the rain you will be purified. Mary calls him out, and claims this is obviously not true, because Thor is just a mythological character who is not even real. So they decide to conduct a functional experiment. When the appointed time comes, Bob stands out in the rain, and because of his belief his whole emotional state changes to one of being calm and present. Mary on the other hand simply gets very cold, wet, and grumpy. The claim about Thor is a functional truth for Bob, but not for Mary. It is true for Bob because he actually does have an emotional shift due to his belief. Both the existence of his belief and the emotional shift itself could be proven in both the semantic and material truth domains.
The distinction being made here is subtle, but critical to understand. In this example the truth claim being made by Bob is not that rain is actually the tears of Thor, but that he believes that rain is actually the tears of Thor, and that his regarding the belief as though it were true serves a purpose which is helpful to him, in this case it creates a positive emotional state shift. It is such a powerful belief that it allows him to reliably shift his brain chemistry under conditions where others might react negatively. His belief allows him, like an alchemist, to transform lead into gold, and it puts him in control of his own emotions without the need for medication or psychotherapy. The results of holding the belief are all true — they really do happen — which is what makes this truth functional.
Defending the Indefensible
So now that you’ve gotten to know this three headed lion a little better, the time has come to befriend the beast. Just as a wild animal can bite the hand that feeds when not shown the proper understanding and respect, so it is with this wild force called truth. Using pure reason, empirical research, and even personal experience to evaluate truth is not a problem. The problems happen when we get sloppy with our language, when we start to conflate the essence of one truth domain with that of another, and proceed to evaluate our claim from one domain using the rules of another because our emotional reactivity has gotten the better of us. This is a great way to get your hand bitten off. You may have experienced this before when arguing with someone who was just much better than you at rhetoric.
You need only remember one thing: Stop trying to defend the indefensible. In most cases a person has already decided what they want to believe before they even attempt to evaluate it, because they are getting something positive out of believing it. If this is the case for you then making your claim within the semantic or material truth domains is a losing battle. Your belief in Thor is going to be torn apart if you attempt to fight that battle on the terms of empirical evidence or pure reason. You’ll be forced down one of several painful paths: Concede that your belief is false, end up in a futile emotional slugfest where logic gets thrown out the window, walk away feeling upset and invalidated, or worst of all you’ll conclude that there is no such thing as truth and everyone is entitled to their own reality. In none of those cases have you allied yourself with truth, and so in every one of them you lose. It’s time for something different; you need to bring the battle to your own home field and fight it on your own terms.
Using personal experience to evaluate a functional truth is not a problem, the problem is that the language we most often use is not honest. Because the dominant western culture that most of us grew up in privileges the material truth domain over all others, people have learned from a young age to automatically camoflauge their beliefs in language which makes it sound like it is based in the material truth domain. We do this because we are afraid that if we don’t present it using material domain terms then we won’t be taken seriously. But the price we pay is a grave disempowerment, because we are robbed of the most powerful ally available to us, that good three headed lion of truth.
So with this new understanding lets examine the most infamous of all truth claims; God is real. When you fight this battle in the semantic domain you are going to have to define god so clearly that it’s existence is self evident. In the material domain you will have to provide incontrovertible evidence through empirical research. And in the functional domain you will need to prove that your belief in god (not god but the belief in god) is real and that your belief serves a real purpose in your life. If the reality is that your belief in god saved your life by bringing you up out of alcoholism, then which one of those three arguments do you think you are most likely to win? The key to this all is very simple: Be honest and choose your language carefully.
Integrity of Mind
Freedom is your birthright, but freedom is just one half of a two-sided coin, the other is responsibility. You are never completely free until you take full responsibility for your beliefs. You do not need to change them to become responsible for them. In fact trying to change a belief you have not fully owned is a waste of time. How could you possibly change a belief when you don’t truly understand what you believe and why you believe it to begin with?
It is a good idea, from time to time, to take an inventory of your beliefs, both those beliefs which you already hold and those which you are being told to believe by others. Can you examine and articulate the belief clearly, in the form of a truth claim? Ask yourself, is it relevant? What purpose does it serve? Most importantly, you must evaluate whether the belief is true. But in which one of the three truth domains should you evaluate it? That is entirely up to you.
When most people first perform an honest inventory on their own core beliefs, they will find that most of their beliefs will be rooted in the functional truth domain. They believe that apples are healthy, because they feel good when they eat them. They may have some empirical evidence to back it up, and they may also have a very clever definition of health, so they may be able to hold their own in either of those domains. But ultimately if they’re not willing to fight that battle to the bitter end and to actually change their belief in the event that they are proven wrong, then the reality is that they don’t actually believe it because it’s true in a semantic or material sense, but because believing it serves a purpose in their life. The acknowledgement of this fact is honesty, and honesty always brings you back into alignment with truth.
I made a claim at the beginning that all deception is self-deception, and that nothing can deceive you without your consent. The reason is because while others may make claims of whatever nature they want, the power to evaluate those claims and to organize them into your belief system based on truth is entirely in your own hands. Imagine that within your mind is a filing cabinet, and within that filing cabinet are three drawers, one for each truth domain. Within each drawer are folders, one folder for every belief. Nothing gets put into this filing cabinet automatically, you will inspect every claim yourself and decide where it goes, or maybe throw it out entirely.
So when you read an article that says “science proves that apples are healthy”, you have a choice about exactly where to place that information in your mental filing cabinet. You can put it in the folder that says “It is true that apples are healthy” or you can put it in your folder that says “It is true that this article told me that apples are healthy”. If you update your belief system to now assume that “apples are healthy” then you have accepted the claim as materially true without really knowing if it is. There is the possibility of deception here because whether they lie on purpose or otherwise, you have now adopted a false belief as true, and you will act on it as such. Thus you have been categorically deceived.
Every bit of information that comes in will probably start out as a functional truth claim. “This article told me that apples are healthy” is 100% true given that the article really did say that. Even if the subject of the statement is a deception, you have not yet accepted the subject as true and so you have not been deceived. Now you may retain this belief as a functional truth “I believe apples are healthy because its useful to me and seems to work”. Still no chance for you to be deceived, even if apples are not always healthy.
If you care enough about semantic and material truth that you want to move the claim to those domains, then you need to do your due diligence to validate it fully within that domain for it to be accepted. This will be work. There is an entire analytical skillset involved — see my essay Thinking with Integrity. But as you do it your databank of semantic and material truths becomes rich. Now in the process of validating it, any deceptions are likely to be revealed. If it is shown to be without deception, you can accept it.
I am completely uninterested in telling you what to believe, but rather I want you to take control of your beliefs such that they are shaped only by truth. When you take control of this process, you are thinking for yourself. And when you think for yourself, you become the hand that moves your own game piece.
This is only the beginning.