Truth & Story

The truth and the facts aren't necessarily the same thing. Telling the truth is the object of all art; facts are what the unimaginative have instead of ideas. — A.A. Gill

I love this quote.1 My daughters often play imaginative games, and getting into the spirit I may tell them something, some sort of fact. "Is it really true?"," they ask, incredulously, "did it really happen?" Such an interesting question. Yes it is true, because we are in the story. Yes, it really happened. Did the frog really turn into a prince? Did trumpets really bring the walls of Jericho down? Did Count Olaf really put Sunny Baudelaire in a birdcage and hang her from a tower? Yes, absolutely yes. All these things are true—they must be, for each is written.

Truth is not the exclusive domain of history or science, both which come with their own fiction, their own artificial sense of reality. What we call history, would more rightly be called the ruling class, white, male, imperialist story, and what we call science these days is more accurately described as the narrow-minded, capitalist-biased narrative, peer reviewed (by definition of the word 'peer') by others with the same bias, focused on maintaining the status quo—and their place within it—rather than seeking enlightenment. Let's not kid ourselves about this.2 Truth is greater than peer-review, greater than accuracy, and certainly greater than a collection of facts. While facts cling tightly, truth soars. Truth is the force of enlightenment, prominent in art and creativity far more than in dusty records on a university library shelf, or in a computer database. Truth is what we live, how we live, and why we live. Truth is awe and wonder, it is imagination—it is making stuff up as you go along. Truth is our beliefs, our faith, our love for the world and for one another.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. — Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

This is not to say that there isn't a lived-truth. There is. We call it integrity. But again, this is not recordable by historians, nor provable by scientists. It is transient, adaptable, even ephemeral. We cripple our imaginations when we believe the lie that truth is clear and simple. It is muddy and complex (just like that previous sentence) because it is determined by muddy and complex beings. It only appears to be clear and simple because some of those muddy, messy, murky beings speak with loud, confident voices and wave in our faces complicated spreadsheets and formulas that few can understand or be bothered to read. Ultimately, it all just adds to the mess, but for a brief moment we can be convinced there is this thing called Undeniable Truth.

Science is concerned with cause and effect, quite reasonably, except that from observed causes and effects something called "laws" are derived (another word for truth) as if there is an inevitability. It's possible there is, even likely, but by so emphatically insisting on this the scientist immediately loses his sense of wonder.3 It is the absense of wonder and impossibility that has dried science as a study, boxed and chained it, tamed it to be a servant of the system. G.K Chesterton expresses this loss of wonder beautifully in his essay, "The Ethics of Elfland".

Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales. The man of science says, "Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall"; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, "Blow the horn, and the ogre's castle will fall"; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing. Two black riddles make a white answer. — G. K. Chesterton, The Ethics of Elfland, from Orthodoxy, 1908

My only point in writing this essay is to ask the reader to think twice before using the terms "facts" and "truth" as weapons to oppose unreason, to oppose the other, the one who thinks differently, who seems mad, bad or even dangerous, the one who is away with the fairies. Beating the edge-dwellers with the stick of Truth will not tame them. Violence will never make the lunatic sane. It is story that matters. What is the story the lunatic tells, or lives? If we try to learn it, we might find it is we who need to change, not the other. That doesn't make the other right, but neither does it reinforce our own rightness. If we're lucky we'll see truth released. Truth is a butterfly, we can catch it in a net, and admire it's beauty, but as soon as we pin it down to understand it better, we murder it, and learn only about death—in this case the death of ideas.

1 Adrian Anthony Gill was a British journalist, and restaurant reviewer for The Sunday Times. Best known for his controversial, often gravely offensive remarks, and his questionable choices [ref] he is perhaps poorly positioned to make statements about truth. On the other hand he appreciated good food, and truth, if it lives anywhere, surely lives in the kitchen. There is nothing duplicitous about a well-cooked meal.
2 Much has been written about the inadequacy of peer review. Try Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals by Richard Smith, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, April 2006, or simply search for "peer review flawed" to find more.
3 I use the pronoun 'his' very deliberately. This is not to imply there are no female scientists (!) but instead to imply that science as we know it today, i.e. upper-case-S Science, with its absolute truths and its resistance to challenge is an integral part of the patriarchy. If I were writing about science in its essence I may well have used the pronoun 'her', as I see true scientific enquiry as an equally integral part of the feminist movement, the antithesis of patriarchy.

This is an extract from my July 2021 newsletter. If you'd like to receive this monthly newsletter by email click here to subscribe.

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1st September 2021, 6 am