Truth: Absurdity in the Absolute
As far as I can see, truth is and it cannot be otherwise. It is also just one thing. I know this may sound nebulous and maybe even a little ridiculous, but it’s far from either. The idea of an all-pervading isness has been around a long time. I think it’s more commonly known today as being, but for as long as we’ve had ideas in our heads, I’d bet my life that an apprehension of fact has persisted. Now, if your concern is more along the lines of how something as simple as being can help us explain a reality as complicated as why some people are saints while others appear true daemons . . . well, that surely is a long walk from the simple fact of the matter — the reason’s actuality, I suppose. But it’s a good walk and really badly needed in this day and age.
The Beginning of the End
Now, if you’ve already Googled me, you may be wondering what a poet could possible ever know about truth? I mean, I guess there’s a soft spot in our “hearts” for the notion that poets are somehow in-tune and, therefore, speak the truth, but, in that case, so do scientists. We’re both just reporting our findings — at least confessional poets like myself are. We just do so with a little more flare and, usually, a lot less jargon. But I will say this. When people talk about something as true, we tend to do so in terms of statements of fact. For example, if I were to tell you that ‘the grass outside my window is green,’ that there is indeed green grass outside my window is the fact to which my statement refers. If you should choose not to believe me about the grass outside my window, the truth or falsity of my statement remains debatable only in so far as the fact — again, the thing in the world as it appears to be — goes unverified by your own experience. Once verified (for there is indeed green grass outside my window), one might think that there would be no sensible reason to doubt that I had spoken the truth. But what if you were blind? Moreover, what if you were an alien?
It’s easy to see how our notions of truth, not to mention poets, can be confounded. Beginning in ancient Greece around 2500 years ago, thinkers and philosophers to this day still quibble over the most basic questions one can ask about truth. What, if anything, is it? How is it possible that we seem to be able to speak either truly or falsely about a thing? And, how do we then prove the case one way or another without resolving to the position of its being self-evident? Attempts to answer these questions have given rise to a number of plausible theories. Five stand out for the purposes of this chat
The first and perhaps oldest of these are the correspondence theories of truth. Correspondence theories intuitively maintain that the world is made up of object things, about which subject minds like our own can have ideas. Correspondence theorists then seek to understand the kinds of relationships that must necessarily exist between our ideas (as made manifest through statements such as ‘the grass outside my window is green’) and the things in the world our ideas are about (the actual grass outside my window and its being green).
Another group are the coherence theories of truth. Polar opposites of the correspondence theories of truth, coherence theories dismiss the distinction between subject minds and the object world and, thus, discard the whole notion of necessary relationships as a topic for discussion. For coherence theorists, truth is an ever-evolving, expanding construct of interwoven ideas. The truth or falsity of any new idea (thought or statement) is then decided based on how well it coheres with what is already understood.
Occupying the middle ground are the analytical theories. These theories reduce our ideas about the world to simple abstract propositions — essentially semantic equations that we may then analyze entirely in their own rights. For example, in place of my statement ‘the grass . . . is green’, we have ‘A’. And ‘A’ is true if and only if A. That is, the grass outside my window is green if and only if outside my window there is indeed green grass. Analytical theories occupy the ground between the correspondence and coherence theories because they make no ultimate claims about whether or not truth has an object reality. The equation either balances or it does not.
Pragmatists view truth as simply what works. The word “grass” and the word “green” properly strung together as I have them with the words “outside,” “window,” etc., are merely instruments of a kind that do the job of conveying my thoughts about the thing I perceive, to which I now refer. Though a number of difficulties surround what it is or even means for human beings to perceive — that is, whether we are observing the world as it is or, as in a dream, we are consumed by our brains’ interpretations of mere visual stimuli and are, thus, locked in to believing a recreation of sorts and, thus, exist cutoff from whatever it is that may or may not be out there beyond our minds, if our minds are not somehow extending — pragmatism is fairly anchored in an object world of things.
On the other hand, verificationists view truth as stretching out toward what seems to consistently be the case, holding in its most complete and thorough theoretical form that truth is that which remains only once we have reached the extreme ends of inquiry, which brings us back around to a kind of pragmatism. Note, however, that this view is not necessarily anchored in an object world, although it at times may linger there. Its anchor is more subjective. If the world were nothing more than a dream, verificationism could easily persist. Either way, pragmatism and verificationism may best be described as overlapping, with the bulk of pragmatism anchored in the material world of correspondence while the bulk of verificationism holds fast in the ideal world of coherence. Again, their common center of gravity are the analytical theories and their absence of an ultimate claim. On that, most all other theories of truth — and there are many — are derivative of these few. Although there is a great deal more to say about each as well as those left unmentioned, the focus of this article is not to rehash the field. It is to answer the one question that got the whole conversation going in the first place. What is the truth? As we shall soon see, answering this question answers all other questions besides, including how a poet can possibly know it.
Making Mountains Out of Mole Hills
To be fair, it makes sense that in order to answer what is the truth, we had to then ask what is truth in and of itself? To then answer that question, it seems to naturally follow that we would need to then asked something more — namely, how is it that we seem to be able to speak either truly or falsely about a thing? The problem is that as we continued to ask questions and subsequently became enthralled in the ever-expanding, ever-evolving difficulty meted out in the making sense of the things our questions always seem to precipitate — things like mind, the world, and the meaning of the terms and the sensibility of the structures of the languages we use to express the notions we derived from such things — we began to lose track of what it was we had at first set out to do. Why else would an answer to the first question, what is the truth, quite possibly the most important and profound question intelligent beings such as ourselves have ever asked, be so conspicuously absent from the many great treatises on the subject? One viable reason may be that we intuit that an answer to such an important and profound question would require an equally important and profound proof. And so, we had to be thorough. In an effort to be thorough then, insofar as it is the duty of all minds (not just poets) to seek to illuminate the important and profound at every turn, let us wax a moment.
Firstly, let us simply assume that there exists an object world of things. Secondly, let us also assume that there exists a subject mind of ideas. Smack-dab between the two is the human animal, complete with all its many, varied capacities to experience the object world around it and then appreciate the things of that world, as well as the world itself, in a subjective — mindful way. When at the very least it finds expression through language, this animal carries with it some semblance of meaning to other intelligent beings in possession of bodies and minds of the kind. With that, despite our mutual appreciation for the fact that there exists many different types of grass, and that a great deal of non-grass items may be bundled together into what we commonly understand and employ the word “grass” to describe, and that the word “green” refers to a very specific wavelength of electromagnetic radiation in the visible light spectrum — a color few grasses, if any, actually are — you get what I had said earlier about the grass outside my window (It’s green). Moreover, regardless of the complications inherent in our speech, it seems to be the case that no matter the language into which we might translate my statement about the grass, people around the world, from all walks of life, no matter what their social, political, or economic position, would hardly bat an eye at the claim: “So, the grass is green,” they might say. “What of it?”
Albeit, if a doubt should remain and some form of verification was deemed necessary to satisfy the doubt one way or the other, one need only look out through my window for proof in the fact of the matter. And once proven, my claim about the grass would be applicable in any, if not every, similar situation. The statement works, respective of the fact of the matter.
Before I bring up the problem of being blind, truth in this sense is what in philosophical speak is referred to as a truth in the particular. The grass outside my window is the thing in particular about which we have formulated our working statement or, rather, our verified truth claim. On the opposite side of the coin of inquiry would be grass everywhere it grows — all its types, variations, its colors included. Far removed from the context of my window, speaking truly about grass in this much broader context would be to discuss truth in more of a universal sense of the word — i.e., all possible grasses everywhere. I should clarify here, however, that what we are really after as far as truth is concerned is one that is valid not just in the context of grass outside my window or even grass everywhere but for all things (grasses included) across the entire spectrum of phenomenological possibility in the universe. The point is that as easily as we can speak truly of such particulars as the green grass outside my window, what is universally true about the world — i.e., as the word “world” pertains to the universe at large and in total — can be talked about in exactly the same fashion . . ., simply and accurately, unencumbered by deep language or high-minded intellectualizing. This is because our casual descriptions of what is seem to suffice regardless of the context. And where they do not suffice — for instance, imagine if I were to tell you instead that ‘the grass outside my window is blue’ — all that is required to determine the truth or falsity of my statement is to experience the thing about which I speak for oneself. In this way, statement verification is an important part of truth talk, as the verificationists as well as the pragmatists do contend. Excluding those situations in which the fact being talk about is not locally observable — for instance, in regions like the Sahara Desert or the Arctic Circle . . ., places on the planet where there may be no grass, let alone grass that is green — things that are true in the broader sense are notoriously difficult to verify because there tends to be little in the world (again, the universe in toto) to which one might look in order to verify a claim. To what, if anything, might we look to verify that laissez-fair capitalism is the be-all and end-all of modern life, liberty, and our individual pursuits of happiness? This is why when it comes to some of the more interesting questions human beings can ask, questions like who are we?, where did we come from?, and, my personal favorite, why are we here?, whatever answers we might give would effectively present themselves as statements derivative of the answer to the question regarding the truth of what is in the utmost universal sense. Unfortunately, little in the object world of things seems to stand as verification-enough for whatever answers we might give for these kinds of questions, simply because the questions themselves seem to have little to do with the world. For instance, to what in the world might we look to verify one’s purpose? We’re all blind to that, so to speak.
In the absence of any significantly satisfying object reference — that is, something in the world that can do the job of verifying our claims — logic is our only recourse. Logic can help us determine the grounds by which the truth or falsity of our statements can be determined. The question surrounding the existence of black holes, though an inquiry into a particular no less on the order of green grass outside my window, may serve as a fairly good example. Though black holes were once believed to be impossible objects in the universe, our logic showed us otherwise.
Logical Leaps and Bounds
In May of 1783 (just three months after the end of the Revolutionary War between America and England), British philosopher and geologist John Michell first entertained the possibility of black holes in a letter to fellow philosopher, chemist, and budding theoretical physicist Henry Cavendish. In his letter, he postulates that an object a great deal more massive than our sun (on the order of “500 to 1”) might attract light to such a degree that whatever light a body that heavy might emit “would be made to return towards it by its own proper gravity.” Some years later, in 1796, (around the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s first victories as a military commander), French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace came to generally the same conclusion, describing the kind of objects Michell was referring to as “dark stars.” Though Laplace published his ideas in the first and second editions of his book Exposition du Système du Monde, a work second only in importance for its contributions to the field of mechanics to Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica in which he details his theory of gravity, it was removed from later editions and the notion of the existence of such objects was shelved. Why? Because a fundamental understanding of light and how it behaves in a gravitation field was missing. More than one hundred years would pass before another great mind would come along and figure it all out.
In 1915 (around the time of Imperial Germany’s first large-scale use of poison gas at the Battle of Bolimov during World War I), operating solely from inferences drawn from the possibilities invented in his wildly imaginative mind, Albert Einstein envisioned what it might be like if he could ride a beam of light and, consequently, elucidated one of the most significant scientific principles of modern physics. His General Theory of Relatively, published that following year in 1916 (about the time of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest in all of human history) dealt specifically with the behavior of light in gravitational fields. Though it, too, had not yet been verified, Einstein’s theory breathed new life into the possibility of black holes as real occurrences because it functioned as a self-evident, universally-acceptable ground by which the truth or falsity of Michell and Laplace’s earlier claims, though purely speculative at the time — again, that there might exist super-massive objects in space that attract light to such an extreme that they appear black — could be determined. This self-evident, universally accepted “ground” is what in philosophy, as well as the maths and sciences, is referred to as an axiom . . . an element primary to logic and reason. Another four years would pass before, in May of 1919 (a month prior the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which effectively brought WWI to a close), armed with British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington’s photographic plates from his mountain-top observations of star light passing close to the Sun during a solar eclipse, there was some empirical evidence to back him up.
Up until that point, Einstein’s theory was accepted as true in its own right, once the logic of it — that is, the math — had been worked out and corroborated by others. We know the resultant today as the equation E = mc², arguably the single-most recognizable mathematical equation ever deduced. Since then, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, among many other ingenious notions for which he has been credited, has changed the way we look at the world, ourselves, and especially the universe at large.
One such instance of change is with respect to gravitational lensing. In the exact same way star light is attracted by the gravity of the Sun, gravitational lensing occurs when light from far-distant objects in space is “bent” by the gravitational fields of massive bodies between the far-distant object being observed and observers either in orbit or here on Earth. The bending of the light allows a far-distant object to appear larger than it would ordinarily, thus enabling us to extend our view into the cosmos. Though recent advances in technology have allowed scientists and engineers to develop some of the most sensitive and highly-sophisticated astronomical detection equipment the world has even seen, there seems always a need to look even further, and Einstein’s once-unverified “claim” enables us to understand how gravitational lensing helps to do that.
But what happens when there really is no way to verify a claim, like with our blind man, for example. Even though Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity made a lot of sense, proving the theory empirically, regardless, seems to have been very important. So important was it in fact that as late as 2011 (a little less than a year after President Barack Obama hailed the end of combat operations in Iraq) scientists were still hunting for evidence that would, beyond a shadow of a doubt, make or break Einstein’s theory.
After tremendous effort, NASA’s multi-national multi-billion dollar Gravity Probe B, launched in 2004 (a year and three weeks after former-president Bush gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, regarding that same exact war in Iraq) . . . a project that began some 50 years earlier in 1962 (during the time of Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis) ultimately proved that Einstein was correct. Operating in orbit around the Earth, the probe detected what could only be small space-time distortions resulting from our planet’s own gravitational field. Though it took some years to make sense of the data, as Francis Everitt, NASA’s Gravity Probe B project leader since the very beginning, put it, “We have completed this landmark experiment of testing Einstein’s universe. And Einstein survives.” But what if we could generate a claim for which there simply was no verification? What becomes of a claim or statement, even one as self-evident and widely accepted as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, if verification is impossible.
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Dr. Michael P. Lynch, offers just such a claim. In his book The Nature of Truth, a collection of classical and contemporary philosophical essays he edited on the subject, Lynch entertains this idea of a truly unverifiable claims and provides the following example: “the number of stars in the universe at this moment is even.” He follows this by saying that the problem here is that “creatures like us just are not capable of having evidence for such a proposition one way or the other. And yet it seems to be either true or false.” Yet, is a simple lacking in human capacity enough to conclude that such a claim cannot be verified? To see, let us agree that it certainly appears to be the case that such a claim would be unverifiable, not just because there are simply so many stars in the sky to count. Though undeniable, it is because there are a number of other radical realities regarding time and space standing in our way.
The Way of the Universe
Firstly, there is the problem of what “at this moment” even means when talking about the universe. One of our closest solar neighbors — which is actually a binary system of stars, meaning that there is not one but two stars in orbit around each other at this location (Centauri A and B) — is around 4.365 light-years away. This means that light from this star system, traveling at a speed of approximately 186,282 miles (nearly 7.5 times around the planet) per second, takes more than four Earth years to arrive at the eye of an observer who might be looking up into the heavens to tabulate. From there, the next closest stars are the Barnard’s Star at 5.963 light-years away from Earth, the Wolf 359 star some 7.7825 light-years away, the Lalande 21185 star at 8.290 light-years away, the Sirius star system — another A-and-B set of binary stars at 8.582 light-years away. Of course, the list goes on and on and on. A few stars more down the list of relatively “close” neighbors and the distances across which light must travel to get here really begin to stretch out. Thus, each star we see in the night’s sky is a look backward in time; and the farther into space we look for stars to count, the further back in time that vision takes us.
Compounding the problem is the reality that stars also move. Our own star, the Sun, oscillates through the galactic disk of the Milky Way, with its iconic spiraling arms, roughly 2.7 times per revolution. It may take anywhere between 225 and 250 million years for the Sun to make just one trip around the galaxy. Divide that period by 2.7 oscillations per revolution, and it seems that stars, relative to our own perception of time and motion here on Earth, move pretty slowly. But they move nonetheless. And given that our Sun and planet’s positioning in the Milky Way is such that a majority of the estimated 100 billion stars that comprise just our galaxy are blocked from view by a thick band of galactic dust, and that the great bulk of what twinkling lights we can see in the night are not actually stars at all but galaxies far beyond our own . . ., some tens of hundreds and thousands of times farther away from us than our entire galaxy is across — at approximately 120 thousand light-years across — over these incredible distances, those tiny twinkling lights we see in the night’s sky, if it was within our technological capacity to follow each and every one of them back to their sources, would prove to have moved more than just a smidge. In fact, if we could somehow see the night’s sky the way it is and not just how it appears, I doubt we could even recognize the place.
It may be strange to think that the problem with verifying such a claim might simply be a matter of our perspectives getting in the way, but I do not imagine that this will be the case for long.
Human beings have barely scratched the surface with respect to what, I believe, we are ultimately “capable.” After all, we did circumnavigate the globe. And we did put a man on the moon. At one time and another, both were thought to be impossible. Albeit, the technological level at which humans would have to operate to effectively count the stars is of a much higher order of physical understanding than either Michell or Laplace or even Einstein might have been able to imagine; nonetheless, if we should fail to annihilate ourselves over petty differences and, likewise, dodge the bullet with respect to whatever global extinction event may yet be in store for us, natural or otherwise, I think we will get there. So, as far as the seemingly insurmountable difficulties surrounding our being able to verify Lynch’s even-star-count claim, our finding a viable solution to such problems is merely a matter of time.
Where we find ourselves now is on the brink of an appreciation for the difference between claim verification as a practical impossibility — as in the case where we might one day come to count stars as easily and accurately as we can count the fingers on our hands — and situations wherein it is truly impossible to verify a claim. An example of a claim that may truly be impossible to verify is that Julius Caesar thought about Elvis Presley while in dispose.
We know in the naive sense that such a claim may be impossible to verify because we are well aware of at least one circumstance that prevents such a situation from being probable. Julius Caesar and Elvis Presley existed nearly two thousand years apart from one another in time, with the latter having lived far in advance of the former. For the claim to even have a chance at being true, the reverse would have to have been the case. Elvis Presley would need to have lived before or at least during the same time as Julius Caesar. Contrarily, if either of these mountainous supermen ever thought of the other while sitting on the toilet, it was Elvis Presley musing over Julius Caesar, not the other way around.
Now, although I can certainly imagine a universe in which human beings have advanced to the point that they travel back and forth through time as easily and casually as they can count the stars, and that in such a universe such beings have at some point in their travels introduced Elvis Presley by way of his “Jailhouse Rock” to the emperor, who after hearing the King of rock ’n’ roll rocking out has adjourned to the latrinum for a well-deserved break, what keeps the verification of this claim from being merely a practical impossibility is the fact that time travel — at least backwards, anyway — may in fact be, itself, an impossibility. As the famed theoretical physicist Stephen W. Hawking understands it, even if humans could open up a portal to the past the background radiation of the universe of that time would feed back upon the background radiation of this time to the extent that our “time tunnel” would be destroyed as quickly as it had been created. So, it shall never be the case that Julius Caesar could have thought about Elvis Presley on the john or not.
The question that naturally follows from this is . . . well, what do we do now that we have this ultimately unverifiable claim?
I say . . . we throw it out.
Beyond whatever artistic value my humble imaginings might have, and despite the fact that they have brought us closer to an understanding of truth — insofar as they have allowed us to catch a glimpse of the nature of truly unverifiable claims — it serves no further purpose. Our object here is to discover what is the truth. And in as much as we are bent to task, and that it was only fair that we should at least tussle with age-old questions about what truth might be by way of how it is we are able to speak either truly or falsely about a thing, and that what determines the truth or falsity of a claim is whether or not that claim somehow corresponds to whatever facts with respect to things as they are in the world, whenever we find that the verification of a claim rests upon a possibility that simply cannot be — not in the sense that it might merely be a matter of time until we figure out how to verify it (like in counting stars) but in the sense that it proves utterly impossible to verify (like in traveling backward in time to sound the depths of Caesar’s mind while on the can) , there is nothing else left for us to do but to discard it.
Now, this does not mean we should discard every statement or claim we make for which verification may be impossible. If we did that, we would still be banging stones together in the hollowed-out cliffs near where the Ardèche River in France used to run instead of painting its walls and ceilings so masterly for posterity. No, there are some things that, although their proofs may rest upon true impossibilities, serve us quite well on the whole.
Before we get into that, however, we need to be clear about something. There are claims we can make for which there is no conceivable chance that we might one day be able to verify them; their proofs, however, do indeed rest squarely upon true impossibilities.
To see what I mean, imagine a universe in which Alexander the Great defended his personal privacy with the same vim and verve with which he conquered the whole of Greece, alongside much of western Asia. But imagine also that the reason for this is because, unbeknownst to anyone, Alexander the Great had not two but three testicles.
Now this is not just another time problem like the one we entertained in the case of Julius Caesar. In the Julius Caesar-Elvis Presley scenario to which the case gives way, that Julius Caesar could have possibly ever thought about Elvis Presley while in dispose is predicated on the fact that time travel is a real possibility in the universe. But because it may be impossible to travel back in time, we can only play with the idea of such a thoughtful Caesar. There is simply no actual way it could ever have been. Our three-testicle claim, however, is very different. It is still a time problem, per se, but in the case of Alexander the Great, we are dealing with is actually a problem in time.
As guarded as we may imagine Alexander the Great to have been, let us assume that he was so to the extreme that he never let anyone close enough to him to gather the necessary information we would need to prove our claim one way or the other. We must also imagine that whenever anyone did happen to catch a glimpse of his privy parts . . ., he killed them. The goal here is to envision a scenario in which there is simply no way that word could have gotten out regarding his particularly-peculiar predicament. Once we have said vision, we may quick to think that the only possible way to find out for sure would be to go back in time. But, as we have already mentioned, that possibility does not exist and is, thus, out of the question. What we must then accept is that in the case of Alexander the Great, the real-world object reference to which we would have to look in order to verify our claim of a third testicle (though we shall assume he had only two, albeit, surprisingly, we really do not know) is lost to us. If humans lived forever, perhaps there would be someone out there in the world we could interrogate for the information, but there isn’t. And so, as to whether or not Alexander the Great was endowed in such a way, we are left only to speculate.
The point is, whatever humans may ultimately be capable of is bound by time because all events, however large or small, or peculiar in nature, are ultimately time-bound. In the case of counting stars, though a great many of them have already came and gone, and a great many more have yet to come and go, our eventual capacity to count at any one moment the number stars in the universe, being that the universe will likely outlive not just the counting man alone but mankind counting at all, will wait for us if we should survive so long. The past is different. Once an event has happened, unless we have some way of holding on, we shall never again have any real means of making contact with it. This is why I interjected the notion that, well, if human lived forever . . .. If humans lived forever or at least long enough to bridge the gap between our time and the time of Alexander the Great, whatever the testicular possibilities might have been for the “event” that was the man and his most private, personal endowment, they would either be or not be now. Not in the past, but very much in the present. And where something exists in the present, it is available to us for scrutiny, if not now, for as long as it persists into the future. Likewise, as the present moment recedes into the past, it along with every other moment in which we lacked the capacity to, say, count the stars means that the chance for verification of the claim that, again, the number of stars at this moment in the universe is even is now gone forever. Moreover, although as likely as I believe it is that the day may come in which humans have learned to the count the stars and, in light of that capability, are also able to figure out the positioning and existence of every star that ever was prior to that time (to include this— our time now), or that maybe some shred of material evidence may at some point or another surface that would allow us to examine if whether or not Alexander the Great may have indeed been genetically predisposed to the physiological condition of a third testicle, the possibility of either, even if we were 99.99999999999999999999 — percent sure (ad infinitum), would exist only as a probability. Not as a fact. And that, as far as the truth concerns us, will just have to be good enough.
So, it looks as though perspective may have been the problem. It’s a bit of a bitch that way. What’s important, however, is where this leaves us.
It now seems that any question worth asking may have an answer that, as long as its ultimate object reference exists, had existed, or may yet exist in time, regardless of whether or not said answer is a practical impossibility with respect to our capabilities past, present, and future, it remains so — merely a practical impossibility, nonetheless, and can, could, or might very well one day be verified. This may seem like a strange way of looking at the verification of claims, but we simply cannot be so vain as to think that everything must be “figured out” during our individual lifetimes.
Oddly, we actually already know this. If we did not, the keeping of history would be impossible. History is based on the collecting of facts from the pas, not just through the industry of an interested few today, but through the like-minded gathering of a great, inquiring many that had existed throughout the generations. We seem to forget that time does not just far exceed the one man, but the dominion of mankind of which he is but a temporal flicker, though even that is too narrow — too particular a “thing” to explain what it is I am trying to say here. But even if I were to say instead that time exceeds the dominion of intelligent beings, a category of being into which we humans may one day prove merely another star in an overwhelmingly awe-inspiring, congested universe to be counted, even that would be too inadequate a conception, given the task at hand. A better way of putting it may be to say that we are at the mercy of time with respect to what claims we, at this very moment in which we find ourselves, can verify. And so, by natural consequence, we are, likewise, at the mercy of time with respect to what we can know. Of course, I shall play the less-than-hopeful agnostic here and drop the word “mercy,” for it is a term far too loaded and burdensome for any rational conversation on the subject of truth to bear. My original notion shall suffice — that we are merely time-bound in either of these respects, though I must offer a caution. Simply because we have lost touch with the past and do not yet have adequate means to perceive the future, this is not an argument against the idea that all claims may, in fact, be verifiable. The conclusion stands wherever and whenever the verification of a given claim does not rest on the existence of something that is impossible in the extreme that it simply cannot be at all. But I’ll give you one anyway.
An Impossibly Practical Verification
Regarding our initial question of what is the truth, imagine that we have been given a 1000-piece puzzle of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Papal State in Rome. After working diligently for some time, just as we are about to set down the final piece, we realize . . . oh, my God! There’s a piece missing. It is the center-most piece of the puzzle, you see — our focal point. And without it, our picture of the Pope’s wildly resplendent home in the heart of one of the most beautiful and ancient lands in all the world, Italy, cannot be completed.
Of course, given all that we already have in front of us, we could easily hypothesis the picture’s natural conclusion. In fact, with the right materials on hand — some cardboard, a pair of scissors, a little paint — we might even be able to recreate what we imagine to be the missing piece and complete the puzzle. As far as the dialogue of truth goes (or, rather, has so far gone), what we have here is essentially the same situation talked about above. Although the most crucial piece of the puzzle is missing, as a result of all our hard work over the last 2600 years, we already have everything we need to complete the picture. All that is required now is an imaginative leap.
There does however exists one final stronghold for the possibility of truly unverifiable claims, and that is in the world of the purely subjective. What we may also refer to as the world of abstraction, of ideas, or what we have been referring to all long as simply the subject world of minds.
For example, it is not that we are talking about the grass outside my window being green is true, what we are talking about is the idea that I have that ‘the grass outside my window being green is true’ is true. If there were a reasonable counter to the idea that all sensible claims are ultimately verifiable, it would be this. Given the obvious difficulties inherent in keeping such a conversation straight about my green grass, I shall defer instead to the classic example engaged by contemporary thinkers and philosophers to date, and that is numbers.
Numbers are predominantly considered to be purely subjective — that is, things of the mind and, thus, entirely abstract in nature. But consider this: the word “abstract,” if defined solely by its use as an adjective, is a thing “thought of apart from concrete realities.” In its use as a verb, it means to “draw or take away.” Given these uses, to think about something apart from concrete realities entails that you would first have to draw or take away something from those concrete realities about which you are formulating a thought. That said, in order to have an idea about the grass outside my window, insofar as it is with respect to its being green, we would have to experience the grass outside my window being green in order to formulate the thought.
Seems right on point with all we’ve previously discussed.
Now, to argue that one does not need to experience green grass in order to have a thought about it, outside my window or otherwise, is not an adequate counter to this line of reasoning. Of course, we can have a thought about the grass outside my window absent the actual experience of said grass in particular being green. Throughout the whole of our lives up until this point, we may have experienced green grass elsewhere many times. For those who have not — say, peoples of a particularly remote Inuit tribe or nomadic Berber clan — with the spread of information being what it is today, it is quite conceivable that even these peoples may have been exposed to the concept of green grass in one form of media or another (the word “media” here including the spread of some notion from one mind to another by way of word-of-mouth). Our abstract idea here is, thus, practically speaking, abstracted from the world of things either directly or indirectly, however the case may be. The only reason I can imagine as to why numbers continue to be considered purely subjective in nature is because, I think, we may simply have forgotten how it was we came to understand them.
As children, if a teacher or child daycare specialist had shown us an illustrated picture of an apple and then told us that ‘this is one apple’, and then shown us a second illustration of an apple and said that ‘this is also one apple,’ if we then gave both these apples to the illustration of a little girl named Karen, ‘how many apples does Karen now have?’ Not knowing the answer then of course, our instructor would likely have rolled along with the lesson and told us that ‘Karen now has not one but two apples,’ because (as it turns out) ‘one apple and another one apple makes two apples.’ In this way, we came to understand a long time ago not only what the words “one” and “two” mean but how they relate to one another through operational words such as “and” and “makes.” The word “and” embodies the concept of addition, while the word “makes” refers to the concept of “equality.” A little later on, we were taught to recognize this play on words in its more formal expression — something akin to the analytical theorists’ essentially semantic ‘A’ is true if and only if A — the equation 1 + 1 = 2, arguably the single-most recognizable mathematical equation ever taken for granted. What we forgot is that at one time or another numbers did indeed have an object reference. If it were true that numbers were purely subjective, one would think they could be conveyed to other minds without having to point to some object or other in the world to get the idea across. We may be tempted to offer a counter example by first asking, well, to what in the world might we point to get across the idea of 19,976,825,245,299 (the number frantically climbing the US National Debt Clock at the exact moment I write this line)? I would say, the number “one.” From there, it is just a matter of adding apples. Perhaps if we had not lost touch with this fact we would not be in the kind of financial trouble we find ourselves in today, but that’s a real leap.
Returning to our point, the same holds true for our idea about the statement that ‘the grass outside my window is green is true’ is true. Whatever idea we may have about the claim, our idea must ultimately rest upon something in the world, something concrete from which the claim about which we have an idea had been abstracted. This brings us to perhaps my favorite number to talk about in the entire universe . . . the rather mysterious, though not necessarily irrational number “i.” In mathematics, the number “i” denotes the square of a negative number and, unlike regular numbers like one and two, there is really no way our teacher or daycare specialist could have tossed around pictures of apples so that we could have ostensified its meaning. This is because contrary to “real numbers” like “1” and “2” or even “-1” and “-2,” the number “i” has no real value of its own. It is what mathematicians call an “imaginary number.”
Check this out:
If we were to take the square root of the number 25, we would get +5 and -5 for our answers. Though most people recognize +5 as one answer, -5 may seem strange. Understand however that whenever we take the square root of any number, what results is always two answers . . ., both a positive and negative number. This is because Algebra primarily concern distances. And, because the most common use with distance is almost always positive values, we tend to throw out the negative as an “extraneous solution.” In our example here, though, the negative is very much important.
To see if our two answers are valid, we will use the expression x² - 25 = 0, from which the square root of 25 is derived. If we substitute +5 in for x, we may rewrite the equation as 5² - 25 = 0 (note: the positive symbol “+” is implied). To then work this out, we have 5 multiplied by 5 equals 25, minus 25 equals 0. Our first answer of +5 works. If we then plug in -5, our equation is rewritten as -5² - 25 = 0 (note: the negative symbol here “-” is not implied). To then work this out, we have -5 multiplied by -5 equals 25 (two negatives multiplied together equal a positive), minus 25 equals 0. And so, we can see our second answer works as well.
A problem arises, however, when we try to take the square root of a negative number. If we could take the square root of, say, -25, we would still get +5 and -5 for our answers, but look what happens when we plug these two values into the expression from which the square root of -25 is derived. Given x² + 25 = 0, if we substitute +5 in for x, we rewrite the equation as 5² + 25 = 0. To then work it out, we get 5 multiplied by 5 equals 25, plus 25 equals 50 . . . not 0. If we then plug in -5, our equation becomes -5² + 25 = 0, which when worked out equals, again, 50 . . . not 0. Because they do not equal 0, our answers simply are not valid.
This is where the number “i” comes into play. If we were to take the square root of the -25 again with i in mind, our two answers would still be +5 and -5, they would just be written with the number “i” included in the solution. We can then rewrite our answers, correctly, as follows: +5i and -5i, or simply ±5i. If we then plug our answer(s) back into the equation we used to derive the square root of -25, we begin with this: 5i² + 25 = 0. Worked out, we have 5i multiplied by 5i equals -25 (. . . not 25 as before absent the number “i”), plus 25 equals 0. And because it now equals 0, our solution works. If we then plug in -5i, our equation is -5i² + 25 = 0. -5i multiplied by -5i equals -25 (. . . again, not 25), plus 25, equals 0. The second solution now works as well. This is because what the number “i” essentially allows us to do is to suspend the negative sign so that we can perform the necessary operations involved in deriving and confirming our two solutions. Otherwise, we would not be able to work out problems like x² + 25 = 0, which invariably equate to the graphing of a parabola on a Cartesian coordinated grid, which in turn paved the way for the eventual engineering and development of a vast, currently incalculable, number of the extraordinary technological wonders that comfort, expand, and sometimes complicate our experience of life in this very modern world in which we find ourselves.
Interestingly, though such numbers were first introduced by the Greek mathematician Heron of Alexandria in Roman-controlled Egypt around the beginning of the first century, the term “imaginary number” was not coined until 1637 (about halfway through the Thirty Years’ War, among the longest and most destructive in European history) by the renowned French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes in his book La Géométrie, in which he meant it to be derogatory. To sympathize with him, the word “number” implies a value of some kind. The word “imaginary” suggests that we would have to make it up. But in as much as any value we might possibly conceive of would certainly already exist, we are left unable to imagine any value at all . . . not even zero, for zero is merely a placeholder in its own right and can neither be positive nor negative, which is what it would need to be . . . negative in this context in order to use it — that is, both.
Moreover, the number “i” is easier to understand as a kind of work-around as opposed to a number. As we have already mentioned, it is used to basically bi-pass the rules of the various mathematical systems in which it may be manipulated. If we were to ask a mathematician what “i” actually is, they would undoubtedly spout off the equation “i” equals the square-root of -1 in response. Conversely, what we have is -1= ±i. But to then plug i into the expression from which we derive the square root of -1 — that is, into the quadratic x² + 1 = 0 (which is then x² = -1) — we would not actually be squaring i but the number “1” that stands implied in front of “i.” To square i as we might square x would simply give us i² as we would have x². We are allowed this only insofar as “i” can be treated in the same fashion as other variables. Beyond this treatment however, “i” has a value . . . the suspended negative we talked about earlier. Unlike x², which stands for nothing more save 1x², i² is actually -1. The number “1” implied is squared, and then the negative suspended when we set out to derive the square root is released back into the expression. It is not acted upon by any Algebraic operation in the strictest sense, unless treated like a variable. I believe it was this that helped the Cartesian stigma become so entrenched. It is imaginary indeed. Coincidentally, as was the case with Michell and Laplace, it would take more than one hundred years before another great mind would come along and make better sense of it.
A Proverbial Application for an Entirely Figurative Thing
Through the works of Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (publishing around the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, dated 1740–48, and the start of the First Carnatic War — of which there were three, the last bleeding into the Seven Years’ War, with dates ranging from 1746 to 1763, inclusively), along with the proceeding works of the German mathematician Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss and the Norwegian-Danish mathematician Casper Wessel (their respective publications extending through the periods of the second Russo-Turkish War, dated 1787–92, the Russo-Swedish War, 1788–90, the War of the First Coalition, 1792–97, the War of the Second Coalition, 1798 to 1802, the War of the Third Coalition, 1803–06, the First Siberian Uprising, 1804–13, the War of the Fourth Coalition, 1806–07, another Russo-Turkish War, 1806–12, the War of the Fifth Coalition, 1809, the Peruvian War of Independence, 1809–24, and the Bolivian War of Independence, 1809–25, to name just these few and skipping over a whole host of others), the global academic community realized just how invaluable imaginary numbers were and shed their stigma.
Specifically concerning the number “i,” although it represents something that simply cannot be (again, the square root of a negative number), I find it hard to imagine what, if any, part of our modern world would remain in the dark of its absence. To now answer the question what is the truth, we are going to have to turn our world completely inside-out. What I mean by this is that, as was the case with our imaginary number “i,” we are going to have to try and imagine something that simply cannot be. And, as may be the case with time travel, the only way to get there is by a means we already understand to be impossible. But the thing about this kind of truth — i.e., the universal kind — is that for it to apply to every possible thing there is, we must somehow make sense of its opposite. For to be light, and at the same be surrounded by it, is to know light not at all. One would first have to know darkness. It’s the same with love. And so, into the dark we go. So, let us imagine for a moment that we have a bona-fide time traveling machine. We climb into the cockpit of the time machine, strap ourselves into the chair, set our time coordinates to “i,” press the button to go, and we are off.
In a flash, we are whisked away across hundreds of millions, then billions of years as we travel back in time. Through the cabin window, we watch as the surrounding stars draw closer together. As is the case in the formation of black holes, it quickly becomes obvious that the universe is collapsing. This collapse happens slowly at first but speeds up the further back in time we go; until finally, the whole of the universe scrunches up into a tiny point of infinite density. A moment more, and it’s gone.
What remains outside our cabin window can hardly be describe — a complete and utter nothingness, perfectly devoid of all things. At this point, the difference between what is and what is not could hardly be greater. What better place to make sense of the fundamental truth of all things than upon the threshold of Creation itself? But this is precisely — or, rather, this is impossibly precisely where the problem lies.
The complication with which we are now faced is not one but two. The first is that a time before the Big Bang would be so entirely abstract to the human mind that we should actually have trouble conceiving it. How do you picture absolute nothingness? As an empty, dark place, right? But that empty, dark place fills up the theater of your mind so high and so wide, and maybe even with some sense of depth. What is more, the picture lasts for some duration of time as you go on thinking about it. Just prior to the Big Bang (Creation), however, there was no height or width or depth to the universe. And not even time had come into existence yet. To picture such a “place” with any hope of accuracy, you would almost have to not imagine it. As Parmenides, one of the first and oldest recorded philosophers of the ancient Greek and, thus, Western philosophical tradition, once put it, “one cannot know what is not . . . nor utter it.” And that’s just plain weird not to mention counterproductive. What we need is a work-around. But if we can at least accept that prior to the Big Bang nothing was in an absolute sense, then we are halfway there. But here comes the second complication, which is actually more of a paradox. We are in violation of the very law we talked about earlier — the Law of Non-Contradiction.
Simply speaking, in order for nothing to be, it would have to be something, and as we know, something it surely was not. Everything that, in fact, is no longer existed prior to the Big Bang, and it did so in an absolute sense. To put it in terms of the Law of Non-Contradiction — that is, to say that “nothingness was” is essentially saying that something can in fact not be and be at the same time and in the respect, and that, my friends, is an absurdity. So, while it certainly seems that we can entertain the utter impossibility of a time and space prior to the creation of the universe (that is, all time and space), as the famed 20th Century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would likely tell us, we do so nonsensically. The only way around this complication is to understand that there is no “outside” the universe from which we, in our time machine, could have taken up a position and observed the universe as it collapsed and disappeared. This because the time machine, as well as ourselves, would have been scrunched up along with everything else as we traveled back in time. And in as much as the universe blinked out of existence as our tiny point of infinite density transitioned into that impossible moment we rather ironically referred to as “i” — a kind of suspended-negative instant prior to the universe’s erupting onto the scene, so too did we blink out of existence. This leaves us only to revisit our first complication involving the difficulty we would have envisioning such a time and place as somehow prior to creation, which leads us back again to the second complication.
In spite of all this, I am quite confident that you understand what I am talking about when I say that prior to the creation of the universe, nothing was in an absolute sense. This is because the human mind is wonderfully adept at dealing with abstractions, even ones warped to such impossible extremes as those just mentioned. But here is another for you:
Despite the nothingness that was, something did indeed remain . . ., the potential for what was to be otherwise.
At once nothing and at the same time everything, potential is akin to the background radiation of deep space that first glanced across our television sets at the start of that odd, however entertaining revolution — the very same thing that scientist used to originally infer that a “Big Bang” of some kind might have taken place in the past. If prior to Creation nothing was in an absolute sense, then it is simply not possible for something to have existed before the universe erupted into being — that is, if everything possible was indeed contained in that eruption. But it seems reasonable to think that in order to have a universe, and in as much as there exists an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the hypothesis that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning, prior to the Creation, the potential for a universe to be must have been a condition of the absolute nothingness that prevailed.
Don’t stress the paradox. The problem here is that the human mind cannot help but think that in order to have a tiny point of infinite density, there must be a kind of surrounding negative space by which the “tininess” of our point of infinite density can be defined. But even this was not possible, as I tried to explain earlier. As I have already said, everything in the universe was contained therein. Therefore, as the universe collapses in upon itself when we went back in time, everything therein was crushed down into the infinite that was that tiny point of creation all those billions of years ago. However small the universe might have been, as remains the case today in its present vastness and shall continue to remain in the intellectually-irreconcilable vastness yet to come as the cosmological decades unfold well beyond our now, there was, is, and will be no “outside” the universe. There was the universe is whatever shape and condition, and nothing else besides . . . until there was, is, and will be no universe of which to speak. And once there such a thing is, there is nothing at all, to include a space out of which the universe took time to become. I mention this because it is my belief that the universe did not just hang in that moment of infinite density as though such a state were somehow stable. It is more likely that at the very instant the universe became such a point, it erupted furthermore. And so, the infant life of the universe may best be defined as the first 10 to 100 million years or so after that, roughly the period of time in which the first hydrogen atoms may have formed from what was then, at the extreme beginning, pure energy only.
But even accepting this, the mind reaches for an environment of a kind that existed prior to the universe coming into being. This is where potential comes into play. Potential alone was, is, and will endure forever as the stage upon which all things persist until their inevitable undoing.
But potential itself is not truth. It is a kind of background radiation, as we had alluded to before, that keeps us cozy in our thinking. I will explain the significance of this at some point in my life. For now, let us be content to simply look at potential like this:
Imagine we have filled a child’s balloon with vaporized rocket fuel, let it loose into the dark of night tethered to a long, light-weight wire, the leads of which have been connected to a battery with a breaker switch. Once the balloon of vaporized fuel is high enough, we flip the switch, and the balloon explodes.
There is an instant of intense light and flame and heat, but just as quickly, the fuel inside the balloon is expended, the energy of the event along with the resulting bi-product formed as the fuel burned up, having diffused evenly into the surrounding environment, has disappeared. Let us also imagine that we had set up a high-speed video camera to capture the explosion. In the slow-motion replay, we are allowed a glimpse of what some physicist speculate not only happened at the Big Bang but is happening to the universe right now as it expands into forever. The thinking is that the universe, like a balloon full of highly-combustible fuel, once lit, is not much more than a ball of fire expanding outward in all directions — a ball that will one day in the unimaginably distant future fizzle away into nothing.
This is a scenario for the end of time and space physicists refer to as the “cold death” of the universe (you’ll see a lot more on “heat death,” but that’s just stupid). Though incredibly far-off in the future, if the universe should continue to expand, there will be a point in time where all the energy of the universe will have been used up, with everything having been diffused evenly throughout. The universe at this point would be uniform, very dark and very, very cold, with temperatures approaching (if not nearly exactly at) absolute zero — some -273.15 degrees Celsius or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, all thermal energy in matter is gone, matter as we know it ceases to be, and in as much as the universe at this time would be many trillions of trillions of trillions of times larger than it is now, due to the rate of expansion and the fact that this expansion has been proven to be speeding up, whatever singular instance of matter remains (lone protons, likely), being separated by incredibly vast distances from other singular instances of matter, would have succumb to this essentially featureless state. In this way, the universe itself will have become featureless . . . something quite on the order of what, if anything, we might imagine had been prior to the universe ever having happened. Yet even here, though everything that was is no more, something will indeed remain . . . potential, I suspect.
Given the enormous stretches of time that would then follow, any possibility “suddenly” becomes probable, and in some sense imminent. This includes the possibility that there could naturally erupt some spark that would ultimately start the whole thing over again and birth another universe. We could even refer to that spark as a “difference” of potential.
But the probability of a such a spark, itself, exists only in potential. It must also be conceded that just as likely is the possibility that such a spark might never occur. But again, and quite paradoxically in its own right, with the enormous expanses of time approaching infinite, all possibilities must at one time or another take place. That is the kind of time and the kind of space we are talking about. Though it will not matter to us one way or the other, as we seem always on the edge of bringing an end to ourselves as opposed to being an end in ourselves, I am hopeful for just such a spark. And if such a spark were to, in fact, be — in a sense, another tiny point of infinite density — a new universe would erupt onto the scene and, upon the instant of that remarkable new Creation, everything that should issue forth upon its coming into being will have, as it had for us before, at present, and will have until the cold crumbling of doom, but one thing in common . . . being itself.
Upon hearing this (albeit obvious by now, I hope), it may also be unsettling. Human beings cannot avoid counting themselves one among the infinite array of possibilities that make up the universe. And, insofar as this is the case, what was ultimately true for everything that issued forth must ultimately be true for everything that has since then become. However, to answer such an interesting question as why are we here? with the response ‘to simply be’ is, as you might already be sensing, quite a letdown. But this is only a categorical issue, one with a simple solution:
Being is the fundamental truth of all things.
Having said that, to explain how this is so I have constructed Arche Theory, a three-part metaphysical exposition of the progression of truth in tandem with the ever-evolving sophistication of systems over time. Each of Arche theory’s three parts — the Progression Theory of Entity, the Progression Theory of Mind, and the Progression Theory of Idea — describe the development of this truth from its inherent dawn at the birth of the universe with respect to all material phenomena since having been made manifest, through to the rise and diversification of living organisms, and beyond to that which has for eons represented the idea form of human expression — love. The only question that now remains, a question I shall surely endeavor to answer throughout the proceeding in future posts, is why does this not seem to be enough for us? There is also that other question regarding purpose. But, I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned.
Until my next post, here’s a poem I wrote about the failure of society to bring about a Golden Age, especially when one, like ours, seems most capable of doing so. And I do mean a thorough one — a nation, perhaps a world, of Zen-like beings quietly contemplating the majesty of all things.
Most people, I think, do not appreciate why I wrote this poem and, subsequently, created this video. However, after reading this article, you might. To understand this poem more fully, you have to image yourself a master of the universe, in the Capitalist sense, standing on top of a posh high rise somewhere near the Financial district in Manhattan. You’re also hammered and standing aside other of your kind. All ready to jump, you say “Me First,” which when inebriated sounds like “Me Faust,” which, of course, has it’s own special meaning.
To read the decoder for this poem, click here. The link takes you to my poetry collection, a collection I promise to add to for the rest of my life. Thus, with just one purchase, you get a lifetime of reading.
If you enjoyed this essay, join me in “the Poet’s Proving Ground.”
Otherwise, check out my other works.
David Allen Farrell