Truth and fear

(A wordle cloud based on the top 100 words in this post)

I realise that I’ve been writing a lot of posts that in some way relate to the truth – to the struggle to see what is true rather than what we wish to be true, and to be honest with ourselves and with others. I thought it might be a good idea to explore what I feel about truth.

I am in the slightly odd position of being deeply committed to an end goal of personal and spiritual growth (tolerance, honesty, compassion, freedom from fear etc) that is similar in some ways to that which is praised by religions. But at the same time I find the supernaturalism of religious and new-age beliefs fundamentally alien, and their approach to key issues like truth and fear unhelpful at best. Which doesn’t leave me much in the way of reliable guidance for the personal growth that I am seeking. Or indeed any help with defining what exactly I aspire to.

But let me try anyway. One of the things I am seeking is a resilience in the face of the problems that life throws at me – not a permanent happiness, but an emotional buoyancy. A state of mind that deals with problems and obstacles with the minimum of pain and misery. (This ideal owes quite a bit to the non-supernatural elements of buddhism)

Part of that process is about overcoming fear, which is often both unnecessary and counterproductive, and replacing it with a confidence and acceptance. And another part of it is about truth – seeing things the way they are. Because I’m curious to know the truth, and because I feel that honesty, integrity and openness are all valuable characteristics of the person I aspire to be. And because if our beliefs lead us to make false predictions about the world, we’re in danger of being unnecessarily prepared for the problems that arise, or of dealing with them inappropriately.

I also value truthfulness as a great tool for identifying and overcoming fear. From my experience, it’s almost always fear that makes me reluctant to see or speak the truth, so working to overcome that reluctance, or at least defy it, can help me to overcome that fear.

For me the work of moving away from fear and towards truth is a vital part of my life at present.

When I feel I am tempted to lie, I try to ask myself, what am I afraid of? When I feel afraid, I ask myself, why am I afraid, and what is the worst that can happen? And I try to decide whether the fear is of something real, or something imaginary. If, as mostly happens, it’s imaginary, I try to do exactly that thing that I’m afraid of. I don’t always manage it – it’s amazing how easily the mind dreams up excuses why it’s not necessary on this occasion! But step by step I am working on my fears.

And similarly I am trying to eradicate the prejudices, biases and fears that are the biggest obstacles to seeing what is real. I keep trying to remember that, although I believe that every one of my beliefs is correct, is is, in practice, certain that I believe something that is not true. Which doesn’t help me to identify which one it is, but it’s a useful principle. (It would be great to be able to swill out my brain with some sort of epistemological plaque detector, which would stain the areas of false belief so that they could be removed with energetic brushing). But it’s a useful way to counter the pride of having to be right about everything all the time.

It’s also helpful to remember all the different ways in which we can be wrong about things, and how difficult it is to really get at the truth. I’ve recently watched several youtube clips of Derren Brown (e.g. this one) which demonstrate very neatly how easy we can be to fool, and how misleading our own experiences can be. (I recently tried dowsing with a pendulum, and it’s quite shocking how strongly it appears that an invisible external force is involved, even when you know intellectually that it’s nothing of the kind!) It seems that humans work in such a way that we arrive at beliefs easily and quickly, and change our minds reluctantly and slowly – I can’t help feeling the reverse would be more useful!

One of the most inspiring websites I know is The World Question Center, which includes a collection of short accounts from 165 people about issues on which they changed their minds. Some of the changes are really significant, others smaller. But what I find inspiring is the courage with which they have been prepared to put their beliefs to the test and say “I was wrong”. And in reading their accounts, I don’t think the less of them for being wrong – I think more of them for admitting it. Which encourages me to try to feel the same about the scary idea of being wrong.

One of the most important ways in which I’ve changed my mind over recent years is this: what people believe really does matter, because it affects their behaviour, and a “live and let live” relativistic attitude to the beliefs of others is dangerous. It also cuts us off from putting our own views to the test – indeed, as I argued in a previous post, I think one of the attractions of relativism is that we don’t have to put our own views on the line and accept that we might be wrong.

For me discussion is a crucial way of putting our beliefs to the test and learning more about ourselves and others. But for a discussion to be real, all parties have to be willing to discover that they’re wrong. And that is a rare attitude for people to have, particularly on issues that matter to them. Pride and fear all come into play and bias our view of the evidence despite our best efforts. Which, yes, brings me back to fear – indeed it seems hard to separate them!

Moving towards truth and away from fear is a daily challenge, and some days I feel I’ve made no progress at all. It’s a hard slog. But it seems to me that it’s a fascinating and important journey.

Though, I could be wrong, I’m afraid….


5 responses to “Truth and fear

  1. I was read something on cognitive bias the other day for an article I was writing about religious choices and how they match initial belief sets and your post reminded of it. You may want to look up “confirmation bias” on wikipedia if you don’t know what it is, I think it is fascinating how if we want to believe in something we will find reasons- be it religion, love, mysticism, or politics. If nothing else though, I’ve found or want to find that standing with the truth is the best place to be.

    A quote I like: “It pays to be honest, but it’s slow pay.” I couldn’t find who originally said it.

  2. Pingback: If your blog is your home, show us around… « Words that sing

  3. Lirone, very nice post. I thought you’d want to know it’s included in Humanist Symposium 22 on my blog.


  4. Fear is not all bad. Fear can be good. Fear can be perfectly justified. It’s the irrational fears that we need to purge, but we might as well just extend that and say it’s irrationality that we should work to purge.

  5. Hi Phillychief and welcome to the blog!

    I distinguish between fear (an emotional response to a real or perceived danger) and caution (appropriate action in a dangerous situation). Caution is vital, but I would say fear is always unpleasant and often counterproductive.

    Caution is what makes us tread carefully when walking along a plank above a dangerous drop. Fear is what makes us more likely to overbalance and fall than if the plank were lying on the floor.

    And for me fear is one of the things that makes us irrational – so I like to tackle it at source, as it were!

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