My spirit is unsettled.
Today’s unease came from reading about ISIS in Iraq, laying down an ultimatum to the few remaining Christians there (about 200 estimated, down from 100,000 a few years ago) — convert to Islam, pay a tax, or die. I expect a few obstinate martyrdoms in the next few days or weeks, and a firestorm of anti-Muslim outrage around the planet accompanied by violence, followed by an Islamic backlash. It seems insane. It is insane.
But that was merely today’s unease. I’ve been uneasy for some time. Art Linkletter used to have a television show with a segment named, “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” The Internet now has a permanent segment we might call, “People Believe the Darnedest Things.” You don’t need to go far to find overt insanity of all colors and consistencies dribbling past the lips of one popular talking head or another, if not a Senator, a Supreme Justice, or a Presidential hopeful.
In the midst of all this, I find myself asking, “Where is Truth?”
Humans seem to have a need to find Truth, and some of the most bizarre ways of seeking it. A very long time ago, people would cut open animals and watch their entrails writhe as they died to try to determine Truth. The Bible records the Israelites throwing the Holy Dice, Urim and Thummin, to find Truth. After writing was developed, people began to pore over the Sacred Texts of Long Ago, trying to scratch Truth out of ancestral words they did not fully understand, given the realities of language drift: this probably reached its highest expression in the Scholastic tradition of twelfth-century Roman Catholicism, which is perhaps the tallest ziggurat of pure reason ever erected, built upon the least reasonable of all possible foundations.
Today, we perform small experiments on ever smaller bits and pieces of nature in the laboratory, and run computer simulations based on mathematical models, to search for Truth.
On days like today, I wonder — I truly wonder — if a civilization five thousand years from now will look at our grand pronouncements about Scientific Truth, and lump it all together with urticariaomancy.
How can you speak this way? you say. Science is science. Facts are facts. You are a scientist — you know this as well as anyone.
Yes, I do. Science is science, and facts are facts. But are either of these Truth? Are either of them the thing that people keep searching for, the thing that I refer to in the midst of growing global madness when I ask, “Where is Truth?”
Truth refers to insight: it is the blinding flash of inspiration that reveals the hidden order of the universe. It is the revelation that everything, together, makes some kind of sense — it isn’t all just random crap thrown at us from a giant pinball machine. It’s the head-oriented way — Aeolean, or Air-based — of intuiting the divine.
Studying the motions of the stars, or the appearance-change of cancer cells under controlled conditions, or the way silt has layered itself on former sea-beds, can give rise to this insight: or at least, so some people say. Studying the presumed-random deal of a deck of cards, or the thrown I Ching coins, can also give rise to this insight: or so some people say. Still other people say that this insight comes from ingesting psilocybin, or ayahuasca, or iboga root, or LSD.
Frankly, I don’t see a lot of Truth coming from any of our systems of divination, including science.
When I hear the evolutionists and the creationists screaming at each other with bared teeth while pounding their chests, I find myself wondering how much difference it really makes if people believe that some caveman named Alley Oop rode a brontosaurus near the Garden of Eden five thousand years ago, shortly after the world was created. It’s hardly the strangest or most destructive belief people have these days.
Consider some US Americans’ earnestly-held belief that it’s nearly time to pick up their second-amendment-protected hollow-point automatic assault weapons, march on DC while triumphantly mowing down SWAT teams dropped from black helicopters sent by the UN, and yank that evil Black Man out of the White House and hang him from a lamp post, because he’s a non-American Muslim Communist Imperialist presiding personally over death panels in Benghazi.
Or consider the true American patriots who believe that those desperate children ghettoed in federal holding pens in Arizona and Texas should be simply sent back to the hell-hole they came from. Because we all know that people in the US don’t have enough to eat, or enough square footage to live in, and we just can’t take in any more of the worthless little hooligans. The inns are all full. Except for the Wedding Suite, and not one of those kids is carrying a Platinum credit card. What were those parents in El Salvador thinking?
Or we could talk about people’s belief in the salesmen’s promise of another fifty years of natural gas in exchange for potentially despoiling every bit of arable land and fresh water in the US. So that we can free ourselves of dependence on oil.
I’d really much rather that people believed in Alley Oop and his brontosaurus. For all his low hairline and jaggy chin, Alley Oop was always a pretty decent, sensible fellow, and a much better role model than any modern figure I can think of.
Truth isn’t to be found in any of our institutions. Not in science, which buries us in facts and occasional technological marvels, but increasingly drifts away in its own little bubble that leaves disingenuous politicians able to say, “I’m not a scientist” as an acceptable excuse for being an ignorant fool. Not in religion, which is now baring the fangs of its most vicious forms in Iraq, Israel, and the US, to which I can only say, look to the fruit your branch is bearing, and stop wasting your breath and my time trying to tell me your religion is anything but a poisonous weed infested with scorpions. Not in politics, which is slowly asphyxiating itself in the grip of sectarian deadlock and bribery.
Where is Truth?
I don’t know. But I do know how to recognize it.
When you encounter Truth, your spirit soars.
The one place I still consistently find that is in writing beautiful music. I remember lying in bed during hot summer nights in 2003, exhausted from chemotherapy but unable to sleep. It wasn’t at all clear to me that I’d live to see my youngest son graduate high school, and I knew how hard that would be for him. I mused over all the things I’d done, and that I’d half-done, and that I’d never done, over my successes and failures as a parent, over the work of my short career — I wasn’t yet fifty — and I wondered if the sum of it amounted to anything at all.
Then I would put a flawed recording of my Piano Concerto on my cheap bedside CD player to lull myself to sleep, and listen with composer’s ears through the recording flaws and the cheap speakers, and I would think — If nothing else, I have written that.
It isn’t the grandest piano concerto ever written, nor the most fiendishly difficult, nor world-shattering in its originality, nor even the most beautiful — but it is beautiful, and it makes my spirit soar. Perhaps bringing a single thing of beauty into the world — allowing the Muses to speak through you even once — is sufficient.
So it occurs to me that perhaps the only real Truth I have to offer is through music.
I’m certainly coming up short on words of reason: as the world and the nation fragments into madness, I’m not sure there’s much point in saying anything.
Though I doubt I will be able to remain quiet.