Truth OR meaning?

Diana asked:

What is more important ‘knowing the truth’ or ‘finding meaning in life’? Why?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I owe you an apology, Diana, as I am not going to attempt to answer your question directly. Instead, I will do what writers on philosophy often do, sometimes, to the great annoyance of those who ask philosophical questions. I will question the question.

First off, are you asking me about what I, personally, find more important? Or are you asking for a judgement that applies to every human being at every time? I feel more than a little uneasy about laying down the law!

And how do you evaluate ‘importance’? Are we talking about a choice based on what makes you happier, more contented? I might be happier not knowing a particular truth, although it is considered important to know it. For example, an unpleasant secret about a member of my family.

Then is importance a matter of priority? That we should always choose one above the other? I can’t think of an example where one would have to do this. Truths are discovered through investigation or looking. To find meaning implies something about the finder — their personal beliefs or psychology — in addition to the object or activity that is found to be meaningful. Two persons might discover the same truth, one finds it meaningful and the other does not.

And what do you mean by ‘finding’? The term implies that there is some existing thing to be found, which in turn implies a truth. On the other hand, you can make or create meaning through an activity that arouses your interest or passions, to take a random example, making statues out of match sticks. There is no question of truth or falsity, only what moves or excites you, regardless of what others think of your hobby.

Which ‘truth’ are we talking about? THE truth is no small thing. Jesus is reputed to have said, ‘I am the truth’. In the Christian religion, Father, Son and Holy Ghost represent nothing less than the ultimate nature of reality. Now, we are onto something important, because I, too, as well as many millions of other human beings, would love to know the answer to this question. What is there, ultimately? Quarks and superstrings? Or super-intelligent aliens? Or gods on Mount Olympus playing chess with human chess pieces? Or 1s and 0s in a galactic super-computer? If, as I strongly suspect, this is a question which human beings are incapable of finding an answer to, that would make your question appear redundant.

Can you ‘find’ meaning even in the case where the beliefs required are false? This is perhaps the most interesting take on your question.

In the hit song, ‘California Dreaming’ the Mamas and Papas sing, ‘I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray’. (In José Feliciano’s cover version, he sings ‘began to pray’ which ruins the sense of the line.) The person in question has gone into the church to escape from the cold. But why the need to ‘pretend’? The preacher ‘likes the cold’ because it brings people in from the street. You get down on your knees out of respect, or maybe you don’t want to be the only person in the congregation standing. It is also true that a person who does not believe can yet find comfort in prayer. One of the more curious facts about human beings is the way we happily enter into a fiction — knowing that it is a fiction — which has some kind of meaning for us.

Or, maybe, finally, you are talking about the nature of philosophy itself. I remember as a first-year undergraduate being taught to deprecate the question of the ‘meaning of life’, as a popular misconception about the nature of philosophy. From the point of view of the English-speaking ‘analytic’ tradition, there are far more important and interesting questions to investigate, which yield interesting answers. I have come to see this as somewhat narrow-minded. I, personally, find it more meaningful to ask questions that maybe do not have an answer, and appreciate and enjoy the wonder of that discovery.

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