Go to Detailed Contents or return to Overview

* * *


The multiple problem of what truth is seems so confusingly fathomless that there is quite simply no general consensus about it. Nowadays truth is seen by scientists simply as a concept representing factuality or else the validity of a theory. But this is far from being the whole truth of the matter. What has been regarded through the ages as truth is a value and it loses its full meaning if narrowed down to the mere matter of fact, as we shall see.


It was clear long ago to most ancient Indian and Greek philosophers that at least some things are mere 'appearance' and are misleading as to the 'reality' we think of as being 'behind' them or somehow beyond them. Western philosophers through the ages have held at least four distinct types of largely incompatible theories about truth (i.e. correspondence, coherence, pragmatic and dialectic theories).

What we see, hear and touch appears to give us certain knowledge of reality. Yet the first lesson of philosophy is that 'not everything is as it appears', for 'the evidence of the senses' is not always reliable. It has intrigued thinkers through the ages that any of our senses can at times give faulty perceptions. Our sensory organs themselves can be deranged, such as when the eyes develop double vision, jaundice makes things look yellow, or fever causes hallucinations. Even when healthy, the senses can 'deceive' us; mirages, a straight stick seems to bend in water, fast flashing lights blend into one single light and so on. Though these kinds of deception of the senses are not a major problem, it does mean that we do not always get a correct picture of sensory objects, let alone a full one.

Common sense falls down where there are appreciable differences between the accounts of different observers of the same event. An observer with one or another special type of training will report very differently to untrained people, and this can be due to the difference in their focus of interest and methods of observing etc. This is still obviously a very keen issue, for most scientific discovery begins from what has often been observed, but has not yet been recognised or accepted by science. However, the history of science shows clearly that what people have taken as common sense has quite often been either entirely false or inaccurate. The physical sciences have proven that our senses only give us a very truncated and often vague perception of many hidden 'objective' aspects of things which lie beyond the range of our unaided senses. Further than this, however, is the entire range of phenomena that arise in subjectivity, that is human consciousness and the mind, with all their vital influences on perception, interpretation and understanding of reality.

The main problem of sense observation is therefore that our impressions can only make sense to us if we interpret them. This interpretation process is mostly learned from childhood on so we are hardly ever aware of it taking place until we set out to study it systematically. A visit to a foreign country often shows strikingly how differently others seem to understand even the simplest matters such as bodily gestures or ways of ordering all manner of affairs. Many attitudes we took for granted we understood are then seen to be peculiar to our little corner of the world. From this we may learn how our own views are conditioned by our own culture and subjectivity. What we in fact perceive or neglect, in what context or light it appears to us and the meaning we attach to it very often depends upon deep-seated values. A right- and a left-wing politician will tend to observe and understand one and the same situation very differently. Personal, social and cultural values are often virtually impossible to neutralise for the purposes of detached observation.

When considering the fallibility of our senses as instruments for observing the 'true' nature of things, early philosophers realised that all the physical objects making up the sensory world are subject to change, sooner or later. The thing-world is therefore one of changing 'appearances', of eternal flux and of becoming rather than fixed being. So no object is 'real' in the very strictest sense of 'real', that is, permanently being only what it is.

Quantum physics - and the later developments in physics that modify or supplant it - is far removed from sensory experience in that the ideas which determine it are primarily mathematical, hence ideal rather than real. It is true that possible falsifications by observation are at the same time sought assiduously, because this is the agenda of science... to proceed by trial and error, where the errors are most crucially instructive. Approaching truth through falsification of hypotheses only takes place within this system of methodological axioms, which themselves remain unquestioned. Facts are therefore sought to fit in with new ideas through very complex rationalisations, often combined with systematic exclusion as irrelevant of facts of a quite different order that speak against the long-revered assumptions upon which all the paradigma of modern science rest. Truth can therefore, by this principle, never be reached, and thus nor can it be stated. To state any substantial truth provisionally would require that each statement be qualified and explained to such an extent as to make a permanently valid 'theory of everything' a practical impossibility. There are yet other very cogent reasons for this, which would probably be classified as theological.

The 'first lesson of philosophy', that no unchanging truth can be found in studying phenomena or the appearances external to ourselves, has largely been forgotten. This has led to neglect of subjectivity, consciousness and the mind, with all their vital influences on perception, interpretation and understanding of reality. In one sense, 'temporal truth' is real enough for us, but then again we realise it is ephemeral the real truth must lie somewhere beyond. This realisation was itself the driving idea behind early Indian thought and, later, European philosophy and consequently most of Western culture.

Most of the 'kings of philosophy' in line of succession from Socrates until Husserl - have firmly held that truth is immutable, or else it cannot be truth. They reject, on grounds of epistemological principle, that knowledge of truth can arise from sensory observation, that is from our sciences. Because spiritual truth is always held to be absolute and eternal, unchanging truth will not prove vulnerable to physics or other sciences because scientific knowledge is always developing and thus changing.

The situation can be summed up by saying that science is still necessarily fragmentary, and its approach to reality is through experience, which is never complete. Old theories are discarded or modified as research progresses. Sience is making constant inroads into the unknown, and has penetrated and refuted most convincingly many of what were regarded as 'spiritual truths', but turned out to be superstitions or misunderstandings due to human failings in the recording and handing down of knowledge and beliefs. Of the ultimate truths concering the creation of consciousness and its relation to the cosmos, science remains largely ignorant, but it is beginning to apply it's methods to many of the issues which underly these matters.


Everyone is subject to some network of thought and emotion, some personal variant of one or more systems of ideas, assumption, beliefs and ideals. These systems have been more or less crystallised into doctrines, operating at various levels of life and for any number of purposes. Where the major questions of life are concerned - the most vital and determining judgements and decisions - the question therefore arises; is it better awarely to study and develop a doctrine to test it through practice than to leave everything more or less to circumstance or chance?

Most Western people become eclectics, at least for some period of their lives, if for no other reason than that they often find themselves subjected to a cross-fire of dogmas, doctrines and theories. However, eclecticism is not the solution to important questions of truth. Nor is it the best solution to how best to live, for by its very indeterminate nature it engenders frequent dilemmas and confusions. The urge towards the truth within us insists that some explanations must be false, while there must always be a true explanation. The sense of truth and truthfulness is thought either to be inherent to the structure of the human mind or else only developed through experience. The truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in between, as with the image on the photo negative that is unseen at first and is gradually brought to light. Unity in understanding or 'knowing as a whole' is a goal that no seeker of truth can give up, and this goal has been sought since time immemorial. However, there are very good reasons for the view that there are questions upon which we can never reach an unambiguous, complete and clearly expressed truth. Despite this, mankind necessarily continues to seek the truth both in worldly and otherworldly matters. Since much good or ill evidently depends upon whether one has a true or a false understanding, one cannot just give up truth seeking simply because human understanding has certain limits.

So human reason essentially requires that there must be a true answer to any question. That is why moral and cultural relativism does not and cannot work as serious philosophy, however beneficial it may seem as a means of dealing with cultural diversity and the problems that arise from the clashes of differing peoples and religions.

Even false beliefs and misguided doctrines contain some truth and good. There is always a modicum of the proverbial 'method even in madness'. Logic even demonstrates indisputably that a true conclusion can follow from two entirely false premises! The task of unifying understanding is to extract the grains of truth from the biassed account and the distorted theory and to discard the husks. Knowledge proceeds largely by the clash of ideas or viewpoints and their subsequent mutual interaction... a process of dialectic. Progress comes by gleaning what remains whole and consistent after the clash of these or after the analytical picking-apart of theoretical systems of error. The truth content has continually to be extracted and given new expressive form suitable to the changing world, without losing the universal essence of that truth. That is the aim for unity in understanding at the intellectual level, while on that of inter-global understanding the aim is mutual respect and gradual reconciliation in the best interests of everyone.

It is quite logical to our minds that a truth must always remain the same if it is to be truth. The ancient issue of truth is whether it is something that can be known as an unchanging idea, quality or essence. If so, then comes the question as to whether it can be established objectively, that is - so as to be demonstrable for the benefit of everyone who wishes to know it and test it.

I may believe in the existence of objective truth, such as in moral questions and I have conviction that sometimes I do find evidence of there being a genuine supra-personal answer to what is 'truly right' in some matters. But this belief does not allow me to say that I know it with certainty. This being the case, there is no more reason to lay emphasis on the truth than on the good or any of the values connected with it. That I cannot be certain that any given assertion expresses an unchanging truth does not invalidate the ideal of truth as something to be sought and approached. This is a necessary and constant ideal of all good science, philosophy or meta-science and spirituality.

What we call 'certainty' is a subjective condition, sometimes a widely shared or 'inter-subjective' condition. But there is no full guarantee that there must be a corresponding objective condition. This insight underpins the scientific emphasis on observation as the first and last requirement of accepting any hypothesis. At the same time, all of any empirical observer's perceptions, judgements and conclusions are always themselves subjective.

It is only by agreement on what is or is not observable that science proceeds. Further, this consensus depends upon all having adopted much the same viewpoint and (scientific) interpretations as each other. Such inter-subjective verification is often haphazard, however. It is almost never arrived at by formal procedures such as electing authorities or voting on what is to be taken as established knowledge. Understanding is not achieved simply by consensus among professionally interested parties, though nor does it of course have to be excluded thereby. However widely based, inter-subjective agreement cannot guarantee objectivity. The history of scientific discovery teems with instances where established opinion, with its various self-perpetuating interests and other blindnesses, was the greatest hindrance to newly-discovered truths. The very incoherence of meaning eventually found in flawed intellectual products leaves gaps for the creative understanding to cause dogmas to collapse and discover new truth. So validation of ideas through inter-subjective observation simply adds another kind of evidence, though sometimes very telling or decisive, to all that is to be considered in drawing conclusions from theoretical-empirical research.

Even among the leading exponents of an 'exact' natural science, say in physics or astronomy, there is seldom general consensus as to which new hypotheses are true or which are the most likely to be so, though nearly all may agree on the basics of well-tried theories (like relativity and even quantum theory). In summary, inter-subjective consensus is not in itself a sufficient criterion of truth, and even in our most advanced fields of science, truth remains 'an uncertain quantity'.

Scientific truth is really only the knowledge of a hierarchy of facts, generalised in theory. Judicial truth is similar, for it seeks to know what is or is not the case. Both these disciplines judge only statements that either do or do not hold up upon close observation of the relevant state of affairs. This is an important enough standard for any sort of judicial or scientific-technological work, but the decisive test is whether general consensus is reached, usually among experts and subsequently in the wider society.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has shown in detail how this is so, asserting that consensus arrived at by a proper process of discourse is truth, and vice-versa. To this I remark that this can surely only at best be the closest approximation to truth one has managed to reach in a given society at any time. Who is included in the debate that leads to consensus differs with cultures, societies and eras and often depends on how specialised the subjects are.

One main problem of worldly truth is to know what is a correct inter-subjective process of dialogue that leads to it. I have gone to some length to point out that what is commonly accepted as the truth is not always true, far from it. Nor is what is accepted by those who may been emancipated from the duress of censorious force, traditional views or subtly entrenched false ideologies necessarily true. Authority in the matter of human understanding, and even in problems of specialised knowledge, is fallible and cannot be trusted blindly. This danger is much increased by errors and misunderstandings arising from the excessive reliance of our complex social systems on information systems working at a second, third or further remove from its original source. What applies in one context or situation, once abstracted and made generally available, can be interpreted under other circumstances and form the basis of compound misinformation and even entrenched myth.


The word 'intuition', originally meant 'look upon, consider, contemplate'. It has been used in this sense in much philosophy and psychology to refer to every kind of perception, whether by aid of the five senses or in inner 'perception', that is, reflection of the mind upon itself.

Referring to the intuitions of maths and logic, where one has the immediate experience of seeing a proof and realising its validity, some philosophers see truth as depending upon self-evidence. Kant called it 'apodeictic givenness', which means that what is true or false of a certain kind of relationship is self-evident and indubitably known in the self-transparency of the mind reviewing itself. However, we cannot know the world around us in this manner, for the sense organs intervene between consciousness and its object. The fact that our subjective consciousness has direct self-access, while it can only have indirect cognition of the world external to it - having always to reach beyond the barrier of the fallible sense organs by aid of reason - has always been held as a primary truth by philosophers. All philosophic conceptions of truth (other than the mystical) reflect the primacy of personal verification. Scholastic 'mental thinkers' who rule many an academic roost have, alas, trivialised the whole notion of intuition and self evidence by reducing it to one or another kind of logical point or technical standard. Yet 'genuine' self-revealing intuitive givenness is generated in the mind on the basis of experience, imaginative conceptions, reason, intuition, self-observation analysis and often also other extra-sensory inputs. Sound faith in the reliability that understanding can reach begins to be established through greater resonance with the truth.

Understanding is both achieved and evaluated 'intra-psychically'; that is, by the self-reflecting consciousness, reason, insight and creative vision of each person. Unless we personally possess or integrate knowledge through direct intuition backed up by personal discovery and experiential insight, it is little better than conjecture and is rather like the proverbial tale told by a madman "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". Such direct intuition arises only to the degree that we achieve control of our own mental processes. It requires the ability to reflect comprehensively and to contemplate free of personal interests. Even when not really understood, knowledge can be passed on to others by a clever sort of parroting. Yet only when it resonates fully with one's own experience, as it appears 'holistically' before the reviewing mind's eye, can it bear the conviction of immediate truth. The important element of understanding known as intuition, which is neither abstract intellectual nor diffusely emotional in kind, is ultimately only reliable when it arises on the basis of experience, more especially where this is positive experience of living in accordance with positive values and good ideals. This form of 'truth' may not lend itself fully to formalised expression, yet it is the unavoidable and decisive criterion in life decisions.

The anxiety about any kind of 'intuitive truth' among most scientists and those educated to modern Western academic norms runs deep, reinforced by scepticism of the extravagances of the 'pure' speculative reason of unworldly metaphysicians. This deep scepticism arises from learning about the most negative of collective experiences of the human race where such insights have been claimed, not least by those in positions of great power.

There are different degrees and kinds of intuition: some are more gifted with intuition in understanding other persons - involving listening, sympathy and ability to identify sensibly. Others are better at 'intuiting' connections between fact and theory, detecting otherwise hidden connections and relationships, interpreting meaning with accuracy or grasping in advance 'a whole picture' from only some of the parts. An understanding which 'intuits' a whole does arrive at its insight either through experience or reason alone, it is at least partly a creative synthetic act arising in inner reflection which exceeds all analytic thought. Such 'para-normal' intuitions that come 'in a flash' are seldom the result of previous reasoning processes, even though they may sometimes arise during contemplation and meditation. They can provide insights which can be studied and checked by the more commonly-available means.

One also speaks of 'intuitions' that come 'as a sixth sense' and purport to reveal states of affairs that are hidden to normal perception. These cannot safely be ignored by truth-seekers, for some such intuitions have proven extremely accurate, as can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt from many of the countless recorded instances from all around the world throughout history. One cannot even discount all prophetic inspiration, nor any kind of 'message' from such supposed sources of information as trance and mediumism may contact, like disembodied minds or higher astral beings. But because there are no end of ambitious individuals and groups proclaiming truth to be theirs and theirs alone, one may be excused for asking how intuition differs from the often vague mental or emotional vapourings and outpourings of those who claim themselves to be a channel and lifeline of higher wisdom and apocalyptic truth.

While genuine higher illumination has been referred to in classic texts back to the most ancient of times, it is not to be confused with dogmatic, prophetic and exclusive moralisms of a non-universal partisan nature that sects of any description at all times and all over the world would enforce. Unfortunately, there are also many fantasies propagated by would-be message makers, gurus and also out-and-out charlatans and imposters who dabble in the kind of intuition connected with clairvoyance, of straining the imagination to sense vibrations, voices, auras, chackras, disembodied intelligences, 'akashic' records of past lives, extra-terrestrial entities and what have you. The profit motive is invariably somehow associated with all such activities.

When the philosophy that assumes some kind of scientific materialism is seen to be unable to give cogent answers to many of the most important questions of life, one's understanding begins to overcome barriers that previously seemed impregnable. The form of experience alters with the attitude of the experiencer and kinds of awareness that cannot coexist with strong scepticism become accessible. Conceptions can arise that enable the mind to re-structure itself and the cosmos, representing an expansion of understanding towards the holistic unity of self-realisation. Our intuitive understanding can then provide a more dispassionate and detached overview of human concerns. The folly of restricting one's attitude to worldly concerns and pragmatic questions also becomes more evident. Formal truth and empirical truth give way as greater truth begins to manifest. Human comprehension and human understanding are qualities of the mature mind that approach the meaning of reality and truth as nearly as is intellectually possible.

What is true or false for us, then, clearly depends mainly on rational faculties such as discernment and valid thinking. Truth has many facets and levels at which it can be approached. While experience and reason lead the understanding towards truth, they may tend less to penetrate to the higher unchanging truth than does, for example, human conscience. There are various limitations in theory and practice that come of isolating the value 'truth' from others, without which it fails to embrace human reality fully for what it is. When anyone believes that knowing and expressing the truth on any matter takes all precedence over all other values like compassion, peace of mind or non-violence in word and deed, the greater truth suffers.


By ever insisting on the distinction between what is 'true' and what is 'right', modern thought and language have in effect divorced the two, reducing the idea of truth to a question of fact, thereby eliminating questions of value and goodness from the pursuit of truth. This arbitrary and categorical view of truth easily engenders attitudes of disinterest or supposed 'ethical neutrality', which easily degenerates into ethical irresponsibility and the service of destructive masters, both in business and politics. Academic philosophy and science mainly regard truth as a conceptual standard for deciding what is factual. There is a clear distinction between fact and truth. A fact is true, but truth is not just factuality, but a supra-factual standard. A fact can be observed by aid of one or more of the five senses, then described and recorded, while many facts can be summarised in generalisations or in the shorthand form we call scientific theory. However well-founded in observation and reason, no factual or theoretical statements - however accurate, however precise - can capture the essential and final truth of any matter.

Though truth is the criterion by which we decide what is the case or not, it is more essentially a quality pertaining to the understanding in general. Understanding proper not only takes account of facts and theories, but also of values through the sympathy that springs from deep identifications of meaning and purpose as these are expressed in all life and are seen as reflected throughout the cosmos. One says that truth is something that has to be lived, meaning that personal experience in all its many aspects is the real basis of understanding. This may sound obscure, until one realises that the only vehicle of truth, where its light alone can be seen, is the living human mind. Truth is not some kind of neutral, objective or inanimate quantity, like information or theory that can be stored, transmitted, sold and consumed. To think that the deepest or final truth about anything or everything can be discovered by research and stated clearly so that practically anyone who understands the language and culture easily can appreciate it is a grand misconception, far from the truth.

Truth is undoubtedly itself a value, one closely related to truthfulness and one which informs our conscience, by which we decide matters of right and justice. The modern tendency is to define truth in purely intellectual terms and to overlook the great importance of this idea as a value. It can be seen from the gamut of human culture that truth is a value closely interwoven with unity, goodness, beauty, justice, righteousness and wholesomeness. Truth is also closely related to integrity, which is a word we use for self-consistent wholeness or completeness... 'the whole truth and nothing but'. Thus, truth implies authenticity of understanding as coherent meaningfulness and relevance to life, whatever issue may be at hand.

Witnesses in British courts of law must swear the oath to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". Sometimes it is a quite straightforward question where one knows what is the correct answer - "yes" or "no". But this may often not be at all easy. Were it so, not least philosophy had been superfluous and science and jurisdiction could together have disposed of the whole question.

One need give no examples to prove that, as soon as a complex moral issue arises, opinions can differ depending upon a veritable host of facts and values. Even if everyone has the same access to the facts of the matter, and even if these are fully known (which is very seldom so in all but the most straightforward instances), personal values always tend to affect a person's judgement.

Personal values arise from one's life experience, the nature and quality of one's inclinations, feelings, viewpoints, theories, beliefs and hopes, to name but a few sources. One's own background cannot be rubbed out, for it always naturally conditions one's understanding generally, influencing one to be less than objective in some way or other. It may seem easy for an outsider in a dispute to be wise, especially after the event when the outcome is properly known, but even then that feeling of knowing may still be at variance with the truth and the good.

In the broad sense, truth inevitably has to do with doing right and avoiding wrong, not only with making correct judgements or avoiding false statements. In human relations, truth usually means both avoiding lies and stating the facts as they are. It is associated with openness of mind, including not concealing anything one knows that would affect judgements about the truth of things. Such openness is only possible when one trusts others implicitly, so truth and trust go hand in hand, just as do deception and fear. Openness accords much more with the truth than does secrecy and suspicion, one need only think of the importance of Glasnost. Even so, in our time there also seems to be less agreement than ever about the nature of truth, its importance both in the sciences and as a value human relations.

In general, truth depends upon the overall insight, the total understanding... not on details that may be irrelevant or may be but small flaws in an otherwise great and unitary design. Relativity theory is incapable of explaining certain known facts... but this does not, at least according to its proponents, make it an untrue theory. It is true as far as it goes, just as classical physics is true to the facts as far as it extends (i.e. within the limits of the reach of the technology of the 18th century).

Truth cannot be made a mere mental construct, because it is an ultimate value by which all mental constructs can be judged. Some prefer the mental conception of scientific 'truth' because of what it can produce and change in the material world. Others prefer the mental and emotive constructs of spiritual or religious 'truth' more because of what it can do to the quality of personal experience and in the society.

Spiritual truth, as expressed by great thinkers and mystics through the ages, can only be reduced to conceptual codices or human laws at the price of losing its most sublime and transcendental nature. The move away from regarding truth as a timeless and objective value has led to the alienation of our institutions of knowledge and their members from pressing questions of value in many walks of life. The result is often the acceptance of 'absolute relativism', where no viewpoint is regarded in principle to be superior to or better than another, or one's own standpoint is implicitly taken as the only fixed and sound reference point. This is seen, for example, in value-neutral liberalism in which human freedom is confused with licence to pursue whatever beliefs and aims one wishes, whether they express values or anti-values.


What is the surest safeguard against falling under the sway of wrong theories, false doctrines or of being taken in by persuasive politicians, demagogues and religious, ideological, techno-scientific or other fanatics? Philosophers through the centuries, when faced with a confusion of knowledge systems and competing theories, have tried to start afresh from their own personal intuition. Socrates, Augustine, Descartes, Locke and Husserl provide some well-known examples. All of these most influential thinkers' writings are based on and describe methods of some kind of contemplation by which they derived insight at first-hand.

The value of speaking from experience, or at least from oneself, is something almost everyone will accept at times and often try to follow. Those who theorise about how human understanding is or may be verified never lay weight on this basic fact of life: personal experience is unavoidably everywhere a crucial key to all authentic understanding. Abstract theory does not amount to understanding, but remains general and insubstantial wherever it is not made meaningful through personal experience and the useful or purposive nature it receives thereby.

A book or a computer does not understand the information it carries. Only the living human being can benefit from it at all. Understanding is not a quantity that can be located anywhere else than in each and every human mind and heart. A philosopher is not simply a scholar or vice-versa. According to the Socratic vision he is one who lives out truth in speech and action as this is dictated by his inner self or voice. There have been many, and in my experience still are, formally uneducated persons with great understanding of life and the cosmos.

The mind lives on direct experience and yet it can come to feed more and more on secondary or vicarious thoughts. The ideal of Western culture, inculcated in us from school to the highest education, is information, generalities, theory and civilised opinion. The generalisations and abstractions of science fit this bill of personally insubstantial fare.

Since all but a fraction of this 'knowledge' is obtained at second hand, personal experience and the practice of knowledge in life can usually only come after the end of education, if then. Understanding can only be derived in small part from books, even then books only tend to express or reinforce - possibly extend somewhat- what has already been understood through other experience. Scholarship is chiefly of aid in developing the expression of one's understanding, usually in written forms for specific contexts (such as for scientific, educational and political purposes). That book knowledge cannot be a substitute for the richness and fullness of personal experience is obvious even to common sense, no more than a map can give the fullness of actually having seen a terrain from all levels. The map is an aid to preparing for a journey, or of reviewing the ground covered afterwards. It cannot ever be a substitute for the actual experiences of knowing by being there. Further, beyond the sphere of our worldly lives, too, there is a fullness of being that thought can neither capture nor fully comprehend.

We originally learn everything from our environment and do not usually understand much of significance independently of others until, at best, after a long process of decades of maturing. Learning acquired vicariously is not itself very fulfilling, or not for long, unless it can be applied and tested in experience or met with in real life. Ideas have to be put into practice or tested through personal trial and error. The vital meaning of many true judgements are seldom clear until we see at first hand where and how they arise and apply. By finding out for ourselves, knowledge can become relevant and existentially meaningful to us and finds its proper place as part of the whole project of understanding oneself, others and our presence and purpose in the cosmos. One need obviously not become an intellectual to undertake this project, for there are many ways, though this social and historical fact still seems to go almost wholly unrecognised in the academic and scientific 'world'.

From an individual's viewpoint, merely to collect, analyse and compare facts and theories in the mind is only a preliminary. If they remain undigested through never being verified in personal observation, they alienate and cut off from real experience rather than inform and re-form anyone. Teachers who have only learned from books are not as inspiring or motivating as those with first-hand experience, just as the preacher who does not actually understand or practice what he advises is a parody of spirituality. That large numbers of persons in modern industrial civilisation somehow get by in such an alienated condition and can even go through life registered and paid as professionals, does not disprove it. The quality of understanding is most likely not itself much raised by budgeting, higher technical standards or formal education if the 'human material' is of doubtful quality as regards character, aspiration, concern, commitment, genuine solidarity with others and all such good qualities that go to form and truly raise minds.

The greater the embrace of one's interest, the more important that one has broad and sound personal experience upon which to found it. The ways of obtaining this are many and as varied as the ways we go about finding out anything. No single set formula can be applied in all understanding. Within a formalised discipline, such as archaeology or physics, rules for deciding on the verification or falsification of hypotheses are obviously applicable. As soon as the mind moves beyond any strictly systematised subject or practical discipline, its considerations are so varied and many that it can only rely on personal judgement. This applies even to deciding on the quality and truth of testimony.

Testimony is just about as important to the sciences in actual practice as to the common man or to the detective, the politician or perhaps even the local plumber. No scientist can personally observe all the facts upon which most important work relies, unless perhaps under quite limited laboratory conditions. In many types of subject, especially the historical and psychological disciplines, one must often rely on almost nothing but testimony. Because of this, the collective judgement of experts is mostly made the decisive factor.

A person's own evaluation is still always of prime importance in the question of understanding in life. Conceptions which have somehow been tested by, derived from or are meaningfully related to some level of individual personal experience can provide authentic understanding. This depends on both the head and heart of the individual. By 'the heart' I refer to each persons' storehouse of noble human qualities from awareness of values, friendliness, sympathy, understanding of others, truthfulness, altruism, good humour, chivalry, emotional honesty, shared wit, non-aggressivity and all in us that moves deeply the best in us... or in short, the love of our fellow human beings.


Experience shows that human ingenuity always eventually has been able somehow to find undiscovered assumptions, overseen facts or unforseen consequences of any system of thought and has drawn from these new assumptions and conclusions that go against the system.

Western rationality, for all its benefits (and there are many) has a cardinal failing: always taking things to their 'logical conclusion'. This tends to forward forms of intellectual extremism or stunted understanding in persons without sufficiently varied life experience to back up a broad vision. The result of such rationality is almost invariably an excessively sophisticated or cultured mind which imprisons itself in the artificial mould of rational systems. The marks of this are a stiffness of principle, a taste for categories or even absolutes and stubborn resistance against new and contrary ways of looking at a matter and especially at one's own untested assumptions. Through an excessively ordered conceptualism, the moving spirit of living human intelligence becomes prematurely crystallised and is thus falsified and imprisoned.

Rational man would avoid confusion, but this is also to lose the opportunity of discovery, of noticing connections or correspondences that were invisible to one's previous ordered conceptions. But by throwing open the doors of the mind to a fresh wind, the intelligence is renewed. Confusion also denotes change, and there is no growth that is without any change. The world according to rationalism is like a formal garden, laid out on a detailed plane and over-cultivated and -pruned with all weeds removed. Yet the fallow ground, the wilderness jungle are the sources of discovery and new life to which we have to return regularly for re-germination and new strains of the spirit... not the staid and stultifying bookish formality of a Versailles. Such rationalism is the cause of that miasma of modern thought; making theoretical knowledge the predominant aim of scientific research and education, when the massive world-wide problems of humanity cannot be solved or by this means.

One ultimate and entire account of reality that is linguistically and logically consistent is impossible for many reasons, theoretical and practical, that would take too long to detail fully. One may as well try to rebuild and bring harmony to the Tower of Babylon. Since all concepts and words are culturally time-bound and any system using them would only be permanently comprehensible if the environment and beings to which they apply are unchanging, every master theory is bound sooner or later to give rise to many further articulations and new interpretations. The result has always been a chaos of 'many tongues' rather than one 'cosmo-logos' (law of the cosmos), and there is no reason to expect such uniformity in future global society, even were it desirable.

Since events occur all the time that are new, at least from our conditioned human and historical viewpoint, we can devise no perfect system beforehand that already accounts fully for all the facts. Further, since any totality of facts may be described in different languages, different concepts and thus different entire systems of thought, no theory will be able to show absolute superiority over all others; the very incommensurability of theories or world views will make all such comparisons uncertain.

Although no structure of thought made by man can last and make equal sense for ever, any more than could the Sphinx or the Great Pyramid, this does not imply that a true account of the cosmos is impossible. Humanity may well already be in possession of the true account of the cosmos, though it will neither be a complete account covering every possible detail nor one that is free from the many problems of interpretation. The urge that impels human minds to insist that there must be a true answer to cosmological or spiritual questions is perhaps satisfied in different ways, depending partly upon the previous embrace and level of one's understanding, partly upon which faith arises from one's personal, social and cultural experiences.

That there are considerable limits to human understanding is clear, just where these limits lie is not so clear. Plato's story of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi is interesting here: Asked by a seeker to tell who was the wisest of men, the oracle answered 'Socrates'. Socrates himself took this to mean that there is something of decisive importance to know and yet that he, unlike others, knew himself to be lacking in that knowledge. In different words this amounts to "the more one learns the less one realises one knows". The more one knows of the intricacy, orderliness and vastness of the cosmos, the better one may sees the limitations of our knowledge about it, not least about its creation and meaning. Though we can undoubtedly learn and gradually approach true knowledge about the world or universe, there is still a very great deal in the whole cosmos that we cannot know with demonstrable certainty. This is also to say that no number of truths, however many, can constitute truth. Truth remains the overall but intangible standard of all things, itself no thing.

Maybe the most positive consequence of the Socratic insight has been what it teaches about tolerance. To tolerate other's opinions or beliefs becomes the more reasonable when we are aware that we have no certain grounds for what we consider true. This calls for humility or for unusual tolerance, even in what appear to be simple matters. That attitude is also rightly known as one of understanding, because it reaches beyond one's own mind to a genuine appreciation of those of others, with a view to a mutual dialogue of minds. Intolerance amounts to the opposite of understanding, being the refusal to enter dialogue, to refuse to enter a process of self-reflection and to absolutise one's own theories or opinions. In this, the human value of truth is seen, rather than its solely intellectual aspects.

Reason requires that there must be a 'true' answer to any clear moral question, quite independent of particular individuals' opinions. The contrary of that right answer will also necessarily be false. Yet when anyone of influence has claimed to have the one and only true theory or teaching, valid for everyone at all times and places, it has always eventually led followers into conflict with others... that is the great tragedy of absolutising any science, scripture, doctrine, belief, commandments or laws. It involves the failure to recognise that, though truth itself never changes, the forms in which men try to express it are never fully adequate and that words and their interpretations change with time, place and circumstance.

But this insight does not itself provide us with specific moral answers; it only asserts that there is moral truth. Truth cannot be entirely separated from goodness, because both are essentially values. It may be difficult to understand this for those intellectuals whose minds are too firmly attached to the compartmentalisations of language and logic. The common use of the word 'right' in both the sense of 'good' and 'true' also reflects this connection.

Though there will always be a right and a wrong in human affairs, it does not mean that this can be clearly and definitively determined once and for all in codes, laws or commandments. The changing nature of society and language alone means that no actual answers to specific moral questions can be codified precisely and truly once and for all, no more than any final and total statement scientific theory is possible. It is simple and common-sensical: what is good for one person can be the opposite for another, and all the incalculable variants involved cannot be known in general terms independently of the developing situation. The actual form that precise rules of good action or legal paragraphs take are dependent upon the culture and society and what the consensus on good behaviour is. Moral rectitude is properly understood only by the trials and errors of living out the truth.


By knowledge is meant all kinds of information about the world and what is in it, including know-how, practical experience or problem-solving. It is largely learned through education or training. Socially-recognised ways in which the truth or falsity of claimed knowledge is determined differ in law, natural science, engineering and in historical, human and political studies.

The most general determining standard of worldly knowledge is social consensus. For example, there is now consensus that global warming is a likely danger. Or, there was consensus in 1940 among most Germans that Nazism was good politics. Since we are social beings, dependent upon culture and language for all that we learn about the world, the development of understanding is necessarily closely related to our ability to extend the limits or 'horizons' of our personal world to include others. Social or cultural interaction and the 'melting together of horizons' is a prerequisite of the highest forms of possible understanding of the world and our lives. The expansion of our consciousness of the diverse world of humanity is an ever more pressing requirement for world understanding today, and this evolutionary step in world society may come about by aid of the new techniques of global interaction.

Knowledge alone does not make it easier for a person to live life well or have any personal understanding of life as a whole. One often rightly speaks of 'philosophers of life' as persons distinct from other thinkers. The world's traditions all agree more or less, that wisdom amounts to something more than knowing facts about the world. Wisdom is mature understanding in a living form, not one that can be registered, measured, conveyed and consumed. Genuine wisdom is regarded as relatively quite rare, meaning an achieved level of awareness both of the world and of the self, which necessarily includes inner perceptions or 'insights'. It arises with understanding proper, which is based chiefly on personal experience, self-examination, constructive work, deep reflection or contemplation on life and existence as a whole. It differs from knowledge in having become an inseparable quality of the character and person, not merely a type of mental activity involving memory, reasoning, judgement and so on.

Life philosophy or wisdom is famous for not being transferrable by any normal methods of education nor by any kind of literature. This is partly due to the relative importance of the element of interpretative intuition and the scope of understanding and self-knowledge involved. Perhaps the critical test of the degree of this understanding attained is how far its proponents speak and act in harmony and so practice as they preach. If theory and practice conflict, then their understanding falls short in authenticity, for it has not become inwardly realised. This test is, of course, very radical and far-reaching and is quite unlike those applied in the two main branches of sciences, the physical and the social-historical.

Further, if understanding it is well-integrated, understanding has a beneficial effect on the knower, having a moral impact through its being expressed in behaviour and life. That is spiritual knowledge. Though such levels of understanding can give rise to illumining writings that can be studied, it cannot as such be expressed or mentally packaged, only its outward expression can. Language is no more than a means to point towards the existence and reality of wisdom. It attains its fulfilment only within the inner awareness of each person, a result of such non-transferrable achievements as personal experience, the development of character and good human qualities in both worldly and spiritual work. It is not true at all, as some Marxists have asserted, that only what can be expressed clearly can be clearly understood. There are lower stages in the development of understanding where the struggle for expression is a means to clarification of thought. But this certainly does not apply to the scope of the consciousness and living intellect of an advanced philosopher of life, a sage.

The personal search for and application of good values is a prerequisite of transcendental experience and knowledge and insight into the goal of life itself. This order of truth refers to an unlimited reality which no mind can encompass, yet which comes to expression in everything in its particular way, if only the vision is cleared enough to appreciate it. Perception of the underlying order in nature, purpose in or behind the lives of human beings and meaning in the cosmos cannot be a result of science. One possible bridge from worldly knowledge to higher wisdom is meta-scientific understanding.

Just as people's knowledge varies in breadth, depth and quality, so surely does wisdom. It is no static condition of mind nor a fixed quantity attained at some point once and for all. To be able to recognise wisdom in another and to have the qualities to be able to learn from such a person is not common, neither among laymen nor the formally educated. The tradition of ages holds that some wise person crosses everyone's path at least once in a lifetime. This may or may not be true, of course, yet it says something about the perceived rarity of wisdom.

From our human standpoint of care, concern and yearning, a kind of truth that is claimed to be independent of what is good can only be limited and relatively trivial. Fact cannot be divorced entirely from value and morals cannot be eliminated from science. In truth, what is a right and a wrong course of action is only known to us through conscience. What is right sometimes makes itself felt with inner certainty, so that we have the conviction of knowing this without doubting.


We must also here consider, at least briefly, another traditional approach to truth which is not considered so seriously by Western philosophers today, one which has been dominant throughout most human history and is still extremely widespread, namely divinely revealed truth. It is not my purpose here to enter into any comparison or evaluation of the scriptures of the world which purport to reveal the word of God, of which there are many. I have rather tried to outline the structure of human understanding and its inherent principles. No such account would be adequate without pointing out the role that alleged revealed truth has for the understanding.

The world's scriptures, in their different languages and cultures, provide various historically and socially appropriate tenets for spiritual living, including guiding assumptions for the development of human understanding. No society can proceed without some such tenets, whether in the form of religious, spiritual, scientific or other teachings. Western nations that have developed educational systems largely substituting humanistic and scientific principles for those of scriptures tend to be critical of religious beliefs and sceptical in dealing with scriptural claims. So, like other belief systems, that surrounding science and humanism frequently competes with the various religions.

Revealed truth is regarded as absolute and unchanging. Yet when it is given expression in writing, it becomes culture-dependent & time-bound. There are many sources of possible error in interpreting the original works. Not only is the original meaning may only have been be clear and fully intelligible within the social and cultural context and living language that applied at the time. Further, the scriptures have often been recorded by other than those who received the revelations and lack accuracy and consistency. Usually they have been handed down through organisations which may have edited them and selected or rejected words, passages or entire texts. The processes of recording verbal accounts and of the copying and recopying of written texts, and especially translating them to other languages, leave room for very considerable error and distortion. On top of this comes the possibility of selectivity and many kinds of bias in the interpretation of handed-down materials and of misapplication to current conditions, situations and challenges which differ radically from those that pertained when the 'revelation' was allegedly given.

Having said all this, nonetheless, one must admit that there is no method by which the possibility of genuine divine revelation can be disproved, even though some sources can be largely discredited on sound research grounds. By carefully considering some of the content of many scriptures, one can well understand how the sublimity of conception and the resonance of ideas convince millions of their truth and their value as precepts, these convictions usually increasing with personal maturity.

There is here good reason to distinguish belief from faith, where belief in the truth of any scriptural or scientific statement is a state of mind pertaining before personal experience has given insight into its eventual truth, which condition is one of faith. Faith is thus a very desirable state of mind, psychologically and mentally superior to doubt. Belief is an unstable condition of mind, subject to alteration and disappointment, particularly when belief depends merely upon alleged historical or other facts that are uncertain and maybe open to strong counter-evidence or even disproof. Though belief can thus in principle be distinguished from faith, it may of course often be very difficult to do so in actual practice. The extent and quality of personal understanding can often be the decisive factor.

To the question 'is there any absolute truth?' the answer must be 'if so, it can only be known through a subjective process'. The requirements of such a process must evidently be right to be fruitful. The inadequacy of human knowledge or of that of any given persons does not disprove the possibility of absolute truth. Rather, the very concept of truth, when thoroughly rationalised, requires that it is of an absolute and unchanging nature. That unchanging truth cannot be expressed fully or once and for all is another matter. Therefore truth cannot be expressed in any literally correct manner once and for all, it can only be approached or discovered individually - however incompletely - through expressions which 'point in it's direction'.


Many of the major philosophers and all of the great mystics of the world agree that the truth about being or the cosmos is ineffable, beyond all description. The Vedic scriptures assert this too, and the same is found in all major religions thereafter.

In a letter Plato once wrote the following:-

"...about the subjects which I seriously study... there does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing therewith. For it does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself."1 This amounts to saying that the truth cannot itself be trapped in words.

Authentic knowledge of truth, as far as anything can actually be known (in the 'subject-knows-object' mode), evidently cannot be expressed adequately in words or grasped by mere mental activity. Much evidence exists in all the major world cultures to indicate that there are a number of kinds of direct intuition which, if developed, may lead the poet, the philosopher the seer and the saint to perception of unchanging, ineffable truth through merging with it. Short of being beyond all worldly concerns, it seems evident we cannot, by the mind's understanding, know The Truth as such.

We cannot perhaps be convinced that we are essentially nothing but truth, consciousness and bliss until, on some occasion at least, we experience it directly as such. The problem of truth is only fully resolved in Being. Meanwhile, faith of the kind rooted in experience inspires the understanding to move the spirit beyond the constraints of worldly attachments towards realisation. Through Vedanta we learn that only self-revealed truth, or of some aspect thereof, is universal. What is often called perennial or higher philosophy teaches that truth is to be found in the unsullied divinity shining through from deep within every being and each event.


1. Letter VII. Loeb Classical Library p 341 (Harvard 1929)

Return to Overview

The above material is the copyright of Robert Priddy, Oslo 1999