Columns / Discourse / February 26, 2014

On self-evident truth

Most of us, I’m sure, can recall asking ourselves a lot of existential questions when we were middle schoolers. Those of us who grew up with religion tended to go through temporary (or permanent) changes in belief around the same time that our bodies threw us a fast one; those who didn’t grow up with faith started to be afraid that we might be on the wrong side of the cosmic order. I happened to fall into the latter group.

Going to a highly Christian school in seventh grade, I started to wonder if it might be true that there was an all-powerful God who would decide for each person which of two places they would spend eternity after death. After all, every single Christian who I met was absolutely sure of this reality, crazy as it seemed. They had a huge religion and a very large book to back them up, and all I had was the opinion of my parents, who just shrugged and said “don’t worry about it” when I took all of my hormone-fueled existential worries to them. Maybe the Christianity of my peers didn’t make sense, but all the moral weight of certainty seemed to be on their side.

The turning point for me came when I went on a walk one day and finally decided upon the following three things. Firstly, the world I lived in was ultimately good, even if it didn’t always seem so on the surface. Secondly, in a world that was ultimately good, it was impossible for any person to spend eternity in an unpleasant reality or “hell.” And thirdly, it was not true that God (if present in this scenario) was aware of something here that was escaping me.

In this realization I found all the moral weight of certainty that I had been looking for. And I didn’t find it in a book or in the opinions of other people: it was simply there. It wasn’t true because anyone else said so, it was true simply because it was true. It was obvious. It was self-evident.

Any person who’s studied debate will easily note the presence of the classical logical fallacy of “begging the question” that appears to be present here. An example of this fallacy would be the statement “it’s good to go to college, because it just is!” That begs the question: why exactly is that? Many legitimate responses can then be given, all of which depend upon context. That’s because the statement “college is good” is an indirectly evident truth; its truth has to be derived from surrounding context and reality. I’d argue, however, that certain truths are directly evident: their truth doesn’t depend upon context. They simply are true.

Some might say that this is enough to make the founders of logic roll over in their graves, but look where else the idea of directly evident truth pops up: in one of the most famous sentences in the United States.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thus starts the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In this context, let “men” be interpreted as “humans” and “Creator” as a linguistic metaphor rather than a literal statement.

Self evident truths are different from indirectly evident truths because they don’t require evidence to be true; they are supported in and of themselves. However, evidence can typically be acquired to support them. For example, extensive psychological, historical, and anthropological evidence has shown that all humans are indeed morally and intellectually equal. And it turns out that seventh-grade Leland was backed up in his rejection of modern Christianity by classical spiritual schools of thought that are beginning to be confirmed by scientific forays into the world of human psychology and the physical universe.

Since self evident truths can be reached independently from separate proof, discovering these truths requires direct realization of the kind that is sought after by those who would characterize themselves as spiritual seekers. But that kind of direct realization isn’t always come by easily.

For example, the knowledge that all people are equal is an internal moral reality that few of us have fully and directly realized: on the one hand are people like white supremacists, and on the other hand are average people who believe that some humans have no innate goodness and others do. This latter group is probably a fairly large segment of the population. Note that not many people would necessarily say that of themselves, but all of us carry these internal judgments: “I like her, but not him.” “I’m smart/dumb, but other people aren’t.” It’s our internal reality that matters here, not professed beliefs. And our internal realities reach far deeper than the surface content of our minds.

You don’t get to say any old thing and back yourself up by saying it’s self evident. Directly evident truths are rare because in order to escape the logical fallacy of “begging the question,” logical context must be minimal. Directly evident proof escapes logic by transcending it; it is not concerned with relationships between temporary entities in the world of thought, form, and structure. Direct proof of a statement is reserved for instances where the surrounding context of the statement is so spare that filling the void of logic happens directly and independently of logic. Self evident truths of life might be compared to the fundamental postulates of geometry that do not require geometric proofs.

In geometry, though, most people agree that you don’t need proof for the statement that there is only one line that passes through any two dots; in contrast, many people would disagree that life has fundamental meaning, or that all people have innate worth. I would argue that this is simply because we live in a time when the world is highly literate in math and science, but highly illiterate in the deeper realms of human experience. The two truths I’ve mentioned, while meaningful, are only examples: there is much more in experiential knowledge available to us, innately present in our consciousness but hidden by our current collective ignorance. Because we’re all at varying degrees of personal evolution, our discovered truths look very different from one to another, and exist at many different levels. Many truths will go unrealized in our lifetimes.

Rational thinking will only get us so far in truly understanding human experience. “Logic,” wrote Mikhail Naimy, the Lebanese poet and spiritual mystic, “is a crutch for the cripple, but a burden for the swift of foot, and a greater burden still for the winged.” The greatest and most basic truths of life are not found through rational thinking; they are found deep within us. They shape the world we live in as we discover them.

Leland Wright

Tags:  Declaration of Independence Mikhail Naimy modern Christianity Philosophy rational thinking self-evident truth

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