A friend told me yesterday that she had reformulated her conception of truth. Previously she had thought that you either believed in universal objective truths that are plain for all to see, or had to take the other extreme as a total relativist. Now she thought the truth was somewhere in the middle: real universal objective truths do exist, but rarely if ever can we fully apprehend them. Truth is something we can only approach, and our grasp of it is always either partial or temporary.[1]

This understanding acknowledges that approximate truth is of the utmost value. So even if we cannot dwell in the center of all truth we can at least increase our proximity to it.[2] Truth, then, is more elusive than the fundamentalists believe, and less elusive than think the relativists.

Beyond being something she didn’t understand before, it also seems obvious now. It’s one of those places one arrives at and wonders, How could I have ever been anywhere else?

Maybe because, as the old adage goes, sometimes we need a question to hold an answer with. So perhaps my friend finally developed an unresolved question that she had never carried before. And when next this new view of truth came round and presented itself it fit that question perfectly and lodged firmly there.

Or maybe it’s because there is a sequence to truth and some truths cannot be approached till we have grasped the prerequisites. The image here is of truth being the rungs on an incomplete ladder: sometimes the next rung is too far above our heads and we must wait for lower rungs to be instilled before we can reach higher ones.

It also reminds me of a similar phenomena surrounding the mastery of skills, such as writing. I remember a period where I frustratedly wrote for hours each day till I collapsed in dejection. For weeks I avoided my desk till I one day sat down to write and found that the previously insurmountable challenges were nowhere to be found. Everything that had been a struggle before was now easy. And not because I “knew” anything now that I didn’t know before — now my mind just worked differently.

It led me to think that in the weeks following my writing-induced breakdown, my mind had actually retooled itself. Where previously I had been an ill-suited writing contraption that wasted so much energy on internal friction, I was now a writing machine.[3]

So too, perhaps, with my friend. This notion of truth once invisible to her was now plain as day, her mind having reorganized itself to make such conceptions easier to perceive.

I can almost pinpoint when such a change took place in me. An excited journal entry from my early twenties following my emergence from a deep depression reads: “Human beings, I now see, are laboratories for the testing of beliefs! We are metaphysical truth detecting machines!”

[1] I say “or temporary” because I once theorized that peak experiences were the result of a full-on collision with absolute truth — a moment during which we did unite perfectly, but temporarily, with absolute truth. Of course it may not be a complete union with truth, but rather a significant and wonderfully abrupt drawing near.

[2] And we should too, because proxmity to truth is commensurate with freedom: the nearer we draw to truth the greater our freedom.

By freedom I mean here the power to constructively interface with reality, or to enter into relationship (not just with one’s self and other people but with objects, ideas, etc.).

“Truthier” is a new word circulating in popular culture that captures this sentiment. Originally coined as a humorous self-contradiction (certainly things must be either true or false and not merely truthy, right?) it may be the entirely useful word we have been looking for to denote proximity to elusive truth.

[3] Given what we know now about neuroplasticity this is most likely literally true.