My title this week was inspired by a post on Timothy Johnson's "Carpe Factum," and of course Timothy lifted his own title from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. A quick Google search on the exact phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" turned up roughly 802,000 results. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Founding Fathers should be feeling pretty good about themselves by now.
I'm grateful to Timothy for reminding me this evening of these words, which I have pondered over and again. Framed as a question, they have formed the defining inquiry of my life for over a decade: "What are the truths I hold to be self-evident?"
I am not examining the question as one of choice, but rather as a guide to my unconsciously held beliefs. I have not been attempting to decide what truths I hold to be self-evident. I have been trying to see them.
While the solution may wax elusive the more we delve into it, the statement of the problem is simple: the truths we hold to be self-evident are truths we hold to be beyond question. They are self-evident. They are obvious. They are the simple facts of life--the ideas we take for granted. "The earth is flat," was once such a truth, as was, "The sun revolves around the earth." They are learned as a matter of course, presented throughout our lives as "fact," not as hypothesis.
But what are our self-evident truths today? What revolutionary ideas lie just under the surface of the thoughts we can't see?
The real difficulty with self-evident truth is that it appears self-evident to everyone else too. After all, if a lot of people were questioning it, it wouldn't seem all that self-evident.
Great advances have been made in science by questioning the unquestionable. Galileo questioned the earth-centered universe. Einstein questioned the immutability of space itself. But I suspect that the greatest advances we will see over the course of this new century will be cultural advances, and they will come from questioning the truths we hold self-evident about humanity itself.
Or even more accurately, our greatest advances will come from questioning the deepest framework of our own thinking.
We tend to see the world through the concept of opposites. We may question whether a certain act is good or evil, whether a certain venture will succeed or fail, whether a certain child is intelligent or, um, not so intelligent--some "negatives" are considered too rude to voice--but we never question the framework of the analysis.
Buy what if there is no such thing as either success or failure, no such thing as either greed or selflessness, and no such thing as winners or losers?
We have begun to question certain of these oppositions independently. For example, psychologists and educators are turning to theories of "multiple intelligences" to better understand our individual talents and learning styles. And businesses are beginning to recognize a multitude of leadership styles, not just "leaders" and "followers." But as a global culture we have made little headway into thinking about this dualistic structure of thought itself.
For those of you who are familiar with Buddhist teachings, I know what you're thinking. Buddhists have been talking about the problems of dualistic thought for centuries. Zen Buddhists in particular are known for their "out of the box" koans. But I said we haven't made much headway as a culture, and by that I mean the global culture of "modern, civilized" humanity.
There may be many different cultures around the world--and many different belief systems--but the "players" in the global economic game all have one thing in common: they believe in winning and losing.
The "winners" are quite pleased about winning--even if they do suffer the stirrings of guilt from time to time--and the "losers" are mad as hell about losing, as witnessed in violent outbreaks throughout the world on a daily basis. But they all believe in the dualistic concept. Because the cultures that don't believe in winning and losing don't play the game.
Unfortunately, because they aren't playing the game, we don't hear a lot about them, and these cultures have a frightening tendency to disappear whenever they are found to be inconvenient by the player mentality. They are the indigenous peoples around the world: the aborigines of Australia, the tribal peoples of North and South America, the hunter-gatherer cultures of Africa. And without exception they are being displaced, assimilated, or simply killed off by the day.
The worst of the tragedy is that it's so predictable. When someone seeking to win comes up against someone who doesn't even understand the game, the player gets to win every time. It's like the new guy at the poker table, but on a global scale.
So what we're left with are the cultures that are founded upon dualistic thought. With no one around to challenge that thinking, thought transmutes magically into fact, and our ideas about success and failure, winning and losing, and even good and evil become reality.
What I love most profoundly about the Declaration of Independence is its bold statement of self-evident truth. Those who penned the Declaration brought forth their truths into the light, where those truths could be challenged, questioned, and ultimately accepted as our most tightly held beliefs.
What we need today is a new Declaration--a global Declaration--of self-evident truth.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that in the pursuit of happiness we shall all compete against each other for the rights of the Victors, and that among these rights are counted the right to rewrite history to favor the Strong, the right to suppress the weak, and the right to withhold the spoils of Victory from even the most desperate among our own kind, such right deriving naturally from the Victorious right of Possession.
"We hold furthermore that the entire realm of nature, from which Humanity is rightfully excluded and over which Humanity divinely presides, has no inherent rights whatsoever, and that any privileges extended to nature by Humankind shall derive directly from those Human needs which may arise naturally in the direct and immediate interest of Humanity's own survival."
I could go on...
It's ugly, I know. But until we face up to our own self-evident truths--all of our self-evident truths--we will not begin to question them. The very foundations of thought itself will remain inviolable, and we will continue to create the reality to which this thinking inevitably leads.