I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of truth this holiday season. My oldest daughter is nine, and she still believes in Santa, bless her heart. The question is, do I?
I mean, think about it. I’m a pagan. I believe in, and have personal experience with, Apollo, Athena, Belanus, Cernunnos, Bridget, and various lesser spirit guides. Why not Santa?
Well, one reason is that I know quite well who puts those presents under the Solstice tree; our credit cards have the scars to prove it. On the other hand, where does the magic of the season come from — the magic in the children’s hearts and in our own — if not from Spirit? And why not call that Spirit Santa Claus? (Have any mediums out there tried to contact him? I’m asking this seriously!)
Take another example: my second daughter, who is 7, believes quite firmly that Thor causes lightning. (I’m not sure what my 9-year-old thinks — she may be agnostic on the point.) I personally believe in Thor. But as for whether he’s out there with his hammer when lightning strikes — well, I’ve never seen him, and there seems to be quite a bit of meteorological evidence that it has something to do with charged particles in the ground and the atmosphere.
Nastier questions arise when you start mixing up pantheons like I have (e.g., do I believe in Zeus? If so, who’s really in charge of lightning here?). Then there’s the issue of angelic visitations, “aspects” of the God and Goddess of Wicca, Christians with powerful religious experiences, and all that. I mean, it can’t all be true, can it?? How do you decide?
Kinds of Truth
There are a few options I’ve seen people espouse here and there:
- Everything is true, including Santa and Zeus and Thor and even Christianity. The problem with this is that in practice, you’ve got to be selective with your beliefs. Christianity is true except the whole thing about Yahweh being the only god. Norse theology is true except the bit about Thor literally causing lightning. Santa is true except the part where he puts presents under the tree.
- Nothing is true; it’s all metaphorical, except physical stuff. There isn’t really any Thor; but his story is a nice metaphor for some part of the human psyche. The problem here is that there’s lots of evidence that something nonphysical is going on. See just about any other post on this site, particularly Trust Your Feelings.
- Parallel truths. One option is saying that the spiritual stuff is true as a kind of “reflex” of the material world. For example, you can say that when charged particles create lightning here on Earth, Thor is hurling his hammer in the Otherworld. The problem is you need a huge number of Otherworlds to accommodate all the pantheons of the world. And how exactly do these Otherworlds interact with the physical world? And again, monotheistic religions basically say the other Otherworlds don’t exist. You can’t have Asgard and the Christian heaven and the Islamic paradise; one of these religions is lying. What to do? And what is the nature of “truth” in the Otherworlds — has Odin always been the Allfather, despite evidence that the most ancient Germans believed Tyr was? Has Apollo always been the son of Zeus, despite evidence that he came from a different pantheon entirely?
What do the Gods Themselves Say About It?
I asked Apollo this back at the Midsummer:
DJ: How can you be a god that used to be a god of disease, AND the son of Zeus and twin of Artemis?
Apollo: Well, my personal history changed as my character changed, naturally. They are different kinds of history, not in conflict. They are both true.
DJ: They’re both true?
Apollo: Absolutely. And I agree it appears to be a paradox. But remember that the personal history of a god is one way of thinking about that god’s character; the social history of a god is another way of thinking about that god’s character. They are ways of thinking. They are belief systems. They are both true — or both false — your choice. Or use the religion = language metaphor. “Apollo used to be a disease” is an expression in one language/religion. “Apollo is the son of Zeus” is an expression in another language/religion. They’re not translatable.
DJ: My brain hurts.
Apollo: Sorry. I can’t explain any better than that, using the vocabulary you have at your disposal. No offense meant.
Logjam at the Heart of Physics
Now cut away to physics for a moment. Throughout the 19th century, physics and chemistry were completely separate sciences, each with their own province of applicability, and each with their own vocabulary and symbol set. There was no way of “translating” between them. You couldn’t express the law of gravity in the language of chemistry, and you couldn’t express an exothermic reaction in the language of physics.
Then, with quantum mechanics, suddenly chemistry was “reduced” to physics. Physics had discovered the mapping, the translation, from the physical interaction of subatomic particles to macroscopic chemical processes. An exothermic reaction could be described in terms of photons, neutrons, and other little tiny spinning billiard balls. Chemistry wasn’t any less “true”, but the two sciences had effectively been collapsed into a single consistent belief system.
However, a price had to be paid, and that price sits at the heart of quantum mechanics. First off, of course, quantum mechanics doesn’t give precise predictions about the movements and characteristics of these tiny billiard balls, except as probabilities over large numbers of them. Second, they aren’t really tiny billiard balls any more — they’re both particles and waves, in some weird way that we simply can’t grasp. The equations are consistent, and they make very, very accurate predictions; but we don’t know what they’re really describing. Not only are these great truths unknown, they are in principle unknowable. The contradictions and mysteries cannot be resolved, any more than 2 can equal 1.
The great physicist Richard Feynman said, “No one understands Quantum Mechanics. Do not say to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that ,’ because you will go down the drain into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”
In other words, at the bottom of physics is a conundrum that’s impossible to resolve, even in principle. If the physical world rests on a contradiction, what does that tell us about the ultimate nature of truth and reality? Are these questions answerable, even in theory? Does it make sense to even look for a single consistent model of the world?
Speaking the Truth
I wrote about this at length some time ago, when I talked about belief communities. In that model, your belief system is kind of like a language that you speak. You share your reality with other people that have beliefs roughly compatible with yours, just as you can speak with people who speak the same language as you do. If you change your beliefs, that’s like learning a new language; your circle of friends will probably change, and the reality you experience with them will change as well. I gave an example on seeing fairies, which comes from personal experience, here. As I came to believe in earth spirits more and more, I met more people who had seen them, and even stumbled on a training program for learning to see them — one I haven’t been brave enough to follow up on!
Pick Your Truth Wisely
So perhaps truth isn’t as solid and unyielding as we think; perhaps it really can change depending on your beliefs. Where I’m standing now, I see evidence for a multitude of gods and spirits; but if I change my beliefs, maybe all I’ll see is evidence for a single god, or no spirits at all. Where I’m standing now, Thor doesn’t really throw his hammer to create lightning. But if I change my beliefs, and my reality shifts accordingly, maybe someday I’ll glimpse his chariot in the clouds.
And as crazy as it sounds, I’m quite serious when I wonder… could I actually save a bundle next Solstice by leaving a window cracked??