Featured image: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) in Moon (2009).
By James Clark Ross
Convince me that knowledge of the truth would be beneficial to you in at least one of the following scenarios.
1. A young man on the till just wished you ‘good day’. He didn’t mean it at all.
2. A viral video made you laugh. It transpires, however, that every step of the video was planned in great detail. Its seemingly-organic nature and the set of chance encounters it purported to capture were faked to generate traction and money through advertising. The comedic effect on you wanes. Do you undertake extensive research online to investigate the authenticity of every ‘real-life’ video you find funny?
3. A gift from your partner feels personalised to you. It also looks like it cost a lot. But one of the primary reasons why they selected this item specifically was because it was discounted by 75 %.
4. During a conversation with a friend you fail to notice she’s barely listening to pretty much everything you’re saying. Her gestures and remarks deceive you from this fact and her well-timed fake laughs are picking your mood up from the floor. Although her actions are a form of pretence, you simply feel better for unloading your emotions onto someone you thought was sharing the burden.
5. You have the opportunity, right now, to discover your partner’s sexual history with their consent. Do you?
6. You’re a victim of a painful disease which you’ve recently been experiencing symptoms of; your doctor is currently delivering the bad news. She is well versed at conveying a monologue from a familiar script. However, you’re none the wiser to this and, right now, you feel consoled because her words, as you buy into their sincerity, are enough to make you feel better. Deep down beneath her professional veneer, however, there is no compassion: nothing reaching out from her concerns to yours. Do you need to know this?
7. Someone takes you out on a wonderful date for what you eventually conclude to have been a fun and romantic affair, during which you were happy to just live in the now and not look beyond the night. It turns out that the whole event was orchestrated: they’ve delivered the same, well-rehearsed lines in the exact same order of locations to over 30 other people in the last three years. Ultimately, however, all of their dates, including you, had a good time.
8. There is an extraordinarily-rich upper class whose fortunes and activities are hidden from public view. There’s immense inequality but your life—your happiness—remains largely unaffected by theirs. Knowledge of it only angers you.
9. A beautiful and evocative photo of a man prompts a deep and emotional response in you. You see so much pain in the subject’s eyes as he stares back at you. In actuality, though, the photo, which was acquired in a fraction of a second, bears no resemblance to what was going on in his life at the time the shot was taken. The manipulated photo represents an optimised reality which conveys a spurious message to you. You’re simply projecting a narrative onto the man from your own perspective. And for the final photo of the series the camera’s shutter was inadvertently activated by a dog.
10. Specialist diagnostic tests can now predict whether you will develop dementia, the UK’s biggest killer, years before it manifests. But there are no ‘approved preventive or disease-modifying therapies’ available and the prognosis is bleak. Would you want to know that your life will dramatically change for the worse, slowly but progressively, in, say, 10 to 15 years’ time; or would you choose to live, to your knowledge, as if nothing had changed? (Generally speaking, human coping mechanisms for dealing with ominous knowledge are deficient: we suffer from disproportionate levels of trepidation when we consider small risks. For example, in response to Fukushima’s nuclear accident in 2011, following which only low levels of public radiation exposure were measured, many of the residents underwent significant psychological distress. Some even died during and after the evacuation process. Furthermore, our alertness to terrorism does not correlate well with its likelihood)
11. You’ve relived a particular set of fantastic experiences countless times in your mind—of travelling, of a concert, of a sporting event, of a celebration of marriage. Your memories bear no resemblance to the experiences but they remain very much part of you and give you the same positive feelings when you reflect on them. Now a friend suggests that you can, for the first time ever, watch footage of the events. You’re conscious to the fact that there will be stark differences between your memories and the video (it was all a bit of a blur) and your interpretation is still vivid. What do you say?
12. A man you’ve never met before has been tasked with leading a project in outer space. This is a dream come true for him. He’s completely captivated by the promise that successful completion of the mission will lead to enhanced world safety. The reality, however, is that the mission is underpinned by lies: his actions will never make a single, genuine difference to the human race. In fact, he’s being manipulated by a huge, international corporation for their gain; the purpose he feels in his role is being exploited by them, his big appetite fed lies to. Still, the sense of worth his objectives bring him, regardless of their veracity, are definitely eliciting a feeling of satisfaction inside of him. Plus he’ll probably never know the truth. Given the meaning he derives from the mission, do you choose to debunk it?
13. If you believe you have free will, you think that you’re responsible for all of your actions. Now imagine that in the universe you currently inhabit, possibly ours, this is not true. When you think you’re making a decision your unconscious physical body, else something supernatural, has already pre-determined a ‘decision’ for you to enact—or, at least, has presented you with a few options for you to choose from. In either case the autonomy of your will is always being undermined as, fundamentally, you’re not the one making the choices. Now apply this concept to the ‘choices’ you make in everyday life in which you don’t truly act independently. Consider this as an example: many women who choose to be stay-at-home mums and many women who choose to wear burkas are entirely happy with their lifestyles even though the independence of their actions remains questionable. Such illusions of control can be conducive to peoples’ wellbeing. Yet many people, who project their own choices onto others, will disagree. They needn’t be so doomy. As a self-ware human who is equipped with desires to survive and prevail you can often choose to believe in free will to empower yourself with the idea of agency for yourself and others by not questioning it. Conversely, by rejecting the notion of your will—perhaps by handing it over to something divine and more powerful than you—by accepting ‘whatever will be, will be’, you’re consciously deciding not to fight against what you perceive to be injustices in your life (‘I was never meant to be successful anyway; it’s part of God’s plan’). What will you choose to believe?
The virtue of ignorance
There’s a strong moral case for not always relaying the truth, for knowledge of reality can be distressful. We don’t always know how others will subjectively interpret good-for-nothing truths so deciding to not rampantly break down barriers for them is a good deed. Like the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), some secrets are best kept…secret.
Further, ignorance of what you can’t have is often a better position than longing for something which is unobtainable: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’. Happiness is a subjective experience which can result from differences between our own expectations and realities. We can always afford to be less expectant in a myriad of respects.
Telling white lies serves a noble purpose too. There are genuine roles for the placebo effect and for hope in supporting out wellbeing; and while compliments and exaggerated stories are not always faithful in description they are usually positive in effect. Likewise, in order to improve our performances our managers only have to nurture environments which make us feel senses of purpose from our contributions (e.g. by praising and listening to us and our colleagues).
Moreover, it’s okay to believe in anything. By forgetting the sentiments of others and by focusing on ours we can assign meaning to whatever we please. Under the enchantments of love, dreams, and passions we can immerse ourselves in our interpretations of the world, as the only beholders of them. Objective truths close the gateway to such romantic and personal experiences.
But excessive inward-gazing is also dangerous. It can lead us to the narcissism of solipsism as we slip into a pattern of selfishness by considering our impacts on others less. This is where the importance of objectivity steps forward.
Subjectivity cannot resolve societal issues. A scientific approach to public life has alerted us to the slow but real destruction of the planet, substantially increased life expectancy, dramatically reduced infant mortality, and provided vaccines for pandemic threats to our survival. Democracy is continuing to proliferate around the world as rights are granted and discrimination is challenged with the common tools of reason. Meanwhile, by continuously acquiring knowledge we’ve experienced enormous cultural progress: sustained enlightenment has given us new perspectives and new technologies. Without universal truths there would be no basis for cooperation. We’d be eternally divided by our different interpretations of information and, crucially, there would be no way to resolve conflict in the face of opposing stubborn ideologies. But in truth, society’s glue, we find concepts we are united by. Objectivity is our common language and we should fight for it on a global scale.
On a personal level we feel alarmingly suspicious when we’re devoid of knowledge; we despise the idea of being blinded by other people; and we are innately uncomfortable with uncertainty. Because of these traits we commonly choose to seek out knowledge to determine how much we trust someone. What if our partners are prolific cheaters? Is it not better to know that they’re dishonest and calculated now so that they don’t hurt us in the future? What about inequality? Don’t we have a duty to expose it and push for the redistribution of wealth to improve quality of life for all? And free will? Shouldn’t we question it and how much agency we actually have to avoid exploitation? These are all questions that are worth pondering and the conditions for being able to dodge uncomfortable truths are precarious.
Particularly for people with unrelenting inquisitiveness, we need to discover truth to escape the malaise of doubt: the unrest is too much for the human spirit. We believe truth will eventually reveal itself anyway as we witness life drop clues of another verity. If we feel compromised, we will disrupt the fabric of our realities to ascertain the uncomfortable truth now.
But this isn’t always necessary, for truth can sometimes unnecessarily harm us. We should thus be careful and choose to avoid its temptation and conceal it from others where we can. We can compartmentalise our own thoughts to reduce anxiety and discard the wilfulness to overly scrutinise life’s innocuous pleasures.
Subjectivity absolutely has its place at the heart of our happiness. This isn’t my standard take, for I am usually only comfortable with examined substance. But sometimes it’s better to live in moments of illusory bliss because we need to. Forget how counterintuitive this sounds: why wouldn’t you choose to be happier? Ignorance can and will deliver peace of mind just as well as the truth.