Built on Truth)
Yesterday I shared how twelve-step programs teach their followers embrace a fully truthful view of themselves. The ever-feared Step 4 requires its members to conduct “a fearless moral inventory,” classifying their every flaw and weakness, though also their abilities and strengths. I pointed out that the people that take such steps with sincerity are the most fulfilled individuals that I know, living a higher form of life than any other. I gave this as evidence that only a life founded on truth is truly free.
Today I’d like to consider another example that illustrates how holding unapologetically to the truth will always result in the fastest and best development of a system. This example arises from the world of physics and technology, but in my estimation it translates seamlessly to the humanities.
Let us consider the advances mankind has seen in the aviation and space exploration fields, the ways that we ventured higher and with greater control into our own atmosphere. For untold thousands of years, humanity was entirely unable to suspend themselves in the air. The only way to elevate oneself was to climb a tree, or a mountain, or build a tower. All of these required the tall object to be firmly rooted to the ground, therefore being nothing more than an extension of that ground.
It wasn’t until 1783 that the Montgolfier brothers invented the first hot air balloon. They had observed that a pocket of hot air, contained within a canvas, became more buoyant and would rise. Many of their initial theories were actually quite incorrect. They originally believed that smoke itself was the buoyant entity, and they certainly had no understanding of air molecules being excited by the increase of temperature. Nonetheless, even if they did not fully understand the physical truths at the molecular level, they had found a way to act in accordance with them, and so for the first time in millennia, man was able to ascend untethered to the heavens.
The Wright brothers surpassed these relatively simple principles of buoyancy when they honed in on the truths of aerodynamics, invented the first airplane, and conducted the first powered flight in 1903. To their credit, they seem to have been quite cognizant of their own ignorance. They knew that they did not know all the forces that were at play, or the exact mathematical expressions to describe them. This was why they built the wind tunnel, so that they could learn by trial-and-error the correct size and shape to maximize the lift of their ailerons. They progressively brought their designs into harmony with the truths of aerodynamics by a systematic process, even while not understanding why those truths were what they were, and the result lifted mankind even farther.
Of course, following the Wright brothers, this scientific and systematic approach to understanding the laws of nature would revolutionize the world at an accelerated rate. Gone were the days of attributing unexpected and inclement weather to the whims of emotionally unstable gods. It had become the common consensus that the universe was operating according to a consistent system, one which could be measured, modeled, and predicted. Thus, great minds were no longer limited to approximating the truth by trial-and-error anymore, they could actually capture it within mathematical algorithms.
This completely changed how man and his machinery related to the world. Invention began taking place primarily on the math sheet and the computer simulation, and only when mastered there translated to the real world with working results. Real-world practice led to more variables in the algorithm, more work with the algorithms led to better practice. Years of this cycle led to, in1969, humanity crowning all its aviation and propulsion accomplishments with the first landing on the moon. Here was mankind’s final and decisive victory over the atmosphere! We had such a mastery of understanding and such a power of invention that we could suspend ourselves within our airspace, traverse to any other point within it, and even break out of its confines entirely.
Lifting off of the ground in a balloon came about by an accidental alignment with some of the physical truths. Powered flight required more deliberate and systematic experimentation to generally stub out the shape and bounds of that truth. Voyage to the moon, however had demanded a perfect and continuous model of the truth. As man increased his knowledge of the truth and synchronized his efforts with it, his reach literally extended to the heavens.
It is interesting to note how each successive milestone increased in difficulty at an exponential rate, yet they were each achieved in exponentially shorter timespans. As already mentioned, it was thousands of years before the Montgolfier brothers built their gravity-defying balloon, but only an additional 120 years until the Wright brothers conducted their first flight, and then only 66 more years before the moon landing took place. Truth is a vein that reveals more and more precious ore the longer you keep digging at it.
These examples also illustrate that truth is accumulative. Each of these inventors was able to expand and build upon what had been done before, established on the tower of knowledge already erected by the great minds of the past generations. This idea was famously captured by Newton, who stated, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” It is poetic that Newton uttered this, for he predated all of the others mentioned thus far. More than 100 years before the Montgolfier brothers and their balloon, he discovered the truth of gravity, which was the first foundational truth that needed to be understood if anything was ever to rise above it. He became one of those same giants he spoke about, and all the other men I have mentioned were perched upon his shoulder. The first giant, though, the bedrock at the bottom of this stack of innovation, is Truth itself.
Before man discovered the physical truths of the world, he was able to muddle about and survive in some regions of the world and go extinct in others. He could prosper in some of his endeavors and be frustrated in others. Life and death, success and failure, these all seemed to be according to the random whims of unknown forces. But when man started to recognize the physical truths that defined his world and lay his foundation upon them, he thrived and flourished. Living in truth means living in harmony with the once-mysterious forces. This is demonstrably true for the physical world, and it is just as true for the spiritual.