There’s a story often told about Buddha instructing a student on the difference between truth and belief.
Buddha explains to the student: “My teaching is not a dogma or a doctrine. My teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”
The finger is not the moon. The medium is not the message. That’s a message we seem to have forgotten. Until we stop looking at the finger, the world’s problems can’t be solved.
Right now, there’s an orange-faced man-child accusing others of spreading fake news. The organisations he’s accusing of spreading fake news are media channels countering his lies with truths. His followers believe his lies to be truths, and the truth to be lies.
The messenger has become the message. Truth has become the forgotten victim.
How many of history’s wars have been caused by conflicting beliefs? By an inability on one side or both to accept what is known to be true?
How many laws have been created to keep the truth at bay? Galileo’s study of the visible universe led him to an evident truth – that our galaxy’s stars revolve around the Sun. This didn’t align with the Catholic Church’s belief that the stars revolved around Earth. The Church’s solution was to execute Galileo. To remove the inconvenient truth. Or rather, to remove the finger pointing at the truth.
How many disasters would have been averted if beliefs weren’t accepted as truths? A 1910 brochure from White Star Lines stated that Titanic and its sister ship were “designed to be unsinkable”. This quickly became a widely-help belief. By the time of the maiden voyage, the belief had become the accepted truth. Titanic is unsinkable.
What would happen if you didn’t believe anything?
What if you only gave credence to the things you know to be true?
First, the upside. If you were motivated by facts and not beliefs, you’d probably get into fewer philosophical arguments and fewer fights. I write probably because it would require everyone else to abandon their beliefs. You can’t fight a belief with the truth if the believers don’t believe it’s the truth. (Trump supporters.)
Another upside is that you would cease to wonder if you’re right or wrong, because you’d possess the truth.
Now, the downside. You’d stop exploring. Stop creating. Stop innovating. Stop learning. If Columbus had waited for proof that there was a land to the west, he wouldn’t have set sail.
One of the easiest ways for non-believers to quash any new idea is to ask for proof. They know you can’t provide proof until your idea is implemented. And they won’t let you implement your idea without proof.
So, here are my suggestions on how to navigate the troubled sea between truth and belief.
Don’t accept other people’s beliefs as truth.
Don’t accept your own beliefs as universal.
Fight for the things you know to be true.
Never stop learning.
Believe in nothing. Know everything.
See the moon. Not the finger pointing at it.
Photo by Leonid Tishkov and Boris Bendikov from their Private Moon series