Tell the Truth? Maybe not.

I am writing this post early on Thanksgiving morning. A dream with an unpleasant twist woke me up. In that dream, I had been at a festival with a friend. On our way home, we came across a police checkpoint. As the cop who dealt with me looked through the contents of my pockets, he pulled a small packet of illicit drugs from within my wallet. At that moment, my entire experience shifted. It felt like alarm bells going off. The next I remember from the dream is being interrogated by another cop at the station.

He started asking questions about me: Where I am from, how long have I been living in the States, how I got the green card, that sort of thing. I remember being strangely composed and giving short but entirely truthful answers. At the same time, I remember a sensation that this would not get me out of the situation.

And I did remember that I had not put the drugs into my wallet. With some kind of intuitive sense—possibly because I was dreaming rather than being awake—this created a powerful insight: I was at the police station for a reason. I do not mean this in the shallow fortune cookie kind of way that everything happens for a reason. Someone wanted me to end up there, and since I was not that someone, it seemed that I would not be let go that easily.

As the pressure of the interview mounted, I woke up. I did not find out the reason (bummer, I know). Sorry if you thought that that was where the post is going…

I was lying in bed, pondering. Just the other day, I started reading Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary“. One central idea—the way I understand him—is that the hemispheric organization of the brain can lead to over confidence. The world, as we perceive it, can appear to us extremely clear. We can certainly tell a story that fits the data, and the story makes sense.

Still pondering the dream, I noticed a similarity to a situation I had experienced often growing up. Being asked questions in school by a teacher who is probing for holes. The most vivid of my memories in that direction comes from my oral graduation exam. And contrary to my usual habit of winging it—looking back, I admit I was a terrible student—I had actually spent several weeks preparing. The topic: world history between 1933 and 1945.

Unfortunately, the source material that I had used to learn did not cover the details the examiner went for. And so, the first question ended up putting me in exactly the kind situation I experienced at the police station in my dream. There the obvious question was, “how did these drugs get into your wallet?” And during the examination I was asked: “What role did Japan play at the outbreak of World War II?”

It’s a tough spot, being asked a question to which the most truthful answer is, “I do not know.” And equally unfortunately, our culture does not reward giving that answer. Instead, in school we learn that almost any other answer is better. We learn confabulating, extrapolating, guessing, posturing, rationalizing, or counter accusations are all better strategies than the truth.

Still lying in bed, I realized just how difficult our culture makes it for us to accept the truth. The truth is, we very frequently do not know. With the same frequency, the alarm bells initially go off. But over time, they become less and less noticeable—as we learn to bullshit our way out of such dangerous waters.

The people who are best at that game end up being given certificates. I am not suggesting that every academic is a fraud. Please read the sentence again—you might have experienced a left-hemispheric confabulation! If someone extremely skilled at coming up with a story on the spot goes to academia, I predict that they will, on average, succeed. That does not mean that everyone succeeding in academia is good at telling stories or even that they do. What it does mean is that having a good story does not make the story true. It is just difficult to spot the difference between the truth and a good story.

Our left hemisphere is good at telling a story. One that fits the data. In my dream, the story I was telling myself is this: the cop who looked through my wallet must have put the drugs there! It was the first—and for a while only—explanation that made sense. But as I was being grilled at the station, it made less and less sense. If I had been put into this situation by a cop then clearly it did not make sense to ask me all those irrelevant questions.

It is this kind of signal I want to learn listening to. Fragments of reality that suggest to me, “this does not make sense.” And the “this” in that sentence is the story my left hemisphere is telling me—with the full confidence I have grown accustomed to. Many times, my stories might turn out to be close enough to the truth, preventing me from running smack into a wall. But is that really good enough?

As my post is coming to a close, I am reminded of how Jordan Peterson phrased a solution to this dilemma: “If you act in truth, then the order you produce is good, regardless of how it appears.” I intuitively connect with this, and in the three minutes of the video, Dr. Peterson provides an incredibly powerful hypothetical demonstrating that on some level everyone knows this. At the same time, few people seem to live by that solution.

My task, going forward, seems to be clear—for as long as I am willing to give enough space to the right hemisphere’s input that is: whatever story I am telling myself, always look for the pieces that do not fit. And even if following them seems less appealing and potentially scary, have faith in that the order I can produce by inquiring truthfully is good. And from the comments to the YouTube video, it also seems to be working, generally speaking.

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