Meditations on the Shore: Truth as Observational Reality

I suspect there is more saltwater than blood in my veins.  Many of my happiest days of childhood were spent on the waterfront. Whether fishing, boating, or laying with a mystery novel on the sand, few things please me more than a day by the shore. My family has a long history of love affairs with the lakes and rivers crisscrossing the North East United States, not to mention an occasional fling with the Atlantic. For that reason my thoughts are never far from the sea, however far my body is.

The objects and places which surround our growing-up years become the means and metaphors by which we understand the world around us. This may be why one of the most formative questions that has defined my life – What is truth? – finds as its answer an illustration in the waves. I have never put this idea into words before now, but I will try, if it might help others gain a new perspective for themselves. My thoughts currently are as rough as unpolished stones bouncing in a stream, and I am sure what I try to express will be equally crude, but this image is as natural to my understanding of reality as your native tongue is to your understanding of language.

I was young, maybe 13 or 14, walking along the edge of a lake where my family was renting a cabin for a week’s holiday. As I went I picked up smooth stones to skip along the water, scratched pictures into the soft mud with a stick, and did whatever else it occurs to a boy to do who finds himself alone and unsupervised in the middle of God’s playpen. Eventually I came upon a wooden bench so worn and cracked it may have been constructed with scraps scavenged from the Mayflower.

Sitting down, I found the bench was rather poorly positioned, placed several yards back from the shoreline, and behind a screen of furs so that you could not see much of the lake at all. While the tree cover blocked my view of the larger body of water, a small pool near my seat remained visible. And there in the water I saw a curious thing. A sailboat, docked at the end of the pier, casting its reflection on the summer waves. The mast swirled and danced on the liquid currents, one moment appearing tall and solid as the water calmed, before immediately breaking apart into a thousand pieces like a cloud of fireflies. I sat there for a long time, mesmerized by the display. Unable to see the boat itself, I could only guess at its form and appearance based on the turgid brush strokes of a thousand wind tossed ripples.

This is in many ways a picture of my own experience with seeking to understand the nature of reality. And I suspect that this is true not just for myself, but for all of mankind.

As John Adams eloquently put it, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Either the earth is a sphere or it isn’t. Either the Roman Empire ruled most of the known world 2,000 years ago, or it didn’t. It is no great logical jump to conclude that just as there are rigid truths about science and history, so too there are facts about religion and morality which are either unequivocally true, or else rubbish altogether.

Essential to the core of my being, I believe there exist spiritual truths which give structure and meaning to the universe. Contrary to the popular thought of our day, these can no more be ignored or cast off than the passage of time or the effects of gravity. We are all bound by them just as we are the natural laws which govern our physical world. It is for this reason that my life has been haunted, hounded by three small words: What is truth? And the question which follows immediately: Can it be known?

Unfortunately, God cannot be observed in a petri dish, or morality distilled in a beaker. If there is an absolute truth behind our existence it can only be discovered through the chemist’s lab of our own lives and experiences. Faith is the science of the soul.

To return to our image of the sailboat, truth is much like the mast of a ship. It is a firm, solid thing, resting at anchor beyond the veil of life. Yet our position is like a traveler gazing at its reflection on the water, who having never seen a ship before, must piece together what he observes in order to form some understanding of it.

Take three such individuals, seat them side by side, and their conclusions will be as different as their fingerprints. One believes the object he sees to lie beneath the waves, while another thinks it is a substance coating the water itself. Yet the third claims the ship not to exist at all, believing the image to be a trick of light and vapor. None of them might guess that what they see is an imperfect reflection of a vessel meant for traveling over the ocean, and that the sea itself is only a dark mirror. And that is the other problem. For not only would they be unable to agree on the shape of the sailing boat, they would be even more unable to understand the purpose of the thing.

They might none of them be right, but one way in which they would certainly all be wrong would be to conclude that each man’s definition was true as far as it concerned him. Truth is inflexible; it cannot be bent, only broken. A boat is a boat. We might wish it were a car, but that belief won’t take us very far when we try backing it out of the driveway.

Now suppose someone came along with real nautical knowledge, say a sailor, or better yet a shipwright. He sits down and patiently explains the working of the sails and rigging. He tells tales of his voyages over the deep.  Any man would be considered by most to be insane, or at least incredibly arrogant. To possess absolute knowledge of such a thing one would have to have come from beyond the stand of pines. That is to say he would need experiences which it seems this world, with its limited view, just does not offer. Yet perhaps some of the travelers on the bench would believe him, hearing a measure of truth in his words, seeing in the clearest of moments – when the waters are still – a picture of the truth he describes.

Of course, over time the bench would get pretty crowded. Others would arrive claiming to be sailors as well, each with his own explanations for the ghostly image on the waves. They build their own benches and as souls are won to the various sides we see the birth of all the religions of the world. One would expect them to have many things in common, drawing from the same inspiration, and so we find it. And some would naturally be nearer to the truth than others, though they could not all be equally true.

Eventually a town settles on the banks of the sea, growing in time to a thriving metropolis. Generations pass. Many forget entirely about the liquid legend which once formed the foundation of their whole society. Those who watch the water become little more than a laughing stock, wasting away their lives in pursuit of truths which can never be found.

The world moves on and the noise of the city grows, hiding from them all the final piece of evidence. Beyond the screen of trees, invisible from shore, the Captain paces the deck of his ship, calling out to those who will listen. Asking them to join him. Singing songs of the wind and sun, and an endless blue horizon.

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