“I can feel that my teeth are harder than my lips and my tongue.”

“If I don’t eat, and I don’t drink, I get weak.”

“When I try not to sleep for 24 hours, severe fatigue overcomes me. “

Everyone knows these simple truths. We gain bodily experiences that support them. And then there are other truths that can’t be acquired as easily.

“The Earth is a sphere, revolving on its axis, and around the sun.”

“Many millions of years ago, different creatures existed on our planet than today.”

“Morphine is an effective painkiller.”

To see these truths, one must learn certain procedures: of geometry and celestial observation, of paleontology and pharmacy.

Andreas Cellarius: Harmonie macrocosmica. Public Domain

There are philosophical debates about the meaning of the word “truth”, whether it refers only to correspondence theories, to the absence of contradictions, to the open disclosure of a fact, or to the agreement between people. These debates, however, are largely idle. For there are all these forms of truth.

Sometimes truths are established by matching procedures, such as matching a fingerprint with the pattern on the skin of a finger. Other times, contradictions are ruled out, such as when testing a mathematical theory. Excavations by paleontologists bring hidden things to light. And when a jury must unanimously decide whether someone is guilty or not, their consensus makes it true that the defendant is guilty.

Truths are not always certain. Their certainty depends on the proceedings. It is hard to imagine that one day I will admit that my teeth are no harder than my tongue and lips after all. But it may be that a jury has erred, overruled by a higher court.



Scientific Revolutions

Modern sciences constantly face established knowledge sceptically. Because knowledge only exists where people refer to truths, this procedure often leads to the shattering of established truths. Absolute truths and final certainty are not the goal of modern enlightened science. It searches for errors, seeking evermore precision. Its greatest success consists in triggering a so-called revolution that shakes up an entire past body of knowledge. This happened, for example, when Copernicus shook the Ptolemaic view of the world, Lamarck and Darwin discovered the evolution of species, and Einstein proved the independence of space and time in Newtonian physics to be false. Despite the experience of these shocks, we can say that it is true that space is curved, and that species developed in a process of evolution. Modern physics after Einstein, and biology after Darwin have confirmed this via special methods. For the time being this is true.

Even beyond science, it can be more interesting and relevant to discover illusions and fallacies instead of truths. To believe that one gets through life without suffering, and does not have to die is an illusion. That technical progress would bring only advantages to people was an illusion.

It is good to lose illusions and to expose errors. To believe that one can get through life without suffering, and that one does not have to die, is bad. For then one easily falls into despair when confronted with suffering and death. It is better to prepare for these events. To bring forth technical innovation without reckoning with the fact that it may have unpleasant consequences for society is naïve and may lead to nasty surprises. It is better not to have an illusionary optimistic-ideological attitude towards technology, but rather a sober and realistic one.

For practical reasons, therefore, interest in debunking fallacies and illusions is important because they can backfire. Yet, there may also be, as Nietzsche thought, very useful illusions conducive to survival: so-called “life lies”. For example, when a person deludes themself (and others) about their ability to do something that is not seen as corresponding to reality. This illusion may make them feel cheerful and proud of themselves, which may benefit their social life in general—but self-overestimation can also lead to unpleasant surprises.



One can call the process of discovering errors and illusions “enlightenment”. The ability to see error and abandon illusion can be seen as an aspect of wisdom. Contrarily, a person who holds on to errors and illusions when they should know better is a fool or a dreamer—and not wise. The humility of Socrates, who said of himself that he knew that he knew nothing, is also helpful in this sense. For it caused him to look to others for knowledge. What he found were errors and illusions. His interlocutors were not always pleased with being debunked. Nevertheless, it was probably helpful for them to be exposed by Socrates, as those who believe fallacies or falsehoods know little and may act on false premises. Wasn’t Buddha a similarly wise enlightener when he proclaimed: “There is suffering” and thus wanted to free people from the illusions of a life devoid of suffering?

There are many truths that may not seem relevant to our lives. The exact charge of anelectron, the age of the universe, the skull size of individuals of an extinct species of dinosaur—these all seem irrelevant to us (besides the fact that we exist as humans in the cosmos). But sometimes supposedly remote truths find applications in techniques. When Copernicus calculated the double motion of the earth, he could not have guessed the impact that would one day have on navigation or space travel. And truths about laser light, which also have to do with phenomena of quantum physics, did not at first seem to have any practical significance in everyday life. But they have led, among other things, to the CD player, which before the introduction of the storage of music on computers and MP3 players, was (and still is) of importance in the everyday life of many music lovers.

So the question of what the truths that really matter to our lives are, is difficult to answer. Trying to find out what truths one needs to know in order to become wise might therefore not be the right approach at all. Striving to lose as many illusions as possible might be more helpful. Perhaps the number of fallacies and illusions is inexhaustible. Therefore, a cautious and skeptical attitude toward truth claims seems prudent. According to one of the Pyrrhonian maxims, it is better not to claim anything to be true, as this only leads to disputes and unrest— and in this sense, Pyrrho (360-270 BC) can be regarded as a sage. Perhaps wisdom, then, has less to do with believing oneself in possession of certain life-relevant truths, than with shunning errors and illusions, being cautious in one’s claims to knowledge, and staying out of disputes as best as possible.

MH, Zürich

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Was this it?

A couple of Sundays and children bawling

It must still lead somewhere


I would like to see more things colored blue

And I want to drive some laps that are square

And only then I shall kick the bucket… right…

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Concern (Sorge)

Have you never known the concern? Maybe little children can still say that without understanding what they are saying.

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Michael Hampe elucidates.
What understanding of enlightenment underlies the METIS project? Why we should rather dismantle illusions than chase after illusory truths. And what all this has to do with wisdom literature and wisdom practices.