A few cadets and professors were discussing political philosophy over a few beers. The evening progressed and we came to the topic of truth. One professor proposed an interesting analogy for our consideration. This view compared truth to the light reflected by a disco ball.
A disco ball throws light in myriad directions. Truth, ultimately, is the light source. Most people, however, only focus on the scattered reflections. Different people fixate on different patches of light, convinced that their little glimmer is the truth. Confusion and conflict occur when the reflections shift as context changes. People hold on to their vision of reflections that are no longer relevant.
If we ignore the disco ball then we do not realize that our seemingly isolated points of illumination originate from the same source. The disco ball analogy is a reformulation of an old idea that simply states: the truth is one. In other words, there are small truths (reflections) which originate from an absolute truth (the light source).
This claim warrants thorough investigation. Its veracity determines how one approaches life itself. The art of an examined life is the successful application of fundamental principles to action. Truth-seeking is the process of discovering these principles.
Many people catch flash of truth in moments of epiphany. Few internalize and act upon their insight. This happens across the spectrum of life, from business, to war, to love. A bit of wisdom or a thoughtful analysis resonates upon first exposure. But later the insight disappears in the background of our daily lives and we fail to act.
Human nature continues to manifest in the same ways even as context changes. The wisdom of past deep thinkers is still relevant, yet people continue to suffer from same problems. This is because people fail to act upon truth when they find it.
The difficulty of truth is in its nuance. Truth seems clear and self-evident when it is given to us in the form of a wise teaching, for example. Truth seems obscure when we seek it on our own. The wise teaching or and epiphany offers a glimpse of the disco ball. It shifts our focus past the reflections. Full comprehension, however, is elusive. Only when insight couples with action do we experience full reality of the truth. Through insightful action we see how the fundamental principles operate in the world. This is difficult because it requires presence of mind and continuous effort.
The complexity of truth often leads to oversimplification. Viewing the world in black and white is easier than picking out the shades. The latter approach requires constant critical thinking. People have a hardwired tendency to simplify the world in order to avoid the mental effort of unpacking truth. Mental models or schemas help us navigate everyday reality but they also cause distortions. These distortions manifest as ideologies and opinions that impact how we conduct our lives and relationships.
The discovery of true principles requires a self-aware approach to schemas. It requires that we recognize when our schemas have utility and when they are not sufficient. Critical thinking is the key to seeing beyond our schemas.
Flux is constant, breeding new challenges and opportunities. Successful decision making amidst flux is possible with periodic reevaluations of our established assumptions. Although the disco ball is one, its reflections are ever-changing. When we focus on the reflections it seems that the truth is relative to changing contexts. The fundamental principles remain but new context blocks approaches that were once clear. It takes mental work to discover how the fundamental principles operate in new contexts. When context changes, old schemas lead us away from truth. This consequently leads to faulty decision making.
Good leaders practice truth-seeking. The purpose of truth-seeking is not merely for knowledge but for informed action. It is an ongoing process of critical evaluation in an environment of constant flux. Truth-seeking offers the greatest potential when leaders apply insight to thought and action.