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Everything You Know is Wrong

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Everything you know is wrong.

—Weird Al Yankovic

Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

There's been a buzz in the mainstream discourse about fake news. Apparently, this news is distinct from real news, the arbiters of which are mainstream professional publishing and broadcasting organizations with bona fide newsrooms and traditional albeit trite mottos like "all the news that's fit to print."

I am not here to say what news is real, which is to say which reported facts are accurate and which narratives convey actually occurring events and their implications. Rather, I am interested in a faculty that exists in people, which at one level is discernment and at a deeper level is conscience. This faculty, I think, is the antidote to suggestibility, which is the lynchpin of the question, for if we have transmuted some of our suggestibility into discernment, the issue of real and fake news becomes moot.

In this direction, the 5th-century BCE sophist Protagoras said: "a human being is the measure of all things." This statement is usually taken as an absolute expression of the truism "everything is relative" but I don't think that's what Protagoras meant. I think he meant what he said more in the sense of the Old Testament assertion that a human being is made in the image of the totality and is a microcosm, a complete and intelligent world in the model of the universe. If this is, in fact, what Protagoras meant, the formulation refers not to relativity but to something absolute and immutable called "the truth," a wholeness that is not separate from any human being.

This is to say that a human organism fully inhabited with presence, and not only the physical sensing part, but also the mental and feeling "bodies" incorporated in the inner life of a human person, and particularly with a simultaneous and balanced presence in all these parts, gives rise to an objective and non-hallucinatory mode of knowing. The knowing that accompanies full presence in oneself is itself a measure of truthiness. This is not a case of deducing conclusions from sets of facts, but rather a mode of discerning, and all at once, the degree of truth represented in the source of an impression. We, ourselves, are the means of knowing what everything is in itself.

In particular, we know what things are by their sound. We knock on objects to determine their material and solidity. Something is experienced as true not because of its factual accuracy but through resonance. We say that something "rings true," which is to say the sound resounds in our being, arouses a sympathetic vibrational signature, and awakens a present or latent truth within. The suggestion here is that there is no truth "out there"; rather all truth is embodied, like a Library of Alexandria, within the being of each person. Truth is experienced not as something new but as recognition, the only caveat is that the whole being must be present and aware to be a reliable measure of truth.

"Counterfeit gold exists because there is such a thing as real gold," said the 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet Jellaludin Rumi of Balkh in what is now Afghanistan.

Misrepresentation occurs because there is something real to misrepresent. In this sense, the truth-seeker is behooved to tread in the direction of the real gold, without being distracted by the counterfeit.

So much of what I know is a collection of data accrued osmotically from parents and the assumptions ingrained in the society I came up in, and as an outgrowth of the indoctrination of "education." This collection of data may even serve to increase suggestibility in the manner of something that distracts from genuine inquiry. I am prevented from an experience of mystery about anything, the experience of which contains the inspiration to discovery, to come to know, even if the object in question is unknowable.

I am plagued by an underlying assumption that I know, because I know the names of things and how each thing is theoretically connected. Without vigorous effort, I am almost never faced with a mystery about anything. And yet the mystery is the doorway to truth, and knowing is a closed door.

What would it be to know, and know directly, what anything is?

What would it be to discern what is necessary and essential to know, and what is does not require the payment of any attention?

What would it be to recognize what is true?

According to Protagoras, the answers to these questions are born of a presence that is both penetrating and sustained, that admits no thought.

—Jason Stern

The original print version of this article was titled:
"Esteemed Reader: December 2017"

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