Buddhism in the Facebook Era: Truth Falls Flat in the Face of Entertainment

I’ve often said that the ultimate quest in a human’s life—my life—is for truth, beauty and goodness, with the implication being that this is the proper field of inquiry for religion and philosophy. But is that what really happens? Beauty isn’t so hard nor controversial, since we tend to all have similar views on what inspires feelings of beauty, if not art, within us, and not dissimilar to the quick and easy Internet definition on MS Bing: “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.”

That sounds about right, now, doesn’t it? And even more so when slightly modified to allow that this combination of qualities might also “please the intellect or moral sense.” Cool. Sounds good to me. I think that we can all agree on that. And the concept of goodness dovetails nicely into that concept of beauty, such that it almost serves the chief purpose of clarifying exactly what we mean when we talk about goodness or simply ‘the good.’ And that’s exactly what the ancient Greek philosophers talked about, they who basically invented the term ‘philosophy,’ and for whom the definition of ‘goodness’ was something like: “you’ll know it when you see it.”

But we definitely encounter the term repeatedly, especially in the work of my hero Plato, and his student Aristotle, in which they proceed to lay the foundations of Western thought and the Western ideals of democracy and justice, i.e. the ethical component of ‘goodness.’ Plato, especially, waxed forth on the subject frequently, such that he is often defined by it and its ironies, that what we want most is what we can’t have, and so ‘goodness’ is to some extent as unattainable as Nirvana or Enlightenment, or any thousand other ideals that are easy to talk about, but not so easy to attain.

But truth is another story. Because we are not even sure that it exists, in any absolute sense. It certainly requires knowledge, if it exists at all, but is that enough? Plato himself was not so sure, as he says: “I am wiser than that fellow, anyhow. Because neither of us, I dare say, knows anything of great value; but he thinks he knows a thing when he doesn’t; whereas I neither know it in fact, nor think that I do. At any rate, it appears that I am wiser than he in just this one small respect: if I do not know something, I do not think that I do.”― Plato, in the Apology

And so on and so forth ad nauseam ad infinitum. Like the other two, beauty and goodness, we know truth best in its negation. Unlike the other two, it is not a simple matter of opinion, custom, or common sense. It is a matter of definition and proof. Because war is certainly neither good nor beautiful, but it is certainly true. The same goes for injustice, hatred, and anger. So truth is best reserved as a tool of logic and the agreement of propositions in a syllogism, for example: If A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, then A is larger than C, as a matter of agreement in terms.

But there’s more to life than logic. And there’s more to Buddhist logic than simple syllogisms. In the Buddhist logical form of catuskoti there are no simple two-part dilemmas, but more complex tetralemmas in which not only may both propositions be true, but neither may be true. This is most prominent in the question of Existence or non-Existence, but it can be applied to any two propositions. So truth is more than a simple agreement of terms. Truth is also a question of existence or non-existence.

This may be more important than you think. Because if I assert that Donald Trump simply doesn’t exist, then I don’t have to deal with him. And you can’t prove otherwise, not definitively. And we see this principle in constant use in the current political climate of the world. Truth is established by simple declaration, and to deny is to accept the political risk associated. But is it beautiful? Is it good? The other two prongs of our three-prong quest try to keep truth honest, so to speak, but with only limited results. Bottom line: as with Plato, we simply don’t know very much.

So what are we doing here, then? It’s simple. We want to feel good, and we want to do it in a way that’s sustainable. We want whatever measure of truth, beauty, and goodness that is possible to attain, and in a way that itself is good, beautiful, and true. For that much is provable. War is bad, and that is true, and so we hope to accomplish that. And so it is with hatred, anger and injustice. We may not be sure of what we want, but we know that it’s not that. 

The only problem is that many prophets, gurus, and fortune tellers, acharyas, pandits, and jyotishee want most to entertain you, regardless of the degree of veracity to be found in any assertion. If any proposition is only true in relation to other similar propositions, then how do we know what is true, when all we can say is what it’s not? We can’t, of course, but that doesn’t stop the bhagwans and maharishis from blathering. They flatter your ego at the same time that they flatten your pocketbook.

Doesn’t it sometimes seem that we’d all simply be better off if everybody would just shut up? Bingo. Welcome to Buddhism. Because only in Buddhism is silence revered to the extent that it deserves, something that far predates the Mahayana metaphysical concept of Emptiness and even predates the early Buddhist emphasis on meditation. And if the rishis of that era needed silence in caves to escape the hubbub of Pataliputra, imagine how much we need it now, in the Facebook era where no truth is really truth and beauty and goodness are at best, uh, relative…