The Search for Enlightenment

“You’re lost inside your houses
And there’s no time to find you now
Well your walls are turning
Your towers are burning
Gonna leave you here
And try to get down to the sea somehow”

Rock Me On the Water
-Jackson Browne


“Truth is what works.”

-William James

On my daily run today, Jackson Browne’s Rock Me On the Water came up on the Genius Playlist. I connected emotionally with the song as I almost always do, feeling that yearning for the transcendent truth that brings joy, identifying with the seeker on his journey to understanding, seeking the peace that lies beyond the mundane world.

William James was attacked during his lifetime and in subsequent decades by philosophers who felt he was destroying the search for truth by making it completely relative. For him, truth was a construct of the mind based on theories and mental models. Truth is a quality of thought based on how well what we think resembles the external world. He called this Pragmatism. We can approximate an accurate view of the world, but never reach ultimate truth.

The materialist philosophers who attacked him believed there’s a transcendent, absolute truth in the world that can discovered through observation and experimentation. How could it be, they asked, that one person’s truth could differ from someone else’s? How could I see one truth today and a different one tomorrow? Truth must be an absolute quality of statements. What is not True is False. The world of philosophy moved toward logic and proof and away from James’ view of world as a construct viewed by mind via brain processes.

I began to appreciate James’ views after reading contemporary cognitive science and philosophers of mind. Once one begins understanding that our brains function by creating models of the external world, this psychological definition of truth becomes most relevant. We build a mental model of the three diminutional space around us. We hear music and make sense of tone spatially, thinking of notes as being high or low, moving quickly or slowly. We think of crime epidemics as infectious disease or honesty as clean behavior in metaphorical models where one model provides meaning to a different model.

Where does that leave Jackson Browne’s romantic search for (capital T) Truth? Is there any reason to “get down to the sea”? Is it entirely an illusion to seek a non-scientific transcendent truth?

I submit that the poet is talking metaphorically about looking beyond the commonplace mental models that we use when “we’re lost inside our houses”. It is the mission of the poet to find the sea and come back and tell us about the journey and what it’s like to experience that joyous song.

Certainly the purpose of the spiritual search for truth is personal gain and fulfillment. Enlightenment is the clearest, most “right” view of the world possible. Reaching full human potential is a personal goal. One becomes a poet by returning from the sea and singing the song, inspiring others to join the joyous song.

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