The truth is not out there

I’ve always loved paradoxes and alternative realities.

They are very useful things to be able to embrace if you’re a parent or work with young children. Children operate in a constantly changing, often incoherent and sometimes contradictory reality. As adults we often see our job as to ‘straighten them out’ by getting them to understand ‘the real world’ and to ‘get’ the ‘truth’.

I’ve put all those worlds in inverted commas because I don’t believe in any of them.

(But that’s just me. It is of course possible to prove or disprove a belief in anything you like.)

So what is this ‘truth’ that we are supposed to be weaning them onto?

Here’s an example. Do you believe in Father Christmas? Most dull adults will say ‘no of course not’. Most of the people I hang around with will say, ‘yes’ because they’re a facetious bunch. But the more we think about it, the more that opinion is correct.

Let’s look at the facts: children have a strong image of the Father Christmas/Santa Claus being. There are pictures, films and songs of him. He turns up at school and/or in shops. They write letters to him. There is a mythos surrounding his story, paraphernalia and methods. But most of all: on Christmas morning, presents turn up, just as they have been promised.

This all means that Father Christmas is real. He exists. You can argue with me if you want to and say that it’s daddy who get’s dressed up and/or waits until their asleep. But that just proves my point. The problem with truth is that so many people want to be so blumin’ literal with it. If you want to take it further there are other strands to the mythology of the concept of Father Christmas that are ‘true’ and ‘real’, some positive, some perhaps not so: wishful thinking, positive thinking, hope, greed, consumerism, trust, joy. Those feelings are real.

So to those people who say that encouraging a believe in Father Christmas is ‘lying’ – you’re not only miserable joy snatchers you’re also categorically wrong, according go my evidence and my beliefs.

I’ve heard is said that some people think it’s bad form to let children believe in things that they think ‘aren’t true’. (The list usually includes Father Christmas, faeries and God amongst other things). They think we should tell our children ‘the truth’.

So where do I begin in this quest? And where do I end? Do I tell them about violent pornography and pedophilia? Do I give them the full truth and details of mass murder, torture and cruelty? Do I tell them the details of the Holocaust? Do I explain the pain of dying from cancer? That’s the truth isn’t it? Of course I don’t, and in the moment that I censor any of that ‘truth’, I’m presenting a modified and incomplete vision of the world and  its reality to my children. (And in my opinion, quite rightly so.)

Our children recently watched the Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine. They loved it and began acting out the stories and characters in imaginative play. As a Beatle fan, I have the Beatles records and their other films in the house. Over the past few weeks we’ve also watched A Hard Days Night and Help!

Mabel said, “I wish the Beatles lived in Oxford so that they could come to our house and sing for us”. I wish that too, but I know it’s not possible. I know that the events depicted in those films took place 46 to 48 years ago. I know that Paul is nearly 70 and Ringo is 71. I know that George died of cancer ten years ago and that John was murdered outside his home thirty-one years ago. So do I tell this ‘truth’ to my children, running around the house singing A Ticket to Ride and putting on Liverpool accents and saying “I’ve got a hole in my pocket”?

The answer is of course no. In the same was that I won’t be saying that Mickey Mouse or Scooby Doo is dead. The Beatles aren’t real, not in the sense that our family and friends are real. But in a sense that Thomas the Tank Engine or Tinkerbel is real, then yes they are very much alive. It’s only us boring literal adults, locked into linear time that say they no longer exist.

By the time they realise that Paul McCartney doesn’t now look the same as he did when he was 21 and is as old as their granddad it won’t matter because their understanding of the world will by default have ungraded their own mythologies as their reality changes as they grow.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know I’m a big fan of the television programme Doctor Who. My son is 6 but he’s not watching it because I’m withholding it from him. Why? because he’s what they patronisingly call a ‘sensitive child’. He has no concept of death, and frankly he doesn’t need to have one. Not yet. He will. That will come. But there’s no rush, why should there be? Doctor Who deals with death. It deals with nightmarish monsters that currently have no place in his straightforward problem solving world of Thomas the Tank Engine. So there I am again, creating and maintaining a deliberate different reality to yours (and mine).

My children believe in faeries. I didn’t encourage that belief, but neither have a dissuaded it. The reason is that just like Father Christmas, faeries are real.

My daughter may visualise them as flittering winged creatures, akin to angels, and princesses (and cats, in some surreal way. She’s 4). That’s her reality and who am I to stomp all over it with my Gortex boots.

After all, she’s probably right. Faeries are nature sprites. The small fluttery ones help the flowers bloom. The gnome-like ones work on decomposition and help fungus breakdown rotting matter. What if faeries are our anthropomorphism of these natural processes? That makes them real. I’d go further and suggest that faeries are live, actual beings that do indeed work with flora and vegetation, blossom and decay. Today we tend to call them the more uninspiring names such as butterflies, bees and woodlice. Perhaps faeries are the anthropomorphism of insects? When some people look at them they may see just an insect. Their boring lack of imagination sees a creepy-crawly. I see the miraculous circle of life. If I ingested enough ergot alkaloids I’d probably see pixie faces too, just like our ancestors did.

I’ve got grown up friends who have seen ghosts, spoken to them (and got replies). The fact that I haven’t doesn’t make them wrong either. It doesn’t make their experience less valid. I haven’t seen one and I know nothing about such things. My experience proves nothing about the subject.

The esteemed professor Dawkins and his cohort would have us not believe in God. His non-belief is his own rightly held opinion although he can’t have any evidence for it, only lack of it as you can’t prove a negative. But his assertion that such a belief is like believing in an invisible unicorn or a chocolate teapot in orbit around Mars or a spaghetti monster is not the same thing and his weakest argument. No-one believe in those things because there’s no point in believing in those things. There’s a great point to believing in a creator God or a Father God and many people derive great joy and meaning from their beliefs which is why they have them and keep them. (If someone has a belief that is a threat to others then we may well have to step in to challenge their reality but they’re not the people Dawkins et al go after, preferring instead softer targets, which is a shame.)

If you ever watched the 1990s television series about the unknown, The X Files, then you will be familiar with the phrase ‘the truth is out there’. I think that the truth is NOT out there at all. It’s in here, that is I have my version and you have your version.

Another more useful phrase from that programme was on a poster behind Agent Mulder’s desk. It said, ‘I want to believe’. I like it because it has a positive flexibility within it. I may not be able to believe, but I’ll seek out the evidence accordingly, rather than a default setting of disbelief which is as inflexible as any other dogma.

To those who still maintain that so-called supernatural beings aren’t real and don’t exist: our society has some fashionable concepts that are, by all modern definitions, ‘not real’ and yet we all believe unquestioningly in them. Money being a good example. We all believe in things that very few of us really understand (such as Electromagnetism).

In mathematics there are calculations that cannot be done unless you invoke what it called the ‘imaginary number’, i. It’s determined as the square root of -1, which is impossible (and therefore imaginary). And yet we need it to solve the equations that make our modern world possible as it’s needed for signal processing, control theory, electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, quantum mechanics, cartography and vibration analysis. Some mathematicians describe i as not ‘imaginary’ but ‘pure real’.

We need the imaginary in our lives which it is just as relevant and therefore just as real as anything we can actually see and touch, which, when you come to think of it, is such a tiny proportion of our so-called reality don’t you think?

Perhaps we live mainly in a ‘pure real’ world…

Ayd works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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One man’s quest to read the mind of God

Today, the differences between astronomy and astrology are easily defined. To the ancient astronomer/astrologer, Saturn influenced human characteristics, notably those of mistrust, the bringer of death and the fall of kings. We now know that the planet Saturn is a giant globe of hydrogen and helium gas. His name was Johannes Kepler. It was the lonely work of one man who brought astronomy out of this mysterium dark age and forged the way for modern science upon which our current civilisation depends.

Johannes Kepler was born in Germany in 1571. He lived in a time of great oppression of the human spirit when the heavens where inhabited by angels and demons and the Sun and the planets moved round the Earth in crystal spheres rotated by the Hand of God.

It was a time of religious dogmatism where science inhabited a pale shadow of half-truths and falsehoods where the inaccuracies of the ancients were considered holy and more reliable than current findings made with technology unavailable to the people of a millennium or two previous.

Kepler spent his childhood in the protestant seminary school in Maulbronn to be educated for the clergy. The young Kepler’s independence quickly isolated him from the other boys. He was intelligent and he knew it but his thoughts often drifted to his imagined unworthiness in the eyes of God and he despaired of ever obtaining salvation.

But God meant more to Kepler than simply punishment; he was the creative power of the universe and Kepler’s curiosity became greater than his fear. He wanted to know the mind of God.

When Kepler left Maulbronn in 1589 for university, his genius was at last recognised and leaving the clergy behind he moved to Graz in Austria to teach mathematics. Although a brilliant thinker and writer he was a disaster as a teacher. He mumbled, he digressed and at times was completely incomprehensible.

One summer’s afternoon as his students waited restlessly for the end of the day he made a discovery that would change the course of the rest of his life and the future of astronomy.

There were only six planets known in Kepler’s time; Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Kepler had often asked himself why. Why only six? Why not twenty or a thousand? And why did they have the spacings that Copernicus had deduced? Kepler’s

thoughts went back to the five regular solids of Pythagoras of which each solid had regular polygons as faces. There were five and there could only be five from a simple mathematical proof.

Kepler thought planets and the solids had to be connected. He felt he had found the invisible supports for the spheres of the planets.

But no matter how hard he tried he could not make the solids and the orbits agree. He couldn’t make it work and yet he couldn’t abandon it. Finally he thought that the experimental data he had must be in error.

There was only one man who had access to more reliable data and that was Tyco Brahe, a Danish nobleman who had accepted the post of Imperial Mathematician in the court of the Roman Emperor. Tyco had written to Kepler, inviting him to join him in his work. He knew that he was an experimentalist and needed a theoretician like Kepler to work with him.

Graz was feeling the first tremors of the Thirty Years War. The local Catholic Archduke had vowed to make ‘a desert of the country than rule over heretics’. Anyone not professing the Roman Catholic faith were fined and exiled on pain of death. Kepler chose exile and began the long journey with his wife and daughter to join Tyco.

Tyco Brahe was a flamboyant figure with a gold nose replacing the original which had been lost in a student duel over who was the superior mathematician. Tyco was extremely rich and indulged himself and his entourage of assistants, distant relatives and assorted hangers on, in endless banquets. Tyco needed Kepler, but he was not going to hand over thirty years of painstaking observational data, made with the naked eye, to a potential rival. Kepler detested the constant revelry and longed to work with Tyco as a partner. They frequently quarreled and it was not until Tyco’s death bed, from his overindulgence in food and wine, that he finally handed over his work to Kepler. ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’ he said, and he didn’t. Kepler and Tyco’s collaboration show us that science is that pure combination of dedicated observation and imaginative theory.

So Kepler took Tyco’s data and attempted to resolve the orbit of Mars, which Tyco had said was the most difficult. He fitted a circular orbit of Mars around the sun which agreed with ten of Tyco’s observations within eight minutes of arc. A minute is a very small unit to measure, especially without a telescope.

Kepler could not ignore this error and had to abandon the circular orbit. He played with a variety of ovals and spirals until he was let with what he called, ‘a single cart-full of dung’.

Kepler was the first since Antiquity to suggest that the planets were actual places, like the Earth, made from the imperfect stuff of rocks, liquids and gasses. If the planets themselves were not ‘heavenly lights’, perfect divine beings, perhaps their movements were not perfect too. Such reasoning was essential for Kepler to abandon the idea of the planets moving in the perfect form of a circle.

The concept that elements of the heavens were not perfect went against everything Kepler had come to believe. In fact, he initially rejected the right answer that he had found. Finally he calculated the form of the orbits that conformed to all Tyco’s data: it was the form of the ellipse.

Kepler had found his first law, which is this: A planet moves in an ellipse, with the sun at one focus.

From this he discovered his second law: A planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times.

It was a few years later that his third law of planetary motion was finalised as: The square of the period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the average distance from the sun.

As Kepler was working on his third law, the Thirty Years War had begun during the course of which he would lose his wife and son.

The war was an exploitation of religious fanaticism by those hungry for land and power. Millions of lives were shattered and among the many scapegoats were old women, living alone. Three women were tortured and killed as witches every year in Kepler’s home town. One night his mother was kidnapped in a laundry basket. It took Kepler six years to prove her innocence.

The main piece of evidence against his mother came from one of Kepler’s books. It was probably the first work of science fiction called the Sommnium (the dream), in which he imagined a journey to the moon and to stand on its solid surface, looking up to see

the Earth slowly rotating in the sky.

Kepler imagined correctly the marks on the moon to be craters and mountains and he envisaged the people that might live there. The book was semi-autobiographical; the hero visits Tyco Brahe and has a mother who’s spells are used to transport him to the moon. Kepler knew however that one day men would build ‘celestial ships with sails adapted to the winds of heaven’ navigated by men ‘who would not fear the vastness’ of space.

Kepler wrote his own epitaph: ‘I measured the skies, now the shadows I measure. Sky-bound was the mind, Earth-bound the body rests.’

It is sad that the man who found harmony in the heavens found only discord on Earth. The Thirty Years War obliterated his grave.

Kepler was at heart a true scientist. Although he could never really abandon his Platonic Solids, he preferred the cold, harsh truth rather than his own dearest held illusions.

By looking for an answer to a question, he had come to a conclusion that either the data or his theory was wrong. By testing and checking accurate data he had found that his belief in his earlier theories were wrong and was strong enough to follow the truth to discover a greater reality.

The truth stretched his imagination in a way that falsehoods can’t and in doing so he imagined planets and places and a future for the human race.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see: