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Dec 15 2005

Truth in Art and Science

In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005 playwright Harold Pinter spoke of Art, Truth, and Politics. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here. I strongly recommend watching it.)

He says:

In 1958 I wrote the following:

‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.

But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection – unless you lie – in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.

Reading and listening to Pinter’s words, I was wondering if what he said about the relationship of art to truth applies to science and truth too. At first blush, it seems no. We tend to believe that science can tell the difference between what is real and what is unreal, between what is true and what is false.

But a close examination of the nature of scientific development says that it is not so easy. While science is evolving and becoming more effective and successful in controlling the environment, its relationship to truth is also ‘forever elusive.’ We march forward but we are not sure if truth is the reward that awaits us at the end or indeed if there is an end at all. But like the artist, we cannot stop in the search for truth. (These ideas are explored in depth in my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs.)

In Pinter’s words about political language, I hear echoes of some things George Orwell said in his essay Politics and the English Language. But whereas Orwell became somewhat compromised later in life, becoming effectively a propagandist for the British government and even becoming an informant to the British government on ‘crypto-communists,’ Pinter’s vision and burning desire to speak truth to power seems to becoming even purer and more uncompromising with advancing age. It is clear that he is a man who does not care what powerful people think of him. He is going to speak the truth, come what may. In the end, that is the only real gift a writer has to offer.

The great American journalist I. F. Stone recognized that speaking truth to power means that you become a pariah in the circles of power and he said that journalists should desire this. Stone said:

To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you’re brighter than anybody else is – or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they’ve got you!

This explains a lot about the pusillanimity of the current crop of big media journalists who, unlike Stone, crave access to the political powerful and want to be invited to their parties. Pinter, on the other hand, is clearly someone who also thinks the label of pariah is a badge of honor. I am not sure if Pinter and Stone were friends, but it is hard to imagine them not hitting it off.

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