The Truth is Out There: Pragmatism and The X-files

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 7 Comments

It occurred to me the other day that the American Philosophy of Pragmatism shares some remarkable similarities with the television series The X-files. Let’s start with the TV show’s moto – “the truth is out there.” If you never saw the show it revolves around two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully, a man and woman who are assigned to cases that explore unusual and often paranormal circumstances. Mulder is obsessed with discovering the truth about UFO’s and he is convinced that “the truth is out there” waiting to be found.

Each week the pair, Mulder eagerly and Scully with less enthusiasm, would track down the solution to some bizarre case. Inevitably their efforts would solve the case, but always in a way that would leave you with more unanswered questions than you started with. No matter how many questions were answered there was always more mystery and uncertainty. Through nine seasons Mulder’s faith that the “truth is out there” never waned. Every week he attacked each new case with the same innocent enthusiasm as if the truth was right around the next corner.

This sounds to me remarkably like the American Philosophy of Pragmatism. Like Mulder, the Pragmatists believed that the truth was out there. And like Mulder and Scully the truth was never in hand and always around the next corner.  That is because the philosophy of Pragmatism rests on a foundation of what Charles Sanders Peirce called Fallibilism. Fallibilism is the understanding that no matter what we think we know it will never be the whole truth. Peirce realized, as did his friend William James, that the truth was out there, but it was much bigger than we could assume we knew with certainty.

As scientists Peirce and James both realized that our understanding of reality is created through a process of sampling.  Peirce worked for the coast guard making maps of the ocean floor. The way you determine the shape of the ocean floor is by determining the depth of the ocean at different places. You drop a weighted line into the water from a ship and record how far the line goes down before it hits bottom. Then you move the ship and do it again, and again, and again. From all of these measurements of depth you can create a topographical map of the ocean floor.

The accuracy of your map always depends on the number of depth measurements you are able to take and how close together they are. That is your sample size. If you take a measurement every few miles your map will not be very accurate. If on the other hand you take a measurement every few feet you will create a very accurate map.

If our objective is to create a map of reality, what kind of sample are we talking about? Obviously the sample of reality that we have access to is limited by the constraints of our physical senses and our minds. Human bodies are only able to perceive through those means – maybe there is a lot more to reality than what can be perceived in human form. In fact, forget the maybe, advances in technology have already shown us that there is more. We have discovered sounds beyond what the human ear can hear, light that the human eye cannot see, and an atomic universe far smaller than we can feel with human skin. How much more reality is there beyond what even our machines can tell us about? We are one species of animal, on one planet, in an immense expanse of time and space. We have five senses and one mind to work with. Thinking that we know what is ultimately real is like thinking we can map the entire ocean floor after having dropped only a few weighted lines.

The Pragmatists wanted to leave a great deal of space around what might ultimately be found to be real and at the same time they never lost their faith in the fact that “the truth is out there” – that indeed “something” is ultimately real. There is a reality and it can be known. But we are safest to assume that what we currently know is the tip of the iceberg of truth while never losing our spirit for inquiry.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Rit
Rit
10 years ago

Another X-file notable quotable is “I want to believe.”

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

‘Maybe there is a lot more to reality than what can be perceived in human form’ Reading this blog I had to think about the brilliance of Einstein which became more clear reading Green’s book about the cosmos. Many great names are mentioned, but most of them have ONE great discovery, while Einstein is in the beginning, in the middle and even much towards the end (of what we know now). He absolutely is the personification of a person who could literally constantly cross the line of what reality is..I of course learned before about cosmoslogy but I never knew… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

I would like to beat the same tree as Liesbeth and introduce to you Albert Einstein in a way which will surprise you ! In those two excerpts, one can see that the creativity of a Genius like him follows some laws which are quite fascinating [ Einstein is not the only one, basically many creative scientists were like him and found some unexpected source for their creativity]. MY view is that the X file’s technique to find anything new is just the “after the fact way of addressing the discovery”. For the real time discovery to happen, some very… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

What I mean Jeff, is that the first attraction of a scientists is that indeed Truth is out there. BUt if he /she believe it is not attainable, and if he/she never succeeds to reach and absolute certainty about Truth, there would have been no Science. The nature of this absolute certainly is ,to me where Ideas touch the Sacred, where ideas touch God. It is a certain kind of spiritual self-confidence. If not for it, we are still in flat New Age land, like the X file seem to imply. The philosophy behind the X file departs from the… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Well, with Tesla, it is a bit different, and as usual completely unexpected. Ok I post it although it is a bit out of subject here. But it shows as well the power of ideas, and of True certainly that emerge from them. From tesla’s auto biography : “The moment one constructs a device to carry into practice a crude idea, he ( one ?) finds himself unavoidably engrossed with the details of the apparatus. As he goes on improving and reconstructing, his force of concentration diminishes and he loses sight of the great underlying principle. Results may be obtained,… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Finally I feel the tesla post is even more on target. Somehow Tesla makes a virtual map of his device, a perfect one. He is able to construct the true way his invention is working , directly in his mind, to run it , to test it directly in his mind, because the laws that govern his device are already in his mind, already perfect. Isn’t it amazing, and completely counter current with our post modern attitude of “touching” everything ? Einstein was the same type, he was an adept of thought experiment. now here is my pragmatic question :… Read more »

IntegralDreams
IntegralDreams
10 years ago

This is amazing and inspiring Jeff.. to think that there is always more to discover, always something to uncover around every bend and corner – makes you want to keep your eyes open + rooted in the perspective that life is never dull.. Thank you for this!