The half-life of truth

In The fragility of evil I said:

“The Third Reich, like any other regime or institution built atop of inhumane ideologies and practises, stinks of what Taleb calls fragility. Such regimes and cultures are always built upon unstable foundations, upon the suppression of truth, on the beating down of natural human drives and instincts and desires, on actions that prioritise short term gain over long term survival. That’s why they never endure. Because lies are vulnerable to disorder. Because society wide suppression weakens with the passage of time. Because the longer a people is held down, the more likely it becomes that someone amongst the oppressed will stand up and fight back.”

What I had latched onto was the idea that evils and untruths have a definite half-life. Some survive longer than others but all eventually fall to the assault of time. What I had not realised is that truths have a definite half-life too.

A person discovering a truth in their twenties has to re-discover the salience of that truth in their forties—as they learn and grow and forget, the truth fades and must be brought back into focus. Similarly, human collectives have to re-discover the truths of the recent and distant past. Consider this from Stephen Erikson’s Dust of Dreams:

“ ‘Ever had a child, Silchas? I thought not. Giving advice to a child is like flinging sand at an obsidian wall. Nothing sticks. The brutal truth is that we each suffer our own lessons–they can’t be danced around. They can’t be slipped past. You cannot gift a child with your scars–they arrive like webs, constricting, suffocating, and that child will struggle and strain until they break. No matter how noble your intent, the only scars that teach them anything are the ones they earn themselves.”

We can transmit certain lived experiences and gained knowledge, but others—the scars of truth concerning the human condition and its trajectory—must be cut into the flesh of each new generation, individually and collectively.

Untruths have a half-life—they perish eventually. But so do truths. And civilisation relies on the half-life of the former being less than the half-life of the latter.