Truth and Story
"Truth hurts" — GM Ben Finegold
I want to write about something deep and subtle. Something I’ve been thinking about for, possibly, my whole life. My twitter bio has been “In search of truth and good stories to tell” for many years now. So… there. (?)
I recently understood something important and I want to make my best effort to put it into words. This might be the biggest takeaway from the last 2 years I spent off social media, and has brought me back to it.
The key idea is: searching for truth and building stories is a false dichotomy.
I know, yet another false dichotomy. Life is what happens between discovering one false dichotomy and the next.
The origin of that confusion, for me, lies in my personal history with epistemology. In concrete, my departure from religion in my early 20s, possibly cemented by reading Harari’s “Sapiens”, which presents storytelling as a technology built by human evolution to coordinate ourselves. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
The first hint I found lies in the classic status-seeking gamification of society. Naval Ravikant talks a lot about status games vs value building as career advice. I prefer to think about this as building status vs building mastery.
Lone geniuses build cool stuff in the silence of their lair. Extraverted sociopaths just go to networking events and build a reputation out of charisma. Then there’s a huge in-between of most of us who try to do something interesting with our lives AND strive to at least be able to communicate it with some other humans. It’s easy to look down on people clearly playing status games. I mean, they seem to be just stroking their egos, right? Who in their right mind boasts about their own achievements in public? Who seeks to virtue signal instead of actually building virtue? From contempt at finding these behaviors in myself, during my adolescence I slowly drifted towards rationality, science, math, and embracing criticism.
During my first trip out of my home country (Argentina), I travelled to the exotic (to me) India, for an internship at a tech company. I was 19 then, and deep into catholic religion.
Now in India, during a weekend trip to the fantastic temple-city of Hampi, I made a memory that would become vividly imprinted in my brain for life: a monk was gently sweeping the floor in front of a cow (sacred in India), just to kinda clear the dirt for the deity. Suddenly, the cow started peeing, and the monk left the broom on the floor, and put his hands under the torrent of cow piss. He then proceeded to wash his hands and face with cow pee. I swear I’m not making this up.
I don’t mean to disrespect Indian culture, but let me say this was very shocking for me to see. Actually, what really shocked me the most was seeing the man’s face: he had an ecstatic expression and a huge heart-warming smile. But I knew that face from somewhere! The monk’s expression was the same as that of devout christians in the first rows of mass during the climax of consecration of bread and wine. I knew this because I played the guitar in congregations for many years, and I saw the people in the first rows.
I stood there in shock under the scorching Indian summer sun. I couldn’t stop thinking about this for days.
Needless to say, I ended up quitting religion. It took me some years to process the experience, but via introspection and talks with good friends, I realized believing in one particular religion just because I was born in it made not much sense.
A few years later, reading Harari’s “Sapiens”, I finally had found a theoretical framework to understand my intellectual journey! Religion, along with other myths (like nation states), were just an evolutionary stable strategy that biological life had found to organize large groups of individuals. Homo Sapiens is just a monkey with the capacity to invent and believe in stories. Stories that touch us deeply and move us to cooperate and shape the world.
Stories which, to me, became the enemy. Viral memes that could infect my mind and cause me to behave irrationally. I redoubled my trust in science, and truth-seeking above all. Truth was my way out of mind-bending stories. Truth was a beautiful thing.
Some years passed and, long story short, I suddenly found myself building a company. Those were crazy, crazy years of my life, with not much introspection or reflection about what I was doing, or how. I’ve only really had the chance to grok my OpenZeppelin years once I left the company and took a sabbatical from work in 2020. We were mostly running at full speed and pushing everything forward, trying to ride the wave of Ethereum growth without falling off the surfboard. Learning by doing, leaving processing feelings and understanding “for later”.
During those years I think is when I was able to witness the huge power of stories in bringing people together. But I didn’t think about it that way…
At OpenZeppelin, we were part of a global movement. We were building an unstoppable machine. We were fighting a fight worth fighting. Beating the system by sheer determination. Learning as we went, taking the road less traveled by. Building a fair financial system, out of the claws of corruption.
Actually believing in this narrative, and living accordingly, made it possible to hire the best talent, work very hard, and achieve truly amazing things. It also made us forgo our family life, burnout a little, and become just a tad obsessive.
I definitely saw, first-hand, the power of a great narrative. I learnt the craft of building one, too. I used Twitter to tell our story with an authentic, and I think unique voice, and it worked wonders in giving us momentum. It felt great going to conferences and having people come say hi and thank us for our work. However, I couldn’t help having a nagging feeling inside that complained: narrative is story, not truth! Am I nurturing lies? What is truth when you’re walking unexplored territories?!?
Leaving social media for 2 years did wonders to my brain. I cannot stress this enough, though I already hate myself for sounding too preachy. Let me just say that I re-found the power to think very deeply like when I was in college. A power I thought I’d lost due to “getting old”.
Being 2 years away from dopamine hits, algorithmic mindspaces, and having my emotions tossed around by the waves of “current things” or trending topics, allowed me to build my own intellectual agenda, and study some things deeply. During this time, I also moved away from the city and to less populated semi-rural areas. Less stimuli, more time reading, less distractions, more a-ha moments, less social life, more time in nature. I found some truly awe-some ideas. I became obsessed with truth again. I found it increasingly difficult to communicate my ideas with others. I found myself often bored in group conversations, and having trouble empathizing with interest in “mundane” topics such as fútbol, politics, entrepreneurship, the news, or even technology. I started accumulating resentment for my inner storyteller once again.
With time, I got a sense that just following my curiosity left an undefined emptiness inside. By following my curiosity and searching for truth above all, I was strengthening my own understanding, but not a building shared understanding. I was having trouble weaving meaning into the things I did and the stuff I learnt. My knee-jerk rejection to storybuilding and narrative was playing against myself. Yet again, I found that growing “out of” something made me overshoot to the other extreme.
With recent advances in AI, I’ve lately spent quite a bit of time finally catching up with the tech. I believe we’re close to a moment I’ve been dreaming of since I’m a teenager: the singularity is near. So, approximately a year ago I dove deep into the technical details of deep learning, with the goal of eventually dominating this tech stack. If the singularity is coming, I want to live through it first-row, I don’t want other people to tell me what is going on.
With the passing months, and the ever accelerating rate of releases, I found a new feeling growing: angst. But why was I sad, or even affected? I was doing everything I could to understand deeply what was going on, even on a technical level! And I had been expecting the singularity since I was 15!
The problem, in fact, was that I was understanding, but I couldn’t project my own story into the future. The singularity was coming and I was prepared, but I didn’t know what it all meant for me. Personally, for my family, friends and loved ones.
I still don’t know what it means. That’s why we need story.
Everything clicked when I read this sentence from Byung Chul Han’s “Contemplative Life: A Praise to Idleness”:
Those who act with determination do not contemplate.
Something about the choice of words hit me very personally: During my startup years, friends sometimes said my superpower was “determination”.
Seeing this crude reality stated so elegantly made me realize: it’s true, but it’s not the end of the story…
This is how I understand the interplay of truth and story today:
Truth gives rise to power.
Stories give rise to meaning.
We need both.
Finding truth is hard, lonesome, and a serious business. But the rewards are huge: control over nature, understanding, predictive power. Weaving narratives is fun, a group activity, and makes our lives make sense. It’s the only way we answer “why” questions, the most important ones.
All good stories have deep truths within them, just not at the superficial level.
All truths are discovered in the context of a story, which we now call the scientific paradigm.
Truth alone, without story, is meaningless. It’s just dispersed information, a mere addition of data points.
Story alone, without truth, is bland. It’s just a sequence of connected events with no substance.
We, humans, need both to thrive.
We seek truth to structure meaning and we build meaning to accept truth.
People who are unbalanced towards truth will often say “life has no real meaning, we make it up”, which is, ironically, true.
People who are unbalanced towards story will often say “There is no objective truth”.
I finally found myself at peace with this: truth and story are two sides of the same coin. As a human, I’ll always seek understanding and to build meaning.
This all might sound obvious to you, but it took me many years to discover. And I’m so glad I did. It feels like the scientist and the storyteller in me can finally be friends :)
V. Final Words & a “Poem”
While I was writing this post, I found an old draft from some time ago where I was struggling with this same topic. Unable to think about it more clearly to be explicit, I had written a “poem” / “"”rap””” (the excessive quotes mean: don’t take it seriously) to at least dump my brain somehow. Here it is, hope you enjoy it:
Press play and continue reading, if you please.
on this theme and failed far too many times.
This is my attempt to hint at the topic
without being explicit. I hope you enjoy it.
For all of my life I've been searching for truth.
And later with years I have learnt to build stories.
Stories to empower, inspire, connect, and explain.
Truth to accept, predict, transcend, and control.
This, after a while, got a little confusing.
It's just so damn hard to distinguish the two.
Say, what is the truth but yet another story?
And, what is a story but a well hidden truth?
So I wrote on a paper, and kept it at hand.
The ways I had found to dig truth and make stories:
I seek to reject senseless tradition,
in light of new evidence, brought by experiment.
I vow to accept that down in their roots
tradition holds nuggets of deep ancient truth.
I praise the symbolic, with prismatic power.
I touch the concrete, and can learn from its texture.
In thought I can gather the most precious silver.
In actions I muster secrets of experience.
That science holds power to build explanations
But can never tell how it is we see color.
Through all of these paths I could found new religions.
From mind and emotion I sense what the path is.
I see that in myth we can tackle the endless,
And endlessly blind we can follow the rabbit.
In elegance finding the magic of simple,
In practical matters the roughness of fractal.
And what is it then that we seek to discover?
The genius, the explorer, the mystic, the lover.
In knowing that truth hurts, why *do* we keep searching,
and stories we die for keep blooming in mindspace?
Here's to the great storytellers.
For they can fill their peer's hearts.
Here's to the true truth seekers.
Only they know what it means to be truly alone.
This was a long one! Thanks a lot for reading, really. If you liked what you read, consider subscribing below:
Additional Resources and Further Reading
- Truth is a beautiful thing album by London Grammar
- The Secret of Psalm 46 by Brian Moriarty
- Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn
- “Dancing With The Gods” by Eric S. Raymond
- “End Poem” by Julian Gough
Cover photo by MidJourney. Music by Dontcry x Nokiaa. Thanks to Lemu for reading an early draft of this post.