Since knowledge is only approximate, the best way to approach truth is through what mathematicians call successive approximation – continue to approach it while tossing aside everything which is not true.  At any point, you have an approximation (within a certain margin of error) of truth.

If we take an ordered and rational approach to finding truth, we can at least make some progress.

This approach is very much like the old story of a great sculptor who was asked how he made such fabulous statues out of a block of marble.  “It’s simple,” he said.  “I just look at the marble and chip away anything that doesn’t look like the model.”

This approach to sculpture (or the search for truth) is simple, but it’s not easy.  The difference is that the method itself is not hard to describe or understand, but in practice it is sometimes very difficult to do.  It’s like the sure-fire method of building a million dollar fortune that starts: first, get a half a  million dollars.

Socrates utilized this method for finding truth – he would wander around Athens asking people questions, then continually analyzing the answers until he found the kernel of truth (if there indeed was one).  Often he would find that the ideas expressed by the people he asked were totally unsubstantiated and not at all well thought out.  Much as we would find today, everyone had an opinion, but most of them were easy to discard as irrelevant.  Needless to say, this did not make Socrates particularly popular, and he was executed for his troubles.

The character of Sherlock Holmes points out to Watson: “Once you have eliminated all other explanations, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the solution.” So it is with our quest.  When we have stripped away everything that we know is not true, whatever is left is a decent approximation of the truth.

This kind of negative definition (i.e., a definition of something by saying what it is not) is unfamiliar and somewhat unsatisfying to the Western ear.  However this is not so in the East.  In the Tao Te Ching (Jane & English translation) Lao Tsu described the Tao in this manner:

Look, it cannot be seen – it is beyond form.

Listen, it cannot be heard – it is beyond sound.

Grasp, it cannot be held – it is intangible.

From above it is not bright;

From below it is not dark;

An unbroken thread beyond description.

It returns to nothingness.

The form of the formless,

The image of the imageless,

It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.

Follow it and there is no end.


We can approach truth only by successive approximation – by eliminating what we know, or can determine, is false.

Imagine searching for a certain pair of socks in a drawer filled with socks.  One method is to root around in the drawer until you find the ones you want – this can take five seconds or five hours depending on your luck.  Another approach is to start taking the socks out of the drawer, look at them, then lay them aside if they are not the ones you want.  If the socks you want are actually in the drawer, this second method guarantees that you will find them eventually.

If we take an ordered and rational approach to finding truth, we can at least make some progress.