The Emergence of the Truth Quest

The four interlinked practices of truth-seeking co-evolved with the appearance of self-reflective consciousness and human culture. As such the practices are intuitively persuasive and widely accessible. Accordingly, they can be found in many traditional wisdom teachings as well as everyday habits of understanding.  

Today, if we consciously cultivate the truth quest as a core political practice, it can become a cultural catalyst, rapidly accelerating both personal self-realization and collective transformation. 

The human search for the best way to live emerged during the nine-tenths of human existence we lived in small, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers, free from the scourges of warfare and slavery, caring for and sharing with one another, in a nurturing wilderness environment. The synergy between fire-making, the development of language and social complexity triggered that leap in self-reflective consciousness which made us fully human. With self-awareness came expanded memory, a blazing imagination, and a realm of individual freedom. As human beings recognized that some choices were obviously better and others worse, they entered a moral dimension of existence. Living in the tension between self-interest, sharing with others and caring for the whole, generated the truth quest. Over time the awareness of good and evil led to the cultural forms of religion, politics, philosophy, and ethics. Humanity recognized itself as Homo sapiens—the species that seeks wisdom.

The Genesis account of creation identifies the discovery of “knowledge of good and evil” with expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the shift to agriculture. The evolutionary story suggests that this discovery occurred tens of thousands of years earlier when humans still lived a nomadic existence and wild nature provided directly for all our needs. It appears that the tension between good and evil intensified dramatically when human crossed another threshold with the emergence of the warring and slave societies of the classical civilizations. 




Each one of us relives aspects of this evolutionary leap into self-consciousness as we grow and wake up inside a story already underway. We are born as wild creatures into a modern family within a structured society, at a place and time not of our choosing. Our personal situation shapes our awareness of the larger realities of which we are part. We live ‘in-between’ what created us and what we create, all the while aware that the ultimate origin and destiny of the human drama are the deepest mysteries.

NASA Hubble Space Telescope captured this Ultra Deep Field view during 841 orbits between 2003-2009 focused on one small patch of empty sky. Combining images revealed approximately 10,000 galaxies more than 13 billion light-years away. Each blur and spot of light is a galaxy containing billions of suns. The James Web Space Telescope has updated this image to reveal additional thousands of galaxies in this frame. This is our big reality.

The Personal Quest

While certainty is impossible, ever-expanding knowledge is essential. Keeping this in mind helps us avoid the murderous absolutes of cults, religious dogmas, and political ideologies. Openness and questioning keep the quest going, generating specific answers to practical questions while adding to and modifying the big picture.  As we reflect on how we learn and grow throughout our lives, we can identify four tightly interwoven practices guiding our search. 


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Mandala by graphic artist Marianne Murphy. Diagram by Cyril Rothenberg.




This involves personal growth as we pass through the stages of life and live out as many of the archetypal human experiences as fully as possible—birth, infancy, adolescence, productive maturity, old age, and the final confrontation with death. Individuation also requires deep reflection upon and integration of these lived experiences. A variety of spiritual and psychological disciplines—inner work—enhances ordering our inner lives. This is expressed in self-knowledge, psychological maturity, and the wisdom of elders. It is also commonly associated with character and integrity. Ultimately, we search for meaning with the totality of our lives. 



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Face-to-face discussion in authentic, honest, open, and empathic relationships. This is the deeper wisdom contained in the so-called Socratic method—dialectics. Face-to-face communication takes us beyond our own direct experience by imaginatively entering the lives and thoughts of others and making their experience part of our own. The back-and-forth of discussion helps us create a shared realm of ‘inter-experience’ which becomes the foundation for authentic relationships and, by extension, a truth-loving community. The practice of honest discussion helps give us the clarity and courage required to talk truth to power with compassion.




Participation in democratic community life. This is expressed in the African concept of Ubuntu, whereby we are constituted, in part, by our connection to others.  Accordingly, our participation in democratic community life sustains mutual care and gives us a societal reality-check. Both are vital for personal growth, honest discussion, and making shared meaning narratives. Every voice needs to be considered in collective decision making. The more democratic and egalitarian the community, the greater the level of trust the more we can create and share wisdom.





The bigger picture gives meaning to the part by relating it to the whole.  As we integrate our own story with the stories and insights of others, we come to share an ever-expanding narrative of meaning which over time becomes an entire cosmology. With this practice every person becomes a truth-seeker and a  lover of wisdom—a philosopher.  The shared story of the evolving whole can bind us into a community of wisdom seekers.

While, the knowledge of materialistic quantitative science is essential to the truth quest, it is woefully insufficient. It cannot, by definition, offer value or meaning which are ultimately rooted in feelings—our emotionally permeated experience. The practices of the quest do exactly this. All work together, informed by the facts and theories of science and history, to give meaning, value and direction to our life-journey. Courage and passion for the quest come from joy in being alive, an encompassing experience of the universe as magnificent, unfathomable and awe-inspiring—the mysterious creation from which we all emerged, and by which we are all sustained.

The Quest in Civilization

About ten thousand years ago the Neolithic, or agricultural revolution marked the beginning of the decline of the nomadic way of life and initiated division of labor and social hierarchy. Roughly five thousand years later, a threshold was crossed and domination intensified with the rise of centralized warrior and slave-based societies. Torture and terror were introduced as additional principles of order. Humanity was traumatized, ‘cast out of the Garden of Eden.’ The quest for a better life intensified. Surplus wealth and specialization amplified the search through the development of writing and then science. But the four practices split apart, and their essential synergy was lost. Hierarchical societies, held together by fear and obedience repressed the growth of the whole person, damaged the moral autonomy of the individual, undermined the democratic dimension of truth-seeking, and constricted the shared vision of the whole. Inevitably such societies became disconnected from reality, fell into chaos, and collapsed. They helped us understand why authoritarianism is inherently stupefying.  

The Last Leap-in-Being—the Axial Age

The religious and spiritual revolutions initiated by the great teachers of the first millennium BCE—Zoroaster, the Hebrew prophets, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and later Christ and Muhammad—responded to self-inflicted suffering and injustice by attempting to recover our lost humanity. Their shared revelations were relatively simple: awe in the face of the mystery of existence and the wisdom fostering qualities of humility, generosity, and loving-kindness. They taught that transformation comes through awareness of our creative participation in the great cosmic order. However, their teachings were inevitably distorted by prevailing systems of domination.  Much of organized religion today still serves social hierarchies, requires blind obedience, worships the text and is hostile to questioning.

The Coming Leap-in-Being

The practices of the quest reappear in times of crisis, openness, and cultural ferment. We see the political possibilities of the quest quite clearly in the creative explosion of the classical Greek polis when the four defining practices were explicitly promoted, although still confined to adult Greek males. 

The Liberal revolutions of the European Enlightenment recovered and elaborated parts of the quest for a literate and scientific elite; but they also produced the urban, industrial, mass societies which isolated the individual and distorted the quest. 

Today the very extremity of our global crisis creates an extraordinary opportunity for creative transformation. Our urgent practical priority is to clarify the truth quest, bring it into the center of our culture, and make it available to all. This would constitute the fulfillment of the unrealized promise of the Axial age and the Enlightenment—an evolutionary leap-in-being through conscious human choice.