Saturday, April 14, 2012

Let Me Tell You the Truth

In writing this essay, I don't really mean to assert that all of these ideas and observations are original or especially profound.  They aren't original, and they are only profound to the extent that they haven't occurred to the reader in the way I express them.  But they are important, and I feel a need to put them forward for the benefit of others.

The main issue at hand is the nature of truth: whether it is absolute or relative; the limits of humanity's ability to perceive it; whether it is wholly external or at least partly internal to the human mind; whether it exists at all.  This is an extremely heady subject, and I don't come at it with the benefit of systematic research, or training in philosophy beyond familiarity with a few famous ideas.  These are my thoughts, whatever they are worth.


Metaphors, Language, and Doubt at Small Scales

We live in a world that is inherently difficult to understand.  Or rather, we seem to be inherently designed to be unable to understand it.  It's a natural human tendency to organize as much knowledge as possible into yes-or-no propositions; we assume that everything can be boiled down to either it is or it isn't so.  And possibly, some things can be.  But the wishful thinking that everything can be seems like the underlying premise of most casual thought.  Given that many things in the experience of our lives cannot be so neatly pared down, it stands to reason that either we or the universe are being obtuse.  Applying my own logic to that line of reasoning, I'm left wondering if both might be the case.

A lot of it seems to be our own fault.  Putting aside our perceptual limitations (because some things could be obviously true, and we simply lack the capacity or perspective to see them), we don't always make things clearer in our attempts to describe the experience of living in the universe.  In a very real sense, we live in a world of abstractions as much as we live in a world of matter.  We give names to ideas and feelings, and treat them in our minds like physical objects.  Of course, we aren't stupid: rationally, we can distinguish between the conditions of a burning bush and a burning romance, because one is literally on fire and the other is only metaphorically so.  But the urge to make metaphors at all seems strange on the surface.  The instinct to accept them as true is even stranger.  If anything, a metaphor is only a truth with an asterisk: "this statement is true if by these elements we are actually referring to other, unspoken elements."

The use of language is the biggest metaphor of all: a system of sounds that stands in for the thinly ordered chaos in our brains.  To put it simply, speaking is a metaphor for thinking; and if language is a metaphor, then even an objective statement of fact must be rendered with an asterisk after every word: the* third* stone* from* the* left* is* more* massive* than* the* other* stones*.  The idea is not complicated or easily misunderstood, but it is possible to interpret each of the words used to express it in more than one way.  If a word has more than one definition, its intended meaning can theoretically be misunderstood; alter some of the intended meanings of those words, and the statement could easily be true or untrue for any group of stones.  It's a good thing for our sanity that we're pretty skilled at deducing meaning from context, because otherwise we'd spend all of our time straining for an impossibly specific description of every mundane occurrence, and still be only half sure of what we were hearing.

I believe it's our facility with words that makes us so keen on metaphors, exaggerations, and other cases of not-quite-truth.  It could be the other way around, and I'm not going to spend much effort arguing that it isn't; the real point is that they are connected.  Our willingness to accept that a word or phrase means a certain thing in one context (for example, "the other stones" means only a given subset of stones, and not every stone that ever existed or will exist) has something to do with our acceptance of metaphors: that a person's blood can boil and that this means something other than superheated fluids scalding that person's veins.  

So what am I going on and on about?  Well, it bothers me a little much that we have such a deep-seated attachment to the idea of absolute truth, when the only means available for expressing truth lies in sound-symbols that cannot be tied to absolute meanings.  Even if thoughts are absolute (and I don't assume they are), if words are not then there's nothing for thoughts to rest on outside of our heads.

Absolute truth must be technical and extremely precise: what does it mean, then, if a certain level of precision is beyond our reach?  It might be said that we're already precise enough that any further distinction would make no difference in our actual perception, and that is probably the case with some matters.  But absolute truth implies the absolute absence of doubt, and this way of looking at things concedes doubt on very small scales.  As a human being, this troubles me, and I can't help wanting to tease the meaning of it out, even if I strongly suspect that it's impossible.

Alternatives, Delusions and Subjectivity

When it comes to efforts at communication between two or more thinkers, we've got this system of grains of sand resting on grains of sand, with nothing firm to act as a final support.  There may be an independent, absolute standard of truth, but it is beyond the ability of language to express it.  For practical purposes then, I suppose that since it is not possible to express an absolute truth, the possibility that such a truth does not exist cannot be ruled out.  Its presence may be taken as an article of faith, but it doesn't have much else to lean on.

There are basically two alternatives to the idea that it can be stated with absolute certainty that some things are always either true or false.  The first is relative truth: some things are true or false depending on context and perspective.  The second is nihilism: truth itself is an erroneous concept and nothing can be said to be true or false in any sense. 

The full implications of nihilism are deeply confusing to me, and most of my thoughts on the subject have been in search of ways to avoid it.  It's easy to fall into an either-or between absolute truth and nihilism, because they are natural opposites and it isn't obvious where the limits of nihilism would lie.  Does it apply only to "truths" about values and morality?  Or does it extend into the seemingly independent physical world as well?  And what, exactly, is the distinction between them?

As I mentioned above, much of what we experience in life and that can rightly be termed a part of our world are not physical objects.  In fact, many of them seem more like delusions that we impose upon an objective world to better suit our psychological natures.  For example, laws are only words, vibrations of sound or symbols on a paper, yet breaking them can lead to the loss of freedom.  "Freedom" is something people are said to have or not have, yet it is described in myriad and contradictory ways.  Even the idea of possession, of "having" something, is more rooted in abstraction than anything objectively physical: a possession can be in your hand or in another state, and you can have something like freedom as easily as you can have a wrench.

In our minds, we conflate these things on a regular basis.  But perhaps "conflation" is the wrong term; it strongly implies that identifying the physical with the imaginary is somehow wrong, and I don't think that's necessarily obvious.  Regardless of whether there is an independent physical reality or not, it doesn't seem to make much of a difference to our minds.  If nihilism applies to value judgments and other intangibles, it may as well apply to tangibles too, as far as our perceptions are concerned.  After all, we can't live anywhere except within our minds.

It's that interweaving of traditionally objective and subjective realities in our perception that leads me to favor the concept of relative truth.  If nihilism is the case (and that may be a contradiction in terms, but I'd go crazy trying to express this any other way) and there is no truth, it can only be the case from a perspective outside the human mind; in other words, from a perspective that no human will ever have.  But if we accept the essential, mental nature of ourselves and our perceived reality at face value, then relative truth gives us a decent model.  It's messy, subject to reinterpretation, and as apparently real as any abstract noun we've come up with; in other words, from our perspective it makes perfect sense.

Relative truth is unsettling, because it embodies the asterisk: inherent to relative truth is the caveat that what is boldly stated is not true without exception, that in another circumstance it might come out differently.  It's the admission that we float over nothingness, without the sense of firm ground to hold us up.  Dwelling on the absence of terra firma is a frightening prospect, especially if we can't tell floating from falling.  But a relative model of truth jibes with our essentially relative perspective on the universe, and if an absolute exists beyond our grasp, the relative may be our best approximation of it.

Human Nature, Intelligence, and Emotion

I suppose what I'm saying in a condensed form is that "the world," the sum of all our possible experiences, is a subjective phenomenon.  The question of whether an objective world, where a thing called absolute truth might be, exists outside of our little bubble it is still open; I don't see how it might be closed.  It's sort of a cliche to imagine we live in a simulation imposed upon us by aliens or robots or gods, but it could just as easily be one we impose on ourselves.  If that were so, then human nature would color the nature of the world we perceive.  I think it's very important, therefore, to figure out what human nature is.

There are a lot of ideas in about what it means to be a human being.  From what I can gather from the ideas I've been circling through, it would seem that to be a human is to be a participant in the shared shaping of perceived reality.  But the most popular way of defining humanity, from before the time of the ancient Greeks to the present day, has been to define us in contrast with animals.  This makes a certain amount of sense, because of all the things we easily observe in nature, animals are the things most like people.  It's easy to see many things which all animals, including humans, have in common; identifying what we have that no other animal has (or perhaps, lack what no other animal lacks) would tell us what makes the human animal unique.

By a wide margin, of all the living things we've found, only humans display the amount of intelligence that we have.  There are other intelligent creatures (some apes, dolphins and birds have mental abilities comparable to a small child), but their potential does not reach as high as ours.  It might also be that we have souls and other animals do not, but this has never been conclusively shown (to say nothing of the fact that a soul is a tricky thing to define).  Our massive intelligence is a much more obvious distinction, and in any case the presence of a soul has historically been connected with the ability to reason, both intellectually and morally.  It may simply be a more spiritual side of the same coin.

However, here I have some difficulties.  Humans are uniquely intelligent among creatures we know about, but that does not make them uniquely intelligent among all creatures that might exist.  Given time and the right conditions, some species of animal could evolve into our intellectual equals.  As far as anyone can tell with science, our intelligence is a function of our brains, which evolved by natural selection the same as any other animal's brains.  It's a remarkable evolution, but not marked by a unique destiny; it just sort of turned out that way.

All of this has led me to think that what is essential about our nature is not what makes us different from the other animals.  We may be different from them, but that is beside the point, and it may be argued that we are more like them than not.  And in any event, we might not be able to fully articulate the differences between us anyway; humans only have the perspective of the human mind, and can't see the world from any other creature's point of view.  Isn't it possible that our true nature is in a more primitive aspect of ourselves, one that we share with the animals?

A professor of mine once told my class something that I quickly accepted as true from my own experience, that humans are not really the rational, intelligent creatures celebrated by classical theories on behavior; rather, we are "emotional creatures who happen to think."  I've debated friends of mine on this point, and found a great deal of resistance to the idea, particularly from people engaged in rigorously intellectual fields like physics and other "hard sciences."  Science works on the basis of unbiased reporting of empirical observation; strong emotional attachments or reactions are not good for this process.  Without wanting to put words in anyone's mouth or turn people into straw men, I think the notion that emotion is primary over intellect may offend some people, or scare them.  Many people are not comfortable with strong emotions; many of those people work in the hard sciences, because an empirical study of the material world provides a comforting sense of control.

I can only speak from my own experience, because I only know my own mind.  I consider myself an intelligent person with a high regard for clear and rational thought.  But I also know that I've been at the mercy of strong emotions my whole life; thinking is something I do, but feeling emotions is more or less something that just happens.  I can put on a neutral face and accept or reject my feelings, but I have no control over their existence; they are a deeply essential part of myself.

Then again, I do not have absolute control over my thoughts, either.  Thinking hard is a lot like driving a car over a field of ice; you can't predict or control every turn the tires make.  Thoughts can be as troubling and persistent as emotions, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between them.

It may not be an either/or proposition.  If humans think, and also feel emotions, then both are obviously integral to the human experience.  But which is primary?  I can't move past that muddled mess of relativism; sometimes one, and sometimes the other.  Sometimes, both at once.  I can't commit to one or the other, and all I sense is an unrelenting tension between them.  It's the same tension that exists between the world as it exists outside of our minds, and the world we actually live in and experience.  It's not possible to say that one is real and one is fake; only that one is right in front of us, and the other is beyond our sight.


When I started writing this essay, I wondered roughly what philosophical camps I might be placing myself into.  I can never be quite sure what philosophy I am actually in line with, because many contradictory ideas seem perfectly reasonable in the moment that I consider them.  Looking back on the threads I've woven here and trying to sum them up, I'm not sure exactly where I fit, but I think I can possibly briefly restate them in a consistent way.

Ultimately, I am agnostic on the question of the existence of absolute truth that is separate from human experience, whether it is material, spiritual or both.  I posit the existence of a reality that is subjective in nature and is made up of a combination of information from our senses and information supplied by our collective imaginations, and that it is this world that we can actually be said to live in.  I believe that the truths of this world are inherently relative, and mirror the tension between our rational and emotional selves.

I cannot say whether there is absolute truth in the world where the information our senses gather originates.  I lack the knowledge to prove whether that world even exists, and if it is the case that it does not exist, then I cannot explain where the information we sense comes from.  But the existence of the subjective world should be obvious; it is the world as it seems to be, consisting of matter and energy and abstract nouns.

Our desire for knowledge of the absolute, and the ability to live our lives with complete certainty of that truth, is probably an expression of the desire to transcend the reality of human life.  Real life is tricky and dangerous and frightening, but the chance to see beyond it to a reality of order and peace, untouched by human imperfection, is almost too much to resist.  But I wonder if we might not be more happy by embracing that imperfection and accepting that truth as we understand it can only be relative.  If nothing else, it opens our world to possibility, and gives us a chance to see things with more open minds.

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