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Month: August 2013 (Page 1 of 2)

Introspection # 25: “What is Truth?”

An integral part of the human experience and the intellectual foundation of human society is the search for ‘truth’. This constant search is universal across the human species – all human societies have developed their own ‘truth’s, in some form of philosophy and understanding of existence. ‘Truth’ is our perception of what is ‘correct’ about existence. That is, ‘truths’ allow us to believe that we have accurately perceived and described existence. Indeed, holding truths and searching for them doing so is integral to living and experiencing life; without a ‘truth’ off of which to base one’s life, life would be meaningless, without direction, and without context. Only through discovering, developing, and understanding ‘truth’ can we hope to explain our surroundings and our life, and by doing so be equipped to provide meaning and value to them. As such, the search for ‘truth’, and ‘truth’ itself, is vitally important to the human experience, and should be studied in order to more fully understand and explain that experience.

What is ‘truth’? ‘Truth’ provides an explanation to the function and reality of existence. It seeks to definitely and accurately describe existence and provide a reason for why it operates as it does. In describing reality, ‘truth’ justifies opinions about and actions in response to that reality. Before we describe ‘truth’ further, we must first discuss the nature of ‘existence’. We know for certain that some sort of reality really does exist, by virtue of the fact that we live within it and can describe and discuss it. We further know that this reality is the same for all people; it is a singular ‘entity’ in which we all experience life. We can describe this reality as ‘absolute’, because as it is the same for all of us and as we all similarly experience it, it must be the same reality that we are all inhabitants of. Furthermore, if we consider this reality to be a single ‘entity’, we can deduce that there is some singular ‘truth’ behind it which enables and dictates the way it functions. We can rule out the existence of multiple ‘truths’ behind reality or multiple ‘realities’ experienced across humanity because reality operates the same across time and space, and can be observed as such. We will discuss this later. Human truths attempt to describe and explain this ‘absolute reality’, but ultimately fail. As humans, we are biologically limited in our capacity to perceive, and thus understand, the universe. We are further limited in our intellectual capabilities, and thus can only develop explanations and understandings of the universe to the greatest degree that our intellect permits.

There is an ‘absolute reality’ and a singular ‘truth’ behind existence, yet humanity has produced a vast and widely varying amount of explanations and conclusions about it, many of which are diametrically opposed. How could this be? This is the result of the fact that there are different ‘types’ of human ‘truths’: ‘subjective truths’ and ‘objective truths’. Both of these are derived from unique cultural circumstances which are manifest in the certain perspectives, opinions, and beliefs. These in turn produce the differing perspectives on the same reality. The difference in these human ‘truths’ is their approach in attempting to explain the world. ‘Subjective truths’ are unquantifiable; they cannot be measured or detailed in an empirical manner. Without this empirical basis, which produces an universal explanation that describes reality in equal accuracy across time and space,  these ‘truths’ thus do not explain the world in a manner that transcends the cultural circumstances in which they were produced.  These ‘truths’ thus, unsurprisingly, are unique to the culture which produced them. As a result of their inability to be empirically proven, these ‘truths’ cannot be disproven. It is these ‘truths’ which often form the basis behind social philosophy, religion, government, and other explanations for human-constructed systems which cannot be quantifiably described. The other type of ‘truth’ is ‘objective truth’, which can be quantified, is thus empirical, and thus can be disproven. As it is quantifiable and empirical, these ‘objective truths’ transcend culture, space, and time; they describe reality in equal accuracy no matter the context, time, or place. ‘Objective truths’ include scientific explanations for reality, which can be universally accepted and described across cultures and also disproven and replaced with a new, more accurate understanding of reality.

The existence of ‘subjective truths’ explains how so many differing and opposed descriptions and explanations for reality exist for the same ‘absolute reality’ in which we live. ‘Objective truths’ are the truths which contribute to a greater human knowledge on existence which is, as it transcends culture, the domain of all humanity. By better understanding how these truths operate, what produces them, and how they are formulated, we can better understand how people explain existence and perhaps begin to develop better systems to accurately describe and understand reality. The quest for ‘truth’ will last so long as humanity is curious about the world around it and its own existence and nature. Developing an explanation for reality will require a combination of universal ‘objective truths’, which are necessary to accurately and empirically understand our universe, and ‘subjective truths’, which provide us as the individual with a direction and meaning for existence which coincides with our own cultural norms, standards, and beliefs.

Introspection # 24: “On Relativism”

In earlier discourse on the character and nature of culture, it was determined that culture serves as the foundational basis for the majority of our thoughts, perceptions, beliefs, and values. We are conditioned by the culture we live in to accept its norms and follow its standards. As such, we can consider ourselves the products of our culture; everything we have learned and experienced is gained and perceived through a lens which has been taught to us and shaped by our local environment – the society which has been produced off of cultural standards. In this way, we are fundamentally different in our perception and understanding of reality, of existence, than people from other cultures, because the differences between them are manifest in different values, beliefs, norms, and ideas. These differences are natural and indeed should be expected, as different opinions on the same subject will produce different resulting actions. Yet it is important to remember that there is no inherent ‘better’ opinion, as all cultures are equally the product of historical development and the process of accumulating and refining thought, and though they might arrive at different conclusions there is no way to empirically and objectively rank or provide value to those conclusions.

Cultural relativism, as this philosophical perspective is often termed, can be considered an ’empty’ philosophy in that, it is argued, it does not provide any tangible benefit or forward contribution to understanding reality. It posits that values and norms cannot be judged against each other, as they are the unique product of unique circumstances anynm  nd don’t hold any inherent value above or below one another. Accordingly, philosophies cannot be judged for merit, and thus no philosophy can be held to a higher standard than another. This, in turn, makes choosing and defining philosophies to guide our own lives a difficult, if not impossible task – if all philosophies are of the same merit, then why choose any over the other? It is also a dangerous proposition – if all philosophies are of the same merit, then the ones which have manifested themselves in destruction and repression, such as Nazism and racism, are equally valuable as those which have brought about peace and freedom, such as humanism and liberalism.

Perhaps viewing the world through a relativistic lens makes it difficult to differentiate between philosophies in terms of ‘value’ and ‘merit’, but it opens the philosopher to a much wider understanding of the world of knowledge and the understanding of experience. It is a philosophical tool in the philosopher’s toolbox which enables him to remove the subjective judgments we levy upon philosophy, such as what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, and instead focus on the nature of that thought and its explanation for the universe’s phenomena. By doing so, we are able to understand the world as it is seen through the eyes of all humankind instead of the world as we see it through our own cultural and philosophical perceptions. When we consider other philosophies and hold them to a higher or lower regard than our own, we are essentially making it impossible to sympathize with, and thus understand, the perspective held by those who hold that other philosophy. They hold those beliefs for the same reason and through the same process of cultural conditioning that we hold our own; in essence, though the philosophies are different, the fact that belief is held is universal. Considering the universality of belief and applying an understanding that we ourselves exist in just one of many cultures producing their own unique perspective on the world is integral to cultural relativism, and is integral to expanding our own ontological understandings.

I also reject the notion that cultural relativism is a ‘conversation stopper’, a ‘dead-end’ philosophy which posits nothing but narrows the capacity of the philosopher to approach, understand, and judge the world. As I just explained, if anything it makes the world of knowledge a broader and richer place, as all philosophies regardless of what they are can be seen in the same light and understood to the same degree. It also teaches us a vital and, in these current times, perhaps necessary lesson: not all logic, not all explanations, and not all systems apply consistently across different cultures. As different cultures hold different explanations for and perspectives on things, we cannot expect our own to mesh well into theirs. We cannot expect others to accept or even understand our logic and reasoning behind things if they are born and raised in a culture which is different in its approach to them. We equally cannot expect our forms of politics and governmental systems, themselves the product of culture and philosophical thought, to apply to other cultures. In an era of burgeoning liberal democracies and spreading liberalism in the form of capitalism, we should be wary of expecting our democratic form of government to work perfectly in another society. This is not to say that other societies are unprepared for democracy or, if they reject it, are inherently wrong or bad; rather, this means that we live in a culture designed and conditioned to accept and be able to operate under such a system, but not all necessarily are. This is just one of the countless differences in cultures across the globe that we have come to recognize.

Lately, I have come to appreciate the relativistic mindset more and more. Coupled with an interest in philosophy and history, it has broaden the scope of my introspection and reflection on existence and has enabled me a wider perspective on the development of human thought. By regarding each culture and the beliefs they hold as unique, and regarding every belief as inherently equal in value and merit, has shown to me the breadth of human understandings on the universe and the ways in which different perceptions, often diametrically opposed, can arise to answer a single question. Relativism has also made me less arrogant in my own beliefs; if I can recognize that my values are only mine by virtue of the environment in which I was raised, I can be more receptive to listening to, understanding, and perhaps even accepting different perspectives. It is through this that all human knowledge has been shared and developed.

Introspection # 23: “Thoughts on Philosophy”

What is philosophy? Simply put, it is our attempt, as humans, to explain the world around us. Philosophy is anything and everything that seeks to provide an answer to, or even consider, some question. As a result, philosophy as a field encompasses all human thought and all human explanations – law, religion, culture, even science are all fundamentally philosophies. Our personal philosophies and the philosophical viewpoints held by our society and governments form the basis of our everyday lives: they provide us a direction and a meaning for everything that we do and experience. As such, they are vitally important to us; without them, we would have no basis for our society, our culture, or ourselves.

Yet it is also important to remember that we are profoundly shaped by our environment. This touches upon the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate – are humans more shaped in their thoughts by their environment, what they were exposed to when raised and what they are exposed to through life, or by their nature, the fundamental and inherent qualities and characteristics of the human creature? Many different perspectives on which is more important in forming our beliefs and our values – nature versus nurture- have been put forth. In response to them, I believe it is of importance to recognize that we are the products of our place and time. Consider yourself and the people you know… chances are most likely that they believe in a set of values and beliefs which are common, or at least not uncommon, in your culture and society. For example, Americans tend to put faith in the philosophical principles behind representative democracy, value the principles of liberty and freedom, and are rooted in a worldview that is likely built off of Classical and Christian thought. Yet most Americans today do not harbor a deep hatred and fear of communism and do despise slavery, both values which were once prominent in our society. This is evidence of the fact that our beliefs, and in turn worldviews, are shaped by our environment. If we learn about what to and how to believe from the people around us, then it is no large surprise that our local environment profoundly influences the development of our ways of thought. If we still lived with a ‘Cold War’ mentality or in a world where slavery was not abolished, it is entirely possible that we may still fear the specter of communism and support the enslavement of other people as core, personal values.

This leads to a serious question: if our values are the product of the environment in which we live, then what would they be if we lived in a different time, place, or course of history? If we lived and were raised in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, would we believe in the values of Nazism? Chances are we would, as the people who were raised and lived in that place and time largely did. If we lived in a world where history was radically altered, fundamentally changing the development of our thought, might we believe things that are diametrically different from our current ones? Again, if our values are the product of our place and time, then chances are we would. If Christianity or Islam never became the prominent religions that they did in our history, would so many people root their worldviews in their tenets? Probably not, and we can see this by the fact that other religions which no longer exist, such as Hellenistic paganism, were once followed as faithfully by large populations as modern religions are today.

Considering that our values would change in a different environment, what does this mean about the inherent ‘truth’ of our values? We consider our worldviews and beliefs as fundamental, ‘self-evident’, and “true”… if we did not, then they would be incapable of providing answers and guidance.  But if our values are so easily changed, and if we could as easily hold absolutely opposite values if we were raised in a society that was opposite to ours, then there does not appear to be any inherent truth or value to those beliefs. This leads us to another consideration: is there anything inherent about things that are the product of human thought? If humans were not around to think said things, then they would not exist. We as humans give meaning and value to our beliefs; it is necessary if we hope to live any sort of life with direction or meaning to us. If we were unable to give value to something, would there be any value to it? If we could not give meaning to something, would it have any inherent meaning? No…all meaning ascribed to the world around us is done through the human mind and is thus the product of the human mind. If humans were not around to think of philosophies and create philosophical beliefs, these beliefs (which accordingly would not exist) would not have any meaning or truth. Thus, we can argue that no philosophy has an inherent truth, and thus no philosophy is inherent superior or inferior to another.

Of course, this is a dangerous perspective. It places Adolf Hitler into the ranks of Mother Teresa… if neither of the philosophical foundations which formed their worldviews had any superiority or inferiority to each other, then both of their worldviews and thus their actions would be equally condemnable and condonable. As I had said earlier, we humans ascribe value and meaning to things and to thought. It is important to consider that, although the beliefs we hold may not inherently be more or less ‘true’ than any other, and even if we hold them only by virtue of our living in an environment which espoused them, we hold and believe in them nonetheless. As humans, we make meaning out of our philosophies like we do the rest of the world, and thus those we hold have a more ‘true’ meaning to us as individuals. This, in turn, allows us to question, disagree with, and thus oppose philosophies which differ from our own.

Still, the recognition that philosophical thought might not inherently have meaning or truth to it is an important one. It enables us to view all human thought in an impartial, removed manner; this allows us as philosophers and students of thought to more deeply and comprehensively question and understand thought from across the world and across time. By not trying to decide how ‘good’ or how ‘correct’ or how ‘true’ a philosophy may be, we can study the characteristics of that philosophy in a much more objective and perhaps insightful manner. It additionally allows us to remove our own perceptions on philosophy and our personal beliefs from the equation, and therefore better appreciate and attempt to understand opposing philosophies from our own. This recognition has given us a new lens to view philosophy through, and thus adds to the tool-set we as philosophers posses in our attempt to make sense of the world.

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