This short essay is about knowledge. Most of it was originally written in response to comments posted on an interent discussion list concerning truth, self, standards and reality. Many people sincerely believe there to be an absolute, objective standard by which humans should act, based on some "truths" they claim to have discovered. This essay is a rebuttal of that position. I do not claim that it is comprehensive, but these issues go to the very core of human knowledge, and especially the most important question, "How do you know?".
Essentially, this essay addresses what I think is the inherent bias and subjectivity of all human knowledge. If there is some absolute truth out there (which I do not deny), it is only partially knowable, because our senses to perceive it are so imperfect and limited. My conclusion is that approximate "truths" are good enough for everyday life, and that honest humility is an attitude more likely to produce better "truths" than the arrogance of those who think they can tell others how they ought to live their lives.
I don't care about metaphysical, scientific or religious "truths;" I care about making my life better. I don't need "truth" to do that; only a reasonably workable understanding of myself and the physical and social environment from which I came (and upon which I depend). As my understanding of these two things (self and environment) increases through additional experience, I can change myself to have a happier life. I've learned it's a lot easier and more satisfying to change myself than to try to change the obsolete, coercive monopolies that falsely claim to represent me (traditional governments).
Everything I have learned about my environment tells me that it is incredibly rich, complicated, and awesome. I can only speculate about some of the more esoteric aspects of it such as the size of the universe, the similarity between atomic structure and solar systems, and the evolution of this thing we tentatively call "life."
In the areas of law, science, religion, politics, dog training and human behavior, my experience has taught me that practically every man-made rule I ever learned has at one time or another been broken. I have come to reject absolute thinking, since I see it as a way of limiting options. I have also discovered that creativity is expressly non-rational. To be more creative, I must suspend "reality" and "rationality," at least for a while. I choose to do this because it makes my life much richer than sticking with past dogma and "logical-only" ways of thinking. As an engineer, this understanding was difficult for me to learn. I'm glad I did - I don't want to end up like Mr. Spock (logical without emotion).
People who seek "truth" and "absolutes" usually limit their thinking to one particular kind, and reject others. This is fine with me, until the "truths" they claim to have discovered are used by other, less principled, people to control my life. As in religion, the claim to have found a universal "truth" of human behavior is an intoxicating narcotic for someone obsessed with control and power over others. The traditional concept of "God" is such a "truth." (see related essay on Spinoza's God - link below).
Seeking absolutes is, in effect, seeking a religion - something that will not change so you can always count on it. This is very comforting to people who can't deal with change and uncertainty. But even the universe itself is changing, and to some extent we can consciously control it. However, as with the discovery of nuclear power, we have to be careful, lest our new knowledge ends up destroying us. If our social institutions fail to keep up with our technology, then we simply die out and another species takes over. Let's be careful out there!
I perceive myself as a distinct entity. I do not understand this entity very well, but I call it self, because that is what others before me called it. And so far, that word hasn't been changed by common usage to mean something other than what I understand it to be. When and if that occurs, I might choose another word to describe my self.
- I think, but I do not understand this process.
- I sense, through various inaccurate devices.
- I live, but do not understand fully what life is.
- I "know" certain things from my past experience.
I also perceive that there is a world outside myself. Most of my life has been spent trying to understand this outside thing. Since my life depends on this outside environment (indeed, I am part of it), I must deal with it constantly, in the form of people, physical topography, weather, danger and other things. My body has needs, which I have learned to satisfy. Some of these, like food, water and air, are necessary for my conscious existence. I know from experience if I do not have these things, I will die. Since I haven't died, I cannot be absolutely certain of this, but I have seen enough evidence of other people dying from the lack of these things that I believe I will die without them.
My understanding of "human nature," if there is such a thing, is necessarily limited by my particular experience and point of view. I probably cannot know "human nature," except in this biased way. Defining certain average characteristics as "human nature" is of very little consequence to a single individual who does not exhibit these average tendencies. This is what racism and other forms of intolerance are all about.
Three statisticians went deer hunting. The first shot a yard to the left of a deer. The second shot a yard to the right. "BULLSEYE," said the third.
Some rules about humans we have yet to find exceptions for. For example, we must eat to live, and the things we eat must have once been alive. However, we are just now beginning to understand that it is the particular chemical elements from living things that we need, and not some magic associated with life. So, it might be possible in the future for us to live without killing other living things. Since this universal "truth" for which there has never been an exception may not be true at some time in the future, it is not an absolute truth. Like anything we perceive through our senses, knowledge of anything tangible is most likely incomplete, and therefore inaccurate. This suggests humility instead of arrogance, if we are interested in expanding our knowledge.
If there is a particular human nature, nothing in the universe says it can't be changed. In fact, that's what evolution is all about. Whatever human nature is, it is not a fixed entity, any more than dinosaurs were guaranteed to live forever. The evolution of human culture has produced change much more rapidly than the slow, genetic change of previous evolution. Consequently, any theory about what human nature is must deal with its evolving nature, and not set it in stone like an unalterable "truth."
Ayn Rand's opinion is Ayn Rand's opinion ("A" is "A").
I am aware of certain mystics with mental powers I do not understand who can control their breathing and metabolism to a degree that seems impossible to most people. That is, their reality does not conform with the reality the rest of us have chosen to believe because of our life experiences. By rejecting the possibility of their ability because it conflicts with our current view, we limit the additional knowledge we can gain. Once we have decided we have the ultimate answer for all time (believing in certain "absolutes"), we stop looking for things that might contradict our current belief. That's why belief in absolutes can be limiting, and even destructive.
I have other desires beyond those necessary to sustain my life. I want many things I cannot have, because I lack the resources to get them. More accurately, I have made life choices such that they are not as important to me as other things. I constantly order, re-order and re-order my list of wants and needs, according to the current status of my life on a given day. This entire process is subjective, since it occurs within and from me. These choices revolve around my self, since that is my unique, biased point of view. And I am a FUNDAMENTAL DECIDING UNIT. My choices are influenced by imperfect perception of what I think reality is, but it serves me no purpose to worry about whether I have found some "truth," "objective standard," or "absolute." Again, I see these concepts as limiting, not expanding.
To the extent that precision is needed in science (logical procedures) and language (defining terms), I adopt certain conventions agreed to by others. These I call standards.
A standard is an agreed-to reference point from which other things may be judged. Scientific standards such as length, time and mass are arbitrarily chosen, and come to be standards only when there is wide agreement about them. There is nothing absolute about any scientific standard. Then how can a standard for human behavior possibly be absolute, when more rigorous scientific standards are not?
Some would argue that the constancy of the speed of light is an absolute standard. I would argue that we can't prove it to be absolute, since we can only measure it within a particular accuracy limited by our current techniques. We can, however, assume that our current understanding, supported by a perfect track record of evidence (so far), is unalterable. This assumption produces the arrogance of orthodoxy, which I call ARROGOXY.
If reality is your standard (so say objectivists), and you do not understand what reality is, then of what practical use is your standard? For that matter, what is the use of debating some unattainable "absolute" reality, besides showing other people how smart you are (as seems to be the primary goal of Mensa meetings)? I've got more productive things to do with my life - like watching my four Basset Hounds sun themselves.
I enjoy philosophy, but always view it with an end in sight; not a purpose unto itself. I use philosophy to ask important questions, the answers to which might improve my life. Philosophy is most important because it is the precursor to science.
All language, philosophy and science begin with arbitrary standards. And I, for one, reject absolute standards of human behavior when the standards are not even absolute in other, more predictable, areas of inquiry. As a "pure" science, mathematics probably comes closest to absolute standards, SINCE IT DOES NOT DEAL WITH THE PHYSICAL WORLD. It deals only with concepts and ideas. Accuracy of measurement is not an issue in mathematics. A point is a point, and a line is a perfect line. Even these are not absolutes, because their definitions depend on words, each of which has a history of accidental derivation, with an arbitrary beginning. No word can be understood without circular logic. That is, each word depends on other words for its definition, and this process continues indefinitely, in a circular fashion. There are no absolute starting words without other words to define them. This whole process is relative to history, language, culture and other things that are unique to a particular situation. Precision is a relative term, as are truly useful standards.
Reality to me implies everything, including things I will never perceive or understand. My practical reality, however, is limited to those parts of the large whole that affect my life. It is this aspect of reality, and my relationship to it, where my attention is focused.
The definition of words is arbitrary, based on some previously-chosen standard. Once defined, the meaning of a word evolves, as common usage replaces the original meaning. In science, care is taken to define terms very specifically, so that this does not occur. However, new information may make old definitions obsolete anyway.
Human law is arbitrary, since it came about from specific cases of conflict, agreement and coercion. And yet we say the law is a standard. It is, until a better one comes along. It is, like any useful standard, only relevant while it serves our purpose. The best human law developed from custom (such as English common law and contract law from the Middle East and medieval Europe).
Laws legislated by a few hundred people (U.S. Congress) who were elected by only one out of five Americans are a joke. (Remember to divide total winners' votes by the ENTIRE population they claim to "represent.") This kind of law is made primarily by special interest lobbyists, under the intoxicating but false veil of the "public interest." Pure snake oil ("snake oil" in America refers to any kind of fraud.)
I exist. I believe this because of my perceptions, but cannot be completely sure what this existence is. I don't see the point in viewing something we are only beginning to understand as "absolute." The same can be said about my environment, which includes other people and the universe. I came from my environment, remain part of it while I am alive, and will return to it in a less-organized state when and if I die (check out Life Extension). Life is currently too short to worry about things that have so little to do with improving my current, conscious state of being.
"I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who."
"Perfect is the enemy of good enough."
-Marshall Fritz, founder of Advocates for Self Government.
A mathemetician and engineer stood about 100 feet from a beautiful woman. They were told at each time interval, they could move one half the distance toward her.
Mathemetician: "I can prove I'll never reach her, so I'm going to stay here."
Engineer: "Maybe so, but I can get close enough for practical purposes."
NOTE: If you would like to provide feedback on this essay, use the email link on the main LIFEPOWER page.
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