More thinking on Truth??


The movie as metaphor for conventional reality given by Joseph Goldstein is troublesome for a number of reasons.  First, it is too simple.  A movie is so easily seen understood as make believe.    Second, the effort require for movies is to believe what is seen and heard as real, not the other way around.  In watching a movie, most people willingly suspend belief.  But to appreciate conventional wisdom, much effort is required to understand that what we see and hear in daily life might well be an illusion.  The idea of conventional truth is that it encompasses what we believe is true about our lives.  The idea is that with meditation and investigation we may be able to see much of our views of the world as delusion.  

And then, I have no difficulty in accepting that truth might exist – that there is something called reality, which exists in unique and absolute terms.  I just have difficulty accepting that humans might ever be able to know this reality.  When I was about 8 or 9 years old I realized that I would never be able to know what another person was thinking – so how now do I accept the words of a dying man as proof of anything, let alone an ultimate reality.  

So then I got out some more books.  Simon Blackburn’s book entitled Truth. A guideis very interesting. In the Introduction he sets up the discussion as a ‘fight’ (war, conflict) between Absolutists and Relativists.  He refers to GK Chesterton’s remark that the problem with people who lose belief in God is not that they end up believing nothing but that they will believe in anything.  He also notes that David Hume wrote that mistakes in religion were dangerous whereas generally speaking mistakes in philosophy were merely ridiculous.   Blackburn disagrees with Hume describing the issue as philosophical one about the “sources of reason and the control of belief by fact’.  He continues:

“It is an epistemological use … about which methods of inquiry and which claims to authority and knowledge we should endorse’…”

“The implications of relativism, and the flashpoints that concern us today, may be new but the war between those who locate themselves as something like ’relativists’ and those who sound more like ‘absolutists’ is not.  We know that it raged a long time ago, when Socrates confronted by the sophists in Athens of the fifth century BC.  It was probably old then, but that encounter will form one point of entry.”

“What, then is the conflict about?  When we are absolutists we stand on truth.  We like plain unvarnished objective fact, and we like it open, transparent, and unfiltered.  We may not like it everywhere, so we may feel like confining truth to some area: scientific truth or moral truth, for example.  But somewhere absolute truth can be found.  And as well as truth, absolutists cherish its handmaidens:  reason, which enable us to find it or certify it, and objectivity, which is the cardinal virtue of reasoning.”

“Relativists mock these ideals.  They see nothing anywhere that is plain, unvarnished, objective, open, transparent or unfiltered.  They debunk and deny.  They see everywhere what the philosopher William James called the trail of the human serpent.  They insists upon the universal presence of happenstance, brute contingencies of nature or culture or language or experience, that shape the way we see things. Nietzsche said “There are no facts, only interpretations’.  That will do as a relativist slogan … ” Blackburn Truth at page xv

This duality allows for statements such as “Absolutism gives us security and self assurance; the relativist sees dangerous unthinking innocence and complacency”.  Absolutists suffer from what James described as ‘religious ambition’.  They seek something ‘haughty, remote, august, exalted’ whether as a ‘religion’ of some deity or ideology of the Market, Science and so on. Relativist recoil from conviction and embrace Toleration but for Blackburn the toleration of the relativist goes beyond respecting the opinions of others to a sense that one has no right to disapprove of what anyone says.  Relativists disrupt the symmetries reason and knowledge, objectivity and truth.But then Blackburn introduces the skeptic. While the skeptic is often associated with the relativist, for Blackburn there is a significant difference.  The skeptic believes in the existence of truth but is disinclined to believe that humans are capable of obtaining (possessing) such truth. For the skeptic, the truth is precious – priceless. For the relativist the truth (your truth, my truth, any truth) is essentially worthless – too cheap to care about.

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