Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Are the Wheels Coming off the Wagon?


I have to admit that I was a little  surprised by this response from Mark Hobson concerning yesterday’s post.  In those remarks, I’d said that “truth is a phantom………a concept that is in constant flux”.  Well, I must have really hit a nerve because I was accused of helping to propagate the “BIG Lie”.  He apparently was so pissed that he wound up by suggesting that “swine” of my ilk ought to be “cleansed”.  OK, that’s a little scary.  He must have calmed down a bit later on, though,  because he added a short paragraph saying that he personally didn’t want me to be “cleansed from the planet”.  Hopefully, that disclaimer cancelled the “contract”.

But it was this statement that left me wondering if rational discourse is possible anymore, on the internet or anywhere else.

 By this reasoning, everything is true – well, actually, since there is no truth maybe that should read as “not true” – as long as someone somewhere believes it to be so.

Actually, I’ve heard this kind of illogical reaction before; it even shows up in a couple of the comments on Mark’s site.  The general thrust of this argument seems to be that if you say that there are no absolutes with respect to truth, then you must also be saying that all claims to knowing the “Truth” are of equal value.  Someone who says that the earth is the center of the universe must be given the same degree of credibility as the one who says that the sun is the center, even if the evidence supports neither position.  Even worse is the response that goes a little further and equates truth with “goodness”, so that someone who questions the existence of absolute truth is somehow morally bankrupt and capable of doing just about anything.  I guess I’m lucky that the Inquisition isn’t still in business.  I’d be on the rack by now, I’m sure.

The logic, of course, doesn’t hold.  Saying the one thing does not lead inexorably to the other.  The two positions are simply not connected.  As Einstein once said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”.  That is, even if I don’t know for sure what reality is, I can still look at the evidence and produce a model for cause and effect.  If I’m standing on top of the Empire State Building and I drop a rock over the edge (if the fence wasn’t there), I’m pretty sure it’s going to fall all the way to the street below.  If I drop a thousand rocks, I can reasonably predict that all will do the same thing as the first (if I haven’t been dragged away by the police).

Now, if there’s some guy standing next to me up there and he says that the rocks will not fall, that they will instead ascend to rock heaven, I’m going to be as skeptical as Mark or anyone else.  His reality, his “truth” simply doesn’t match up with what we commonly refer to as Newtonian physics.  Since he has no empirical evidence, his belief does not carry the same weight as mine.

But the reality is still an “illusion”.  And that’s what I think most people don’t get.  Hell, I don’t know that I completely “get it”, but I’m working on it.  Why is it an illusion?  Here’s a relatively simple analogy that might help.

Anyone who has been involved in scientific research or technological studies or even basic manufacturing knows that everything revolves around measurements.  If we want to understand things, if we want to gain useful information that can be interpreted, we need to be able to attach numbers to those things.  That means that we have to measure them.  We must have some kind of instrument that tells us how much something weighs, how long it is, how smooth it is, or maybe how much of a certain chemical the “thing” contains.  That’s straightforward enough, right?

But there’s a catch (there’s always a catch).  Any statistician (or scientist) will tell you that you cannot completely separate the measurement process from the thing being measured.  The answer you get depends not just on the thing being measured – it also depends on the thing doing the measuring.  How much you weigh is the combined effect of your actual weight and the scale that you used to weigh yourself.  Sometimes the effect of the measurement device is small and sometimes it’s large.  But it’s always present.  The “error” introduced by the measurement system is never zero.  However small, there is always some bias.  You never get the exact truth.

And where do we get our notions of ‘reality”?  From our senses, of course.  We see things, we hear things, we taste things, we feel things, we smell things.  Our brains are highly sophisticated, sentient measurement devices.  Even if there is some external True Reality, independent of human beings, we have no way of recognizing it or describing it aside from our own mental processes.  In the end, that’s all there is.  Reality (capital ‘R’) may very well exist, but its exact nature will forever be unknown.  Perception is reality.

So what of Truth?  As I’ve said, it’s a human construct.  (Actually, of course, a whole lot of other people – most much brighter than I – have been saying it for centuries.  I just happen to agree with them.)

Here’s an idea – let’s assume that there are two planets in our galaxy that look essentially the same.  One of them is the one we all live on.  The other (we’ll call it Earth II) looks like ours in every way.  There are mountains and oceans and lakes and rivers, and life as well.  There are, however, no humans (or other consciously aware beings).  Aside from being a much cleaner place, there are “differences” on Earth II.

Let’s start with something simple.  Suppose there are a number of stones lying along a lake on this planet.  Some contain pieces of iron and granite and compressed sand.  Others are made of gold and silver.  Are the ones made of gold and silver more valuable?  No.  “Value” has no meaning here.  There’s no one to say that one is more valuable than the other.  They’re all just stones.

Can we say that the mountain that overlooks the lake is beautiful?  Again, the answer is no.  It’s a concept that does not and cannot exist here.  Without an aware mind, the idea has no meaning.

Time, by the way, doesn’t exist on Earth II either.  Like Value, and Beauty, and yes, Truth, Time is an invention of man.  If we cease to exist, so does time (at least in our neck of the woods).  Kant called time an “intuition” and suggested that time was “the mind’s way of preventing everything from happening at once”.  I love that.

And so I’ll repeat: There are no absolutes, not on Earth I and not on Earth II.  Does that mean that I’m “evil” and that I believe in total chaos, or that I think that all possible interpretations of reality have equal standing?  Absolutely not (pun intended).  I would point out, however, that throughout human history it’s usually the ones having the most profoundly absolutist views that wind up causing all the trouble.  One has only to consider the countless wars fought over religious beliefs across the centuries – wars in which both sides believed that their “Truth” was not only absolute, but on their side.

As far as I know, not a single war has ever been initiated by those who weren’t sure.  Heck, they didn’t have time.  They were too busy running from the guys with the pitchforks.


3 Responses to “Are the Wheels Coming off the Wagon?”

  1. Cedric

    Well said Paul. It is interesting the way people feel so certain of what their senses tells them considering that we have no way of calibrating them to ensure that we all sense the same thing. As for time, I like how Carlo Rovelli puts it: “It is not reality that has a time flow, but our very approximate knowledge of reality. Time is the effect of our ignorance”. As for Truth, if there was an absolute truth then it could not be of a dualistic nature thus it could never be know with the mind or explained with words, except perhaps by way of paradox and even then it could only point in the general direction of truth.

  2. Don

    The whole truth and nothing but the truth, I don’t know what to believe anymore, and thats the truth.

  3. Juha Haataja

    I have been enjoying the ventilation of opinions on both sides, not completely agreeing with either but somehow seeing a light at the both ends of the tunnel. I come from the background of mathematics and physics, and only later recognized the “dirty” (uncertain) reality of, e.g., biosciences.

    I feel this has been an important discussion (or exchange of opinions), because it makes one ponder about your own convictions.


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