Philosophy has given us a valuable tool. It allows us to communicate with each other in ways we can understand. We might call philosophy the “Art of logical language.” Every sentence we read, speak or write must make sense. Our words must use the proper lexical, grammatical and logical guidelines for us to express our ideas and feelings. We may have strong opinions on what is being expressed but without the logic of the words we will consider it gibberish.
Philosophy is an art much like that of a painter. The painter looks at the world through their cultural and historical context and chooses brushes, colors, texture and form to create an image of their world as they see it. It is a very intimate expression driven by highly developed skills and personal emotions. We might consider a painting good or bad based on the skill used to create it but never call the painting wrong or right. We would never say that Raphael’s paintings are right and Pollack’s wrong. They are inspired by the impressions of their contemporary setting.
Philosophy is much like jazz. The musician moves through the set chord progression and melody as they improvise to create a personal interpretation of the music. Different musicians using the same music would interpret the music differently based on their skill level and feelings.
Philosophers are like fashion designers; they try to explore how many ways they can hang the fabric of logic on this torso of human experience.
Philosophers look at the universe and use the disciplines of logic to ask enlightened questions about all aspects of human experience. They teach us how to think and properly express our ideas about the world. They love asking “what if” and “how come” questions to challenge our default assumptions about reality. Where science has its “…ologies,” philosophy has a long list of “…isms:” which congregate ideas and language which are similar that end up as volumes of highly articulate opinions based on the person’s background, education, experience and agenda. The result? We have a discipline which enables us to explore great questions and the language to talk about them but absolutely no ability to arrive at answers that we might call “truth.”
In a perfect world logic would lead us to the truth. In a perfect world people would always know and speak the truth. Truth would be a good thing because we could trust it. It would be, uncomplicated, and devoid of agendas, hidden or double meanings and falsehoods. Scientists, mathematicians, politicians, artists, theologians and philosophers would all explore the human experience and end up on the same page, laughing and drinking beer at the local pub, celebrating the unity and beauty of the universe and the elegance of truth. Truth would be a complex and harmonious, polytonal, polyrhythmic symphony of knowledge and experience that all could share.
When the words don’t line up or seem suspicious, we handle them with a bit of doubt or skepticism. Is “I love you” always a true statement? “I love you” has a totally different meaning coming from a mother as she gazes on the face of her newborn baby as compared to those same words spoken by a pedophile. “I promise you…” from a boy scout has a different energy than when spoken by a politician running for office. We often dethrone most every statement from that noble category called truth with a healthy dose of skepticism. Certainly, commercials, broadcast news, everything on the web and government officials all speak the truth, right?
Our doubts force us to apply very stiff requirements to any statement that aspires to join that exclusive list. Most common is the use of verifiability. Statements which stand the test of investigation, duplication, or predictability are honored with that lofty adjective. The preponderance of evidence moves us to collectively declare a statement as true. But sometimes, many times, reasonable and logical statements once adamantly affirmed to be true are discovered not to be true at all. The evolution of scientific investigation ever increases our ability to verify and validate or disprove and reject once firmly held “truths.” For hundreds of years men of great genius affirmed the Earth to be the center of the universe. Forensic evidence has liberated or incarcerated those whose juries once pronounced them innocent or guilty based on “the truth” of solid evidence.
Where does that leave us? If the greatest, highly educated, well read and respected philosophical minds of the past and present cannot agree on the truth, how are we to arrive at statements that are true?
Possibly, truth at its best, is temporary, finding its meaning and significance in some moment of human experience, only to erode with the application of new insights. Possibly truth is a cultural event, adding meaning and identity to those who choose to affirm it, but not applicable to those outside the clan. Possibly, truth is like a menu of truths where we pick and choose those most palatable to our personal worldview. Possibly, truth exists only in context, deriving its meaning from other statements which are assumed to be true, but having no objective sovereignty. Possibly truth is the sum of our colloquial practices, allowing us to function in our social proximities, not appealing to the disciplines of logic.
Basically, what we call truth has become those facts we chose to affirm which conveniently line up with our own personal reality, or possibly a reality we hope is true. We have made truth subservient to our own agendas, a counterfeit justification for whatever we want to do or believe. We collect our comfortable collection of truths and affirm, “this is what I believe, or don’t believe,” and soon discover the disparity between what we believe and what we practice in our daily lives.
We see ourselves as rational, logical people declaring our logic to be that all objective process, that all seeing eye which allows us to penetrate the fog of experience to discover truth. Logic empowers us to observe, evaluate and understand the phenomena of life, but what system of logic shall we use to evaluate systems of logic? In our arrogance we appeal to the high court of logic to affirm that we are, in fact, reasonable people, yet we are humbled by the volumes of human history which reminds us that our glories are surpassed by the gore of our ignoble choices. We fail at practicing what we believe to be true. We find that logic itself lies bloodied and dying at the feet of our impulsive and selfish desires.
Our sullied and wounded intellects force us to revisit doubt, skepticism and cynicism as the only safe refuge for minds which excavate human experience searching for the bedrock of reality. If truth is the elusive bastard of our desires and logic a whore to our passions, how can we ever speak the words, “This has meaning” or “This is real?”
Perhaps we expect too much when we proclaim something to be true. We ask, “what is truth?” or “what is the truth?” and chew on our mental frustrations. Do we indeed want things to be true or even truthful? Possibly we don’t need truth at all. Maybe what we seek is reliability, predictability, or functionality. We sit on a chair without questioning the reliability of its engineering. Our experience has given us enough occasions to trust the sight of a chair without the paralyzing doubt which would force us to stand, or at least examine the chair for flaws. We fall in love and marry with only an even chance that it will last. Yet we would scoff at the suggestion that half of the chairs we sit in would collapse beneath us. Is the answer to the questions, “what is truth” and “what is the truth” best answered with an indifferent muse, “who cares?” We find ourselves more practically asking, “what works for me, now?” We make our choices on how to live our lives then work backwards to create truths to justify our choices. This is the ultimate expression of ego and narcissism, an epicurean application of the human will. It is moral suicide.
Truth exists. It is knowable and teachable. But truth holds us accountable. It makes our world smaller, less tolerant. To believe something to be true we must make the commitment to reject its antithesis. A firm belief can incapacitate free thinking. To believe in everything is equal to believing in nothing. The acceptance of truth fragments our understanding into qualitative, fearfully judgmental and (oh, this is so hard to admit) even subjective, irrational affirmations about reality.
Our response to this conundrum is to reject truth altogether. It has become a nuisance, a pest, an infomercial. Objective truth forces us to make commitments about reality, to declare that an experience is true and valid and reliable, even if we don’t like the implications. Objective truth holds us accountable. All this is way too much responsibility and far too time consuming. At last we surrender ourselves to the winds of our senses and live by that high and noble question, “can’t we all just get along?”
Science tells us the truth about many things because it uses a different language: math. Science has the tools to measure everything it can perceive and those measurements, those discoveries we call true. As time passes those tools of measurement become more sophisticated allowing for ever new discoveries, like Galileo’s telescope to the Hubble. These tools have and are creating the amazing world we live in and the huge body of knowledge about the universe.
Science has it’s language, philosophy has it’s language, but what science and philosophy cannot do is teach us the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. They cannot teach us about beauty, love, justice, generosity, compassion, empathy, music and art. Without those we are no longer human.
Our egos rebel against someone telling us that what we believe is not true, or the way we are living our lives is not healthy, or good, or moral, or decent. We do not like being told what to believe and how to live, even if we secretly know they are right.
At the risk of sounding like I’m suggesting what to believe and how to live, I offer this consideration.
From an ancient verse:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–
if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about these things”
And I would encourage us to energize this “thinking” by “doing.”
Good thoughts and prayers to all….