Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Reply Upon Truth

I rather expected these sorts of reactions to my last post— my imagined audience is more and more securely atheist, but of course my actual readers are more religious. Aphoristic writings require a similar framework for the identification of the referent, and they are in essence untranslatable across a large cultural divide.

I've reconsidered my first aphorism, because it seems even to me to say what I did not intend. I am no relativist, and I will not cease seeking the truth out of some postmodern despair about articulations thereof. Rather, I meant to express the weakening of the faith in truth as absolute without abrogating its force. Let me explain briefly.

I reject any Platonic conception of the "true-in-itself" or a correspondence theory which asserts that a thought in our brain could truly match the 'essence' of something in the world. Everything we think and perceive— including memory, sense data and even mathematical proof— is an interpretation of reality, a will-to-believe something. But what relativists fail to realize is that interpretations are in perpetual conflict, and that some wills are stronger than others! Some interpretations are reinforced by others, while some have to reject others.

Mathematics and logic, for example, are a quite strong interpretation, a weapon of steel among the bronze and tin of other ideas. It would take an unimaginably strong interpretation of another sort to force me to abandon what I see as a valid logical proof. Direct sense perception is generally almost as strong, although there are cases (optical illusions, hallucinations, etc) where the convergence of other ideas is stronger than the evidence of the senses; given enough events of a certain sort, I might even begin to deny in general the evidence of the senses in favor of Berkeleyan idealism, a computer simulation of reality, or the like. The basic reliability of the cultural milieu (i.e. that we're not being systematically lied to about our overall political structure in favor of a shadow government; that the basic outlines of history and culture presented to us haven't been systematically falsified, etc.) could be overturned by evidence of a grand conspiracy, but I haven't seen anything of the sort. And so on, down the line of sources of ideas.

Of course, inherent in this hierarchy of interpretive strength is the realization that different sources can grow and wane in strength as the conflicts between them continue. For example, in the comparison of political ideas, I used to prize most highly a persuasive abstract argument of political philosophy; but the many historical examples showing that the better-argued policy often failed in practice have led me to weigh more heavily a more empirical and historical form of evidence.

And at the heart of all this, for me, is the will to truth— that which asks of any other interpretation what it stands on, how it tests itself against others, whether I might be holding to it out of psychological need. I've been willing to torment myself to a great extent in order to pursue this will against the things I'd have loved to believe. This will to truth is, as Nietzsche would say, only the Christian virtue of honesty internalized and grown to monstrous proportions (THOU SHALT NOT LIE TO THYSELF as the first commandment); but it has shown great value in questioning other frameworks and interpretations, reinforcing or undermining them (even overthrowing its father, like Zeus). For Nietzsche, this interpretation turned ouroboros in the end, critiquing itself as life-negating; he felt it denied too much and must be replaced by a creative will that was not so afraid of falsehood. But here I do not follow Nietzsche.

What I meant to say in the first aphorism is more along the following lines: only if you possess this will to truth in great abundance, only if it is strong enough to tear down all self-deceit it finds, can it at last triumph over the naive theories of truth (the Platonic or the Aristotelian) and recognize itself more fully. I do not and cannot possess the truth in the way I had once hoped— but what remains is sufficient for me!

1 comment:

some guy on the street said...

I suppose, then, I ought to wonder what sort of thing you imagine truth to be, (is it a substance, an object, a category, a relation, a form... what?) and WHY should you prize it so highly?

Dually, what does it mean to "lie to thyself"? How does one know he's done it?

I must say I'm baffled by your use of the word "interpretation". Particularly vexing is your claim

Mathematics and logic, for example, are a quite strong interpretation

because I can't help but think of math as being the abstraction that physicists and engineers interpret as apparatus and buildings (Never mind Tarski's reservation of the mathematical words "interpretation" and "truth").

Another time we can argue, perhaps, what this all entails for the annoying questions of what to say to George the fellow who really bugs you when you meet him because he doesn't know when to stop asking inane questions about football: should you ignore him and go on pondering TRUTH? Would it be more honest to yourself to thump him over the head with a sealalleigh?

Another other time, we can consider how seriously you should take a document beginning "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and alike in dignity before God[...]".