Monday, April 17, 2017

Truth and Perception

What is truth? Is it real? Or is it relative—whatever each different person perceives it to be?

I’m a believer that there is a truth; it exists outside of ourselves. Our perceptions of it may be different, but if we are seekers of truth, we question our perceptions, and look for what is real.
sketch of a Grecian Urn,
by John Keats, who wrote the poem
"Ode on a Grecian Urn," which makes
the claim "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"
image from Wikipedia

There is a contingent of modern thinkers who claim that truth is relative. You can have your truth; I can have mine. We must accept that what may be true for you, might not be true for your neighbor.

This sounds open-minded and tolerant. But there are problems that come up when you can’t agree on “what is is.” How do we live together with irreconcilable differences on certain things?

For example, if I believe I own a piece of property, and you come along and decide you own that same piece of property, who gets to enjoy the benefits of property ownership? In the non-philosophical world, where we have laws to settle just such disagreements, it would be the person with the deed to the property. The deed is a proof, or evidence of a truth: right of ownership.

Suppose you believe that marriage is a certain thing—a permanent contract between a man and a woman, obligating them to one another, forming a permanent family in which to bring up their offspring, and to financially and socially sustain one another. Suppose someone else believes marriage is any two people announcing they are in a sexual relationship for the time being. Those are not the same things. It is possible for two people to define a word differently, but the thing they define can’t be the two incompatible different things at the same time.

Can the two people hold these different views at the same time and go their separate ways? That was what the Supreme Court ruling in 2015 claimed they could do. But they have not been allowed to. Believers in the permanent-contract-between-a-man-and-a-woman have been told they must accept the any-two-people-in-a-current-relationship as equivalent, even when theirs is a deeply held religious belief. And thus we have bakers, florists, and photographers being coerced to use their artistic skills for purposes that, to them, deny truth.

Suppose you believe that male and female are the only two sexes for human beings, and that your DNA and physiology define which one you are. This has been the truth for all of the millennia of human history. But there are others in our time who believe that there is a plethora of sexes for human beings, and that a person is whatever the individual decides to be, regardless of physiology.

Can the two different people hold these different views at the same time and let the other live their own way? In a tolerant world that could happen. But there is a huge amount of pressure right now to enforce a belief that doesn’t coincide with reality, science, truth as we have historically known it, or as nearly all of us can perceive it to be.

We’re seeing this enforcement of “my relative truth is the one you have to believe” play out with the militantly dogmatic LGBT community (add letters at will to LGBT). But it also exists in politics, economics, academia, entertainment, and just about everywhere you look.

It isn’t actually true that the earth would be better off without humans on it, and that we ought to return to pre-industrial-age technology to atone for being here. Nor is it true that you love pollution if you don’t buy into that humans-are-evil perception.

It isn’t actually true that setting a higher minimum wage for low-skilled workers will make the lives of enter-level workers better. It is more likely to prevent entry-level workers from getting the first jobs that give them experience along with a little bit of income.

It isn’t actually true that government intervention shows that government cares. Government can’t actually care at all; it is simply power. What is actually true is that government interference causes unintended consequences, usually exactly the opposite of the stated goal of the interference. By the way, it isn’t true that government-require purchased health insurance means better health care for all; in the real world it means higher costs and lower quality health care for all.

It isn’t actually true that abstract art, or pushing the envelope, leads to more beauty. Art within constraints has always led to more beauty and innovation than meaningless shapes or purposely vile depictions.

It isn’t actually true that Democrats are the good guys to minorities, especially Blacks. In the provable reality, Democrats have historically been anti-Black, and their policies have proven harmful to Blacks more so other demographics. But perception has overridden verifiable reality for over 90% of Black voters.

It isn’t actually true that centrally standardized government institutional education means better education; in the real world this often means education is deficient for all but the few whose needs match up with the factory-style approach. Maybe not even for them. But even bringing up the idea of alternative choices leads to a howling about not caring about children.

Here’s the problem I see with the philosophical belief that truth is relative: those who claim to believe this are the least likely to tolerate differences from their view of truth. If truth is relative, then the rule must be that you cannot impose your truth on someone else. So there should be zero pressure on the population to conform to their alternative, personal “truths.”

In a world where reality, like gravity, is not to be ignored, we are better off doing certain things:

·         Be open to new information, in case your perception of what is true isn’t accurate.
·         Be tolerant of others who have different beliefs; give the benefit of the doubt that they are searching for truth just as you are. You might just be at a different place in the truth search journey right now.
·         But when you have enough data to be quite sure of a truth, and the other side has no convincing evidence on their side, don’t let them bully you into submission. Stand firm even when the pressure is huge, and growing, and intimidating. Maybe especially then.

Maybe this is why Captain America is my
favorite Marvel superhero.
image from here

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