Saturday, April 01, 2006

A Conversation with Friends: Confucius, Socrates, Christ, and Truth

I had a relatively entertaining conversation with a couple of colleagues over tapas and sangria last night (well, at least I was entertained...I'm not entirely sure about my colleagues). We were discussing religion, and I had said something about the mystery of Christ's resurrection, and one of the people I was with, a very good friend of mine, said something like, "Well, we can't really question it like that--we can't understand it. It's beyond our comprehension." I believe I responded with agreement, adding that any religion that you could completely understand couldn't possibly be a true one, because it wouldn't transcend human experience.

I kept thinking about what my friend had said as I walked back to my apartment. What does it mean to know with certainty that you can't know something? If we can't know something, how do we talk about it? What I was thinking about was the nature of truth. In the conversation earlier, I had likened that which blocks our view of truth to clouds in the sky blocking the sun. Many relativists deny the existence of absolute truth by noting that humankind can't agree on many issues and values. That's no argument. On a cloudy day, it would be ludicrous to deny the sun's existence. We never see the truth directly, but we know it is there--we can feel it, and we believe in it. Life is one, long, ever-cloudy day. One could reply that we see the sun on a sunny day and that's why we know it's there on a cloudy day. But really, that's not an argument either--for all we know, on a cloudy day an imposter sun jumps into the real sun's place. We simply choose to believe that the sun is continuously there.

As I was thinking about all this, I thought of Socrates' famous phrase, which I have permanently placed just to the right of this writing space, that true wisdom is knowing that one knows nothing. Earlier, my friends and I had discussed a little about quantum mechanics. With physics we can now show that we can know nothing absolute about what's around us--measuring something changes the object so it isn't the same as what was there before you measured it. Truly, we don't "observe" anything, we merely interact with things and change them in doing so. So Socrates was absolutely right--all we can know is that we know nothing, at least in terms of what we think we observe.

Faith is all we have. Faith, and then our reason, from which we can deduce logical outcomes from precepts that we simply believe in. But that doesn't mean that there isn't absolute truth, either--it simply underscores what my friend had said earlier, that human powers of inquiry are limited. Even the relativist takes positions on issues, speaks of "fairness" or has a feeling about what should be and what shouldn't. That's because there is something innate, there is some natural law, some absolute truth. I can't prove that, but I believe it. And knowing that we can know nothing justifies "belief" and "faith" in general.

At about this point I reached my apartment. I decided to have a cigarette (I know, bad idea), and I sat down and thought some more.

All we have is faith, mind, ideas, and logic, but we can't understand the whole Truth with these tools. Then I remembered a fact that I have always found fascinating: The three greatest "philosophers" in human history, from all cultures, Jesus Christ, Socrates, and Confucius all had two things in common: None of them ever wrote anything--their followers recorded their words--and all of them spoke in analogies and parables. I think each of these people had a better grasp of the Truth than most(and one had an absolutely complete grasp of it), and none of them could simply explain why something was true. They told stories or parables or analogized and hinted at the truth. Their listeners got a "sense" of the truth through those stories and analogies without full comprehension. That's not unlike someone feeling the warmth of the sun on one's skin on a cloudy day, I suppose. And that the Philosophers always spoke, never wrote indicates (besides pointing to the futility of what I'm doing right now) the elusive reality of absolute truth--that it is worth discussing, but not boiling down to anything concrete. That we can use is to posit laws and create policies, even without knowing exactly what it is.

In other words, it is not in a treatise that we find the Truth. Only in conversation and contemplation do we dance around Truth's edges. In conversations like the one I had last night, for instance. And this is comforting: Truth comes from interaction with our fellow humans and in society and in friendships.

How does this play into political philosophy? Those who think they "know" the truth and deny God, write a book (Karl Marx), and then try to implement it (Lenin) end up ruining society. Democracy, on the other hand, is an institution that uses consensus and debate (conversation) as a way of coming up with laws that best approximate and uphold absolute truth (like a telescope, perhaps, trying to get a better view of something far away, or a radio telescope piercing through the clouds to get some semblence of the sun). When a society respects simultaneously the absolute certainty of Truth's existence, and also its elusive, social nature, that society thrives.

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