Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lived Truth: Destroying the Myth of the Objective Seeker

There have been many points in my life when I’ve internally uttered the following statements: “I want to seek truth in a genuine and authentic manner. I want to – as objectively as I can, putting aside all previous biases and assumptions – seek that which is. And no matter where this journey takes me, I will follow it. I want to judge a way of thinking, a series of analysis, simply on the grounds of logic and reason, and not be tainted by my former prejudices and beliefs.” There is a drive in me for authenticity of knowledge, experience, and personal decisions. Even if I think something is true, if it’s been “preached to me” by another person, my reaction is to discover it on my own. This is simply the person I am.

Of course, there are problems inherent in this type of thinking. How does one recognize authenticity, even in oneself? Does this authentic searching involve reading? If so, aren’t we being influenced by what we’re reading? But in my opinion, the biggest hurdle in trying to seek pure objectivity is the problem Descartes ran into; in some ways, in Descartes’ search for pure objectivity, he revealed the deepest flaws of this line of thinking. No matter how hard you try, you cannot find perspective-less reasoning. Descartes’ hyperbolic, steamroller of doubt crushes all in its path, and there is no hope of rebuilding a coherent city of logic in its wake. You cannot think without making assumptions. At the very least, my statements above made the assumptions that there is truth, that I can find it with reason, and that is it good to search for it.

I must make two points in relation to this sort of thinking. First, the idea of truth-seeking is not completely released to abject and illogical subjectivity on account of this. There are still alive the categories of “more objective” or “less objective.” We may not find an assumption-less position, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be open and genuine about what assumptions we are making. Second, this conclusion of modern philosophy is often seen as depressing and nihilistic. However, as the saying goes, “We only bemoan the absence of something when we feel it should be there.” We only find the conclusion of our reading of Descartes as disheartening if we feel there should be a perspective-less, purely objective way of thinking. But we are humans within three dimensions; we are necessarily limited by our place in space and time. Just as we must look at an object in space-time from a specific point of reference, so must we view all of truth-seeking from a specific point of reference. However, this is not to say we don’t distinguish between seeing an object fifty feet in front of us through fog, and seeing that same object right in front of our eyes, along with cameras that can show us all of the angles of the object at once. Even though both perspectives are “trapped” within space-time, we are allowed to refer to one as more objective than the other.

Although this sort of thinking used to trouble me, I find it rather comforting these days. There are two major reasons for this. First, I wondered why people didn’t find the same objective truth as much as they should have. To return to the opening statements, I know that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people who have expressed the same attitude. Why, then, do these people come to so disparate conclusions? If we all want to find the truth and accept it no matter what – if we are all so desirous of authenticity – why then do we not arrive at the same conclusions – or at least similar ones? Well, one of the major answers lies in the fact of our station in space-time. I don’t discount the fact that many people, like myself, truly want to find out what really is; but we don’t all begin at the mythical perspective-less, assumption-less point zero. Nowadays, this gives me comfort, rather than disquiet.

[On a bit of a side note, I have a separate theory as to why we don’t all come to the same conclusions, despite our protestations, genuine they may be, that we seek truth no matter our former prejudices or beliefs. I ran across a wonderful line in a truly enjoyable book, The Quiet American, by Graham Greene: “Perhaps truth and humility go together; so many lies come from our pride.” My theory runs as follows: Most people who are prompted and able to ask the “big questions” of life, to seek objectivity, are intelligent, on one level or another – and with intelligence comes a strong pull toward the ego, pride. Intelligence may be a prerequisite to genuinely deep thinking; but it also threatens the individual to a worship of pride. This was the answer I arrived at years ago in college studying philosophy. I wondered how so many brilliant people could espouse just as many different philosophies of life. What I also sensed in their writing, deeper than their intelligence and acumen, was a tendency to pride. Perhaps later I will write a full post on this idea.]

The second reason I find the idea that seeking truth always comes from a perspective or assumption engaging rather than perturbing is connected to a thought that has been floating around my head a while these days. (There’s a lot of room for things to float around in my head.) This is the idea that truth is lived, not learned; truth must experienced, not arrived at abstractly. This idea is very related to my encounters with religion and philosophy, so the best way I can explain myself is to recount certain aspects of my experience.

I have a similar experience a few times throughout my life. There is something I have a problem with in terms of Christianity or Catholicism – or religion in general. The skeptic in me finds an apparent flaw in an aspect of my belief system. My usual approach is to step back from the situation and to try and view it as objectively as possible. Now, there is nothing wrong with this – and a few times I have stumbled upon an answer in just this fashion. However, more times than not, if it was a more powerful doubt, simple engagement of the faculty of my reason did not quell my uncertainty. Here is where my more recent paradigm shift comes into play: When I pretend to stay objective and authentic, I am disallowing the deepest truth to enter my self. There are so many things, and I would argue the most significant things, that can only be fully grasped when they are lived.

So I don’t understand intellectually the idea of prayer? So what. I immerse myself in prayer, and in this experience, I learn the real truth of prayer. It’s almost as if truth can only be fully understood from the inside. Philosophy, while it is great, necessarily stays on the outside. Only a leap of faith can get us to the inside. I can’t understand fully prayer unless I am doing it. Although this may have sounded in the past to me like an excuse or a rationale for the irrational – “I don’t actually understand this, but do it anyway because I say so,” or “because that’s what tradition has taught us” – I recognize this as necessary within the inherent subjectivity of our position here on earth. It’s not as if we’re accepting there is no objective truth; but it’s simply saying that you can’t encounter the objective truth unless you take that leap of faith. Remember, there is no staying neutral. You can’t take the cold scientific approach and say you’ll only believe what you can prove. Besides other things, this train of thought is making the assumption that all truth can be proved in an empirical sort of way. But this is an assumption, for there is no assumption-less position in space-time.

To make this more specific, Christianity can be analyzed intellectually. It can be found as reasonable, or perhaps unreasonable. But the real truth of Christianity can only be found in abandoning oneself to it completely; it can only be found in complete surrender. And this happens through experience of the person of Jesus. Can this be approached through logic and reason? Yes. Can its deepest reality be approached through logic and reason? No. This happens solely though throwing oneself as the foot of the Cross and experiencing the power of the Creator’s love.

I’m not sure I find myself at the Kierkegaardian position of making the leap of faith because it’s rational. All I’m saying here is that truth can’t be experienced without that leap of faith. In fact, nothing can be truly experienced without the leap of faith. The myth of the cold, hard sciences – or the authentic searcher for objective truth – no longer holds water. And this isn’t because we’re trapped in a subjective world where we can trust nothing and no one. No, this is the case because truth was never intended to be approached in this cold, hard way – it was intended to be lived and experienced.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! Hearty agreement and all that! Very true: Descartes did not "prove" or "disprove" anything, except that reason alone is circular, like a calculator without a person operating it-- no meaning at all to be found! And we don't abandon reason for faith; faith does not pick up where reason leaves off (at least in my opinion), but rather our rational faculties, as much a part of us as our search for truth, accompany us always and point out errors of irrationality (very useful, for theology as well as for physical science). But of course reason on its own doesn't lead anywhere; only the will can do that. And will means Love.
    I love your line "The myth of the cold, hard sciences". The modern university, justice system, and legislative bodies need to come to grips with this.