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The elusive truth lies somewhere between absolutism and relativism, somewhere between the hubris of believing that one’s own fixed understandings are the universal ones that all others must bow down to, and the dysfunctionality of believing that reality (moral, factual, analytical) is whatever each decides it is.

Robin Van Ausdall recently posted the following astute observation on her Facebook page:

Media coverage of the flight attendant who removed a 13-month-old infant after her mother slapped her in the face is indicative of a larger problem: the idea that right and wrong is somehow determined by opinion polls.

To which I replied: 

You have a good point, Robin, but what IS right and wrong determined by? There’s no good answer, because while the tyranny of the majority may endorse any number of horrible evils (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.), any other authority to which we might defer has the potential of being the product of some smaller group’s bigotries, or even of being a brilliant doctrine gradually attenuated by time and increasingly anachronistic.

Part of the dilemma of our lives, and of our political battles, is that there is no ultimate authority to which to turn to determine what is right and what is wrong; instead, we are left to thrash it out among ourselves, with competing narratives and arguments.

It reminds me of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in which the theme was the quest for understanding what “quality” means. It seems so simple and obvious when unexamined, but becomes so subtle and profound when looked at more closely!

It’s not that truth, or “right” and “wrong” are relative, and can be whatever people want them to be. Rather, it’s that they are elusive, and disagreements concerning them are resolvable only by the parties to the disagreement, drawing on all other information and insight that may exist in the world, but without the benefit of any final arbiter.

(Of course), people can agree on a final arbiter, whether it be human agency, or some legal or moral document, or (as is usually the case) some combination of the two. That is how we govern ourselves, by drafting Bibles and Constitutions and creating clergies and judiciaries (along with executive and legislative branches to implement and modify the legal structure). The challenge is to continually refine these mechanisms for resolving moral and legal disputes, so that they continuously approach some ideal of service to human welfare, along all dimensions that we might identify.

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  • pstapp:

    “Part of the dilemma of our lives, and of our political battles, is that there is no ultimate authority to which to turn to determine what is right and what is wrong; instead, we are left to thrash it out among ourselves, with competing narratives and arguments.” Steve Harvey–posted above.

    Thanks Steve for providing many good philosophical discussion points above, and as always, so well said. Here is my shot at the elusive truth:

    Intellectual frustration is brought on by the fact that final arbitration can only come from the same sources that ask the questions. The hunter, the tool-maker wants an almost material satisfaction to his intellectual inquiry.

    The earth sustains life so we look outward for answers to our internal questions and expect a horn of plenty, or at least some-thing. Finding answers to be spartan at best over questions of right and wrong, good and evil, we either give up, or generate scenarios in which answers may be found. As the basis of our tool-making, we seek to duplicate outer nature and by that searching, discover an abstract inner world of our own creation more satisfying to the hungry intellect.

    But when that tool making ingenuity looks critically at its mental creations, it finds only the need for continual refinement and the “final” resolution that arbitration cannot be final at all–that the processes we refer to, and rely upon are endlessly uncertain–refinement, updates, adaptations, modifications, in short, change–is the rule.

    And that takes the village right back to the original uncertainty that gave rise to the inner abstract world in the first place. The uncertainty-driven, restless, refining, tool-making comportment of man attacks the very walls his tools have built(perhaps a more thorough explanation of “creative destruction” than economics will agree to!).

    This causes flight from discussion as it only provides as resolution, an irresolute statement and seems to deny action of any kind. And in that flight, an anger slowly emerges, as the mental creation, the abstract world where answers are found, did indeed provide us with some comfort in the form of resolution and direction, purpose, and reason for action.

    Prometheus must be eternally bound for his gift to man is also a curse.

    Our critical faculties can destroy the hunter-maker’s tool dreams, the abstract, eventually technological womb of a substitute world that takes material and adds a seemingly magical quality between raw matter and refined making. A transformation of one thing into another rises up around us as an utterly transformed world: dwellings, walls, artifacts, vessels, weapons and implements of daily practical use. The abstract, substitute, mental world and the material nature world become united in man–a union of infinite vision and limited resources provide an alchemy for civilization.

    Yet, in that union resides an unresolved conflict, the germ of destruction, “the elusive truth,” Steve refers to in his intro, that stands between and perhaps even up-against, the absolute and relative, the determinate and the indeterminate, the finite and the infinite. At some point, the tool maker quietly asks: “Is the elusive truth, the truth that there are no answers?”

    Here is a late August post which I wrote on my FB profile that plays to this theme which, along with the above posting here, is my take on elements of the ancient stoic philosophy I feel are relevant to us, our situation, here today:

    “…during really bad economic times the extremes come into power and battle for the possession of the future. One side wins; the losing side infects the future with its denied consciousness, unfinished contradictions and thwarted will and rises again to assimilate all possibility into itself and resound, once again and forevermore, the eternal battle and the truth that no genuine conflict is ever finished.”

    Pete Stapp

  • Pete, just a couple of mostly tangential comments:

    1) “Tool-making” certainly is the foundation of our more abstract search for moral and cognitive absolute truths, in more ways than one. It not only is the first and most fundamental application of our cognitive faculties, but also the evolutionary reason for the physical development of our brains; our large cerebral cortexes evolved to accommodate our complex hands and fingers, which, in combination (our brains and our hands), set in motion the continuing cognitive evolution that has produced this amazing “anthrosphere” of ours.

    2) British Biologist Richard Dawkins, in an excellent book about biological evolution called “The Selfish Gene,” tossed out the notion that any packet of information that reproduces, mutates, and competes for reproductive success, evolves, and, as such, so do cognitions (which he referred to as “memes”). I discuss this in my post, “The Politics of Consciousness”: The relevance here is the question of what contributes to the reproductive success of memes. For a certain category of memes, utility clearly is the driving force, often as a result, historically, of military conflict: If you are fighting with sticks and stones against another tribe fighting with bows and arrows, you are likely either to adapt or be defeated, the latter resulting either in repetition until you adapt or assimilatation by the victor.

    But the more attenuated the meme is from the exigencies of one’s immediate existence, the more the actual cognitive apparatus of the mind comes into play. Drawing on the disciplines of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology provides some insights into the dynamics by which this occurs: Our minds evolved to be attracted to certain kinds of things, and are constructed to think in frames and narratives, so that those memes which reinforce existing frames and narratives, and appeal to certain predispositions of the mind, have a reproductive advantage. Some of these memes with a reproductive advantage may have no utility in the struggles of life, or may even be disadvantageous in some ways, triggering a competition between short-term inherent cognitive appeal and long-term utility, in which the former tends to win in the short-run, and the latter in the long-term.

    To put some meat on these bones: People are naturally attracted to irony, so, when a rumor circulated in the 1970s that Jerry Mathers, the child actor who played “the Beaver” on TV in the 1950s, died in Vietnam, I immediately thought, “maybe, or maybe not, but this rumor was inevitable in either case, because the notion that the iconic kid of the 1950s died in the war that killed off American children of his age is simply too ironic not to reproduce robustly.” As it turned out, Jerry Mathers was not killed in Vietnam (I don’t recall if he went or not). There was nothing useful about the reproductive success of that meme, but it still was a robust meme because of the propensities of the human mind.

    In the political and moral sphere, the problem is that certain inherently appealing memes, such as that any use of government is inherently in opposition to individual liberty, and that any reduction in individual liberty is inherently in opposition to human welfare, do not have immediately apparent effects in terms of utility, though in the long-run they are highly contrary to our collective welfare. In order to oppose these inherently attractive memes with others of greater long-term utility (such as that government has a complex relationship to individual liberty, and individual liberty has a complex relationship to human welfare, and going on to describe those complexities in detail), we have to find a way to couch them within simpler memes that are more inherently appealing to human cognitive predispositions.

    And that is the ultimate political challenge we face.

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