Tuesday, November 6, 2012
On Truth, Existential Concern, and the Relationship to my Contemporaries
*Originally entitled On Talking to Myself, this note was written on February 29th, 2012*
As I become more inward, I become more outcasted. This thought occasionally puts a smile on my face, not unlike the smile you put on after observing yourself in a carnival mirror. What silliness to think that this should bother me in the slightest. "Woe to you, Max, for not conforming to the herd mentality and the canonicity that we have established." If the criterion of a good life is whether it would make good entertainment, like a reality show, then I must confess my failure. Yes, woe to me for failing to adopt the idiocy of my contemporaries, those who hold their noses up to smell the next best thing. "Alas, Max, you have changed." Yes, indeed! But they often fail to point out what's wrong with that.
"No, No, Max, it's just that you are so difficult sometimes, using all that logic and inquiry." Ah, so the mystery is revealed. The outcast comes to the crowd and asks them a few simple questions and he is asked to leave and further banish himself for failing to ask questions according to their sensuous standards. But even if the outcast were to occupy his isolation with thinking of a better method of delivery, then the comical would occur: He would return to appeal to their sensuousness, but now they would reject him for the subject matter. I suppose they would banish him again, and if he were to return with a new method and subject, then he'd most likely be welcomed among their ranks, but only because he abandoned everything that offended them in the first place, and thus becomes a water drop falling into a lake to be obscured.
"No, it's the fact that you think I'm wrong." And now we get more comical. But I wonder if it's the fact that I tell them that they are wrong that bothers them or that they are in fact wrong. With regards to the former, all I can say is that, to the best of my knowledge, I've never told anyone this bluntly. The problem with this criticism is that it assumes that I already know that they are wrong to begin with, and so take some sort of pleasure in pointing my finger at them while giving them no reasons. But usually when it gets to that point (a rare occurance) there has already been established concepts on my behalf and, most importantly, disclosure by the participant. This disclosure by the participant (if I'm lucky, in the form of a dialectic) prompts me to give a response, and at that point I declare whether what they say is true or false. With regards to the latter, that they are bothered by the fact that they are wrong, all I can do is offer them a pat on the back and remind them that it isn't easy changing beliefs. However, the rest is up to them and if they want to continue to be stubborn then their criticism of me becomes as effective as a pile of ash resisting the wind. But most of the time it seems like they are upset to have their positions examined, as if they'd rather believe in shallowness, comparable to the kiddy pool with all of its 'additions'.
"Why do you care?" Why do I care? This assumes some very telling things. First, it assumes that he (the one who asks why I care) is genuinely interested in the answer, or that he cares enough to ask. Or perhaps he's more interested in trying to trip up his opposition in order to make him look like a fool. Would any answer satisfy this questioner's appetite? Assuming that this question is asked in earnestness, I'd have to respond by appealing to epistemic obligations: It's better to believe in the truth. Sadly, I doubt this is very convincing. Instead, I appeal to the fact that we all strive for something in this life, and it certainly helps to be able to know why you believe something, or at least how it fits into your web of total beliefs. Why? Because our beliefs often (almost always) determine our actions, and if you believe in something false then any actions you take will lead into further discord.
"There is no one right answer on how to live life. Therefore, your evaluations are pointless and mere utterances of your subjective preference." And this is the reason why I get involved. Instead of challenging this relativistic understanding of life, I'll avoid it by asking a greater question: If there is a 'correct' way to live life, then wouldn't it make all the difference in the world? "That is preposterous! Every person is different precisely because they have various talents and hobbies!" This would indeed be a valid objection if I was suggesting that there is only one proper hobby or talent one should adopt. However, this isn't my case at all. Instead, I'm suggesting that it's possible that there is a "highest Good" for man to set out for. It certainly seems plausible that there exists a path in life, an attitude, which is the highest a man can achieve. "Yeah? Says who?" Alas, it would be difficult to answer this question with a straight face, but I may be successful with another approach. By focusing on my flaws, one is condemning some sort of behavior or attitude that I have which they have an issue with. It seems clear that they mean this criticism in a real way, that is, they are listing flaws which I have and are also implicitly declaring that something is wrong with those flaws. Take, for example, my alleged hubris; some believe that I, Max, talk down to others on my tower of loftiness. Their condemnation presupposes some sort of standard of what is permissible behavior. If they deny this presupposition, then it appears that their criticism isn't much of a criticism, but more of a burp of displeasure. With that in mind, I return to their original question, "Says who?" It seems to me that this question can be used as a trap, and I'll treat it as such by ignoring it and returning to what I originally brought up.
The issue is: Is it possible that there is a highest Good that people ought to follow? Most people, who don't take pleasure in playing devil's advocate every time a serious topic comes up, will agree that it is possible. However, most will deny it and opt for some relativistic existentialism. Their reasons? Most go off topic, but the few that don't are easy to sum up. The first type of denial comes to us in the form of what I call 'probability overgrowth'. "There are many religions and philosophies that claim to house the "Truth", so what makes yours so special?" This objection brings to the table issues of epistemology and ontology, but ultimately fails to cast much doubt on my proposition. Why should one think that the presence of other "truths" somehow invalidates the 'Truth', if there is such a thing as that? Why think that relativism follows? Perhaps all one could conclude from this is that people can be wrong but think they are right. However, I think this objection aims to show that it's incredibly hard to sort out all of these 'truths', and because of this one ought to remain skeptical of anything that claims to be "the Truth." Alas, this hits a dead end in a cavern filling up with water. The main problem here is that claiming "truth is relative" or "You ought to remain skeptical", is itself a claim to knowledge/obligation. The former implies a contradiction and the latter suggests that skepticism is correct (ignoring that it follows that one should doubt skepticism as well), and so becomes an option, or a 'truth', amongst many. The second objection is what I call the "I-I-Me-Me" attitude. Here one suggests that we make the meaning of our lives and that meaning becomes our 'own' truth. The problem with this outlook is twofold: First, it says nothing of the fact that a highest good could exist, or how our subjective truth/purpose would interact with that highest Good. Second, it's simply ignores obvious moral parameters. With regard to the latter, how does one avoid nihilism this way? It seems silly to say, "We make our own meaning and truth to follow", but also say "As long as it isn't rape, murder, incest, theivery, greed, deception, intolerance, etc". One may believe this, but the other person, the nihilist, can reject the parameters while claiming that it's his own truth and to butt out of his life. So whoever accepts the "I-I-Me-Me" attitude must choose between allowing absurdity (nihilism) or abandoning that idea all together.
Hopefully, in light of this, the offense of my inquiring personality will lessen. Most will see no problem with voicing (quite loudly) their concern if they see a small child playing dangerously close to a cliff's edge. However, when it comes to actually talking about that which this sympathy stems from, the ethical, the religious, then it becomes offensive. If a highest Good exists, which ought to be the telos of every person, and there are real consequences to ignoring it, then, if I know this, why wouldn't I call out to warn others of a grave mistake? I am reminded of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and the fate of the prisoner, who escaped the life long illusions given to him by his captors, to see the real world above. When he returned, nobody believed him, and when he persisted, he was killed.
Or perhaps thinking that you have the truth can come across as audacious and pompous. It could be the case that when one hears another say "This is the truth" that he may respond by saying "Maybe, but I'm too humble to think that I possess the truth by believing you." Of course I find this rather silly since disagreement does not entail any sort of hostility. One who claims to know something shouldn't hate or fear questions, and if he does then his 'knowledge' might turn out to be comforts supported by pillars of wish-fulfillment, at which point means that reasoning will cause offense. And one who values the truth should be willing to listen to those who claim to know, even if there may be a multitude of people claiming to know. But if one does not value the truth, then what a sad state of affairs has taken place! I find it highly depressing that some of my contemporaries need reasons why truth has special 'connotations'. These are tragic signs of the times! Saying this person is beyond hope seems accurate. What could one say to such a person in order to convince him that truth, by the very nature of the case, is the highest pursuit? Would this person be that stupid to demand an argument from one who values truth? Would this person be that shamefully ignorant as to reject any attempts at being convinced simply because he fancies himself with immediacy? Or would this person be bold enough to justify his stupidity by saying, "Truth has no special connotations since pleasure feels so good that it cannot be the lesser." I am quite convinced, however, that such a person says these things due to his sheltered lifestyle, for I'm confident that when faced with unfairness or harm that he will shout complaints as high as Mt. Washington.
Despite what I feel is completely self evident to even the most simple among us, I will answer that annoying devil's advocate, that stubborn brick of an attitude, in order to show the supreme laziness that rests ever so comfortably behind the curtain. So there are few among us (and may it remain few) that think truth is relative because it has no special connotation over immediacy (pleasures). To such a person I say, "speak". And when they attempt to explain their position, I will nod my head with satisfaction, for they have just bathed themselves with comedy, akin to the general who rides on his white horse in front of his army while delivering a courageous and motivating speech full of valor, and then tells them to charge, but in the direction furthest away from the enemy. O, you foolish men, don't you realize that you're appealing to truth in order to denounce it? Do you not, when you are confronted with two piles of pleasures, appeal to truth when you contemplate which pile has given you the greatest pleasure? Or would you be sand in the wind and choose the pile that gives you the least amount of pleasure simply because the salesman was a good 'pleasure-appealing' speaker? No, you bag of dumb, you would trust the truth to give you pleasure. However, if you allow truth this honor, then why do you say that it has no special connotation? Laziness!
But nobody seems to want to listen to me, and this to me is the most comical. Yes, I do indeed outcast myself as I become more inner; and yes, I have become hated among my peers. But one thing I'm not ashamed of is allowing myself to be open with others in order that I may save a few. I hear so many people complain on Facebook and elsewhere, but instead of thinking deeply about the source of their unhappiness, they'd rather adopt silly postmodern bandage solutions, which they pray will prolongue their inevitable anguish. Some are so close to the edge that help is doubtful. But I pray that God gives me the faith to care, and moreover, the strength to help these people by provoking them to see the truth and, if they're willing, to take the first steps on the right path. Call me 'self-righteous', but if you were to see what I have seen, then you'd understand why I care about them.