Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of how we gain and retain knowledge.  A classic issue in epistemology is the question of color perception.  When you look at something that is blue, do you have the same perception in your mind as I do when I see the same thing?  If I were able to somehow crawl into your head, would everything look weird?  This is a very difficult question to answer experimentally, since we do not have the means to try it.  However, many theorists hold the belief that “blue” is simply a convention. When we are young, we are told what is blue and what is not-blue, and the actual sense perceptions that we have are irrelevant.  What I see when I say “blue” may be what you see when you say “red” – but, since we are all pointing to the same things when we are learning to differentiate colors, we agree on which color is which by convention.

There are more and less efficient ways of approaching truth.

This means that much, if not all, of what we call knowledge – since it is stored in symbols defined by convention – is really not direct knowledge, but knowledge as defined by the symbols and conventions that we have learned.  Remembering that any symbolization is an abstraction – and therefore an approximation – we are lead inevitably to the conclusion that our knowledge is always by necessity approximate.

So, although truth is “out there” so to speak, we will never to able to know exactly what it is.  Some people might react to this idea by thinking that, since it is ultimately unfulfillable, that the search for knowledge is also pointless.  By looking at obtaining knowledge as a goal and not as a process, these people will always be disappointed.  They will feel the same disappointment that they feel in their search for security – just when they thought their marriages, jobs, or whatever were safe – poof!  They’re gone.  Knowledge and security are things that are pursued, but never obtained.

This means that much, if not all, of what we call knowledge – since it is stored in symbols defined by convention – is really not direct knowledge, but knowledge as defined by the symbols and conventions that we have learned.

It is no accident that the U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right, not of happiness, but of the pursuit of happiness.  Happiness shares many of the attributes of security and knowledge – at any time, the situation might change.  You may be very happy for a long while, and believe yourself to be “a happy person” but, with little warning, you may find yourself in the opposite state.

The psychological theorist Abraham Maslow, famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, defined the ultimate state of each person’s psychological growth.  He named this state of being self actualization, and hypothesized that people approaching this state of mind are intimately acquainted with what he called the being values, or B-values.  He identified fourteen of these B-values: truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, aliveness, uniqueness, perfection, completion, justice, simplicity, totality, effortlessness, humor and autonomy.  A self-actualizer is not, of course, perfect himself, but lives with a mindset where perfection is considered.  If I am a gardener, what is the perfect garden?  If I am a computer programmer, what is the perfect computer program?  If I collect trash, what is the perfect way to do this?

Likewise, the other B-values are pursued: What is perfect beauty?  What is perfect justice?  And, the particular case in point: What is truth?

To say that our knowledge is always by necessity approximate means that we must approach truth asymptotically:  we can get ever nearer, but never quite grasp it.  For example, if you were standing ten feet away from a diamond, representing truth, and began walking toward the gem by halving the distance, you would be approaching it, but you would never reach it.  On your first move, you would be five feet closer; then two and a half feet closer, etc.  Each halving of the distance represents weeding out all of the things which are not truth, and with each move, large amounts of misinformation are brushed aside.  After only a few moves, you would be close enough to feel you could reach out and touch the diamond – but that wouldn’t be playing by the rules.  It would require a leap of faith at some point to ever grasp the gem and, since you have not played by the rules, you may find that when you leapt you temporarily lost your bearings and ended up grasping the wrong one.  Instead of the diamond, you get a cubic zirconia.

Asymptotic approaches are exponential, which means that each move toward truth is made as a function of some exponent. For example, if I start a hundred feet away from the diamond, then move to stand 10 feet from the gem (the square root of 100), then 3.16 feet (the square root of 10), then 1.78 feet, etc. – then I have approached it at a faster rate than by simply halving the distance (100, 50, 25, 12.5, 6.25, 3.725, 1.5625…).  Of course, I will still never reach the diamond, it’s just that I have eliminated larger distances with each step.  (It is important to notice that if I were to start ten thousand feet away, that with the exponential approach, I need only one extra step to get to 1.5625 feet; with the “halving the distance” approach, I need approximately five extra steps to make up the difference.)

Thus, there are more and less efficient ways of approaching truth.

It is popular these days to believe (or at least to say) that “some truth can be found in anything.” While this idea has merit, it really does not speak to the real issue.  Although I could dig a foundation for a house with a teaspoon, it is much more effective to use a backhoe.  The question isn’t so much could you, but why would you want to?  Thus, one can search for truth in a more, or a less, efficient manner. We can read, attend lectures, listen to broadcast programs, etc. of all sorts of inconsequential stuff that only advances us closer to the gem by small steps, or we can expend our energy and time (both of which are finite) on more efficient approaches to truth.

The time and energy needed to read The Tao Te Ching is certainly greater than to read the latest popular book about Taoism, but the payoff is also greater.  To take the easier path here results in taking only baby steps toward understanding, rather than being able to make giant strides toward it.  To accept the pre-digested mush of a “popularized” work instead of the original work is similar to putting milk in your gas tank because the grocery store is more convenient than the gas station. Sure, you are filling up, but are you going anywhere?

Sure, you are filling up, but are you going anywhere?

Image References:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: By User:Factoryjoe (Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Maslow%27s_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

Maslow: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Abraham_Maslow.jpg