There is an old aphorism which states that “he who is unaware that he is walking in the dark will never seek the light.” In Plato’s allegory of the cave, he describes a group of people who lives their whole lives chained to some rocks in a cave. Unable to look left or right, they grow up seeing the shadows of people and things reflected off of the wall in front of them. Naturally, they take these shadows to be reality, and have built up an entire worldview based on how the shadows appear. One day, for some reason, one of them is freed. He sees from a more objective viewpoint the situation that he has lived in his entire life. Not only that, but he also wanders outside of the cave and sees the wonders of our normal, natural world. Of course, when he goes back to his old friends and family (still chained inside the cave) they believe that he had gone mad.
When we are embroiled in something it is usually very difficult to step back and get some perspective – how much harder must it be to believe something which is entirely out of our sphere of experience! Perceptions and language go hand in hand – we make words for things that we perceive, and we have trouble seeing things for which we don’t have words. The oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal story of a certain Eskimo tribe which has fifty-three words for different kinds of snow is a perfect example. For most of us, snow is – basically – snow. It may be slushy or fluffy, but that’s pretty much the extent of our interest. As you might imagine, someone who lives with snow daily would have a keener interest in the various forms that it takes. Thus, finer distinctions are made, and words evolve to describe the differences.
Imagine growing up in what we would (arrogantly) call a primitive culture and trying to learn English. Perhaps you had only ever drank water from a local stream, and you did this by bending down and dipping your hand into it. Now imagine sitting in your village with a volunteer from some world organization, trying to learn English. First of all, what is a glass? What is it used for? Not only that, but what are tumblers, beakers, goblets, chalices, mugs, cups, and steins? Why would anyone possibly need even one word for such a thing, much less eight? Surely, the whole concept would seem absurd.
A related issue revolves around the dichotomies of life. There are spacial dichotomies (up vs. down, left vs. right, front vs. back), temporal dichotomies (past vs. future), visual dichotomies (light vs. dark, transparent vs. opaque), and value dichotomies (good vs. evil, happy vs. sad). Of course, there are as many categories of dichotomy as there are namable categories. This is because the act of categorizing is essentially the act of applying a dichotomy. There are even categories of categories, as in the statement: “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide everyone into two categories, and those who do not.”
In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu describes this situation thus:
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other.
High and low rest upon each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Front and back follow one another.
All of this leads us to another basic premise:
We know things only by comparison to other things – nothing exists except if something which is not-it also exists.
Once again, we will see that this seemingly innocuous statement leads us to several conclusions which are surprising but, nonetheless, unavoidable.
A refutation of over-ecumenicalism
If we accept the premises that objective truth exists and that it is never self-contradictory, then, from this current premise we must conclude the following corollary:
Corollary: Some things are objectively false.
The reasoning goes as follows: since objective truth exists, and nothing exists except if something which is not-it also exists, then some objectively false things must exist.
Although this may not seem surprising as a statement, the sentiment behind the corollary is sorely lacking in our current culture. What I am referring to is what I will call over-ecumenicalism – the tendency to think that any belief is just as likely to be true as any other, and that we must accept as possible a belief which has virtually no grounding in rationality at all. As mentioned previously, we are mixing up the legal right (in some parts of the world) of freedom of belief with the idea that every belief is equally likely to be true. In fact, as discussed in another post, the concept that some things may actually be true and other things false is anathema to many.
Over ecumenicalism occurs when we start to think that a belief is valid simply by virtue of the fact that someone has it. It is true that we do not have the (legal or moral) right to impose our beliefs on another, but this is not the same as accepting anything and everything as possibly correct. Some ideas are simply wrong.
Over ecumenicalism occurs when we start to think that a belief is valid simply by virtue of the fact that someone has it.
But dismissing a belief is not the same thing as dismissing the believer. It is incumbent upon us to treat each other with dignity and respect – but this does not mean that we must coddle everyone. We are not treating people with respect if we simply respond with a pat on the head and an “isn’t that nice?” whenever they espouse some half-thought-out notion. Tossing out an idea into a crowd is today’s method of seeking validation – and silence is seen as consent. In this way we see a degradation of the ability to think critically, since we have spent so much time validating ridiculous notions by not challenging them that generally people start to believe that there is no idea so ridiculous that it will not be accepted.
The idea that some things are objectively false also invalidates the notion of solipsism – the idea that nothing exists but the self, and thus that every truth is ultimately defined by the individual. Certain faddish ideas or attitudes fit into this category; we are constantly admonished that each person must find his or her own path, and that each idea holds a kernel of truth. Let’s look at these ideas a bit.
Tossing out an idea into a crowd is today’s method of seeking validation – and silence is seen as consent. In this way we see a degradation of the ability to think critically.
That each person must find his or her own path seems to me to be undoubtedly true – but, just as with other trips, making one’s way down the path is more fruitful if others have left signs and markings along the way. It is the signs and markings along the path that define human progress – if we as a species let each person flounder along and learn everything “the hard way” we would still be living in trees at the mercy of whatever predator happened by. And, the idea that we must each find our own way is inconsistent with the thousands of books published (seemingly) weekly on the subject of spiritual growth. No, most people do not really believe that each of us must sink or swim in the spiritual ocean – this notion is usually used simply as a defense against anything that even remotely resembles analysis.
That every idea holds a kernel of truth is also most likely correct – as far as it goes. The statement “my grandmother was President of the United States” also holds some truth – namely, that “my grandmother was.” But separating the wheat from the chaff regarding ideas which are essentially bogus is time consuming – if we stop and look at every idea from every writer (including yours truly) without a method of sifting through them, we will easily spend our entire lives mired in a mound of chaff. Previously, filters such as the quality of the publisher, the credentials of the author, published reviews, and personal references were some of the ways that we narrow the search for worthwhile reading material. Nowadays, it is much more difficult.
The statement “my grandmother was President of the United States” holds some truth – namely, that “my grandmother was.”
But we must also be careful that we don’t become incestuous in our search for truth – reading and studying ideas with which we already know we agree. The best way that I know to formulate and define beliefs is to study ideas which are foreign to us – since it is by contrast that our ideas begin to crystallize. But it is also important to avoid turning a particular belief into a straw man by studying only the worst versions of the competing beliefs.
Time is also an excellent sieve through which to pass an idea. If an idea or work has lasted some number of years (how many depends on the circumstances), then it most likely has some useful content. You may violently disagree with it, but it is unlikely to be a waste of time to study it. For example, if one is interested in learning about Roman Catholic theology, it is more fruitful to read the works of Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, or to read The Cloud of Unknowing than it is to read something that was just published this year. Not that a current work is necessarily bad – but in a world of where our time is limited, it is better to go to the original sources.
But I seem to be caught in a contradiction – why write this blog? There are two ways to look at this issue: (1) Even The Cloud of Unknowing was once a new work, and (2) Despite what I have written, many people still prefer current works to the older ones. Certainly, I am not advocating that everything that can be said has been said, nor that everything that can be written has been written.
It is also comforting to know that Nietzsche’s masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra was originally published in a run of twenty books, and that it was totally ignored. Some people even sent back free copies! Many of the great works of Western civilization were virtually unknown for years – however, quality finally won out and the works survived while works better known at the time vanished into obscurity.
Keenly observant readers will take note of the self-justifying argument being put forward here: If this blog is extremely popular, then that is good. If it isn’t, it’s simply following the line of great works throughout the ages which were largely ignored at first!