Hey guys, hope you’ve had a happy 4th of July! It’s Saturday again so I’m here to bring you another philosophical story challenge. This week I want to focus on perception versus reality. I think it’s a common theme throughout life that everyone views the world through their own lens of perception which is crafted by their own experiences and biases. How can we come to a true understanding of what we see and experience if everything we see and experience is interpreted by a brain which overlays all of past experiences onto it; how can there be any objectivity at all? It’s easy to say that we should only deal with facts and empirically tested ideas but even these are in question–how can we trust an empirical test when it relies on our senses to interpret the data that it yields? It seems as though we just have to accept that at some level we have to trust our senses, even though we know how fallible they can be. The problem is that this leaves some room for differences between “reality” and our perceptions. 200 years ago if you had told someone about our atomic theory they would have laughed; they didn’t have the tools we have to measure the things that we can measure to verify this data. It is both the beauty and the weakness of science; it can tell you the most accurate information that you can observe, but that doesn’t make it true–it just makes it the most accurate information available. Your challenge this week is to write a story where perceptions and reality are different from each other. I’m leaving it up to you to decide how you want to portray this theme; but, as always, if you want to post on here please keep it under 1,000 words. Otherwise, feel free to write more! Have fun.
This post has relatively… well, nothing to do with writing. I mean, I’m sure that I could spin some convoluted web to connect this post to a writer’s responsibility to his audience, or something similar. Honestly, though, this post isn’t about writing, it’s about behavior. I regularly teach a class on ethics, and one of the things that my students continually struggle with is the question of how to judge morality. Some people want this to be a simple list of do’s and don’ts (such and such is right or such and such is wrong), but in truth it is rarely that simple. On the other hand, some people want it to be completely free (whatever is right for you), and this is equally simplistic. This is the case because morality exists on a few different levels. These can be broken down to: personal morality (those moral/immoral actions that affect me and those around me), community morality (those moral/immoral actions taken by a specific community as a whole which affect the entire community), national morality (those moral/immoral actions that are taken by a national government and affect the entire nation), and ultimate morality (that which is ultimately moral/immoral). However, even these levels commonly intertwine, and some situations have no realistic, moral solution. The question asked cannot be answered in a few blog post (this is something that scholars have been debating for [literally] millenia – just read Plato’s Republic), but some thoughts on this question can be shared, and specific examples given.
In the course I teach students are asked to identify themselves as either a moral absolutist (i.e. believing in some form of moral absolutes) or a moral relativist (i.e. rejecting any form of moral absolute), and many of them cannot do so. They correctly argue that while they believe in some absolutes, not every situation contains a moral absolute (i.e. when I sit down to eat dinner it is not morally right or wrong to eat meat – yes, I know, some of you disagree – shut up, I eat meat, and this proves my point), some things are morally relative, at least in perspective, and this leads us into the center of the quandary. Many people argue that ‘what is true for me, might not be true for you’, and in this they are right and wrong at the same time. They are wrong in that we can safely assume that that which is real is true (truth=reality), and so there can only one truth (physicists: stop now, I know there could be more than one reality, but when I say ‘reality’ I mean all of ‘reality’, not this specific reality). However, while there can only be one reality, one truth, there are multiple perspectives on that reality, that truth, and thus Nietzsche correctly points out that everything is perspective (I think he actually says perception, but here I mean the same thing). What one believes the truth to be impacts their actions, thus what one believes to be the truth ‘becomes’ the truth for that person – this is something that relativists get completely right. However, one’s beliefs concerning the truth (and the actions that belief causes) have no impact on the truth itself!
For instance, I believe that God exists, and I believe that the Christian bible is his divine revelation to mankind. I am confident in this belief, and thus it has a profound effect on my actions. However, my conviction has no impact (none whatsoever) on God’s existence or non-existence. God is not dependent on my belief, he either exists or he fails to exist on his own, and to him my belief is a non-issue. Thus while my actions are dependent on this belief, and this belief is dependent on the evidence of God’s existence that I have seen, the reverse is not true. My belief is not depended on my actions (though other’s perception of that belief might be), and the evidence of God’s existence (and his existence itself) is not dependent on my belief. Thus what is ‘true for me’ may or may not actually be true, but my actions reflect the guidance of that ‘truth’. This is the case for everyone – it is one of the most basic laws of humanity, true objectivity is impossible because we are all biased by our most basic beliefs (i.e. the fact that I trust my senses biases me). It is laudable to strive to identify and remove as much bias as possible, but it is foolish to assume that bias can be entirely removed. Thus, while there must be an ultimate morality (i.e. truth=reality) we can do no more than form beliefs (often conflicting) about what that morality is, and even these beliefs are severely limited*.
So, the question inevitably arises: does this mean that all ‘truths’ are equal? Of course not. In hermeneutics (the interpretation of written material) it is possible to have several valid interpretations of a single statement. However, this does not mean that any interpretation is correct. For instance, Nietzsche’s comment that ‘everything is perception’, could validly be interpreted literally (i.e. literally everything is perception), or as exaggeration (i.e. most things are perception, but I’m trying to make a point so I’m going to say everything), or as dealing with a specific area (i.e. everything in moral philosophy is reliant on perception), or in a few other ways. However, it could not be validly interpreted to mean that nothing is perception, or the Nietzsche really, really wants ice cream. These are faulty interpretations, because they do not reflect any possible reality of Nietzsche’s statement (deconstructionists: I don’t want to hear it, by your own admission your words are meaningless, thus your arguments are moot). We may examine relative truth claims in a similar manner. Those that best reflect the reality of the world (admittedly as interpreted through the biases of the viewer) are most likely to be true. However, we must also realize that all of us utilize some degree of faith and intuition (generally a lot) in forming our beliefs, and that all of us are biased. Thus, while an ultimate moral truth must exist, we are all guessing at what it actually is, and while some guesses may be closer than others, it remains an uncounted jar of jellybeans.
All right, that’s enough of my prattle for today. Tomorrow will (see should :P) be another post in my world-building series, and check back next weekend for the next post in this series. I would tell you what it will be, but that will probably change between now and then.
*For you Christians reading this who will inevitably claim that Biblical law is the ultimate morality – scripture itself implies that it is not. In a few instances we are allowed to do something that God has clearly expressed his distaste for – divorce is a prime example. God makes it clear throughout his word that he detests divorce (thus is does not fit within the ‘right’ of ultimate morality), and yet he allows it in the Old Testament, and in a few instances in the New Testament specifically because man is morally weak and incapable of living up to his ultimate morality. I am not saying that Scripture is not authoritative in the life of the believer (I believe that it is, and that Christians should and indeed must abide by its commands), but that God makes allowances for our weakness in scripture such that the commands reflected within must be considered significantly less than the ultimate moral law – this is one example of natural sin vs. personal sin (which is a subject for another post).