Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Absolute Truth

Last night I was at a party with friends, sitting on a back porch in the sweltering heat and consuming frosty beverages. This is the conventionally accepted way of spending leisure time in the summer. What's maybe not so socially encouraged is conversation that goes beyond sports, vacation, family or gossip. I ran into my friend R. there, and as usually happens when we get together, we started a three-hour long abstruse conversation exhaustively examining philosophical semantics. These types of debates are often resolved quickly by agreeing to disagree. However, we are beyond that capability. Our interactions sometimes get so impassioned that people get uncomfortable (assuming that we are about to come to blows) and leave us to whatever area we have commandeered. Thankfully, no matter the outcome of a particular debate, we always walk away friends and look forward to the next occasion of good-natured confrontation.

The specific topics from last night were "truth" and "absolutes". R. often resists accepting my relativistic views regarding almost all phenomena. He is studying to be a journalist, and obviously "truth" is of great import to this vocation. The shifting nature of relativism is a source of frustration for anyone trying to "prove" a point. I wouldn't characterize my friend as a moral absolutist, nor do I think that he is unyielding... but his belief in "objective" truth qualifies him as a proud heir of the American tradition of intellectualism.

Our society is obsessed with black-and-white categorization. It is driven by its definitions of "good" and "evil". These dichotomies rely on ideals individually or collectively perceived as truisms. If there is not a clear delineation of sides, then there can be no winner or loser. Even a short examination of American culture will illuminate its competitive nature. At all levels of society, individuals are divided into teams of "us" and "them". Whether it's the local sports franchise, a corporate competitor, or another nation... we seem to have a need to define everyone as a friend or an enemy. The danger of such categorizations is that they rely heavily on subjective perspectives. Too often we define ourselves in opposition to the "other". And to mobilize a large group of people to our side, our leaders must call upon some "greater" or "absolute" (or seemingly "objective") truth through which to rally us and give us meaning that transcends the individual. What gets lost in this process is the possibility of alternative perspectives existing in cooperation.

I would propose that this is the fundamental flaw that leads us into a war of "all against all". We claim ownership and understanding of a "great truth", and use this posture to justify all manner of extreme behavior. What do fundamentalist muslims and neo-conservatives have in common? They have identified "great truths" which are meant to inspire us to root out and destroy "evil". Whether in the name of national pride, material prosperity, religion or "democracy".... these "truths" are used to control large populations that may otherwise propose a threat to the machinations of the elite and challenge the status quo. The systems employed may contain injustices and gross inequities- but who will step up and question the "truths" and "absolutes" that underpin them- these ideals that give all of the members a "greater meaning" beyond themselves?

In my long conversation with R. yesterday, I was willing to concede the existence of subjective and consensual "truths". But I believe any statements of absolutism, or claims of "objective truths" are inherently suspect, and thus should be challenged whenever possible. When someone starts using qualifiers like "good" and "evil", or "right" or "wrong", I immediately begin examining the context of the situation in an effort to ferret out the motivations of the speaker. Whose team are they on? And do I really have to make a choice?


Anonymous DeeA2Z said...

I find that truth (as is beauty) is in the eye of the beholder. If nothing else, this point of view always leads to interesting conversation which often turns to enlightening education, whether or not I agree with the point of view.

Your points are well-taken and as usual well-developed; it does, however, make for an exhausting evening of conversation with you. You don't "do" smalltalk; sometimes people just aren't up for the mental gymnastics needed to keep up with you (which would explain any "Duh" facial expressions and open mouths on your potential conversational partner). I say, keep up the good work! Keep encouraging us to flex our mental muscles.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

It's not true that I "don't do small talk". If I didn't I wouldn't communicate with 90% of the people I come into contact with every day. However, I don't usually talk just for the sake of talking. I perceive "small talk" as an ability to employ during goal-directed activity. It's often necessary to initiate or maintain interactions within a social or professional network, and "small talk" is an essential component of these pursuits. I value it when doen well, and struggle to bear it when it is done poorly or excessively.

Anyway... "small talk" is also a concept defined by a wide range of subjective perspectives. I try not to assume that conversation is "small talk" at all. It's often the case that the talker and listener would disagree about whether or not the term would apply in any given case.

6:34 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

you will burn in hell for what you said

6:36 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thank you for the feedback!

Just one thing...

Do you absolutely mean that, or do you mean that "absolutely"?

7:34 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

Threats like that are made so one doesn't have to answer that question.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Well... it certainly couldn't have come from a more qualified source.

12:30 AM  

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