eThoughts : November 15, 2008: Truth, Belief, and Wisdom

After the fiasco of the majority vote for California’s Prop 8—the one that defines marriage as between a man and a woman—I think it time to point a finger at belief.

Before heading out on this musing, I think it may behoove us to go over philosophy’s basic tests of truth. The first one I’ll address is the coherence test. The rule here is not necessarily about fact checking in the objective world, it is about making sure that what we’ve just learned lines up (coheres) with other facts we know. One doesn’t need to get up off the couch to check a claim that cockroaches wear football helmets. Someone making such a claim has just been putting their hand in the medicine jar a bit much. The problem here is about accepting or rejecting information that is inconsistent with what we already think we know as facts. Dogs can’t think may seem like a fact to many, so a claim that a dog does think may not cohere to what we know. Good luck letting in new information based on old biases masquerading as facts.

The second one is the pragmatic test. Here the truth is its predictive value. If I claim that I know what football teams are going to win on a particular weekend, the truth of my claim lies in the result of my prediction. Of course I can predict some events based on a set-up, which is the concoction of a truth, rather than real predictive value. For instance, consider the psychological impact on the stock market. If I am granted credibility as an economist and go on the news to predict a stock market crash, people could race to pull their money out thereby creating a market crash. I’ve just manufactured a self-fulfilling prophecy. Besides, just because a truth emerges, doesn’t mean that truth is wisdom. As I’ve used before, if one gets what they want by harming another, there may be predictive value and a truth, but there isn’t any wisdom.

The third one, and the one I’m going to use for the pieces that follow about belief, is the correspondence test. Basically it calls for checking our subjective world with the objective one. Want to know if there is a car on your front lawn—go check it out. The problem here is one psychologist Alfred Adler spoke about: the interpretation of an event is more important than the event itself. There may be a car on the front lawn, and certainly the sensory input of the car is represented in our brains, but we also tend to interpret that sensory input—another form of subjective representation. My use of the correspondence test is to avoid at some point at least, a subjective interpretation, even if we cannot avoid a subjective representation of our sensory functions.

Okay, I’ve written about this before, check what one knows by emptying the mind so that subjective representation by way of interpretation is not afoot. Of course, there are those that say this is impossible, there simply cannot be consciousness without an object—emptiness, by definition, cannot reveal anything, much less the truth. And furthermore, the argument might go, emptiness itself is experienced as a representation, as representation is the only possibility for the mind to apprehend something. Actually, I think there is a “point” where we are aware before our subjective, neurological representation of sensory data—awareness without an object. But, as I said, that can be vigorously argued against. But such an argument gets more difficult if we are talking about awareness without interpretation. So, my counter is that mental emptiness can occur at least at the interpretative stage. Interpretations not represented biologically can be revealing because it is a way to see without the tape loops, white noise and conditioning of our learning. There in the interpretative emptiness of our minds, even if just for a nanosecond, we cross a threshold from an exclusively subjective reality to at least a partially objective reality. That’s our check, even if interpretation starts up all over again. My assertion is not that interpretation is inherently bad, it is just that it is not inherently all there is, and we need a check to help us from the tyranny of what we think we know. However, for this to work at all, we cannot represent via interpretation, which is what I’m doing here—words are like that. In other words, we have to have a different mind than what we are used to. To do that, we’ve got to evolve that different mind, perhaps similar to the way we acquired different parts of our brain—though I think that intention is more at work in this case. For those who think the brain is the mind and vice versa, we could consider that the cerebral cortex is a different part of the brain, with different functions, though it is connected to its earlier manifestations. Perhaps the easiest way to explain this “new” mind acquisition is say that we are becoming as a child, but not like a child—meaning that we already know about being in a state of non-interpretation since interpretation is acquired sometime after we’ve been born.

So, want to know the difference between thinking and the truth? Have a way to check it out with something other than what is believed in the first place. When we stop trying to solve the problem on the level in which it occurred, we move to an entirely different way to apprehend reality—in this case it just might be wisdom.

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