Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Truth is/isn't relative

People who talk about the truth are rarely talking about the same thing. I asked a friend if truth was relative. She said, very firmly, "All truth is relative." It's one of the few things that we have ever disagreed on. I feel, by definition, that if something is relative, it can't be truth. That seems to me to be a tautology. Though some things can be closer to the truth than other things, I don't believe that there are degrees of truth. One is closer to zero then two, but only zero is zero.

Whenever I have a disagreement with someone I consider intelligent, it's an opportunity to explore. So I asked the question of Roz and K and they agreed with my friend. Puzzling. Then Roz started explaining and made it much clearer.

We all have mental maps of our reality. Going back to Socrates' cave and shadow analogy, people have discussed the fact that we don't experience much of life directly. When we see a rock, we see photons bounced off the rock and form an image in electrochemical nets in our brains. There is no rock in our head (at least not literally).

For most people, the mental map is real. In many ways, more real to them than the world it is trying to describe. (My personal definition of bigotry is when a person refuses to change their mental map in the presence of clear evidence that it is wrong.)

I've never felt that my mental map or world view was real. It's just the best working model I have right now. So the only things I accept as 'true' are those very, very few instances where the map has a 1:1 correlation with reality. Diamond scratches talc, never the other way around, regardless of situation, person or point of view; this is not relative, and so I consider it true. So, by my definition, truth is very rare and never relative.

Ah, but if you define truth as a scalar measuring how closely your map aligns with the world then truth is relative, and there are "great truths" which move your map vastly closer to reality and someone is always closer to reality than you on some point and there is an unreachable but beautiful goal of "Universal Truth" where the map and the world are one. That's what the seekers search for and my friend is definitely a seeker after Truth.

I seek too, though. Life is a quest for experiences and challenges to my beliefs and expectations. I like testing my map. I like re-writing it. It gets closer to reality all the time, but it will never become reality. Reality wouldn't fit in my head. Especially since sometimes I'm the stupidest person in the room.

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