Articles Hierarchy

What is the threshold for "truth"? (or, Why I Am a Monist)

All my life, I've sought answers to questions that bothered me. Perhaps 'bothered' is not the right word, but that's the common expression for the feeling we all get when a question, once raised, requires some sort of answer. This requirement for some sort of answer is apparently an attribute of the human mind. We feel a strong need to actively seek an answer to certain types of questions - questions which seem important, while we merely feel 'interested' in the answers to questions we deem less important.

In my youth, I recall asking myself the all-too-common question, "Why was I born?" In my particular family, my parents answered me in the time-honored manner of most parents everywhere: that is, their answer was presented in terms involving a deity, an immortal 'soul', and an afterlife. I also recall that they took me to a house of worship, where the officers and teachers there instructed me that this question was important indeed. In fact, they assured me that it was the single most important question possible, since the answer would not only affect the outcome of my entire life, but would determine the outcome of my next life as well (for eternity!).

I believed all of this. I believed it sincerely and with the utmost conviction. In accepting this 'answer', my human need to resolve my important question was satisfied. I no longer felt the pangs of uncertainty that accompany, must accompany, the contemplation of having an important question with no answer.

As I grew into my teens and attended high school, I was taught many things by various teachers all of which I believed, at first. However I also began to discover that, at least in some subjects, the teachers made mistakes from time to time; presenting facts in the classroom that disagreed with those printed in the textbook! I soon learned that no benefit accrued to me by pointing these errors out to the teacher. (Funny, I thought, you'd think the teacher would have been glad that I'd prevented him from repeating the error in the future.) So I now came to the conclusion that 'facts' presented in the classroom were usually good enough for the tests, but not good enough to satisfy my need for 'the truth' as presented in the textbooks; (that is, if I happened to care about a particular issue and felt the need for 'the truth'; I'd better read the textbook myself and not take the teacher's word for it.)

Then when in college, I made the additional discovery that certain textbooks were in disagreement with other textbooks! Sometimes this was due to the date of printing, and new science had been discovered; but often, it was due to a difference of opinion between authors, editors, or committees!

How to resolve these discrepancies? Well, in some subjects, if I thought the answer was really important, I could do my own research. Consider, if I ever doubted that my math teacher was well informed when declaring that 2 + 2 = 4, it was easy enough to go home, take 2 knives from the drawer, then another 2 knives, lay them all next to each other on a table and count 1, 2, 3, 4 sure enough, there's 4 of them! Furthermore, for 'facts' such as these, I doubt that I could find any textbook or teacher anywhere, in any language, that would disagree with the premise (that 2 + 2 = 4). This is not a practical example, of course, but you get my point. I could confirm some things by my own investigation.

In other subjects, rather than devote my life to learning the discipline required to do my own research (such as quantum mechanics), I had to rely on other methods such as reading several texts and looking for consistency among the writings of those qualified to do the research. The same answer from several independent sources usually satisfies my need for an answer. The beast of doubt is slain, and I can go on to other things.

So it was natural, when I returned to that most basic question from my childhood, the most important question imaginable (so I'd been told), that I felt a strong urge to know 'for certain'. I felt a strong desire to kill my gnawing doubt - doubt kindled by my realization that the 'experts' most certainly did not agree on what constituted 'the truth'. It was not possible to do my own research. Further, it is not possible, even in principle, for the experts to do research either. Thus their disagreements must continue and cannot be resolved by discovering the facts.

In an effort to quell my personal doubt, I studied or joined various religions during my early years. I even took classes in "world religions" and "comparative religion" in college. I purchased many books and interviewed many religious people. I could not find any consistancy, coherence, or agreement anywhere. It was all provincial. No one, author, layman, or priest would even consider that other humans held differing views in equal esteem and sincerity to their own. A most unsatisfying result as far as this author was concerned.

So I've realized that I have a standard for knowledge - a threshold for truth. Apparently a threshold more rigorous than that which satisfies average people. Whenever someone claims to be an 'expert' in their field, it's not what they claim to know that interests me, but how they came to know it - and whether their certainty comes from independent verification or merely 'a feeling'.

When Einstein proposed his Theory of Special Relativity, General Relativity, and explained the photo-electric effect experts the world over performed thousands of experiments and, once an experiment confirmed some part of the theory, any expert anywhere could duplicate the experiment and obtain the exact same result! This is deeply satisfying; to me and to anyone else who wishes an answer one can 'take to the bank'.

Answers to questions which can be confirmed independently by different experts satisfy me.

And yet and yet there are humans walking around today, all over the world, who's doubts have been satisfied by 'experts' (priests and teachers) who:
- cannot agree with one another
- cannot prove their own answers, nor disprove those of others
- cannot conduct, nor even propose, any observations that would confirm their answers

I recognize the deep need for answers that we all feel, but I fail to understand how anyone can accept non-answers, such as provided by the world's religions, as satisfying that need. Such answers suited when I was 8 or 9 years of age, but after high school, after realizing that 'because I say so' is no guarantee of truth, I can no longer take any comfort from them.

Upon discovering Dawkins' and Dennet's expositions on Darwin, and coming to understand and appreciate the power of "Darwinism" or "neo-Darwinism" to provide me with a principle, if not every detail, which has the power to explain all of life, all relationships between people and between animals, dreams, foresight and planning, dread of the unknown, and yes, even explains the neurological basis for religions; and has the further power in that it doesn't contradict itself; (the icing on this cake is that I can propose experiments myself, make observations, and confirm them)... well, I find that satisfying.

In matters of religion, others are apparently satisfied that they 'know' something they cannot even coherently describe. They 'know' things in spite of the indisputable fact that others 'know', with just as much certainty and equal authority, that they are wrong.

I have a different threshold for acceptance.

I would never purchase a shoe from a salesman that claimed to "know" or "know for certain" that it will fit, merely on his word as a shoe expert. I would expect him to measure my foot first (or at least read the size printed on the label of my old shoe). Having done this minimum amount of invesitigation, I would imagine that he would then recommend the same shoe size as any other shoe salesman in town. If I'd never bought any shoes before, and couldn't measure my feet for myself, but every shoe salesman in town measured me as a 12D, I would then be able to accept that as a useful piece of information.

In the context of the present forum, I suppose a religious person will come to see this essay as an attack on religion. Actually, I reject all forms of belief in 'the supernatural' - including Paganism, Gaia, Kabbalah, Witchcraft, or any other mumbo-jumbo that requires me to accept as fact, that which cannot be proven. Recently a co-worker, upon discovering that I am not Christian, attempted to convince me to practice Kabbalah. He energetically claimed that it has "been proven to work", because there are "many documented instances" in "books that are thousands of years old". I politely thanked him for thinking of me...

Given this personality trait of mine, this insistence on hard evidence, it was inevitable that I would reject mysticism in all its forms.

So I guess I won't be ordering any power crystal pyramids to keep all my razor blades perpetually sharp, anytime soon. I'll have to see the evidence before I plunk down my hard-earned $75.

Comfortable - January 4, 2009
Sentinal on 07/05/2009 10:15

sounds like the story of my life, i had always questioned religious studies and debated/argued what the bible had to where it contradicted itself, and it was always met with anger and fail marks. pretty sad huh. i went to a christian school and the very act of bible studies in the classroom led me to conclude that it is all rubbish.

great essay.

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