Tag Archives: philosophy

nothing like nothing

i had an interesting conversation the other night with an intelligent man who lives on the other side of the world.  well, 13 hours away.  close enough?  anyways, my new korean friend is back visiting family for the holidays and i happen to know his family.  its not too often i get to talk with someone on so many different interesting topics on several different levels.

its a good buzz.

im not even sure how we got started talking about existential things as it came out of left field.  i dont meet too many people who will launch out into deeper waters right away.  most take a considerable amount of time to exchange pleasantries and small talk.  my new korean friend wasted very little time questioning the very existence we both sat within.

ultimately, the course the conversation boiled down to one question: ‘whats it all about?’

life.  reality.  existence.

is there a meaning attached to this life of ours or are our lives without any real meaning?  is there purpose to any of this or are we random atoms formed together to live, eat, breath, sleep, die and become food for worms?

heavy stuff to wrestle with, right?

what about truth?

is there such a thing?

im speaking about the objective kind.  is there absolute truth?

the concept of truth has come up before in conversations with others, whether in philosophy courses at university or late night coffee talks.  those late night coffee talks are unpredictable!  ive spoken with my fair share of people who feel that there isnt such a thing as truth.  ‘everything is relative’ is what i have generally heard.

is it?

this raises (for me at least) a few questions..

are the meanings you place on some thing the same as the meanings i place on it? is the same thing you believe just as true as the thing i believe?  what if they contradict each other – still both true?  are both not true?

what if my truth says yours is a lie – are they both still true?

can math be relative?  could one person say 2+2 = 4 and another that 2+2=7?

what about history?  can world war 2 have been 6 years long and also 106?

i realize this is sounding a bit absurd but thats kind of what im getting at here.  truth must be objective for certain things to exist, like math and history, but also for other more important things like justice and love.  if nothing else the statement ‘everything is relative’ becomes true if all things are relative and then refutes itself.

oops.

if truth is just relative, then what about right and wrong ?  how do we figure out moral behavior?  if one person thinks something is right and another wrong, who is right?  the stronger person?  the more intelligent person?  what if there are two people who believe something is true but one doesnt – majority rules?  that would be a silly way to figure out what is true wouldnt it be?

i think so.

what about justice?

how can one have any justice  at all if truth is relative?  if truth doesnt really exist then who is to tell the criminal who stole your stuff that what he did was wrong?  he thinks he is liberating you from your stuff.  his defense is that hes your liberator.  seems reasonable enough, even if its not his true motive.  who decides?  what about the person who commits (insert really bad crime)?  who is to tell him that what he did was wrong if right and wrong doesnt really exist?

it seems that if truth isnt real, morality can take a large push off the deep end.

take a look at our western culture for one moment:

we are a violent collective.  we abuse everything.  we abuse our children, spouses, friends, selves and the environment, through verbal, physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological ways.  when we arent abusive on the domestic front we are abusive on the foreign front, waging war against other people, usually for reasons of dominance, power and  control.  most of our urban centers are plagued by drugs, crime and poverty (so much for loving ones neighbor).  we lie, cheat and steal, crawl over other peoples backs to the top of the ladder, scorn loyalty and trust, and generally do a bad job of being decent human beings.

if you think im being overdramatic i dare you to read the newspaper or watch the 6 o’clock news.

ok, now that you have done that and are in agreement with me, let me connect a couple of dots:

truth/morality is relative + violent western culture = our current reality

now im not saying that its this simple.  im also not saying that this is the whole picture.  there are certainly other factors involved.  what im trying to figure out in my own mind is how a society can look any different when the generally held belief is that ‘truth is relative.’

ignore for a second that the logical end to the denial of truth is nihilism, which is defined as nothingness; extreme skepticism of any real existence.  ignore for another couple of seconds that all the major philosophers of nihilism wrote how their own philosophy lead them to despair (main theme of nihilistic philosophers).  ignore for one more second that despair destroys lives.  just ask the 4 in 10 north americans who report dealing with a form of despair (eg. depression, anxiety).   thats not counting those who go undiagnosed or unreported because of stigma.  ask the roughly 150 million people what despair has done to their lives and loved ones.

i realize that this is a fairly pessimistic view of things.  i wish it wasnt.

so, what then?

whats the answer?

 

(to be continued)

ps. my apologies for all the rhetorical questions.  i got a bit carried away.

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bertrand and i

have you ever read someone elses writing and felt oddly (or rightly) at home? as if someone had read your very thoughts, organized them better than you could have and written them out for all to read? this happened to me just the other night. having decided to be a bit of a nerd and refresh myself on some of plato’s philosophy (1. dont ak me why and 2. yes, im THAT big of a nerd) i linked across to a certain bertrand russell. philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, socialist, pacifist, and social critic – a thinker/writer with most of the bases covered.

at the age of 84, russell published What I have lived for, a short prologue to his growing autobiography. summarizing his work and life.

it reads as follows:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

-br

while ol’ bertrand and i may disagree on other areas of philosophy (he was a self-proclaimed agnostic who was rather critical of christianity) the words he wrote here i believe we share quite closely. hopefully, after ive become a tired, old man i can look back on my life and utter the same words bertrand did: “This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

hopefully.

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