The Journey series
How do You Know?
I started many posts this week but didn’t like any of them. Each of my attempts failed because I had imprecise language for particular thoughts. How and when does something transition from belief to knowledge? Where is the boundary between subjective and objective truth? It struck me that our language restricts us not only in what we are able to say clearly, but also in what we are able to know and to believe. The frustration led me to go and pray. This is what came to my heart.
As a child we spend a lot of time learning the basics. We learn to count before we learn to add. We learn the alphabet before we learn to read. Once we know the basics we build on them. As a college math student I learned that nothing is difficult. Things may be complex but any problem is reducible to iterations and combinations of just a few basic principles and definitions. To understand any complex idea, it doesn’t need to be broken down to the very basics, but it must be broken to elements that are understood. At one point, I often confused sine for cosine and vice versa; that made my calculations very difficult. Until my understanding of sine and cosine conformed to everyone else’s, my answers did not agree with theirs. There was no problem with the way I used the concepts, there was a problem with which concepts I used. With sines and cosines, the problem was easy to identify and correct because each term has a very specific definition. There is nothing democratic about math; there is nothing subjective about math. My answers were wrong and I had to learn why.
What does this have to do with my failed posts?. Do objective truth, beauty, and goodness exist? Can they be recognized? In order for us to notice anything, it must be finite and be constant or recurring. It must be bound by space and present long enough for us to detect a pattern. To know something exists, it must either be observed or proven a condition for what has been observed. Since truth, beauty, and goodness are conceptual rather than physical, we will not be able to observe them empirically so we must prove them a condition for something we do observe.
Scientific examination determines discrete, measurable, and repeatable answers; always, everywhere, and for everyone. What is studied is isolated from other variables and measured over time. It’s easy to claim objective truth on that level. Observations through artistic or moral lenses, however, do not yield uniform results. They elicit analog emotions ranging from disgust to elation that are not the same for each view. Each person may have a unique response and the same person may have different responses at different times. It seems beauty and goodness reside in the experience; they aren’t integral to the thing experienced. Does this make beauty and goodness purely subjective; devoid of truth, merely opinion?
Extremes are evidence that the answer is no. No one considers Mother Teresa bad or Hitler good. No one considers the work of the Michelangelo ugly. No one stands on a mountaintop looking out at the vista without being filled with awe. No one gazes into the night sky from a dark place without being amazed by the innumerable stars. No one sees an emaciated child without feeling pity.
Beauty and goodness, when not present in the extreme, are still there but not alone. We react to the entirety; our response is tempered by our reactions other attributes of the thing observed. Our emotions are also tempered by recent experiences and expectations. When we are sad and lonely, our reaction to the same cat curling up in our lap and purring will be different than when we are all dressed up waiting to go out. In one case we will be happy for the companionship; in the second we will be upset over the hairs shed on our clothes. The goodness of the cat is still there. Our receptivity is not.
I opened this post discouraged by the lack words which precisely matched what I intended to say; words depend on context for their precise meaning. That frustration led to contemplation about the precise nature of truth, beauty, and goodness that revealed something of their nature. Just as words, when isolated, can’t be fully understood; truth, beauty, and goodness can’t be isolated and examined to find their essence. They must be experienced in the context of our life.
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Peter T Elliott