Truth, Fact, and Meaning

The things we are most certain of mean the least to us.  The things that mean the most to us, we are least certain of.  The difference is between fact and truth.  We are certain of facts, we believe truths.  A chemical redox equation can be duplicated anywhere, any time, and the results will be the same.  A redox equation is fact.  But does it mean anything to us how may electrons switch valences?  Of course, the batteries that depend on redox equations power our cars and cell phones, and they matter a great deal to us.  But the certainty of the equation itself doesn’t matter much to me.  On the other hand, the fact that there are eternal consequences to the way I live now matters a great deal to me.  The truth that there is a loving Creator watching over me, leading me, guiding me towards eternally lasting happiness matters a great deal to me.  But the existence of God is a belief, not a provable fact.  The reality of eternal life is also a belief, not a provable fact.

I grew up in a family that thought only science was truth.  Even art was devalued.  Math, engineering, chemistry, mechanics–these were the things that mattered.  These were the things they called truth.  The meaning a person finds in a poem, was not considered truth.  In fact, it wasn’t considered at all.  In the Turgenev novel I’m reading, the nihilist Bazarov deprecates belief, the arts, and aristocratic values.  He believes in nothing.  This abandonment of belief thrusts him into science.  He thinks that only science is certain.

But there is much truth in poems, like Robert Frost’s The Mending Wall.  “Something there is that does not love a wall.”  There is a feeling in us that wants connection among fellow humans and doesn’t love walls that come between us.  But Frost is an artist, not a scientist.  I don’t think it can be proven that there is a human antipathy to walls that come between us.  But I agree with Frost.  I believe he is correct.  The Mending Wall means more to me than the existence of quarks.  Quarks can be proved, Frosts truths can’t.  Neither can God’s love for humanity, nor the reality of afterlife.  But even if the things that matter most to me can’t be proven, my life is more fulfilling when I act upon the truths I believe.  I don’t see how science can direct me to a full and fulfilling life, even if the facts it discovers are provable.  The things that matter most to humans are not provable; the things that are provable hold least meaning to us.

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Dupery for Dupery

I was talking about God with an acquaintance who told me, “I just don’t see enough evidence.”  The absence of evidence led this acquaintance to disbelieve in God.  I made the observation that lack of evidence does not disprove.  His disbelief in God was on the same level of my belief in God.  Neither were founded on proof.  My acquaintance’s disbelief was actually a fear of being duped.  My belief was actually a hope that God is real.  His disbelief is fear; my belief is hope.  Both positions are emotive, not logical.

What I am talking about is not my own idea.  It was formulated in the nineteenth century by the philosopher William James.  I am paraphrasing James’ wordy language in the above paragraph.  James says it better—and funnier—but he is hard to read.  James says,

“To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear ? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, . . .” (The Will to Believe).

Dupery for Dupery.  Is my hope worse than my acquaintance’s fear?  With a philosopher’s precision, James distinguishes between two approaches to truth.  There is the quest for truth and there is the avoidance of error.  Those are two different paths.  James:

“Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; . . . We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance.”

If we are talking about something that doesn’t matter all that much—like the appearance of sunbeams being due to a colloidal suspension of water in the sky—maybe fear of being duped is more important than the quest for truth.  But if something matters a whole lot—such as whether I should devote my life to love and thereby find eternal happiness—then fear of being duped may not be as important as the hypothesis that there is a God.  In the case of something that matters a whole lot, I think holding a belief that could be true based on some evidence may be more important than disbelieving out of a fear of being duped due to insufficient evidence.

Living life spiritually is something that we cannot be neutral about.  Either we decide to live spiritually, or we wait for sufficient evidence, all the while living according to only material norms.  But we can’t wait in some neutral space between spirituality and materialism.  People can live good lives, but not spiritual lives.  Spirituality to me means living from spiritual motives, for spiritual purposes, according to spiritual norms.  Without spiritual intentionality, good people appear to be living according to civil law, habit, common sense, but not conscience.  And I think there’s a difference.

So we’re back to the quest for truth and the fear of being duped.  James quotes Fitzjames Stephen effectively.  And I’ll let James’ use of Stephen conclude my reflections, too:

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]