Little Truths Matter: Conventions and Absolutes

Philosophy is hard.

Oh, sure, it’s easy to sit back and talk about, “What if it was, like, the Matrix, man, and we were just brains in jars?” It can be fun and it can make us think in new ways. Plenty of armchair philosophizing done in bars by people past their third beer has been quite entertaining.

But really finding truths that actually help us live life, that is so difficult that a lot of people want to pretend to do it instead.

And that’s what I’m talking about today, in fact. “Truth”.

On one level, if I point to the workbench I am writing this article on and say “This workbench is made of particle board and has a black lamp on it”, that’s a pretty unambiguously true statement. No one is likely to quibble too much with it.

But on another level, I actually just offered a statement that is fraught with peril. Nagarjuna, Socrates, the Buddha, Heraclitus, and innumerable other thinkers all considered the difficult question (in various forms) of “Where does one object end and another begins? At what point does a lake become a pond?”

Heraclitus, for example, said that “You never step in the same river twice”. We imagine a “river” as being this permanent thing. But the water that flows in the river is not the same water from every second. In practice, rivers ebb and flow. Their banks rise and fall. They carve out and change the environment. In fact, rivers can even change entirely: We have an entirely incredibly complex system keeping the Mississippi River flowing the same way, and a Christian Science Monitor article by William Sargent in 2011 suggested that it may actually be worth it to let the river change course, even though that would mean that multiple towns would have to be flooded and New Orleans and Baton Rouge would no longer have rivers for trade, because it might also rebuild marsh defenses against storms. The fact that a river is not this permanent thing but this phenomenon constantly being made and remade each second actually has huge implications for our life.

Similarly, Plato (through the voice of Socrates) pointed out that, say, we can talk about this abstract idea of a “triangle” having three sides even though there is in fact no such object. Oh, sure, we can draw an abstraction in two dimensions of such an object, and we might even be able to get the lines we draw so straight that it is close enough as to make no odds. But that right triangle that we draw is just as much a triangle as the isosceles triangle someone else draws. There’s actually an infinite array of possible examples of triangles, and squares.

At what point is an object made of wood (or metal or stone or any other material) that has some number of supports a chair as opposed to a table?

My favorite example: At what point does “my computer” end? Let’s say I have a USB mouse plugged into it. Is that part of the computer? What about if I remove a graphics card and replace it with another one? Is it still the same computer? What if I unplug it from the wall and remove the battery? It doesn’t work, but is it still my computer?

Again, this seems like quibbling, but it actually has implications for our lives. Programmers try to make it so that a program recognizes an entity as “a computer”, but sometimes you change enough of the operating system or enough of the components and it thinks that it isn’t any more. Digital rights management techniques for video games and other software that try to give you a certain number of “installs” often run afoul of this problem: Someone removes a graphics card and suddenly one of those precious times in their life that they can install the software they paid for goes away.

You can’t talk about my computer without talking about the power flowing into it, from the electrical system in my house, which in turn means you have to talk about the power plant making that energy, which in turn means you have to talk about how that power plant was built. That means talking about construction contracts and regulations and zoning requirements and how coal was produced from fossils or uranium was found in the Earth or how waves work to generate electricity.

Carl Sagan communicated in his characteristically poignant way how utterly difficult it is to talk about the universe without talking about every single part of it when he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”. Even something as simple as an apple pie had to be forged in the heart of a star. I repeat that quote constantly because it should be a mantra for people who love life.

All of these ideas are part of Buddhism. In Buddhist thought, we discuss “conventional” and “absolutetruth. People of a Taoist persuasion also have to deal with these ideas, as do physicists, post-modernist thinkers like Richard Rorty, and systems thinkers like Fritjof Capra. If you want to do good sociology, you find that there’s just no end to the number of variables that matter. Even if you just want to understand the psychology of one person, you may need to understand the psychology of every one of their family members going back generations, every one of their mentors, every one they ever loved.

Now, you might justly be thinking, “Okay, this is all navel-gazing crap. In the real world, I can probably live my life without worrying about the water in a river being the same. I can just jump in and swim”.

But this all also applies to ethics, to the tough judgment calls we always have to make.
In The Sopranos, there’s a wonderful sequence where Tony is faced with both closed-mindedness and philosophy that really makes your soul hurt. He first sees his pastor claim that dinosaurs coexisted with humanity. Tony loves dinosaurs and knows that this claim is absurd. Tony then discusses with another patient, a scientist, about boxing and tornadoes. After the people watching the boxing match say that life is a boxing fight where “we’re [all] alone in the ring”, the scientist points out, “It’s actually an illusion that those two boxers are separate entities”. The scientist then explains: “think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air, two tornadoes, say. They appear to be two things, right? Two separate things. But they’re not. Tornadoes are just wind, the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate. Everything’s connected”.

The point of this scene is that it’s not just the tornadoes that are connected. It’s good and evil. We imagine two titanic tornadoes beating at each other, one good and one evil. But it’s all just wind. It’s all just interconnected phenomena. We are all connected. And the differences between us are ones of degrees.

The vast majority of people can agree that someone defending themselves with a firearm against an assailant in their own home is behaving reasonably, even if they unfortunately take a life.

What if the assailant is a fifteen year old kid who was going to run the moment a gun was pointed?  What if the assailant is a fifteen year old kid who has a bat and pretends he won’t run, but when push comes to shove, he will? What if it’s not on one’s own home, but on the street? What if the person in question is in a bar fight that he did not start and kills the other combatant? What if the person in question is in a bar fight that he did start, but did not immediately escalate to intense violence, and the other combatant does, and then he kills the other combatant?

Each one of these little degrees matters. Each one of them is an area where we find our bright lines fade, just like how a real bright line that we might put onto asphalt actually ends up being quite fuzzy when we look close even before the weathering effects of entropy make that line fade.

This interconnection between us is why we must forgive. It is why we must embrace an ethic where we do our best to never hurt, never take advantage of each other, never treat each other like empty objects or toys or means to an end. It’s why we can never allow ourselves to boil down another human being to one word like “monster” or “killer” or even “philosopher”. If we let ourselves think that the depth and breadth of any one person can be summed up in a single breath, that interconnection that we all have means the dominos fall and every one of us is lessened.

This whole article has been inspired with a repeated debate I’ve had with my Dad. My Dad is an incredibly intelligent man, and his love of both Buddhism and physics leads him to view the world in a very big and interconnected way.

In high school debate, we used to talk about “bright lines” that let a judge decide how to vote in a round. Dad pointed out today that “There are no bright lines, in debate or anywhere else”.
And he’s right.

But I’ve come to see, even as a Buddhist, that even with all of this worry about what constitutes truth and how abstract and arbitrary our conventions can be, that the truths we find all matter.
See, when we make a bright line like “I’m not ever going to do anything close to cheating on my wife”, we help preserve our soul. Maybe our wife could tolerate us kissing another person.

Maybe we could even potentially get away with having a very close and intimate friend of the sex we’re attracted to. But we will do our utmost, even as complicated as real life gets, to have lines we will not cross.

As we get closer to that line, we can still hurt the people we love. But at least we have limited how far we can go.

I have one belief that I have held through the greatest doubts I have experienced. It has been repeated again and again. It is this: Everything matters. Everything in this reality matters. Every feeling we have, every memory, every fleeting image of the past, every event, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. It all has moral heft and weight.

Now, if I’m thinking philosophically, I could quibble and prevaricate about all sorts of things like “What does it mean to ‘matter’? What about false memories: Should they be given the same standing as valid ones? What does it even mean, really, to say that a memory is ‘false’ or ‘valid’?”

But there is a difference between truth and falsehood. The fact that truth is complicated doesn’t make it so we can make anything up. It actually means we have to be very vigilant about the truths we find. The truths matter more, not less, because they’re so hard won.

The difference between a stream and a river may be arbitrary, but there is no presentation of reality that we can offer where jumping into a stream instantly lights you on fire. There is no presentation of reality that we can reasonably offer where the Nazi regime did not intentionally murder millions of human beings, no matter how much white supremacists might wish it so. The hard reality of the Holocaust, of the brutality of the treatment of Native Americans, of the harms that happen in our real world today because of sexual torture and trauma, of sex slavery and human trafficking… this hard reality exists, and no amount of talking about Bergson over a beer will make it go away.

I say all of this because we so often allow the ideas that we hear about, like the fact that the universe is overwhelmingly empty space or the idea that we could all be brains in jars, push us towards justifying our cynicism or apathy or inaction.

Marx stated erroneously that the purpose of philosophy had been to explain the world. In fact, virtually every philosopher also had plenty of ideas on how to change it. But Marx was right that the point of our philosophies that we embrace should be to change our world.

And no matter how hard it is for us to figure out what “change” means, what “the world is” and even what “better” would be, we have to puzzle through it with an open heart.

Or there may be none of us left to wonder about the water in a river.


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