Saturday, January 26, 2013

Absolute Truth vs Relativism

Several years ago, I was engaged in a conversation with a co-worker whose opinions differed from mine on most subjects. We were talking about galaxies, the universe and the idea of a pluraverse. As we talked about quarks at the bottom and the universe at the top, we could agree that there reasonably was matter smaller than quarks. Then by extension, it is also reasonable to assume that as multiple star systems make a galaxy and multiple galaxies make a universe, that multiple universes make a pluraverse.

BasicVirtueThe discussion then turned to our varying opinions of how everything got started. Although we agreed on certain events that lead to the existence of the universe (as we understand it), we disagreed on the catalyst(s) that set the progress in motion. After some back and forth, I made a statement that, at the time, seemed pretty basic and indisputable. I claimed that regardless of what we think may have happened, there is an absolute truth regarding how things came to be.

My colleague disagreed... adamantly. She said that I was wrong. She believed that one's perception of an event actually affects it. Even if that event occurred billions of years prior to the perception's inception. I countered by saying that her perception or my perception can only affect how we or others we converse with on the subject perceive the event. Again, my co-worker posited that everything is determined by how one perceives it. I was shocked. I realize that one's perception of an event is real to that person, but simply seeing something does not change the nature of the object being seen.

For example, exoplanets don't exist because humans on Earth built powerful telescopes to observe them. Similarly, the universe wasn't created by an omnipotent god or team of gods because subsequent living organisms on Earth believe that s/he/they did. Just the same: an explosion billions of years ago did not create the universe because other subsequent living organisms on Earth deem that event the start of everything. What happened happened. And it happened exactly how it happened. Here are the exact, absolute possibilities surrounding the origin of our universe, galaxy, solar system and planet:

1- A god or gods created them.
2- An explosion, let's call it "The Big Bang", took place and energized matter, sending fragments hurling through space.
3- A god or gods created everything by igniting a large explosion, thus energizing matter and sending fragments of that matter hurling through space.
4- Something other than those mentioned above.

Regardless of what any of us believes, none of us was there and none of our opinions change the past. This notion may seem basic and common sensical, but it is a philosophy that is pervasive today. Unfortunately, whether we are talking about creation or anything else, the philosophy of everything being relative is fine for writers of SyFy Channel programs, but dangerous to society at large.

The philosophy of relativism (which is not the Theory of Relativity) is one that aims to make everything wishy-washy. To protect what is today's concept of one's self-esteem, if he or she thinks 2+2=5, a relativistic teacher may say that the answer is mostly right. In mathematics, as in many other facets of life, there is no such thing as 'almost right'. To say that 2+2=4.5 is no more accurate than saying 2+2=1,000,004. When dealing with numbers, anything other than 4 for this answer is incorrect. To argue this, one could draw a line and assign numeric values to various positions along that line. Then the relativist could rationally say that 4.5 is much closer to 4 than 1,000,004 is to 4. But again, speaking in terms of numbers, every number, fraction or decimal imaginable beside 4 is incorrect.

The wishy-washy philosophy of relativism is like a disease. If one can be made to believe that their mere belief in something makes it so, then that same person can justify anything to himself or herself...and is susceptible to all kinds of intellectual corruption. The basis for the problem is when a person can hear or read something and, without questioning any of it, believe with absolute certainty that the event about which they read is exactly as it had been reported. They are so confident that they feel they can discuss the event as if they had been present themselves. The person writing the article or presenting the report may have had an agenda that affected the clarity of their reporting. What if someone else brings a different account of the same event? For these folks, it doesn't matter. A person who can be so sure of something, even when presented contradictory evidence, must be (by definition) living in a warped reality.

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The reason this is such a big problem is that as people in a society start justifying or rationalizing their actions or inaction, accountability--in general, but more specifically to oneself--is sacrificed. Citizens shirk responsibility for the information they absorb, which leads to them denying responsibility for the decisions they make based on that information. Next thing you know, people blame their circumstances for their failures and others for their unhappiness. They live vicariously through television programs and newsstand tabloids. This leads to a host of other personal and societal problems. Consequences for one's actions are often minimized in entertainment and pop-culture, so consumers of such entertainment see all the excitement of a wild life, but seldom see the results.

If you combine exposure to unrealistic adventures with the disease of relativism, you have an individual or individuals who cannot think critically enough to play a scenario out in their minds, including the consequences, then make a reasoned decision on how to proceed. When this occurs violence, drug abuse and depression ensues. In essence, we are living in a society that has a sizable percentage of its population living more like Caligula and less like Thomas Edison.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Power Through Honor

Earlier this week, I searched for a little story or poem I could use to help teach my young children an important life lesson. The topic I was looking to address dealt with honor and character. What I found is a brilliant little song from the Children's Songbook used by my church. Clearly, it was written for children, but the message is valuable to adults, as well.

I Believe in Being Honest

I believe in being honest;
I believe in being true,
That honesty should start with me
In all I say, in all I do.
I’ll form good habits in my youth,
To keep my word, to tell the truth,
To speak up in defending right
And keep my name and honor bright.
I believe in being honest;
I believe in being true,
That honesty should start with me
In all I say, in all I do.

Lyrics by Ruth Muir Gardner, 1927-1999. (c) 1986 IRI
Music by Lyall J. Gardner, 1926-2012. (c) 1986 IRI

Directional straightness
Each line of it is golden. As a family, we went over the lyrics and discussed the definitions of the various words and themes. Then we sang it about seven times. After discussing that 'being honest' is telling the truth, and that 'being true' isn't redundant, we delved deeper into its meaning. The word 'true' has ties to honesty, but it is also synonymous with authenticity, nautical and navigational straightness and being factual, accurate and precise.

Being honest in word and deed results in one being reliable and consistent. Someone who bears this trait is trusted and respected by his or her associates. With trust comes many great opportunities. A truly trustworthy person is uniquely positioned to serve and help other people, to take on extra responsibilities (and by extension, creating even more possibilities) and to develop and nurture more meaningful and lasting relationships.

BasicVirtueTo 'form good habits' is a great notion. It suggests the need for work and action. Stalactites and stalagmites are formed by longstanding consistency on the part of water and mineral deposits. Sculptures are formed by the touch of a masterful artist who has both the vision and the developed skill to create art. Forming a habit generally means that the activity, action or characteristic associated with the habit is not instinctual. It is an act that one must do over and over again until it seemingly becomes second nature. If this is the case, then regardless of one's age, the habit of honesty can be developed by making a concerted effort.

The next part is somewhat redundant, but it is important enough to be restated. "To keep my word, to tell the truth." Simply put, do what you say you will do. And if you cannot do it, don't say you can or will. Being reliable and dependable may seem a bit boring to some, but throughout history, inventions have been created, ideas have become ubiquitous, wars have been won, freedom has been earned and endured by the hand of the persistent.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
"To speak up in defending right." Following the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Edmund Burke, to stand up against injustice, bullying, lying, gossip and any other sort of wrong builds individual and societal strength. The vast majority of people recognize right and wrong, but most lack the courage and leadership skills to fight for the right. When one voice speaks up, it encourages the next.

The final thought and line, "And keep my name and honor bright," alludes to reputation and integrity. Your name, when you're all alone, is just a word. All alone, you have no need to use a verbal device to distinguish yourself from another. So in this sense, your name (or 'your good name') is simply your reputation.

Mr Clean: A Bright n Shiny Character
Some say that it doesn't matter what other people think about you. This is true only as it relates to hearsay. However, people form opinions of other individuals through personal interactions and dealings. If you are a rotten person who behaves poorly toward others, what they thinks matters, indeed, because your character created their perception of you. Keeping your name bright means that you are always upstanding when interacting with others in society.

Honor here is similar the 'your good name' notion, but more like integrity. Your reputation deals with others' view of you, but honor is the goodness inside of you. Keeping it bright means your goodness is pure and radiates strength from within. Having honor means you are honest with yourself and others.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Imagine a world...

BasicVirtueYou wake up early to go for a jog. After getting dressed and putting your sneakers on, you play your Training playlist for its fast-paced, upbeat rhythm and motivational lyrics. About seven blocks into your jog, it hits you that your favorite song has been skipped. Pausing to figure out why the song was passed over, you take your mp3 player out of your pocket.

The track isn't there.

You search the directory by song title, by album and by artist. You see other songs, but no sign of your favorite. Perplexed, you do an internet search. The song doesn't seem to exist.

BasicVirtueYou are now extremely confused, so you jog around the corner to your local smoothie shop. In its place, you stand before a dry cleaner. Certain that you are losing your mind, you walk home contemplating the possibility you are insane.

Everything else in the world looks and sounds the same to you. But the song you've loved since your sophomore year of high school has never existed and the place you've always gone to get smoothies has never been anything other than a dry cleaner.

Worried that you would be scoffed at by your family, friends or colleagues if you were to tell them, you keep the anxiety and bewilderment simmering at the back of your mind. As your day progresses, you look for clues as to why things are amiss and you direct more of your focus to observing your surroundings. You desperately hope nothing else is off.

BasicVirtueLater, sitting at your desk and looking out your office door, you see an unfamiliar face working in the cubicle that yesterday was home to your current project: an up-and-coming go-getter whom you had been mentoring for several months. What is going on? Could it be some sort of brain tumor conflating your memory bank and your imagination?

*  *  *  *  *

The recording artist had written and recorded the song you had loved so much. However, before heading to the studio, one of the album's producers had just finished arguing with his girlfriend and decided the upbeat song was a bit too nauseating. It was cut and no one else ever heard it.

The would-have-been proprietor of the smoothie shop, fifteen years prior, was faced with a life-changing decision. He could either stay at the job he had been working for several years (a job which he did not love, but with which he felt comfortable) or he could take a risk and start a business. One about which he was passionate. In the new reality, the smoothie maker is a sales manager at a fish tank filter manufacturing company.

Your young protege had also made a divergent life choice several years prior. Rather than going to the school closest to home, to be close to his girlfriend, he went a few states away. Rather than settling on business administration, he pursued his dream of playing football at the collegiate level. In the modified reality, that young go-getter is the backup tight end for the Arizona Cardinals.

*  *  *  *  *

Look around. What niceties do you enjoy without giving a thought to the crucial choices it took to make them a reality? Every object, every idea that has contributed to the world in which we live exists solely because one individual devised its creation and (either alone or with a team of others) endeavored to bring it to light.

BasicVirtueArchitects, inventors, artists, musicians, philosophers, theorists and all sorts of normal folks have shaped society and civilization through a series of both simple and great choices. These decisions have been both of omission and commission. How many great things would have been missing from this planet if their creators and discoverers had chosen to go down to the pub instead of the lab?

How many advances are not benefitting humanity because someone capable of great things chose not to pursue their lofty aspirations? What if Einstein's parents had been fighting around the time of his conception and his life never was? What if Aristotle had inadvertently stumbled in front of a chariot and was rendered an invalid? The difference of one second or one step could be the difference between the world benefiting from one of the greatest philosophical minds in history or never knowing the name Aristotle.

What choices are you making?