The Truth of the matter
It struck me recently that some lessons from the philosophy classroom concerning theories of perception, can help me think about the idea of Truth. It will take a little explaining!
When I see a red ball being bounced in the park, I am sure of what I have seen. And so is the dog who gleefully chases it, collects it in its mouth and returns it to the owner to throw again. I am pretty certain that I am not in a simulated computer game, nor am I being duped by an illusionist, and the coherence of all my sensations leads me to be confident that I am not hallucinating! The thing is, I am certain of the red ball, but I know that while the dog will see the ball, it will not be red to him. Dogs see a very limited spectrum of light waves; so their world is not multi-coloured but more like the brown and beige of 1970’s British décor!
The experience I had which I refer to as ‘seeing red’, or ‘smelling elderflower blossom’ or ‘hearing the birds sing’, all these experiences are called sense data. I am absolutely certain of my sense data, being immediately conscious of them in every waking moment. This absolute certainty of conscious experience seems to be the one thing that the French philosopher Descartes felt most certain of: he was the locus of consciousness. It was the question of what gives rise to those sense data – making claims about the world beyond sense data, that preoccupied Descartes. Making claims about the truth of the external world – the other side of my private sense data is what other philosophers pursued also. British philosopher John Locke said that it is the external world which indeed gives rise to perceptions, even though human perception experiences only certain things.
The expansion of our knowledge due to the work of scientific discoveries has confirmed claims made by some philosophers about the limits of our sense data. What we see/hear/smell/feel and so on, is not all there is. Scientific knowledge can now describe the rods and cones in our eyes and the different ratio of them in dogs thus giving the explanation as to why we see in colour and dogs don’t. That knowledge also describes how other creatures, such as the mantis shrimp, see a vastly expanded colour spectrum in comparison to us.
So sense data are the inescapable filters we humans have through which we experience the world. And while we can be sure of our experiences, it is also salutary to know that it is not all there is. Dogs, mantis shrimp, dolphins etc experience the world in different ways. So what the Truth of the world beyond our sense data is, which yet gives rise to those experiences, is something we can never fully know. We just can’t. And that’s ok, as us humans by and large experience the world in very similar ways – and have constructed language to express and communicate with others humans about it. The point is, we can never know unequivocally what the Truth about the external world is. It is not readily apparent to us.
The constraints of human understanding is something that pre-occupied the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. He was searching for Truth yet what he saw was people arguing over the different opinions they held on many matters – each one asserting that they had the Truth. Their version of truth seemed to be as changing as the number of people and as fleeting as the fashion and power of the rhetoric used to package it. Plato’s own idea was to suggest a separate realm wherein Truth resides, that was accessible through philosophical contemplation. His suggestion of a separate realm, while giving no justification for it, remains problematic. Yet, importantly, Plato was saying that Truth is there, but it is the other side of human opinions; it is something not easily gained, and divesting oneself of passing affiliations is the only path to it – a pathway that will entail the dissolution of former convictions. Truth is; but it is not readily apparent.
And that is what struck me. Truth is. But it is not readily apparent. Human experience and human opinions are the filters we humans have. They are what it is to be human. But they should also lead us to be very circumspect about the claims we make. We never see the whole picture. We have very effective filters, but filters they remain. In our quest for Truth, we may glimpse a shaft of its light occasionally – but to borrow St Paul’s phrase we see ‘through a glass darkly’.