January 20, 2014

Finding truth

avenues to truth
*At law school, my study group has playfully nicknamed me "the philosopher." I guess daydreaming about stuff like this is why...

One may say, “It’s impossible to know if something is true.” But that belief is self-contradictory; you cannot say it without implying you know something. So, logic basically forces you to believe in at least the possibility of knowing truth. 

So, how do you find out truth?

Some may say, “I know what my eyes can see.” The problem with that is looks can be deceiving. One usually doesn't see the air she breathes. The human mind can play tricks, and for some, even cause hallucinations. One cannot see music. One cannot see love. While allowing for some discovery of truth and beauty, trusting sight alone is insufficient. Few would doubt this argument, and yet too often people are prone to say, “I’ll believe it, when I see it.” Or, even more oddly, “I only believe in what I can see.” 

Similarly strange, one may say, “I only believe in what I can hear.”

Or, “I only believe in what I can touch.” So far, this seems the most reasonable, but even it is lacking. If you truly only believe in what you can touch, can you believe in anything until you touch it? Have you touched the stars, the moon, or sun?

Or (though I doubt any non-canine would ever say so), “I only believe in what I can smell.”

Or (even more absurdly, unless maybe you're an infant), "I only believe in what I can taste."

Without question, no single sensation can paint reality. But even if personal sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste combine, is that enough? No. 

Everyone trusts, to at least some degree, in the claimed experience or authority of others, which, to at least some degree, can’t be confirmed by physical senses. I may say, “I bought you a gift and it is waiting for you in that room.” If you choose to, you can check out that room. Your physical senses may very well give you evidence that there is in fact a gift, but they say very little about whether I bought you it. 

Even if there were a receipt that had my name on it, while relevant evidence, could still be fraudulent. I could even give you the phone number of the clerk I say I bought it from. While this could open the door to even more evidence, even that eventual evidence wouldn't completely close the door to the possibility of fraud. Ultimately, you are forced to make a choice of believing, disbelieving, suspending judgment, or simply not caring about if I actually bought the gift.

If you choose to care, you might weigh the probability and size of the risks and benefits involved with believing, disbelieving, or suspending judgment. You may include in your decision-making your recollection of past experiences with me: perhaps the gifts I gave you that seemed more expensive than I could afford, or the time the police came to your door in search of stolen merchandise, etc. You may also include what other people have said about me: my capacity for fraud, my reliability, my generosity, my wealth, etc. You might also give weight to what was in your gut: an instinct or impression going beyond the visible, audible, touchable, smellable, or tasteable. 

Are any of those considerations without value? Is any consideration more important to you than the others? What if your instinct about this particular situation conflicts with past experiences? Maybe you have a feeling that I am telling the truth this time. My guess is we tend to trust our feelings much more in our day-to-day lives than we may want to admit. While there is something appealing about seeing ourselves as more logical than emotional, rational than impulsive; is that really how we tick? Is it possible to detach emotion from human decision-making?

Let’s assume we really do give a lot of weight to our feelings. Is that an entirely bad thing? 

Consider relationships. How romantic would it be for you to sit down with your girlfriend and rationally analyse your relationship with her? “So babe, after weighing all the evidence logically, though there is some plausible evidence for doubt, I have decided I probably love you.” Over-thinking love can undoubtedly damage trust and hurt relationships.

But does intuition have its limits? Of course, just like any other tool you use to sort out life.

Consider efficiency. A gut instinct can move you in a direction faster than attempting rational analysis. If intuition is correct, it speeds you toward reality. If incorrect, the opposite.

Consider human volatility. Sometimes it is hard to know what our gut is feeling. Sometimes our feelings change. Depending on emotional health, intuition waxes or wanes in reliability. 

Thus, unfettered faith in our feelings is risky. The greater impact a decision will have on your life, the more various types of evidence are readily available, and the more time you have to make a decision-- the more foolish it is to simply rely on intuition. However, as illustrated above, perhaps it is even more foolish to ignore intuition all together. 

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