by ProfDave, ©2021
(Oct. 28, 2021) — “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.”
Did you ever stop to think about how little we really know? I have been exploring knowledge with my grandson. If I think, therefore I am, then what happens when I’m not thinking? We take it for granted that the signals sent to our brains from our senses reflect real things outside ourselves – sight and sound and smell and touch and taste. Are those sensations of real things or just sensations? We know we can sometimes smell things that aren’t there. In our dreams we see things that aren’t there – how do I know I’m not dreaming right now? How do I know the cat at my feet is not a figment of my imagination? 18th century philosophers explored these questions in depth.
What do you know? Not much. At best, the information coming in by our five senses is unreliable. Our senses can be fooled. But 18th century rationalists drove the question into the ground. As Descartes (I think it was) concluded, we can generally rely on our senses unless there is an evil creator intent on deceiving us. There are lesser entities out there (spiritual, political and corporate) dedicated to doing just that. We go blithely on our way not worrying about it. Is naïve realism the only practical way to live? Perhaps. Trust, but verify!
Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see. Even our senses sometimes deceive us. Can we trust what we see on TV? Is it real? I should say not! Pixels do lie. Even on the news, there’s the guy behind the camera – and a lot of footage and stories on the cutting room floor. Even if you trust your senses, do you trust the newsmen? What you saw may have actually happened, but a lot of other things happened that give it meaning and context. Then they open their mouths and talk about it. They invite “experts.” And then it goes to a commercial – obvious bias – and you “see” all sorts of stuff. Does that Terminix guy really suck up termites with a ghost-busters vacuum thing?
Truth is hard to find. Does that mean there’s no such thing?
Experience is filtered through our senses. But we get a lot of our information by second-hand experience – what we are taught, what we see on screen, what we read, what we hear at the water cooler. We have sources. We talk a lot about this in history. Is the source in the position to know? Are they qualified to speak? What is their perspective? What is their bias? What are they trying to sell (follow the money? Or the power? Or the lust?)? Do they have accuracy and integrity? Are they objective and truthful?
If all we are looking for is titillation, entertainment or confirmation of our prejudices, then truth does not matter much. But if we live in a real world with real problems to solve – if “life is real and life is earnest and the grave is not its goal” (Longfellow) – then truth matters. “What is truth” (Pilate)?
Our senses deceive us and much of our conversations are a pooling of ignorance and hearsay. Our “authoritative sources” are subject to the same limitations and prejudices. Who do you believe? The ones that agree with your preconceived notions? Or those who seem the most objective? Even in purely factual matters – is so-and-so guilty? – who is telling the truth? Do we execute an innocent man or turn loose a killer?
When Jesus, on trial, said he came to bear witness to the truth, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” In our Post-modern day we might well ask the same question just as cynically. Your truth or my truth? Your opinion or mine? Neither. Truth is what is, not your opinion or mine. Like it or not. Agree with it or not. Whether anyone knows it or not. That is what we need in a court of law, in a science lab, in the marketplace, in church, in our consciences, in life and in death. Most of all we need truth within ourselves.
Don’t Know Much. Our senses are unreliable and distortion reigns over what we view and what we read. Yet objective truth can be important, sometimes a matter of survival. We have other sources of knowledge: our own consciousness, reason, and revelation. We are conscious of ourselves with some certainty – I think, therefor I am. Our own thoughts and feelings, our moods, our subjective experiences, our choosing – these things may be influenced by outside input and by our biochemistry, but it isn’t all physical or external. There is a real self in there looking out. There is a real self that knows guilt and shame, a real self, I believe, that can be touched by its Maker. But we have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception. Who are we really? Do you want the truth?
Our own self-knowledge is broken. While it is undeniable that our self-consciousness is more than a mere bio-chemical log of sense experiences, we spend most of our lives trying to edit the record. We deny who we are and try to forget what we have done or what has been done to us. Sometimes we make up things. I had a friend who watched so many war movies late at night that he convinced himself – and everyone else – that he was a Gulf War veteran! We try to cauterize our bleeding consciences and tune out the voice of God. Worse, we receive other voices in the place of God. As the Good Book says, “the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked, who can know it?”
Are there any lessons so far? Don’t trust yourself. Take an honest inventory and be transparent with yourself, with God, and with someone you trust (Steps 4 & 5). The truth will set you free!
You could say that we can squeeze some knowledge out of our experiences, internal and external, by reason. Right? According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, there are three basic laws of rational thought: the law of contradiction, the law of the excluded middle, and the law of identity. For instance, if your senses tell you there is a tree in your driveway and your memory tells you there is no tree in your driveway, then something is wrong. It can’t be there and not there at the same time, right? Either you are seeing things, or something happened overnight.
Secondly, you cannot prove that I voted for Trump because I didn’t vote for Clinton – I might have voted for someone else! That’s an excluded middle.
And third, a thing is identical to itself. A rock is a rock is a rock. Solid. OK? But these are pretty much negative. They help us identify nonsense, but they don’t yield much new information. World religions contradict each other, for example. The law of contradiction tells us that they can’t all be right – but it does not tell us which one is! And the excluded middle says they might all be wrong! Hmmh. No help from pure reason.
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.