Euripides, a fifth century B.C.E. Greek playwright tells us to “Leave no stone unturned.” He also advises us to “Question Everything. Learn Something. Answer Nothing.” With all due respect to our Greek fathers of Western Culture, I disagree. Absolutely we should question everything, for to accept all as fact and truth without some sort of sieve leads only to confusion and chaos. All things should be questioned, tested and proven. But once proven, either as truth or lie, are we not left with an answer? And isn’t that what we all, as human beings, want? Regardless of culture, chronology or geography, man has ever come to and asked the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here? It is the “who” and the “why” that has sparked thousands of years of debate. Our species name, Homo sapiens, means “wise” or “knowing man.” At the core of man is a need to know, to acquire knowledge and to gain wisdom, a wisdom leading to, or at least pointing in the direction of, an answer to the questions that have accompanied us for all of recorded history.
This search is called philosophy. Philosophy means literally “love of wisdom” (Greek: philein = to love; sophia = wisdom). It has been the goal of philosophy throughout history to search for ultimate truth, the knowledge and wisdom to answer man’s questions about his own existence, and not merely his temporal existence, but questions concerning God (if there is one), and the life to come (if there is one). I love what Pope John Paul II wrote in an encyclical letter to the Catholic Church called Fides et Ratio;
…At the present time in particular, the search for ultimate truth seems often to be neglected. Modern philosophy clearly has the great merit of focusing attention upon man. From this starting-point, human reason with its many questions has developed further its yearning to know more and to know it ever more deeply. Complex systems of thought have thus been built, yielding results in the different fields of knowledge and fostering the development of culture and history. Anthropology, logic, the natural sciences, history, linguistics and so forth—the whole universe of knowledge has been involved in one way or another. Yet the positive results achieved must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps towards a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all. It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned. This has given rise to different forms of agnosticism and relativism which have led philosophical research to lose its way in the shifting sands of widespread scepticism.
Man has traded in a search for capital “T” Truth, a transcendent answer to life’s questions, and searches now instead the reasons we can’t know those answers. Reason has turned Uroboros, focusing and feeding on itself as opposed to elucidating existence. Where once human meant divine, capable of knowing and accessing the heavens, human now means limited in scope and abilities, a terrestrial being only. Bertrand Russell, author of such gems as Sceptical Essays and Why I Am Not a Christian stated, “Brief and powerless is man’s life.”
While I would say the trend of philosophical skepticism is recent, it existed long before it became trendy. The Greek painter-turned-philosopher Pyrrho (ca. 360 BCE – 270 BCE) is credited as being the first skeptic philosopher, although most of what we know of his philosophies are in the writings of later men. But his views were enough to eventually become a school of thought called Pyrrhonian skepticism, or Pyrrhonism. In short, Pyrrho postulates that we cannot agree with or adhere to any truth because a contradictory truth or argument will always exist, and therefore no argument or truth is better than another. Similar philosophies include Academic Skepticism which says, “Nothing can be known, not even this”: Empiricism, in which sensory perception and experience guide knowledge and reason: Subjectivism, wherein all knowledge, even existence itself, is subject to an individual’s perception of it, and many others. All of these philosophies are reluctant to allow for innate or transcendent truths, although by its very nature Pyrrhonism should allow for the argument at least to exist.
In fact, this way of thinking has surpassed trend to become the very age in which we live, Post Modernism. Relativism is the nature of our post-modern world; it’s all relative. What is right for you is not right for me: what is wrong for you may be perfectly good and allowable for me. This worldview positions the individual as the center of his or her universe, a universe where facts no longer mean anything and personal experience is everything. The Personal Narrative (“a story about something that happened to you and how you felt about it,” as defined by McGraw Hill) has infiltrated nearly every discipline and profession in today’s society, in large part due to the feminism movements of the last half-century. For example, sociolinguist Deborah Tannen labels the different ways in which men and women communicate like this: Report talk vs. Rapport Talk. Men tend to speak in reports, relaying facts in logical progression, whilst women feel the need to build a rapport, or relationship with whomever they are speaking or interacting. In society’s efforts to make men more sensitive to women, it has adopted personal narrative as its communication vehicle of choice. It no longer matters what is said, but how it is said. Facts and truth have taken a lower ranking than their presentation. Both Report talk and Rapport talk are necessary and valid, but when we forego one in favor of another we create an extreme environment, in this case one of absolute relativism. The expression absolute relativism is itself a contradiction in terms, assuming that the word everything encapsulates our universe and all things in it, know and unknown. To say that everything is relative is to say that there is at least one absolute truth, and where there is one, there exists the possibility of others.
And it is this very possibility that I would like to explore. If truth doesn’t really exist, why do people still talk about it? Why, if “nothing can be known” do people pay for years of education in order to say just that? Why, if everything is relative to individual experience and perception, do we rely on and trust in our own history? Neither was I alive nor did I witness Socrates drink the poison hemlock given to him as his death sentence. I know nothing about the lives of John Locke or Avicenna except for what I’ve read in books. For all I know, based upon my personal experience, these men may not have existed at all! Even events closer to home, such as the American Revolution, I can neither prove nor disprove. I could take the fact that I live in The United States of America as evidence enough, but how do I know it happened as explained to me by my 8th grade history teacher Mr. Carlisle? It seems an irrefutable fact that the horrors of the Holocaust actually happened (I have visited the remains of the Dachau concentration camp), but there still exists a small population who swear it never happened. Taking all the evidence, all the written history and the artifacts and even eyewitnesses, how can we still then be sure of anything outside our own limited sphere of personal experience? We take it on faith.