There seem to be a lot of truth fundamentalists in the world, people who believe that there is an objective truth for everyone and we better find out what that truth is so that everyone can live after it. Both assumptions seem to be a little bit odd to me. I used to hold both of them very strongly when I was a teenager. Since then however, I have moved away from these assumptions. Today I have serious doubts about the existence of an objective truth, other than the truth itself that there is no objective truth, at least none that we can discover. Furthermore I am quite convinced that even if there was such a truth, the importance of that truth would be much overrated.
In this piece I do not want to dwell too much on the latter assumption. Instead I would like to lay down my problems with the idea of an objective truth. Before I do this I will have to say, that I have no formal education in Philosophy. I have only read a few philosophical texts and I do not know much about philosophical history. So these are my own thoughts based on my limited knowledge that I have won over the years mainly in debates with other people. But I am not claiming originality, I am sure there are plenty of people who must have had similar thoughts like me. I apologize for not being able to quote them all.
Here is how I see truth. First, we can of course assume that I am dreaming and nothing of what I perceive as real is really real. Maybe that is the case, but if it is it is a useless assumption in my view, as I cannot escape that dream. I would still need to act as if reality exists. So let us assume that reality exists.
The question then is how does this reality look like. A lot of people seem to automatically assume two things. Firstly, that this reality is objective, meaning the exact same for everyone and secondly, that we can explore everything about this reality by using reason. I have doubts about both of these assumptions.
Does the truth exist?
Let us start with the first assumption and let us do this by assuming for now that the second assumption is true. In other words let us not question the legitimacy of reason for the moment. Here is a simple example for the start. Two people are looking at reality and argue about it using reason. More concrete, both people are looking at a pot on a table. That both are looking at the pot and seem to agree that the pot exists seems to be a clear indication that the objective reality thesis is right. But of course for reality to be truly objective, everything about this reality needs to be objective. A reality in which parts are objective while others are not would overall not deserve the label objective. Just because both can agree on the existence of the pot does therefore not proof an objective reality. It merely does not falsify the idea. In order to find out whether other aspects of the pot are also objective, they could share their observations and see if they agree on other things. If they do, then that would be increased evidence that reality is objective, if they do not then that seems to be a problem for the thesis. That does not mean that every disagreement is an automatic falsification of the idea of an objective reality. However, if we want to continue to believe that reality is objective, we will need to explain disagreements. If we cannot explain these, it seems to be that objectivity is in trouble. The standard explanation of objectivists for disagreement is that at least one side has made an intellectual error, maybe both did. If that is the case the solution would be to continue arguing to eliminate the errors. While this might be an acceptable explanation, I cannot see why it has to be the only one or even the most plausible one.
To explain why, let us look at some disagreements. We can create one by changing our example a little bit. The pot now is painted in two colours. Exactly one half of it is painted in red and the other one in blue. Our two people are now looking at the pot from exactly 180° opposite directions, with one person looking at the red half and the other one at the blue half. If both had not seen the pot from a different perspective and started arguing about the colour of the pot, they would obviously start disagreeing. As long as they stay within their perspective, using observation and reason will not help them resolve the dispute. Although both are claiming the pot to be in a different colour, both are right. According to reason that must not happen, as something cannot be one thing and the opposite at the same time. So we have seemingly created a situation in which we have two people agreeing on many things (existence of the pot, standing on a table etc.), but are disagreeing on at least one aspect (colour) and yet no one is false, because the disagreement is due to both people looking at reality from a different angle. Within their angle they are objectively right. Does this falsify the idea of objectivity?
Most people would argue no, it does not and in this case I would agree. The disagreement is in fact due to an intellectual error. What they should have done is to take the search for the truth on a higher level, a level that includes the possibility of changing the perspective. Once they do that everything becomes objective again and they will agree that one side of the pot is red and the other one is blue. This argument is of course correct. However, it is important to understand that in order to rescue objectivity people need to be able to change their perspective. They will need to be able to run around the table to look at the pot from the other angle in order to agree on reality. But what if they are incapable of doing that?
Let us look at such an example. In order to harmonise the perspectives of our two observers they need to be able to travel through the three dimensions of space. In physics we know that there is most likely at least one more dimension which influences the way we see things and that dimension is time. Until Einstein came along, people assumed automatically that time is an objective constant for everyone. The whole physics of Newton is based on that assumption. It seems intuitively right, because as humans we do not seem to experience time as a dimension. We are always moving in one direction and that is forward in time. To my knowledge, Einstein was the first to assume that this assumption might be wrong, time might not be a constant, but indeed be a dimension. Like every dimension, time also influences the way we see the world. He discovered that the effects of this dimension might be realised when two things are moving at different speeds. According to many experiments this idea seems to be correct.
A famous thought experiment to illustrate it is to take two rockets flying in opposite directions and passing each other. In each Rocket we have someone looking out observing what is happening. Just like our people looking at the pot from different angles, the people in the rocket will agree on many things. They will agree that these rockets passed each other, the colour of the rocket and many other things. However, they will disagree on at least two things. One is the physical dimensions of the rockets and the other one is the point in time in which the two rockets passed each other. None of them is making a mistake in their observation or reasoning. However, other than in the pot example, they will not be able to understand why they disagree, as they do not have access to the dimension of time that would allow them to understand this. That means that going on a higher level of truth, like running around the table in our pot example is very difficult in this example. Luckily, Einstein at least shows us a theoretical way out of it.
However, here I am coming to the point where I am starting to question objectivity. What if there are other implications of the time dimension that we cannot understand? What if there are dimensions which are influencing our view on reality that cannot be discovered by us? Some might say that this is an arbitrary assumption, but I would disagree with that. We have a real problem on hand. People disagree with each other even after very long debates. The assumption that we look at the world from fundamentally different perspectives, perspectives that are so different that we cannot access the other person’s perspective would explain these ongoing disagreements. It would be a very valid explanation for the observation that people disagree with each other. At the very least it is an equally good explanation than to assume that people make intellectual mistakes that can be fixed though argumentation.
Some might try to rescue the idea of an objective truth, by saying that such a truth would still exist, even if we are incapable of seeing it. However, even if such a higher truth were to exist, it would not be more relevant as the assumption that we are all dreaming. It does not have any practical relevance, as the only think we could know about this truth is that we don’t know the truth, which would be the only truth left. However, this would make everything else but this truth de facto subjective, as it would make agreement through reasonable argumentation impossible in some cases. People then indeed would live in different realities, realities that are connected with each other, but are not the same and cannot be harmonised through argumentation.
Let us now move on to reasoning itself. Assuming that there is an objective reality, can we understand it with reason? At first the evidence seems to be very much in favour of reason. By using reason we seem to indeed be able to eliminate certain errors. We come to conclusions that are predicting reality accurately. We also seem to be incapable of doing anything else than arguing reasonable. However, that does not mean that everything about reality is reasonable or that every reasonable conclusion is a right conclusion. Just like our inability to perceive time in its full dimension, our limitation to only use reason might simply make us miss out on certain aspects of reality, or let us perceive reality wrongly. The question is, do we have any evidence against reason? I have seen two arguments that let me question the legitimacy of always using reason.
The first one is Kurt Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorem. By using logic, Gödel could proof that in certain logical systems, systems of which the natural number are a part of, one of two things has to occur. Either you have sentences that are true but cannot be proven to be true or alternatively, you will have sentences that can formally be proven to be true, but are really false. So there we have it. Reason itself seems to tell us that under certain circumstances, reason will be either misleading or incomplete. The question is, does this apply to reality. Gödel’s important condition to a system qualifying for the incompletion theorem was that the natural numbers need to be a part of it. So are the natural numbers a part of reality? The fact that they are called natural numbers already hints at the idea that this might very well be the case. Mathematics based on natural numbers is used all the time in science to describe reality. So it seems that either they are part of reality, or all of science is making a huge mistake using this type of mathematics to describe reality. Interestingly we cannot fully exclude the latter, which might be the reason why science is increasingly running into difficulties with ever smaller particles that should be there according to mathematics. As the German mathematician Thomas Hussner at a libertarian meeting pointed out to me, it might turn out to be a huge mistake of science to automatically assume that natural numbers mathematics is part of reality. In any case, at the very least Gödel’s theorem is a clear proof that we cannot automatically assume that all of reality can be explored by reason and that reason always leads to right results.
The second argument against a fully reasonable reality comes from observing reality itself. Can we observe anything in reality that seems to be unreasonable? Reason always follows the pattern of showing that some A is not anything else but A. If we at some point come to the conclusion that in order for A to be true it would also need to be B at the same time, we would see that as a proof for A not to be true. Every reasonable argument that I have seen, follows that pattern. In that case the opposite of reason is a paradox. A paradox always comes in the form of A is also B, as in the pot is red and simultaneously blue. Most paradoxes that seem to occur in reality turn out not to be paradoxes. Like in our pot example, as long as our two observers do not change their perspective, the pot seems to be red and blue at the same time. But as soon as we change the perspective we see that the seemingly paradox really isn’t one. However, are there any observations of real paradoxes, that cannot be clearly be disproven to be paradoxes?
I think quantum mechanics is worth looking at. A fundamental principle of quantum mechanics is that of the so called superposition. An electron for example can behave as both a particle and a wave. The problem is that we cannot know what it is, until we measure or observe it. However, as long as we do not measure or observe it, it seems to be both things at the same time. Since humans are always using reason, this is the aspect of quantum mechanics that is most confusing to people. That something is a particle and a wave at the same time cannot possible be true. It is a classic paradox. It was this phenomenon that led Einstein, who certainly was good in reasoning to believe that quantum mechanics had to be incomplete. Intuitively most people seem to assume that there is just something we do not understand about this. Once we find the missing link, the paradox will resolve. There are plenty of attempt to bring this observation back into a reasonable shape. The problem is that at least so far it very much looks like we are dealing with an objective paradox. All attempts to put it back to reason are based on the dogma that we must not find paradoxes. They are made by people who do not want to at least consider the possibility of an existing paradox. But there are no experiments that resolve the paradox. That is why I wonder why we should assume that nothing in reality can be paradox. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, maybe it is a duck.
Another aspect of quantum mechanics is that it seems to contradict Einstein’s relativity theory. Both theories have a very different explanation of gravity. Both theories of cause have been tested over and over again and seem to be correct. No one can explain why these two theories are contradicting each other and there currently is a race to find a theory that brings it all together. So far this search has been unsuccessful. Again, the only reason that people are looking for this theory is, that they are working on the assumption that there must not be any contradictions in reality. To at least entertain the possibility that this might not be the case does not seem to come to most people’s mind.
I am not saying that we should not look for some truth in the world. I am also not saying that reasoning is bad. I simply cannot understand why it has to be the truth instead of an individual truth. People who are looking for the truth might chase something that does not exist. And they are doing this with reasoning, a tool that they do not fully understand. I cannot see how, such a reality can ever be proven unless we were somehow starting to all agree on everything. That will only happen when we understand everything. Until then, I remain sceptical about ‘the truth’ and also reasoning.
So what is left then? I agree with Max Stirner’s approach of philosophical egoism. The idea of being haunted by ideas rather than make ideas work for me never appealed to me anyway. Max Stirner concludes his book “The Ego and Its Own” with the words:
“I am owner of my might, and I am so when I know myself as unique. In the unique one the owner himself returns into his creative nothing, of which he is born. Every higher essence above me, be it God, be it man, weakens the feeling of my uniqueness, and pales only before the sun of this consciousness. If I concern myself for myself, the unique one, then my concern rests on its transitory, mortal creator, who consumes himself, and I may say:
All things are nothing to me.”*
I have nothing to add.
*’All things are nothing to me’ in my view is not a very good translation of what Stirner is trying to say. The sentence is of course taken from Goethe’s poem ‘Vanitas! Vanitum Vanitas!’. In the Englisch translation, the German ‘Ich Hab’ Mein Sach’ auf Nichts gestellt’ is translated with ‘My trust is placed in nothing’ which comes closer. I think Stirner is trying to say something like ‘My concern or my cause/philosophy is based on nothing but myself. Thus it is philosophical egoism or individualism.