“Truth isn’t always found halfway between two competing perspectives; but it often is”.
I have written a number of times before on relative truth vs. absolute truth, and what I wish to say today is built upon that. For the benefit of anyone that doesn’t know my perspective on this already, here is a quick summary of my conclusions relating to the use of relative and absolute truth:
– There are many undeniable examples of situations that naturally demand the use of relative conceptions of truth.
– Likewise, there are many undeniable examples of situations that naturally demand the use of absolute conceptions of truth.
– Furthermore, there are many undeniable examples of situations that naturally demand we accept an absolute truth as a big picture or ideal, with innumerable relative truths enveloped within it.
For me, the above is simply common sense. There are however, many people that will dispute my conclusions here. Without going too deeply into the topic here today, I will give just a few brief examples to make my case.
Firstly, regarding relativity, personal tastes in food, music, art, theatre & movies, interest in particular sports, perceptions of temperature, beauty etc. are obviously relative. That is, one cannot clearly state in objective terms that one musical artist is outright better than another in terms of their overall musicality. You may state that one is objectively better in technical terms (i.e. their technical abilities, their use of musical theory/harmony/rhythm etc.); however superior technical ability doesn’t always lead to superior musicality (and often it leads to the opposite). Hence, this should simply be common sense.
Likewise, it is not hard to find examples of absolutes. A rock is a solid (at least in it’s macroscopic sense), not a gas or liquid. An on/off light switch is either on or off. Basic mathematical equations only have one correct answer. One can of course find an endless list of examples. Again, this should simply be common sense.
Finally, if one seeks to form a big picture view of science (i.e. a “theory of everything”), one would have to seek to harmonise many different fields of study, that naturally at some point present contradictions. For example, it is well known in physics that there are problems in harmonising general relativity with quantum theory. Due to some incompatibilities between them, it is generally accepted that they are both only relatively truth (i.e. neither of them is a complete, absolutely true description of reality).
Hence, scientists (and philosophers) are seeking a greater description of reality that harmonises all the smaller perspectives. So, scientists hold the conception of an absolute truth (which they are seeking), but they recognise that their current theories are only relatively true.
The only real attempts I’ve seen at refuting this perspective is that a number people I have discussed this with have attempted to deny the existence of relative truths by dismissing them as “useful lies”; i.e. things that aren’t true, but are useful nevertheless. Personally I find this to be simply playing semantics. Simply renaming relative truth doesn’t refute it.
I have also heard individuals trying to deride this perspective by labelling it post-modernism or cultural-Marxism. I would simply respond that this perspective pre-dates and exists independent of both post-modernism and Marxism[i], and can just as easily lend itself to their critique. I am not condoning the abandonment of all absolute values (i.e. pure relativism). However, it should be obvious that there is room for some relativity in our worldview.
Hence, I consider all I have written above to easily verifiable. When you think it is through, it is common sense. We all make use of both relative and absolute concepts of truth in our practical lives. However, in theoretical matters it is often overlooked, which brings me to the topic of today’s post.
I believe that to be able to see the world as it really is, you must be able to consider multiple perspectives, and integrate truths from multiple views into a larger understanding. Again, whilst there are indeed examples where truth lies largely (or even entirely) on one side of a debate, it is far, far more common to find that both sides of a dispute have at least some partial truth on their side. This is not to say that it is always 50/50; rather it can be 60/40, 70/30, 80/20 etc.
Please note that I do not take this approach in order to try to please everybody. In fact, it often has the exact opposite affect. It is no secret that my personal spiritual/religious and political views generally lean left-of-centre. However, I find things on both sides of religion and politics that I believe can be improved. I have found in the past that my opinions are sometimes no more popular amongst those also on the left than those on the right. So, my view is not motivated by an attempt at popularity.
Likewise, it is not simply sitting on the fence, or being unable to make up ones mind. Obviously in the case of a political election you have to make decisions as to whom you choose to vote for. However, in general life we are under no obligation to “pick a side” and run with it. Life is not football; we do not simply have to choose who to support and then stick with them through thick and thin.
Taking note of my original summary of relative and absolute truths, I would hope my readers understand I am not supporting full-blown relativism. That is, we need not reject all notions of objectivity and declare all things equal, all views equally true or anything like that. Likewise, not all views deserve equal treatment. Quite simply, there are certain views (like the “Flat-Earth” theory), which by their very nature do not deserve equal treatment. However, there are often theories and perspectives that are considered well out of the mainstream, which are indeed worthy of consideration.
I have noted before that human beings are often way to quick to consider themselves to have reached a final conclusion. Our egos often find comfort in false certainty, believing we already understand something when in fact we do not. We look into the world and witness a situation unfolding, and prematurely conclude that it is always so.
Furthermore, confirmation bias leads us to color our perception of the world in such a way as to look for evidence of things we already believe to be true. Even in terms of normal psychology, this leads us to misperceive reality and take relative and limited truths to be far-reaching, and even absolute.
In some spiritual circles there is even talk that reality is structured in such a way as to (objectively) bring us evidence of the things we think about, so that our beliefs becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, with the universe constantly giving us evidence to support them. Even in a materialistic worldview it can be seen that our preconceived beliefs project out into the world and affect our relationships, our health, our happiness, and our overall success in life.
So, I would argue that in many – if not most – topics of discussion and dispute one can raise, there are at least some valid points to be found on more than one side. I will give some quite basic examples below to demonstrate how this can operate to allow people to hold grossly biased views.
Starting with politics, it is rare that those on the left and right sides of the political spectrum agree with each other on anything other than very basic general concepts. It is rarer still that they are civil and polite in their discourse with one another, as both sides view each other as the cause of the problems of the world. How many of us can enter a political debate without being swept up in the emotion of it? I have been trying for some time, at times succeeding, but often failing.
However, if we step back a bit from our personal bias we find that most commonly each side has some areas where they are correct, and others where they are incorrect. Certainly, the further to the extreme ends of the spectrum you travel, the more pronounced this becomes.
Karl Marx took examples of wealthy and powerful people taking advantage of common people as his springboard for his complete reaction against individual wealth and power, in favour of communal possession and state power. Ayn Rand did the exact opposite, using her experience of the horrors of full-blown socialism in Russia as a springboard for complete abandonment of social justice and compassion for the disadvantaged.
Obviously it is not that government is good and private businesses are bad, nor is it simply that private businesses are good and government is bad. Such oversimplistic conclusions are absurd. And yet, this is pretty much what the far-left and far-right are thinking and saying.
Any reasonable political theory can therefore recognise that the potential for corruption and abuse will exist in any human institution, and is more of an indication of the lower potential of the human ego rather than indicative of the nature of the institution itself.
And yet, there will naturally be differences in the way that the lower side of the human ego expresses through a government as to how it expresses through a private enterprise. That is, the horrors of a full-blown socialist (or communist) government are not by nature exactly the same as the horrors of a far-right political regime. Therefore, as I see it, any reasonable political theory must seek to balance out competing narratives, competing perspectives. Political theory must balance out communal power with individual power, social conscience with personal freedom etc.
Continuing down the same theme, there are often tensions felt between those who possess less material wealth and power than they need or desire, and those who are in an abundance of both. This is often termed “class warfare”; clashes between the rich and the poor. There are many examples to be found of wealthy people taking advantage of the poor, mistreating and even outright abusing the disadvantaged. Furthermore, there are countless examples whereby wealthy people abandon any consideration of morals and ethics in their quest for wealth and power. In modern times we can see how, blinded by greed, many have waged war against human, animal and plant life, and even the planet itself.
Hence, many have (I think, incorrectly) concluded that abandonment of morality is essential for the pursuit of material abundance. This is a common theme in religious and philosophical works, with many obvious examples. The New Testament is ripe with statements that condemn wealth and promote asceticism, and the Tao Te Ching speaks repeatedly against the abuses of the rich and powerful, just for two obvious examples. Many spiritual seekers renounce all material possessions (some even going as far as renouncing their clothing!) in pursuit of spiritual perfection. And of course, outside of religious contexts, there is often a great deal of jealousy and hatred projected against the wealthy by the poor.
And yet many of the wealthiest and most powerful people across history are in fact among the most inspirational, brilliant and generous of our species. Through the persistence and grand vision of many who have gained great success, humanity as a whole is uplifted. Many people gain exceptional wealth, power and success because they are exceptional human beings who rose above what was, dreamed big, worked hard and held faith in themselves. Some of the greatest assistance to the poor is given by those who possess financial freedom, and work to inspire others to the same end.
At the other end of the scale, many people experience poverty as the results of war, famine, gross abuses of power and injustices (like slavery, tyrannical governments etc.), rigid hereditary class systems, or simple misfortune (injury, sickness, disease etc.). Clearly we see many people living in poverty as being victims of the actions of others, the forces of nature or simple misfortune.
There are many people in positions of moderate or extreme wealth that despise the poor, seeing them as lazy, ignorant and immoral. Whilst I of course do not support such conclusions, there are indeed many examples whereby people suffer as a result of their own poor choices. Many people do indeed explicitly bring about their own poverty, their own disease and unhappiness. Also, just as there is class snobbery from the upper classes towards the lower, the opposite is also true. Often the poor snub the rich, the uneducated snub the educated, and the immoral snub the moral.
Of course it would be absurd to make oversimplistic conclusions such as wealthy people are immoral, or poor people all deserve to live in poverty. Such conclusions are quite distasteful. And yet, we need not look far to find examples which show that this is indeed how many people think. These may be extremely crude examples, but they are real life examples. This is how the human ego is capable of expressing itself.
Onto a different example, I have met (and know) many people that have been deeply wounded by people of the opposite sex, and have gone on to hold deep resentment – or even anger and hatred – towards the opposite sex. The sad irony about this situation is that such people are often blind to the hypocrisy in their perspective, as they are themselves what they are accusing the other of. This is again true in so many other fields of dispute, where people hold highly negative views of others, and yet cannot see the negativity in themselves that they project outwardly.
Obviously, it is not simply that women are good and men are bad, nor is the opposite true. However, there are many men who hate women, and likewise, there are also many women who hate men. This is a vicious cycle, as women who hate men are taken as the justification for men hating women, and vice versa.
What I am about to say requires a great deal of sensitivity, but it does nevertheless need to be said, and I will emphasise it here:
Often, self-identification as a victim leads an individual or group to make victims of others, projecting the role of oppressor onto others.
Now, if this triggers and/or offends you, please allow me to explain a little here. It is important that we tread carefully here and take this slow. Obviously, many, many people do have the experience of being victims of abuse and injustice. I am not questioning this. However, when someone – or a group of people – takes the experience and creates a self-image as a victim (i.e. “This is who I am, I am a victim” – “This is who we are – we are victims”), they often then start to color their perception and experience of the world with this belief.
Obviously, it should go without saying that not everyone who suffers at the hands of others then goes on to inflict suffering upon others in explicit ways. I am not encouraging victim blaming or anything like that. However, I am cautioning against taking on the self-image of a victim. For people that suffer through extreme traumatic events this is often easier said than done. This could obviously be quite infuriating when outsiders simply tell them not to take it on board. It is always easier to solve personal problems as an outsider, than it is to solve them when you are intimately involved with them.
Having noted this, it should be said that many people (and groups of people) that commit great atrocities do so under the belief that they are the persecuted minority, and that they are simply seeking justice for past and present injustices. As an extreme example, a large number of terrorists think this way. The white nationalist terrorists who murdered 51 people (and injured another 49) in New Zealand on the 15th of March 2019 saw themselves as defenders of European civilization, at war with Islam. Likewise, the Islamic terrorists that murdered 130 people in Paris on the 13th of November 2015 saw themselves as victims, fighting against the oppression of the Christian West.
Obviously though again, I am not suggesting that everyone who has suffered at the hands of another and has found themselves plagued by ongoing trauma is therefore a terrorist. However, identification as a victim often leads to us making victims of others, and projecting the role of oppressor onto others, and then acting towards them as if we are at war and are simply defending ourselves. Often this occurs in much more subtle ways than those listed above, in families or workplaces.
Sometimes we project a grossly oversimplistic lens onto a subject, which is by its very nature multi-faceted. For example, let us ask the question whether Christians are generally persecuted for their religion, or are they generally the persecutors? Obviously, the evidence shows that the correct answer is both. That is, there is extensive evidence for both ends of the scale. And yet, there are many people that will argue for only one end of the stick, compiling evidence for their case, and ignoring all the evidence that supports the opposite conclusion. Hence, in this case the question itself is inadequate, and naturally skews the data.
I did not simply conclude that Christians are both persecuted and persecutors simply because I was unwilling to make my mind up. Nor did I conclude it to try and please everybody. I reached that conclusion because that is what the evidence shows, and I am not personally invested in either defending or attacking Christianity[ii]. And yet, I have repeatedly seen countless people approaching the subject of religious persecution with distinct bias and irreverence for the facts (and I plan on publishing an article on this subject alone at some point).
Likewise, we can say something similar about Islam (but again, not necessarily in exactly the same way, and to the same degree etc.). That is, there are innumerable examples of Muslims both being persecuted and being the persecutor. And yet, anyone with any degree of familiarity with public discussions about Islam should be able to attest that a large number of voices on the subject speak only for one side alone, as if it were a game of football and you simply had to pick a side. I see comparatively few balanced discussions about Islam and religious persecution, and an abundance of one-sided opinions, on both sides.
Furthermore, discussions about Islam are some of the ugliest around, again from both sides. It is very common for people (and groups of people) to shout down any discussion of the topic that doesn’t immediately confirm to their preconceptions. Of course, when talking about subjects like religious violence and terrorism, persecution, bigotry and racism, these are naturally loaded topics. And yet, we cannot expect to make progress unless we can hold more constructive discussions on important topics.
As a final example, let us ask the question whether conquered nations benefit from the culture of their conquerors? Again, I think a little from column a), and a little from column b) is the correct answer here. Certainly great injustices have occurred throughout the world as war has been waged, and powerful and developed nations have seized new territory. And yet, powerful nations bring with them many advantages, through science, medicine and culture at large.
Again, we find that there are many polarised voices that only speak to one side of the equation. I happen to know several white-nationalists, who by their very definition refuse to acknowledge the injustices committed by our European ancestors against the indigenous people in America, Australia, New Zealand (etc.). And yet, there are also many voices on the far-left, which only speak of Western culture in negative terms, and rarely (if ever) mention the many advantages of Western civilisation.
Of course, one can (and should) both be grateful for our modern life and those that worked to develop all the things we take for granted, and yet also acknowledge the great injustices that our forefathers committed. The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. It should be common sense that we can (and should) acknowledge both perspectives here and harmonise them into a bigger picture. And yet, some people do not view it this way.
Again, this does not necessarily mean that both sides are equally correct or equally false, or that the truth lies necessarily exactly halfway between the two extreme views. I am here suggesting that too often we make up our mind way to quick, and become stubborn and unmoving in holding to our preconceptions. So often, more in-depth study is required to understand a subject properly. Hence, it has often been said:
“The wise recognise how little they know, whilst the foolish consider themselves wise.”
Ego compels us to define ourselves through fixed beliefs and association with large groups (i.e. political perspectives and parties, religious perspectives and institutions, sports teams, music genres, national and racial identity etc.) Psychological and spiritual evolution therefore involves expanding and even abandoning rigid self-concepts, seeing the freedom in being flexible and open. This doesn’t necessarily mean abandonment of all knowledge and institutions, but rather a releasing of the solidity and rigidity with which we define ourselves through them.
I would like to restate that I have given fairly blunt examples above, but the same conclusions also apply for subtler, everyday examples. The same dynamics are at play in the interactions between partners, siblings, parents and children, friends and work colleagues etc. We can all grow through giving the benefit of the doubt to others, stopping to consider their perspective and question our own.
As stated earlier, we often see or experience something a certain way at one time, give it some thought and then see more evidence to support it. Often our family, culture, media, government or religion teaches us a certain perspective, and then this conditioning taints our perception of the world. We then start believing in it, and hold it to be true.
This is how many negative perspectives on life begin. People then say: “Men are like this – women are like that, white people are all like this – black people are all like that, Christians are all like this – Atheists are all like that, “lefties” are all like this – conservatives are all like that” etc. This is how all forms of bigotry begin. To heal these aberrations we need to take a step back and put our conditioning aside, and consider multiple perspectives.
Whilst human beings do often over-complicate things, we also often over-simplify things, giving ourselves the illusion of certainty when in truth the reality is over our heads. We live in a vast, vast world, and we experience only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction (etc.) of reality. I don’t say this to diminish the human race. Rather, the vastness of reality should inspire deep awe within us, motivating us to evolve and move forward, rather than stubbornly justify how we are and have been.
Of course, as I have stated before, I am certainly no exception to the rule in what I have written here today. Certainly, through my spiritual practice I have been blessed with the experience of an expansion of my sense of self. However, I am as human as anyone else.
Whilst we should acknowledge our feelings and find healthy expressions for them (rather than suppress them), we are capable of transcending the patterns of belief and behaviour that we accept as normal. We have as yet no real idea of what we are truly capable of. Whilst there are some that feel that what I am speaking here is unrealistic and creates unnecessary stress in aiming for unattainable ideals, I feel that to speak anything less would be doing a disservice.
Certainly we need to start where we are, and I am not suggesting or condoning a harsh attitude towards oneself or others for simply thinking and behaving in ways that are common for our race. In fact, I am suggesting we all need to be far gentler on both others and ourselves. However, we can approach all beings with love (including ourselves), whilst also seeking to call out the irrational beliefs that sustain bigotry and hold us back from realising our potential, both as individuals and as a species. To aim for anything less would be setting the bar too low, which is generally self-fulfilling, as when you don’t know there is anything better you are less likely to strive for more.
May we speak the truth with love, be kind to all beings and seek out a greater perspective of life that accounts for all the experiences and perspectives in this vast, beautiful world.
[i] For example, there are many passages in Yogic literature that discuss the need for multiple perspectives, both relative and absolute truths:
“Although Creation is discerned as not real for the one who has achieved the goal (liberation), it is yet real in that Creation remains the common experience to others.” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 2:22, circa 4th century CE or earlier.
[ii] Rather, I would argue that I seek to take a reasonable and balanced approach towards seeing both the positive and negative sides of Christianity. I have a significant number of Christian friends and family, and I see a great number of them as inspirations, as examples of people living truly healthy, balanced lives. I actually even listen to a lot of Christian music, and not just Christian rock and pop (some praise and worship as well, along with spiritual music from other cultures and New Age music). I’ll talk more about this in a future article.