07 February 2009

Truth and Meaning

One of the biggest obstacles facing a dialogue between believers of a particular faith and nonbelievers is that of the meaning people ascribe to ideas they believe as truth. It is one thing to believe something as true, but quite another to attach meaning (and thus emotion) to the idea. Meaningful ideas are not "bad", and they are probably unavoidable -- but when two people are discussing the truth-or-no nature of an idea, if they do not separate the meaning they derive from that idea from the idea itself, they will unavoidably confuse the issue. As Epictetus said, "the first duty of the truth-seeker is to rid the mind of one's conceits": do not assume the premise you attempt to prove.

I do not expect the people I encounter on a daily basis to separate the meanings they attach to ideas to the ideas themselves. I would if I were dealing with historians or scientists attempting to work out the truth of a matter, but on a daily basis, people aren't that engaged in the seeking of the truth. There are professions where truth claims are quite important -- banking, law, academia, and so on -- but for most people, I don't think truth claims come up that much. I think most people just live their lives, only needing to deal with the occasional truth claim. As such, the meaning attached to an idea they think of as true is more important than the actual veracity of the idea. I'm going to address Christianity specifically because it is the religion I have the most contact with. The average Christian, I would wager, does not spend a lot of time thinking about arguments for and against the idea that Jesus was God. If they were a serious Christian, though, they probably do spend time thinking about the meaning of that claim. They draw inspiration from his life: they are moved by feelings of mercy, humbleness, and love when they think of them. Other meanings are less pleasant to dwell on -- think of how a fundamentalist sees Jesus. What matters to most people, I think, is not the truth of the matter, but what meaning their ideas have for them. This is why it is easy to embrace theism and reject atheism: what meaning is there in atheism?

There isn't any. There isn't supposed to be. People can ascribe meaning all they want, but I don't think it is a far-fetched claim to say it's easier to create meaning out of a god than it is a lack of a god. The biggest obstacle to a civil discussion between Christians and nonchristians, or between believers in general and nonbelievers, is this matter of truth having taken on intense personal meaning. Personal meaning is subjective: it cannot be debated to any real purpose anymore than two people in an art gallery can argue over the "real" meaning of a painting. They can learn from or derive value from the other's interpretation if -- and only if, I think -- they accept that both of their interpretations are just that, interpretations. A Christian who is proselytizing, whoever, is not likely to accept the idea that what they believe to be true is just an interpretation -- nor are they likely to react to the proposition that their interpretation is wrong with any amount of grace. This is not a jibe at Christians in particular: if you believe something so forcefully that you're willing to knock on doors and intrude into the personal worldviews of strangers, it is not likely that you are a person who will suddenly back off and say "Well, yes, mine is only an interpretation". (Or, for that matter, that the people who wrote the text you take so seriously are only in possession of opinions, and not truths.)

I am starting to believe that discussions about atheism and theism are completely irrelevant. I recognize that some of my ideals are just that, ideals: they are not practical truth claims. I may have some rational justification for practicing the Golden Rule or for regarding all of humanity as important, but I accept that these are primarily ideas that mean something to me -- that I can't argue them, I can only say "This is what I believe". In so doing, though, I also put myself into the position of recognizing that for other people, the rational justification for believing in Jesus may be of only secondary importance -- that for them, what is important is the meaning they attach to those ideas. That, for someone who believes in the importance of believing what is true, is an odd thing to get used to. Stranger still is the fact that I'm more or less okay with this apparent contradiction between values. (I say apparent because I think the truth of the matter is, expecting humans to be rational is irrational.) What I want is for people to treat people decently. I want people to believe in themselves, to attempt to make their lives better. I'm starting to realize, though, that the philosophical life isn't for everyone and that those who do pursue self-growth may not do so on the terms I do -- and that's okay. (The idea that it wasn't okay at one point now strikes me as bothersome.)

So those are my thoughts, as they are now, on truth and meaning. I may develop this further as time wears on, but for today I just wanted to organize and express some thoughts of mine.

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