Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Absolute Truth

Here goes nothing. An attempt to explain some of my thoughts on aboslute truth:

I've always felt that there could be no absolute religious truth. Religion is a system of beliefs that we create in order to help us deal with difficult aspects of life--the afterlife, morals, etc. There are different religious groups because people chose to cope with these things in different ways. And ideally, people follow a religion because they feel the most comfortable with those particular beliefs. Of course, this does not account for those who blindly practice a religion because their parents raised them in that particular faith, rather than actually questioning their own beliefs.

With this understanding of religion, the idea of absolute religious truth seems ridiculous. How can you tell someone that their personal belief system, their religion, is wrong? And more importantly, how can you be certain that your religion is the true faith? With personally defined beliefs, "truth" obviously becomes relative.

The concept of relative spiritual truth has never bothered me. In fact, the idea was instrumental in helping me deal with questions of religion. I'm anything but certain as to what I personally believe, but this has given me a more definite idea of what religion should be. I have the freedom to develop and shape my own system of beliefs. It's a somewhat overwhelming task, but it also puts my mind at ease. Relativity, in this case, takes away the worry of not
"getting the right answer," so to speak.

In talking with others, though, I have found that people with more firm beliefs in a particular religion don't necessarily agree with my interpretation of religion. Many religions, in particular Christianity, seem to see their own religion as the ultimate answer. And of course, this makes sense. Why would someone believe something so strongly if they also believed that it wasn't the way? This plagued me for awhile. Adopting a set of beliefs while admitting that they aren't necessarily true makes the whole thing seem a bit pointless. However, I realized that individual truth is still attainable. Admitting that there is relative truth does not eliminate the possibility of finding truth for yourself--only of finding truth for everyone. Very religious people may still find this idea hard to deal with. I am not especially committed to any belief system at the moment, so perhaps that is why this understanding of religion appeals to me.

My stopping block comes when this idea is expanded from the spiritual to the physical. I have so much trouble dealing with the idea that our physical universe is not definite, and that there could somehow be multiple "physical truths." This generally leads me to a "nothing exists!" conclusion, that contradicts almost all of my human instincts. I usually feel like I'm pulling a Descartes, and then just feel silly. Ah, Meditations on First Philosophy.

Considering that, being an engineering physics major and a general science nerd, I'm quite invested in the field of science, my resistance towards relative physical truth is a justified (Just as those heavily invested in a particular religion are justified in hesitating to accept relative spiritual truth). After all, science has no point if there is no definite physical reality. The fact that any reputable science experiment gets results that are repeatable--i.e. other scientists can perform them and obtain the same results--seems to rule out the idea of a subjective physical reality. Scientists pride themselves on objectivity, after all. (I am not making an claim that science is objective here. I've done too much research in the history and philosophy of science to know that this is far from true. However, if you ask most scientists, they will tell you that objectivity is one of their primary goals.)

Of course, there are physics theories in quantum mechanics that have a great deal to say about absolute truth and its existence. Mano Singham discusses some of these theories in his book The Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs, which I discussed in an earlier post. I have yet to read this section, though. Clearly, I am looking forward to it. I'm sure there will be future posts about it once I do.

The only idea I've considered to reconsile this obvious problem is this: That an absolute physical truth does exist, but we as individuals are unable to fully observe it. We are all human, and hence prone to our own private interpretations of our senses and thing around us (just as we can all have individual interpretations of spirituality). This concept also jives with theories of quantum mechanics, which talk about how in observing something, say an electron, we change its physical properties. (If you're not really sure what I'm talking about, read up on Schrodinger's Cat). On the other hand, this doesn't fit with the repeatability of science experiments!

I. Am. Stuck.


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