Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Three Most Important Questions

The ancient Greek philosopher Gorgias (each G is a hard G, like in “great,” not soft like in “gem,” and it’s definitely not pronounced like “gorgeous”) was a bit of an extreme fellow. He came along during a time when philosophers had been debating what the nature of reality was. First Thales said that everything was made of water, and that the water changed its form to make different things. Other philosophers suggested other substances. Then Heraclitus suggested that, really, everything is constantly changing, but things only appear to stay the same sometimes. Parmenides one-upped him and said just the opposite, that nothing ever changes, but things only appear to change sometimes. Gorgias then played the ultimate trump card and laid out his vision of reality: that it doesn’t exist at all.

He made the following four propositions:

Nothing exists. If it did exist, it could not be known. If it could be known, it could not be communicated. If it could be communicated, it could not be understood.

That, ladies and gents, is complete and total skepticism.

Now, when it’s put that bluntly, it seems ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. Gorgias’ second statement is a paradox: he claims to know that nothing can be known. And if he really believed it was impossible to communicate about anything, he wouldn’t have written a book attempting to communicate how it’s impossible to communicate anything. He wouldn’t have spent time carefully crafting the section on how nothing can be understood in the hopes that people would understand it. And I’m sure that when his book failed to sell and the repo man came to take his house, it would not have sufficed to tell the repo man “Sorry, nothing exists, including this house, and you, so you can’t take my house from me, because you’re not here, and there’s no house to take.” Then after the repo man punched him in the face, he could console himself with the knowledge that the repo man didn’t really exist, so he hadn’t been punched in the face… and come to think of it, he himself didn’t exist either, so he couldn’t be in pain.

The “nothing exists” one is a little hard to swallow, and you won’t find many people who go along with him on that. But Gorgias’ skepticism does leave us with important questions:

Is there truth? If there is truth, how can we know it? If we can know it, how can we express it?

These are perhaps the three most important questions we can ask about any subject. Any conversation on an issue or topic or problem, be it a debate on the floor of the US Senate or a chat over coffee between two friends, should start with these three questions. Is what we’re talking about a matter of opinion, or taste, or preference, or prudential judgment, or is there some principle, some question of right and wrong, some matter of “it is the case or it isn’t the case” about it? If it’s about the truth, how can we know the truth about the subject in question? Philosophy? Theology? Science? Some combination? Once we come to know this truth, how can we express it in a way others can understand? Description? Jargon? Analogy?

It seems that a lot of our current contentious political issues are so heated precisely because we can’t agree on the answers to these questions. Think about it. The question of same-sex marriage is essentially the first question: “Is marriage something with its own nature that should be preserved and respected, or is it an institution of entirely human construct, malleable at will?” That is, “Is marriage really something, or is it just whatever we call it?” Slapping each other with epithets and accusing people of hate doesn’t address that question, and thus it side-steps the crux of the whole issue. The abortion debate seems to be largely about the second question: One side says, “Who knows when life begins or when a human being becomes a person?” The other side says, “It’s obvious, isn’t it? It begins at the beginning.” (Of course, there is also the simple and sensible response to that first side: “If you say you don’t know, then don’t act. If you’re unsure whether it’s your son or a deer rustling the bushes, are you going to shoot?”) The third question seems to relate to the debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques vs. torture”: “Well, is it really easy to say what the distinction is between those two? Can we express that distinction?” “YES. Stop doing X, Y, and Z, it’s torture!” “Yeah, but… is it REALLY? I mean, can we say that for sure? Does that REALLY paint an accurate picture?” And you go in circles ad infinitum.

There are many, many, many, many, many, many, many other examples; I just grabbed what to me seemed to be the obvious ones. But they illustrate well the importance of first and foremost seeking the truth.

Of course, the most essential place to ask these questions is on the subject of religion, since it deals with the nature of ultimate reality. What is the truth? How do we know the truth? How can that truth be expressed? For a Christian, the answer to all three questions is the same: Jesus. Perhaps you don't agree with this just now. That's a subject for another post.

1 comment:

  1. Number one most important question Jesus asked Peter: "Do you love me?"
    everything else melts- or not- with one's answer.