Venturing Out Part 2 – Non-Socrates Method Meeting

January 5, 2008

I went to another meeting last night … similar but different to the Socrates Cafe. Ironically, our meandering topic intersected with some of the discussion of the night before, but the format is essentially a self-regulating free-for-all. Over all, I think it worked, although there were times where I found myself tuning out as we continued to beat a dead horse when someone didn’t “get it”, and we got stuck in a vicious cycle.

The characters at this meeting are very interesting as well … as much as I was able to infer from those who interactively participated. One plus for this sort of format is the lack of bottling up your thoughts until you want to explode, but yet will never really have a way of sharing your views, as is the case with the Socrates method implementation. This informal method doesn’t require everyone to participate, so that is a downside, but there are likely cases where someone just has nothing to contribute. Since they are never put on the spot, they may be more likely to continue to attend and suddenly find themselves in a position where they *do* have something to contribute.

During the discussion, a statement from (seemingly multiple discussions) 4 years ago was resurrected, and that led to an interesting discussion, as well as insight about some of the members. I believe the statement was “The rock is spirit”, which lead to a full, but yet off-topic, discussion about if the “rock *has* spirit”, and the concept of “spirit” itself. After exploring this path, another redirection of the topic became the effect of specific phrasing and how it affects the intent of the speaker vs the understanding of the listener, and how that can radically change the conversation. In this case, the two statements are completely different, and caused the contributors to go off on a totally different path. My conclusion, concise language is critical, but also that modern language alone cannot consistently convey the speaker’s true intent.

In any case, one of the contributors decided the best path to research the “rock *has* spirit” statement was through the American Indian beliefs, and he did so with great effort. He claims to understand, to some extent, the commonality across their belief structure, and, in their world view, the rock does indeed embody the common spirit. He has, also through his extensive research, decided to become a Christian, and therefor is at odds with the Indian belief structure. I find I do have great respect for him in the sense that he is willing to research and consider “facts” that he may ultimately decide are untrue, but he seems willing to concede that others may believe them to be true (although he “knows” them to be false). This, of course, brings me back to the conversation about what is a truth and how we accept a truth (the make up of supporting “facts” vs “faith”).

Do I think the rock *has* spirit or *is* spirit? I think I don’t know! I do know there are a lot of “things” out there that I cannot detect with my human sensory inputs, but yet they do exist. I may not be able to define them, and certainly not in our limited language structure, but I believe they do exist (more “faith” than “fact” support).

Consider the idea that when people refer to “spirit” or “connectedness” or “<fill in the blank>”, they are often thinking in religious connotations. Consider that a lot of religious concepts were (and still are) employed to justify things we see or think may happen (the Greeks and Romans had individual gods for much of these mysterious tasks, such as lightening). We now “know” that lightening is a result of charged particles in the atmosphere, but if we didn’t “know” that, would Zeus still be a part of our daily lives?

The Christian religion has dumped all of these great responsibilities on one God, who really should attend some management seminars and learn to delegate better (it’s a joke, get over it!). Regardless of the differences between the Greek/Roman gods and Christianity’s God, the underlying responsibility for what makes these charged particles exist and do what they do is because it is His will.

So, following along, as science learns more about how things work, they are finding more and more proof of how “things” (people, objects, gases, etc) interact and interrelate at a sub-atomic level. Could science be starting to get closer to describing with language and formulas this “spirit” or “connectedness”?

Just as with lightening, we, as a collection of societies, can allow multiple explanations for things we hold true. Acceptance of this allows us to consider that science vs religion does not need to be absolutely diametrically opposed, or one *must* be wrong. There are obviously some areas that are in direct conflict, but that is not the point of this proposition.

Final answer, do I believe the rock *has* spirit or *is* spirit (or both)? Still don’t know, but I still believe there is a lot of possibility out there and that I don’t know so much that don’t even know, I cannot draw a conclusion yet. (my “gap” is made up of more skepticism than faith, I suppose?) I’d like to think that such a thing does exist, but perhaps that’s just the human desire to gravitate toward being social vs isolation.

Back to the group conversations, did I enjoy both experiences? Sure. Will I become a weekly contributor? Who knows. I know I’m certainly interested in adding additional data points to my experience with both in order to draw a better conclusion.

We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks.

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The “Absolute Truth”, and My Foray Back Into Civilization

January 3, 2008

OK, so I finally got out of the house and tried to go talk to human beings in person (I work from home … long hours). Naturally, I started it easy by going to a meetup of the “Socrates Cafe” group, and the topic was “Is it possible to have philosophical inquiry without positing absolutes?”, and a corollary of “If philosophical inquiry incorporates absolutes, how is it different from religion?”. Yeah, my head is still swimming …

A nice fellow, Andy, ran the meeting since the organizer, John, wasn’t able to make it, and I think he did a pretty good job of balancing passionate and interesting speech with the point were it becomes soap boxing. The format of the meeting follows the Socratic method which has both advantages and disadvantages. I’m not sure what the ideal group size is, but it seemed that our group was perhaps a person or three too big, as it took a long time to get around the circle. Also, not knowing the other players, it made it difficult for me to select the victim for my question and follow-up, so I picked on the topic presenter (who I also sorta know since he’s my father 🙂 ).

Since the topic was a good philosophical topic, i.e. dealing in the definitions of “absolute” and the belief in “absolute”, it naturally lead to a lot of semi-off topic or tangential or just completely “what??” questions and answers. But that in itself was interesting in the manner that each person interpreted the topic and how that shaped their questions and answers.

One gentleman certainly sounded like he wanted everyone to believe that he was very smart, and spouted chapter and verse of the classic philosophers (Plato, et al), but I never did figure out what *he* thought or believed. Perhaps, he believes that what he thinks they said that is right is absolutely right, and he is smart enough to know which parts of their dissertations were right and which were not. I couldn’t tell for sure, but he certainly sounded confident that he was absolutely right. I will concede that he was extremely passionate and excited about hearing himself educate us, but he talked so fast that I had to concentrate to keep tuned in.

Anyway, this brings me to the term “absolute” and its variants. It was part of the core of the conversation. I commented that I found the term “absolute truth” odd since “truth” should be “true”, so the “absolute” part is basically redundant, no? Do we consider that “truth” has degrees to it, and at which point is the “truth” “close enough” to be considered “true” or “absolute”?

Pondering this, it made me consider the following:

The gap between what we believe is “truth” or “fact” and what actually *is* the (absolute?) truth or fact defines our level of uncertainty. As, in many cases, we may never know if we have determined the truth in its finality (i.e. “absolute”), however we may *believe* we have gotten “close enough” to consider something the truth or a fact.

That gap is significant.

In fact, I would propose considering referring to that gap as “faith” (not necessarily religious based). As that gap becomes smaller, the leap-of-faith to consider the “fact” as “truth” becomes easier to swallow, but still, to accept the “fact” as “absolute truth” requires accepting it based on all of its current merits (proofs, probability, sensory confirmation, etc) as well as some amount of “gut”. As Stephen Colbert points out, never let facts get in the way of the truth. 🙂

Consider the situation where the gap between belief in a truth and its absolute version is larger. For example, I believe that electrons flow through the power lines and make my electrical devices function. However, I’ve yet to *see* an electron move, much less even feel them shuffling their way through my power cord. I can remember some of my electrical theory and that fosters this belief that I have in the “truth” that electrons flow through a seemingly solid copper wire and make stuff go. But since *I* cannot prove what is precisely happening to the extent that it is an “absolute” truth, I have a component of “faith” that fills in the gaps in my direct knowledge. This is necessary to support my belief that the proposition that electrons flow through the copper wire and make things go is “true”. We have plenty of evidence that this is true (hey, my monitor *is* lit up, and if I lick the power cord, I get a nice ZAP!), but we also had a lot of evidence that the world is _FLAT_ — we no longer believe in that “truth”, however.

Taken to the extreme, we have “truths” that are based more on faith than discernible “facts”. As I understand my father’s definition of religion, a religious truth is something you *know* to be true, in spite of a potential lack of perceivable evidence (for or against is insignificant). To me, this is the ultimate “gap filler” for a “truth”, and may be the only way that one can fully believe a “fact” to be the “absolute truth”, as I fully believe that all things we consider a “truth” have some component of faith within their proof.

And that’s the Absolute Truth!

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