The Quest for Truth

To be a philosopher is to dedicate one’s life to the obtainment of knowledge and wisdom and to continuously scrutinize what it true. The truths we have now, or perceive to have, are from observation, perception, experience, what we’ve been taught, and what we’ve been told. Our truths are different in certain respects as we are different, our perceptions are different.

Everyone has a bias. Our bias should be acknowledged and minimized in our quest for objective truth. Sometimes our senses trick us, and what we’ve been taught and told turn out to be wrong. The world is filled with misinformation. This certainly does not mean the obtainment of true knowledge is impossible.

There are various methods for proving something is true. Mathematics may be the purest form, but cannot be used for philosophical questions such as truths in morality. Other methods include:
• The Socratic Method
• Scientific Method
• The 5 Ws
• Expert opinion
• Common Sense
• Simplification
• Doing

Socratic Method

Through cross examination Socrates guided people to find the answers themselves. Socrates would ask questions until his pupils discovered the truth they were seeking. Imagine being on the stand in a criminal trial getting cross examined by a prosecutor. You are getting grilled with question after question and if there are any discrepancies between answers you will be made accountable for them. This would be similar to answering questions under Socrates’ scrutiny. The difference being the prosecutor’s goal is to win his or her case while Socrates’ goal is for you to find the truth. Socrates was not interested in filling the minds of his students; he wanted them to be independent thinkers and fill their own cups. He taught how to think, not what to think.

Take an example of a speeding ticket where the police officer uses the Socratic Method:
• Speeder – I don’t believe this ticket is fair because other people were speeding.
• Officer – Should I let everyone go as I can’t pull everyone over at once?
• Speeder – I should be able to speed because I have a very long drive.
• Officer – So the law should only apply to people with short drives?
• Speeder – No, but the roads are dry and traffic is light, so I should be able to go above the speed limit.
• Officer – So the law should only be enforced when the roads are wet or by traffic conditions?

Anyone who’s witnessed a court trial has some familiarization with the Socratic Method. In the 1992 movie, My Cousin Vinny, the character Vinny Gambini is out to challenge the testimony of Mr. Tipton. While waiting for breakfast in a restaurant, Mr. Gambini acquired knowledge of southern grits and is going to leverage that education in his attack. Did Mr. Tipton really take five minutes to cook his breakfast? Is that the truth? What happens when this so called truth is challenged using the Socratic Method?

“Vinny Gambini: Is it possible the 2 defendants...
[looks at judge]
Vinny Gambini: went into the Sac-O-Suds, picked 22 specific items off of the shelf, had the clerk take the money, make change, then leave. Then 2 different men, drive up...
[Seeing Mr. Tipton shake his head no]
Vinny Gambini: Don't shake your head I'm not finished yet. Wait until you hear the whole thing you can understand what it is that I'm askin'. Then, two different men drive up in a similar looking car, go into the store, shoot the clerk, rob him, then leave?
Mr. Tipton: No. They didn't have enough time.
Vinny Gambini: Why not? How long was they in the store for?
Mr. Tipton: 5 minutes.
Vinny Gambini: 5 minutes? How do you know? Did you look at your watch?
Mr. Tipton: No.
Vinny Gambini: Oh, oh, oh, you testified earlier that you saw the boys go into the store, and you had just begun to cook your breakfast and you were just getting ready to eat when you heard the shot.
Mr. Tipton: That's right.
Vinny Gambini: So obviously it takes you 5 minutes to cook your breakfast.
Mr. Tipton: That's right.
Vinny Gambini: That's right, so you knew that. You remember what you had?
Mr. Tipton: Eggs and grits.
Vinny Gambini: Eggs and grits. I like grits, too. How do you cook your grits? Do you like them regular, creamy or al dente?
Mr. Tipton: Just regular I guess.
Vinny Gambini: Regular. Instant grits?
Mr. Tipton: No self respectin' Southerner uses instant grits. I take pride in my grits.
Vinny Gambini: So, Mr. Tipton, how could it take you 5 minutes to cook your grits when it takes the entire grit eating world 20 minutes?
Mr. Tipton: I don't know, I'm a fast cook I guess.
Vinny Gambini: I'm sorry I was all the way over here I couldn't hear you. Did you say you were a fast cook, that's it?
Mr. Tipton: Yeah.
Vinny Gambini: Are we to believe that boiling water soaks into a grit faster in your kitchen than anywhere else on the face of the earth?
Mr. Tipton: I don't know.
Vinny Gambini: Well, I guess the laws of physics cease to exist on top of your stove. Were these magic grits? Did you buy them from the same guy who sold Jack his beanstalk beans?”
(The Internet Movie Database, Memorable quotes for My Cousin Vinny, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104952/quotes)

Scientific Method

This is a logical method that applies to natural law with the purpose of gaining knowledge through experimentation. This method does not apply to philosophical questions such as what is the proper definition of justice. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) attempted to apply scientific method to philosophy but was unsuccessful, for the most part, in making his theory popular. “Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems.”

While Descartes’ statement is good in theory and very much true in its own way, many philosophical arguments are too elusive for experiments and mathematical equations to solve. Science is also dependent on solving questions that are provided by philosophizing. There are some who seem to be promoting science vs. philosophy nonsense. Philosophy and science need to work together. The foundation of modern science rests on philosophy.

The Scientific Method contains the following steps:
Step 1: Make an observation
Step 2: Ask a question
Step 3: Formulate a hypothesis
Step 4: Conduct an experiment – Variables must be controlled
Step 5: Analyze data and draw a conclusion

For example, let’s come up with a theory that would have been considered ludicrous and even blasphemous a thousand years ago. Let’s suppose the Earth is not the center of the Universe and the reason we see the Sun and stars cross the sky is because the Earth is spinning on its axis. This is absolutely an absurd theory. If the Earth was spinning, wouldn’t we feel it? Wouldn’t we fly and crash into something as soon as our feet left the ground. Does the Earth feel like it’s spinning to you? What kind of a fool would come up with such an argument? Let’s see if the Scientific Method can shed some light on this.

Step 1: Observation - The Earth spins on its axis and that is why from our point of view the Sun, Moon and stars move from one side of the sky to the other.

Step 2: Ask a Question – Why don’t we feel the pull of the Earth’s spinning? What effect does movement have on gravity? Do the rules of gravity apply to a moving object once it reaches speed as they do to an unmoving object?

Step 3: Formulate a Hypothesis – A baseball dropped from 10ft will behave identically on land as it would on a large ship moving 20mph.

Step 4: Conduct an Experiment – We drop a baseball from 10ft on land and record the results. The expected result is for the baseball to drop straight down. This is categorized as result A. We then drop the same baseball from 10ft on a ship moving 20mph and record the results. This is categorized as result B. Will the ball drop straight down or will the ball be directly affected by the speed of the ship?
Controlling the variables – The baseball must be dropped the same way on land and on ship. The wind conditions must be the same. The ship must be sailing on smooth waters. Choppy water and swaying could affect the results. The ship must be moving at a steady 20mph. Slowing down and speeding up the ship during the experiment may alter the results.

Step 5: Analyze Data and Draw a Conclusion – Both results of the land and ship experiments are the same. The baseball drops straight down. Once the ship gets up to speed the forces of gravity behave identically as if one was on land. This would explain how the Earth can spin over 700mph (speed depends on proximity to the equator) without everyone and everything flying off. If the Earth was to immediately stop, the surface would be completely rearranged, and we’d all be dead. It would be like getting into a car wreck going 700mph. (About.com: Geography, How fast does the earth spin? http://geography.about.com/library/faq/blqzearthspin.htm)

The example I use ties into Einstein’s Relativity. Our solar system is moving 500,000 MPH around our Milky Way galaxy. Planet Earth moves 67,000 MPH around the Sun. When we are standing on the ground, our speed is relative to the speed of the Earth. We are moving at the same speed, and therefore from our perspective, we are standing still. When we are on a moving object such as a car, plane or ship, we are moving relative to the speed of that object which is moving relative to the speed of the Earth.

Relativity can be used to clarify statements or arguments. I am a good basketball player. I will use relativity to clarify. I am a good basketball player relative to very bad basketball players. I am a bad basketball player relative to very good basketball players. Often people make a claim that something is superior or inferior. What is the relativity? My life is not fair. Relative to who? The defect ratio is good. Relative to what? What is the data source for comparison?

The 5 Ws

What, Who, Why, When, Where and typically “How?” What happened in the movie theater? Who did it? Why did he do it? When did it happen? Where did it happen? How did he do it? The 5 Ws are used as a method of investigation. Crime scene investigation, physical evidence, circumstantial evidence and cross examination are used to convict criminals in a court of law.

Expert Opinion

Often we take the opinion of an expert as fact. An expert is expected to have knowledge and experience making them a reliable source for information. If a great chef instructs you how to cook a particular meal, you don’t ask if they are sure or scrutinize them using the Socratic Method. You follow the instruction per the expert. In court trials, experts are brought in to validate or dispute facts based on their expert opinion. Often we use criteria such as educational degrees and experience to determine if someone is, in fact, an expert. Unfortunately not all experts are created equally, and sometimes they disagree with each other. The vast majority of expert testimony can be treated as fact; however, occasionally experts turn out to be wrong or express a distorted opinion based on a personal agenda rather than fact.

Occasionally, the credentials of experts are challenged. Once upon a time, the talk show commentator Oprah Winfrey had a child psychologist on her show discussing how parents should raise their kids. One of the parents asked the child expert how many kids she had. She didn’t have any kids. After this statement, the child psychologist lost credibility with the audience members and was no longer considered someone with an expert opinion.

An expert is considered an authority figure. We should never be afraid to challenge an authority figure if we have good reason to do so. Just keep in mind, if you’re going to argue with the referee, you better know the rules of the game. I’ve known many people in my life who were once thought of as well respected authority figures who turned out to be frauds, including members of my own family. These experiences strengthened my conviction as an independent thinker. When in life, you find those who are supposed to be trustworthy in providing guidance lack integrity; you realize that you yourself must take responsibility for your own guidance.

Common Sense

For practical reasons, we can’t methodically analyze everything for the best possible answer. Too much analysis creates the dreaded “paralysis through analysis” syndrome. If someone falls out of a tree they will likely be hurt. We don’t need to ask experts or perform experiments as we simply know this through common sense. Common sense is an ability some people have over others. It can be a voice in your head sensing something isn’t adding up. It can be directly tied to gut feelings and observation.

If you come home and someone you don’t know is leaving your place with something that belongs to you, that someone is a thief. If home prices are growing 10% a year while income is growing 3% a year, the cycle is un-maintainable and a correction is inevitable. A US Congressman should read and understand a bill, before he or she votes on it. This is all common sense.

The comedian Chris Rock produced a skit on police brutality titled, “How to not get your ass kicked by the police.” He referred to the work as a public service announcement. Although the intent is humor, the heart of the skit was common sense. When driving, if one simply pulls over at the request of a police officer rather than engaging in a high speed chase that endangers lives, they are infinitely less likely to get physically roughed up by law enforcement personnel.

Unfortunately, common sense is often ignored because it does not coincide with what we want or wish for. Often wishful thinking trumps common sense.

Simplification

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you solve a complex algebraic expression? You need to break it down. Often we need to break complex problems down into smaller digestible pieces in order to solve them. For example - very few of us are intimate with the financials of the Federal Government, but all of us are knowledgeable about the finances in our own household where many of the same rules apply.

If you maintain a balanced budget, and your income increases while your debt remains the same, you can pay off debt and have more money on hand for buying stuff. If your income stays steady while your debts increase, and this becomes part of a long cycle, eventually you won’t have enough money to pay the bills and each month you’ll be sinking further and further in debt paying higher and higher interest charges. Like the Federal Government, your household can only maintain a certain amount of debt related to income.

In a mounting debt situation, you need to bring in more money, cut costs, or both. The Federal Government works by the same principles, and so do large corporations. Why do some corporations go bankrupt? They accumulated more debt than they could afford to pay through income, or their income dropped substantially where they could no longer pay their amount of debt. Any business losing money every quarter cannot continue the cycle and stay in business, just as any homeowner cannot continue to accumulate debt endlessly. By simplifying a problem or situation to something we can all understand; we are better able to deal with the problem and find a solution.

Is ABC Corporation corrupt? How do we find out? Do we walk up to a large skyscraper with the ABC logo on it and ask the building if ABC Corporation is corrupt? Of course not as it is not a building that makes a corporation, it is people. We need to find out who’s running ABC Corporation. Who are the chief executive officer, chief financial officer and other top executives? Who are the members of the board of directors? Who are the senior vice presidents?

If the CEO and CFO are corrupt then ABC Corporation is corrupt until they replace the CEO and CFO. If the board of directors are corrupt then ABC Corporation is corrupt until somehow the board of directors are replaced, which is not an easy thing to do. If one senior vice president is corrupt then ABC Corporation is not corrupt, but does have a corrupt element that needs to be removed like a cancer. By tackling ABC Corporation as a company, we can’t solve the problem. By breaking ABC down to the individual people that run it, we now have a practical approach for finding problems and solutions. Who is promoting a culture of corruption and who is complying with that culture?

Doing

In the movie A Christmas Story, Flick didn’t believe that someone’s tongue would freeze to a flag pole in winter. Despite this disbelief, he was hesitant in trying it out for himself. Unfortunately Schwartz gave him no choice after issuing a triple dog dare. Flick defiantly touched his tongue to the frozen pole, and it did stick. Rescue crews were sent out to detach his tongue from the pole. Sometimes doing in order to validate a claim is not a good thing.

The ancient Egyptians removed the brains of dead bodies before mummification. They believed thinking came from the heart, not the brain. How was this done? It appears mummification was a skill passed down from generation to generation. An exact step-by-step guide of human mummification does not exist although we do have clues from tomb paintings and research of the famous early historian Herodotus (484-430 B.C.). We also have documentation on how the sacred Apis bull was mummified. When it came to removing the brain, the popular theory was the brains were pulled out through the nose cavity with a hook.

In 1994, Professor Dr. Bob Brier performed the first mummification to an actual human cadaver in approx. 2,000 years. By actually performing the ancient Egyptian style mummification process hands on, Dr. Brier discovered the brains were not removed through the nose with a hook. The consistency of the brain made this technique impossible. The hook would not hold onto the brain matter. It appears the hook was used as a whisk to liquefy the brain, which was then poured out of the nose cavity by turning the cadaver over. There were many other discoveries and validations made during this modern mummification. This is an example of how sometimes actual doing is required to obtain the truth in the details.

“You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world.” – William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

Truth can be complicated, but have faith in the obtainment of truth for much truth has been discovered through observation, scientific experiments, and philosophizing. Observing Earth’s circular shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse provided evidence that the world was round as did watching the bows and sails of ships disappear as they headed for the horizon. We take knowledge that the world is round for granted as each one of us has seen pictures of the Earth from space. The technology to allow us this benefit is actually very recent in regard to human history.

We know the causes and the cures for many diseases. We know many facts regarding health and nutrition. We have gathered knowledge of ourselves as individuals and ourselves as groups of people. We continue to gather knowledge regarding DNA and evolution. We know much about our planet, the stars and the universe. We know much about plants and animals. Truth is obtainable, and with modern technology that allows a magnificent extension beyond our human senses, we are discovering truths that people only a hundred years ago could only have dreamed of.

Leave a comment