What is it that we humans beings truly know? About what are we absolutely certain? And will it ever be possible to know everything? And, if so, how could we know that have come to know everything? These are fascinating but difficult questions and trying to answer them all at once is very likely to lead to little result and a firm headache. Therefore we will just pick one of them, and that is: does the truth exist?
We always see the world through our own eyes. Even when we are trying – like I am doing right now – to develop a meta-perspective upon how we as a species should think about ourselves, we will never be able to become fully detached from our own inherently limited points of view within which all of our beliefs reside. And it is because of this inability of ours to transcend ourselves that coming to know how things “truly” are seems to be an impossible task. That is: impossible for us human beings. If we would be Gods, it might have been a different story.
But what now? What if we cannot ever touch upon “the truth as it truly is”? Well, we could of course fall back upon Cartesian skepticism with its beautiful credo of: “I can doubt everything but the fact that it is me who is doubting.” It is in this one little sentence that Descartes describes what it to be human. It is also in this one little sentence that Descartes has lain down the fundamentals of what might be the single most admirable human trait: the trait of humbleness. A trait that is rooted in our fundamental and inescapable ignorance. A trait that fosters respect for each other’s (different) ideas about the way the world works. We are all the same in our ignorance; so don’t take your own ideas too seriously. But given that there is nothing we cannot doubt – expect the fact that it is us who are doubting – what are the implications of this observation with regard to our quest for the “truth”?
Let’s see. The human quest for knowledge – or the “truth” – is the most praiseworthy and impossible journey we have ever embarked on. But even though the residence of “truth” might be impossible to find, we still have no reason to stop our efforts for obtaining this holy grail of knowledge. I even dare to say that it is a great good that we simple human beings will never come to touch upon “the truth as it really is”. Since, it is for as long as there is no single “truth” pressing down upon our human souls that we will be able to create our own truths. But that seems kind of vague, right? What does it mean to “create our own truths”? And isn’t that idea contradictory to the core meaning of the notion of “truth”?
It seems fair to assume that each and every person on this planet of ours has got a certain set of beliefs about the way the world works and the way the world should work. And although none of us will ever come to know whether our beliefs are true in the absolute sense of the word, we still consider ourselves to have reasons for believing our beliefs to be true. And it is just because of these reasons that we consider our beliefs to be true. The reasons act as the foundation on top of which our beliefs hold true. And it is throughout the course of our lives that you and I are likely to have developed different sets of beliefs about the world we are living in. You might believe that people are essentially good, while I might believe that they are essentially bad. In other words: both of us have – throughout our lives – developed a grounding consisting of reasons because of which we have come to believe what we consider to be true. This explains why someone always has to come up with “reasons” in order to convince another person of the truthfulness of ideas. Since it is only because of these reasons that beliefs come to be true. Without these reasons the other person would literally have no reason to believe your idea to be true.
This observation shows that “truthfulness” is a dynamic property. One year you might consider a certain idea to be true, while the following year you might consider this same idea to be false (think about you believing in Santa Claus while you were a kid). That is to say that, by experiencing changes in your reasons for believing something, you simply cannot help but changing your ideas as well.
Therefore the relevant question becomes: how do we come to believe what we believe? I personally think that there is a huge amount of arbitrariness playing a role in this. I mean: we haven’t decided to be born in the country in which we actually have been born, did we? But – assuming that you live in the Western World – how do you think that your view on the world would have been if you would have been born in – let’s say – Africa? How would your view on the world have been if you would not have been educated in the manner that you are? How would your view on the world have been if you as a child had to work 80 hours per week in order for your family to be able to survive?
I want to ask you the following question, and it is a very important one: given that you would indeed have been born in Africa and given that you would have developed a set of beliefs that is different from the one you are having today, would this make the beliefs you would have had if you would have been born in Africa any less true than the ones you are having today? I do not think so. And that is where the arbitrariness of our notions of the “truth” comes in.
What I have tried to show in this article is that our beliefs are not true simply because we believe them to be true. It would indeed have been very satisfying to know that our beliefs about the the way the world works are the ones that are true and that the beliefs of others are just plain nonsense. But the truth of the matter is that in the end, everything comes down to faith. Whether it is – as can be read in a latter article of mine – within the realm of science or religion, it does not matter. The last step – the step of faith – always has to be taken by yourself, and it is that step that makes your beliefs come to be true.
Don’t you believe this is fascinating? The idea that everything – all the things we consider to be true and all the things that we consider to be false – is just a matter of believing? And that this is all we will ever know? I most certainly do. Believe me.