By: David Xi-Ken Astor
Philosophy and truth is not that tightly linked. Its important to remember that seeking and identifying truths without correspondence to reality is not understanding that any philosophical view is only a tool which can result in varying conclusions depending on ones worldview, ability for conceptual thinking, and personal presuppositions, among other dispositions. It is interesting that many individuals come to expect a more significant connection between their philosophical thought and knowledgeable references to “how their world seems to be” than a more rigorous self validation of personal experiences that can expose the actual nature of universal realities as they are. There is a big difference between reality and appearance.
In the 21st century we are greatly influenced more then ever by scientific explanations of how universal realities are being understood and explained that gives an opportunity for us to pause and examine our own beliefs that drive how we see the world around us. This is especially relevant to our spiritual convictions, but not limited to just the interior life either, as all elements of human flourishing can/should be examined through the lens of modernity. If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that a large part of the “realities” we take for certainty are still those based on concepts considered truths and given language developed centuries ago before a clearer understanding of the human condition relative to the dependent nature of universal expressions as is now being reflected in ongoing research and discoveries. We should also keep in mind that the sciences are very good at explaining how and what something is, but has limited language to explain why something is the way it is.
This, in my view, calls for a pragmatic approach to the study of the self. If Buddhism is anything, it is pragmatic and has as one of its key principles the need for self-study in order to understand the self, and with that refinement of practice, we have the chance for deeper insight into the world around us. Our higher state of consciousness is awakened. If there is anything distinctive about the pragmatic nature of Buddhist thought and practice, it is the ability to substitute the notion that humans will evolve toward a better future for the notion of reason, goodness, unity and reality. This calls for a new metaphysic of man’s relation to the universe. Yet we must resist trying to define all aspects of transcendent realities at the same time. Siddhartha himself stopped at the wall of unknowing, and focused on the realities that promoted human flourishing as is reflected in establishing a life of harmony, health and happiness.
There is no one way to understand the world around us, and thus no one way it is to be accurately defined. But there are many ways to intentionally act to realize human expectations for happiness. Therein is the human challenge. From a pragmatic perspective, we can realize that thinking about how we come to understand something and gain knowledge makes truths as certainty unlikely. To avoid this paradox we must resist the need to define what we/others consider universal certainties as absolute Truths. We must be extremely careful when we make distinctions between scientific fact on the one hand and metaphysics, ideology and religion on the others. Having faith in something without validating them with our own experiences can be a quick path to delusion. In science the distinction is made between the theoretical and the experimental.
Validated realities is what is supposed to distinguish knowledge from well grounded opinion. Else those truths are only justified beliefs. But a “true” reality differs from one that is merely justified. Justified truths are only relevant to a specific audience and generally targeted toward a specific social or cultural agenda. While making these distinctions between justified beliefs and “validated” truths can be an interesting philosophical debate, it does not get us to a better place either. Science and religion are both respectable paths for acquiring a deeper spiritual wisdom, yet beliefs which are good for quite different purposes. There is no human thought or activity that can be called “knowing” which has a unique nature for us to discover. Although critical reasoning skills we posses is apart of what makes us human. When we speak about justified truths we are really speaking about a set of beliefs that are rules for action rather than an attempt to represent a set of realities. Although those that hold such beliefs most likely see them as absolute truths, thus universal realities too. One that believes will always be able to produce justification for their beliefs that also adheres to the world view of the community of followers. Justification for a specific set of beliefs has many mutual aims, but may not have an overarching aim called reality.
As a dedicated practicing Buddhist, where does all this leave us? It focuses us on how we come to understand how we know something, and how we care to define that knowledge. Siddhartha pointed the way when he spoke often on the need for us to “trust but verify” what he was teaching. He admonished his formal students to not just take his word for something, but to first work to understand the concept of what he was speaking about, then contemplate in quite mental thought its usefulness and then work hard in practice to validate what he was teaching through our own experiences. In that way we come to realize its true meaning. Just don’t take the Buddha’s word for something, or a specific sutra, or a venerable teacher. In other words, we are challenged to think for ourselves and not rely on trust or faith alone. We either make it our own or not. Of course, in the beginning of study we must trust our sources. As we begin to validate the lessons as constructive and real we step on the path to Wisdom. And that path gets us ready fore awakened moments. We stand on the shoulders of our teachers that acts as support to see beyond the horizon we could not experience until we become ready.
The pragmatic philosopher, Richard Rorty, put it this way, “The only point in contrasting the true with the merely justified is to contrast a possible future with the actual present.”