"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Everything Is Relative–Why Do We Insist On Absolutes

Perception is a very tricky business; and much has been made recently about the inability of eyewitnesses to agree on what they see.  There have been a number of scholarly articles recently on memory and how selective it is.  It is well known that eyewitness accounts are usually wrong or conflicting.  Despite the absolute conviction of witnesses that they saw a white male, large ears, and goatee point a gun out the window of a Buick LeSabre and shoot Robert Leggings, they saw no such thing.

Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, provided surprising evidence in a recent interview on NPR’s Ted Talks.
Fraser researches what's real and what's selective when it comes to human memory and crime. He focuses on the fallibility of human memory and encourages a more scientific approach to trial evidence. He has testified in criminal and civil cases throughout the U.S. in state and federal courts.
In 2011 Fraser was involved in the retrial of a 1992 murder case in which Francisco Carrillo was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences in prison. Fraser and the team that hired him staged a re-enactment of the night in question, and they showed the testimonies that had put Carrillo in jail were unreliable. After 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Carrillo was free.
Not only were the testimonies of the eyewitnesses in question, what they said they saw had no bearing whatsoever on reality.

Literature is filled with stories of subjective eyewitness memory.  Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book is a recreation of an actual event:
The Ring and the Book tells the story of a murder trial in Rome in 1698, whereby an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, is found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia Comparini and her parents, having suspected his wife was having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi…. The poem comprises twelve books, nine of which are dramatic monologues spoken by a different narrator involved in the case… usually giving a different account of the same events, and two books (the first and the last) spoken by the author.
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell is the story of an event told by four different people, all with different recollections of what actually happened; and of course Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all recounted the same the story of Jesus Christ quite differently.  

Albert Einstein tried until his death to develop a unified field theory, one that combined his theory of relativity with electromagnetism.  Mathematicians after him continued the search and expanded to a Grand Unified Theory (GUT), a model in particle physics in which at high energy, the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions or forces, are merged into one single force.  Currently scientists are hoping to expand and finalize GUT to include gravity, but they have been unsuccessful.


This hope is not merely academic.  By objectively describing the nature of he universe in one unified theory, there would finally be such a thing as absolute scientific truth.  It would not be relative to time – i.e. later scientists conditioned by new environmental, social, and cultural forces could never disprove it.  It would be as absolute and consequential as 1+1=2 – an irrevocable fact.

Up until this point in scientific history, no theory has ever been absolute. For generations Europeans believed that the sun revolved around the earth until Copernicus discovered otherwise.  Germ theory destroyed convictions about bad air, spells, and irreverent behavior as causes of disease.  Individual variations in human behavior were found not to be defined by humors but by genetics and nurture.  Every era has had its scientific theories which were thought to be conclusive and permanent; and every subsequent era has either proved them wrong or misleading.

Image result for images copernicus theory

Francis Fukuyama a historian and political philosopher declared ‘the end of history’ shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The final great political/philosophical conflict between liberal democracy and communism had ended, ushering in an era of similitude, harmony, and peace.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth, and in fact the world is a far less peaceful place than it was during the Cold War.  Fukuyama had ignored the longer trajectory of history, one where empires, nations, tribes, and princely states all acted with the same aggressive, territorial, self-interested motives that qualified human nature.

Ironically it is liberal democracy now under threat.  Although Fukuyama was wildly optimistic if not idealistic about the future, Americans took the fall of the Wall as prophetic.  Liberal democracy had won and was here to stay.  Based on this assumption American ‘exceptionalism’ grew as a political movement.  The war in Iraq was nothing if not a desire to spread the absolute truth.  President Obama’s support of radical Islamic groups during the Arab Spring in the name of freedom and liberty was a final, although drastically misguided, expression of exceptionalism.

Even Winston Churchill - statesman, historian, political philosopher, and uncanny observer of world events – would be surprised at the reversals of liberal democracy.  He famously said that democracy was the world’s worst political system except for all others, suggesting that it was an absolute.  No imaginable system could possibly improve upon it.


Although most observers agree that there is such a thing as human nature, they disagree on how innate and immutable it is; and their conclusions are based on political philosophy.  Marx believed that there was such a thing as human nature but that it was determined and shaped by external, societal forces.  More conservative critics believe that since environmental factors have continually changed but human beings have always acted in the same aggressive, self-interested ways, human nature must be universal, absolute, and permanent.

All such arguments are moot given the strides made in genetic engineering.  Designer babies are real, and genetic banks of DNA from movie stars, athletes, and geniuses will soon be for sale.  Gradually but surely, the very elements of what we consider human nature will disappear and a new human nature will emerge.

Once the human genome was completely sequenced; once efforts to recombine DNA had become a reality; and once a mind-computer interface had been realized, there was never any doubt that a post-human era was coming.

‘Post-human’ is the term scientists have chosen to describe the life form that will result thanks to scientific modification.  The term, however, is not quite accurate.   Although as genetically-modified beings, part-organic and part-non-organic, we will certainly not resemble the creatures we now are, we will have simply evolved, albeit it through a more deliberate, focused an efficient means than Darwin ever imagined, into a more modern, capable, resilient, and powerful life form.  What currently defines human beings – cognitive, intelligent, sentient, imaginative, spiritual, and creative – will still be appropriate and meaningful.  We simply will have become more intelligent, imaginative, and creative than ever before.

In other words even human nature as we know it is not absolute, but relative. 

Given these persuasive arguments, it is hard to understand why so many people accept opinion as absolute truth.  Every contentious political issue today – gay rights, abortion, religious freedom, immigration, inequality, or social mobility – has at least two legitimate, understandable sides.  The Bible may indeed be the received word of God and if so must be the reference for all moral and ethical decisions.  Darwin may eventually be proven wrong.  The increasing disassociation between women and reproduction on the basis of gender equality and women’s rights may in fact tend to erode the foundations of society.  Abortion may in fact be murder.  Global warming may be a liberal construct.

Compassionate liberalism under disciplined governance may indeed better serve the poor and marginalized.  Without the ideal of a socially and economically equal society in which opportunity and support are balanced, true progress will never be achieved.   Fundamentalist respect for all Biblical injunctions may not be an expression of faith but corrosive, anti-social act.  Abortion is a woman’s right to choose, one which is absolute as her right to vote.  Climate change will destroy the world.

The circus atmosphere of the current (2016) Presidential campaign may either be a sign that the real America – low-brow, image-focused, commercial, acquisitive, and loud – is finally having its say.  American democracy, no matter how much it is disparaged abroad, is working.

On the other hand the electoral process may have degenerated into the vaudevillian show that is is.  The campaign is an example of one more failure of liberal democracy.

More importantly, within a generation, these issues will either be resolved or will disappear.  What were thought to be absolute values will be dismissed. The world will have moved on.

Why, then, is there is so much absolute belief in everything in America, now a country less of moderate rationalists and much more one of hysterical conviction?  Even casual look at the history of world affairs, science, society, and religion reveals that there is no such thing as absolute truth, absolute value, absolute anything.

In an increasingly complex world with so many competing interests, traditional definitions of worth and identity – church, family, profession – have little meaning.  Our value is conditioned on what we believe rather than who we are.  The stronger our belief and the more militant our conviction, the clearer our identity becomes.  We stand out as individuals and immediately and often virtually belong to supportive groups.  Belief is good for the soul, the psyche, and the pocketbooks of those who organize and profit from it.  

A belief in absolutes will be around for a long while.

1 comment:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.