A reflection on the fragments of the Milesian Philosophers (Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes)
In previous reflections, I have been at pains to demonstrate how elusive truth can be. In particular, I have warned against the construction of ‘idols’ – elevating certain aspects of our society, belief or culture beyond the scrutiny of self-reflection. However, after a brief dive into the diverse and multi-faceted Upanishads, the question seemed to be raised as to whether truth was attainable, and if every viewpoint has a grain of truth then can any individual viewpoint be objectively wrong? I want to examine what it means to be wrong, how we can understand when we are wrong and how we can deal with being wrong.
The first aspect we need to deal with is the issue of idealism and relativism. Unfortunately, I am still fleshing out my full understanding of both these movements, but in the crude sketch I currently understand of them they appear fundamentally incompatible with the concept of a person being incorrect.
When it comes to idealism – the rejection of the sensible world in contrast to the world of ideas – it would appear that we can only be wrong if we believe we are wrong. Although it is impossible for me, at this point, to prove that the world is merely an illusion, I take solace that the proponents of such an argument have the same difficulty attempting to disprove the existence of the world due to their own radical scepticism. As such, they have no real recourse to reject my assertion as their standpoint fundamentally untestable, a declaration faith that many such sceptics scorn.
On the other hand, the relativist would reject the idea that anyone can be wrong – a school of thought stretching back to Sophists whom I will examine later in this series stretching through to the contemporary post-structuralists. These thinkers would deny the possibility of any individual being wrong, instead asserting that each person is right within the context of their worldview. To me, this fails to explain why, if you believe that all viewpoints are of equal value, I should dispense with my own opinion that beliefs can be wrong or right – a self-defeating argument.
If we then, as an initial foray into epistemology, reject the idea of the sensible world as pure illusion and the radical equality of all individual viewpoints then we must admit that there are differing worldviews, each of which is a differing quality with regards to conforming to reality. To reject this is to reject any form of discourse. If this is the case, we must also accept the fact that no single individual has a complete comprehension of the world – to suggest otherwise is to an act of gross arrogance. Even if human science was to reach a point of completely explaining physical phenomena through a materialistic cosmology, the idea that a single homo sapien sapien would possess the summation of this within their mind is difficult to accept (although transhumanists could argue that our successor human-made gods could eventually reach this potentiality).
Assuming my audience is no cluster of genetically modified, robotically enhanced Übermensch I would suggest that we should take a different approach to the Protagorean claim of relative truth – universal falsehood. The first step to any functional understanding of the cosmos is an acceptance that our comprehension is incomplete. However, this is not an excuse for not trying to better our understanding of the world. The great advances in the natural sciences should act as a beacon of hope, but also as a warning to those who seek to understand. Science helped us place humans on the moon and has given us a greater understanding of the universe than was ever thought possible, even a generation ago. On the other hand, science has also given us the tools by which we could wreak our destruction – a cataclysm of nuclear fire or a modified epidemic of biblical proportions.
Our goal should be to achieve even an ounce of the same understanding in the realms of ethics, politics and aesthetics – themselves outputs of our understanding of metaphysics and epistemology. This could provide the guide rails to prevent humanities descent into the same desultory civil war that has cursed our kind since before hominids walked on their hind legs. However, we should look at the same example as a cautionary tale – philosophy done poorly, and without a pinch of doubt as to the certainty of one’s beliefs, has the potentiality of unleashing the armoury of Mars.
Jacob Peter Gowy, The Fall of Icarus, 1635-1637