philosophy is for everyone
philosophers should know lots
by Ochieng Ombok
I am lying on my couch. I want to think of something, but soon I realize that I am not thinking of anything in particular. In fact, I am trying to think of what I will think about. My mind wanders from one item to another, changing from the abstract to a more "think-about-able" item every time. I am already thinking because I am trying to make a choice out of what I already know of what I know. I am trying to choose from various things that I know, that which I know most about so that I may think about it. Then, out of nowhere, a thought comes to me. I begin to wonder whether it is true I am lying on my couch or could it be just another of those vivid dreams?
I pin my thought on this abstract idea. I try to gather evidence to the effect that I am not dreaming. But every evidence I take turns out to be no evidence at all because the same process of gathering evidence would follow in a dream. At this point, I reach an impasse, for it is not possible to know whether I am dreaming or not. The question remains unanswered. But either I am dreaming or I am not dreaming. So whichever way, it is a fact even though I may not know it myself. Truth transcends the ability to know the truth.
3000 years ago, it was believed that the earth was flat. All the systems of belief and theories of that time never questioned the "fact" that the earth was flat, for nobody thought it would be otherwise. Movement was limited and so, the curvature of the earth was never apparent from any place. The sea was the end of the earth. The easiest verification test to prove this would have been to take a stroll up to the sea. Many people had done that. So this question of whether the earth was anything but flat never arose. Also consistent with the flat earth interpretation was that the sun went round the earth.
But with the progress of human knowledge, evolution of beliefs and a subsequent refinement of human reasoning, man developed means of transport and traveled over the seas to discover new lands beyond the horizon. Humanity had learnt from experience that the sea was not the end of the earth. A theory had to be revised. New evidence had been arrived at. The earlier verification that at the end of the earth was the sea which poured down beyond the horizon turned out to be a wrong interpretation of what people saw. Verification had been corrected because verification is corrigible. So, standing at the sea side and looking at the water fall at the horizon was not a verification, but an illusion.
With further development, space vehicles were developed, from which it could be observed that the earth was in fact spherical, and later, that it was the earth that went round the sun, and not the other way round We refer to statements that pass whatever verification tests that are in place now as true. When we add more verification tests above those that we already have, some statements that were hitherto taken to be true turn out to be false. In actual fact, they had always been false, it is we who, for lack of evidence against them, had assumed them to be true. With these developments, we came to know that the earth is not flat, the sea is not the end of the earth, and the water does not pour down the horizon. With the new evidence, we came to believe that the earth is spherical. But this is not the end. With some other new evidence, we might in future realize that the earth is not at all spherical, and that what we see as spherical from space is just another optical illusion.
Now, let us take an issue that has not yet been resolved. That beyond the planet Pluto, there are two other planets, Persephone and another one not yet named. Let us make a statement that this not yet named planet contains intelligent life. Either this statement is true or false. We may not know the truth, but the truth will always hold. What is true is already there and given. Truth transcends the ability to know the truth.
Now, let us see how far we can penetrate with our inquiry. We may ask how life could be supported in a place that is so cold. With very little light, there would be no photosynthesis. Warmth is required to sustain life etc. We will soon realize that we are only giving reasons why it would be impossible for us to survive there. But who said that life must be formed in our own image, and that intelligence must be shaped from our own reality? How can we overrule an idea that other intelligent beings elsewhere may be doubting whether any intelligent life would exist around where the earth is positioned for reasons that there is heat and light around here? Are the standards that guide our aims really genuine? Are we really trying to carry out an inquiry on whether there can be intelligent life out there or on whether our intelligent life can survive out there?
Every time we ask a question, we realize that the question itself already implies a position of belief, or holds a certain theory as given. When we move a step behind and make inquiries on whether what the question pre-supposes is true, we end up with another question pre-supposing something else and in most cases, deeper. At some point, we reach a question that has no demonstrable answer and whose answer relies on authority. At this point, the question whose answer your question has, has no answer. We arrive at a limit beyond which everyone may have a personal theory or position, but where most choose to adopt the opinion of another person, an authority. Therefore, our reality remains that which we can verify as true using all the verification that we have at present, assuming that what we have accepted as a personal position, or what we have adopted from another authority holds as true. But with new evidence, we may be able to answer the question whose answer the question we ask at this limit has. And we may re-adjust our reality to conform to the new evidence as we try to answer yet another question. And therefore, as long as one answer brings forth another question, reality remains fluid.
© Ochieng Ombok 2001