The Philosopher's Cornered
Cornered by the Search for Truth
by Dan Wolaver
A reader asks whether I actually feel cornered. I'll admit that I
do, but it was inevitable, and I'm comfortable with it.
The first time I realized that I'm cornered was while listening to a lecture by Prof. William Perry on what it means to be educated. He described a young man from a small town in Iowa where everyone is white, Republican, and protestant. The young man realizes that he has been exposed to only one point of view, and he has a lot of questions. If "thou shalt not kill," should he become a vegetarian? Should the poor receive welfare or "tough love"?
The young man has been accepted at a large university on the east coast, and he is certain that the professors there, who have studied and found the Truth, will impart it to him. To his dismay and frustration, he finds that the professors disagree, so it seems to be his job to study and discern which of them really has the Truth. All of their arguments are very convincing, but eventually he decides that none of them is really sure of anything. In fact, he can come up with his own arguments for what's right and wrong, and his arguments are as good as theirs.
So he descends into a kind of anarchy where everyone chooses his own Truth, and no one else can say that he's wrong. Whatever works for him is right. But he discovers that some ideas work better than others, so he continues his search, trying this idea against that and resolving inconsistencies. At times he becomes confused and exhausted, despairing of ever finding the Truth. Some ideas work for a while but then fail under different circumstances or after he's learned more. But he's making progress; he's getting better at making decisions, and the Truth is just around the corner.
After a long struggle, the young man comes to the conclusion that the quest is never-ending, but that's OK; he's gotten pretty good at figuring out what's nearest right. He will have to keep refining and adapting all his life, but he feels he can handle that. "Then," said Perry, "he is educated."
The lecture was a revelation to me. I wasn't alone in an unending struggle to figure out the right thing to do, and I should be comfortable with it.
Now I'm cornered; I'll never have a pat list of answers to all the questions. There is invariant spiritual Truth, of course, but how do I apply it to the multitude of situations in human life? It's not right to pull the wings off flies, but should I kill Japanese beetles that have infested the roses? Maybe, but there might be a better way I haven't thought of. If a child misbehaves, should he be disciplined or simply be shown proper behaviour through word and example? Perhaps with a different approach on my part, the child wouldn't have misbehaved in the first place. I trust that one day I'll see the absolute Truth, but in this human life I'm cornered. I can't figure out everything once and for all, relax, and quit the struggle to progress. But then, that's life!
And that's my philosophy.