A long time ago, I attended a philosophical lecture with the same title as this piece. While I don’t remember all the details, the way the speaker approached this topic left a lasting impression on me. I am writing about this now out of my continuing concern about our collective loss of truth. This loss of truth is present throughout our western culture, but I think more so in America than the rest. This loss of truth has been a long time coming. You can trace the history of this trend going back at least two hundred years. It is also not the first time that western societies have divorced itself from the notion of truth. A similar thing happened during the Middle Ages.
Again, I will remind the reader that I’m talking about the general concept of truth, not particular truths. For example, I am not disturbed that people don’t believe x, y, or z, which I may believe. I hear my evangelical friends talk about how horrible people are these days because they no longer believe in “God’s truth.” That is not at all what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the loss of the aspiration of finding truth, any truth. I defined this philosophical truth as simply consistent with what is, not that which I agree with. There are plenty of truths that I don’t like but are consistent with what is. War makes some people rich, and as long as some people benefit from war, we will always have it. I don’t like that truth. I wish it were not true, but it is.
The way the pursuit of truth is being lost is within the moral desire for tolerance. Tolerance is a good thing, mostly. No, I don’t want to tolerate the child molester, but I do for most others. But before I dive into this topic, I want to define these three terms and how I will use them here.
Pluralism. The word is akin to diversity, however I would define pluralism as a simple state and diversity as an attitude that welcomes and cultivates differences. Pluralism is where people of different perspectives and beliefs inhabit the same space. That space could be as big as a country or as small as a family or community. With the internet, in ways the entire world has now become a confined space. The political tribalism that we have seen in America in the last ten years are attempts to escape the inescapable pluralism of our society.
A few years ago, Denise and I spent a week in a lovely palace within the old walls of Marrakesh, Morocco. That city enthralled me, so I spent a lot of time reading about its history. It is an isolated oasis city, surrounded by twenty-foot red adobe walls, that has existed for a thousand years or more. During that time, except for passing caravans of camels, crossing the Sahara from north to south, the desert cut the people off from the rest of the world. It is a Muslim city, so during that period of isolation I suspect that the population was near 100% Muslim. Maybe a stray Christian or Jew wandered in off a caravan. But to those inhabitants, their entire world was homogenous, sharing the same concept of God and religion. That is an example of a mono-culture, the opposite of a pluralistic one. Within that society, it was very easy to maintain a belief system because it was unchallenged.
Pluralism appeared in world history in certain spots prior to the modern age. One such example was when the Aryans entered the Indus Valley of what is now Pakistan and India 3500 years ago. They brought with them many polytheistic religions and cultures. As these different religions merged, pluralism’s reality caused an evolution within the local religious belief systems, ending in pantheism, which we now know as Hinduism. It was an adaptive change to accommodate contrasting views by broadening the concept of the divine to an infinity.
With the invention of the airplane, jet engine, and the internet, the entire world is experiencing this same melting pot of ideas as happened in the Indus Valley. Now, the evangelical couple in Arkansas may have neighbors on one side that are Muslim, and a Hindu married to a Sikh on the other side. Across the street, a gay couple, who is also Hispanic and on the other side, a black Catholic family.
Tolerance. Tolerance is love’s “gateway drug.” A starting point. While it is minimalistic, it means much more than just tolerating someone with different views. The way I used it is to accept, respect, and eventually love those who are different … even those who are very different. When you cut away all the cultural fluff, this idea was the cornerstone of the historical Jesus’s teaching. I think for the Buddha likewise.
Relativism. This is the term that devalues the concept of truth. It promotes the idea that all views are the same, simply different opinions. Did Donald Trump win the fair vote count in November 2020, or was the election stolen from him? In classical logic, both can’t be true. Math cannot lie. But in relativism, people who have opposing views of this specific matter may seek peace between themselves, harmony within families, by agreeing that it is all relative.
Tolerance is love’s “gateway drug.”
Relativism has eroded away our sense of truth to where reality itself is now ambiguous. This is the problem. But I want to put relativism within the concept of the other two factors, pluralism, and tolerance. While we have turned to relativism with an excellent motive, to find peace and tolerance, the resulting loss of the concept of truth will be as calamitous as it was in the Middle Ages.
Next time I really want to explore tolerance more thoroughly and the idea of maintaining an aspiration of truth while morally living in tolerance and love toward others who are different. I want to explore the real roots to intolerance, which masquerades as fighting to maintain “truth,” but is really something more primitive and ego-centric.