Saturday, November 1, 2008



This is the empiricists' credo. We have all said it at one time or another, usually when we are incredulous about what another person claims. Essentially, we doubt the truth of what the other person reports to us because we did not perceive the event ourselves. So in essence, we engage in a debate about truth. If we don't see it, we don't believe it. Whether or not something "actually happened," one thing is certain: Most of us trust our senses to give us truth.

I have written about truth in the past. I think "truth" is a widely misunderstood word because it is far more subtle than most people assume. For most, "truth" merely refers to "what actually happened" at a particular time and place. Of course, it is impossible to fully convey in language to another person "what actually happened" at a distinct moment in time if the listener was not present to perceive the moment. Human sense has limitations. The eyes, ears, nose and tongue have a very limited range, and if an event takes place "out of range," then the "truth" depends on language: What does the actual participant in the event tell us about "what happened?" This, of course, is inherently imperfect. For if direct human sense is the best pathway to truth, then obviously a second-hand report sets us out on the wrong foot.

When someone says: "I'll believe it when I see it," they also say: "I trust my senses to give me truth." Additionally, they voice skepticism for any second-hand reports. A sensory approach to truth, then, carries with it an innate suspicion. Language is supposed to help us transcend the limited range of direct human sense. But all too often, human beings do not use language to directly convey what they sensed (even if they could), but rather use language to manipulate its effect on others so as to achieve greater personal advantage. When something happens, we are suspicious when someone later reports about it. We listen, but we do not assume truth; rather, we evaluate how likely it is that the speaker is lying. If there is a low likelihood of manipulation, we more readily believe the report. If there is a high likelihood, we do not believe it. After all, we did not directly sense it. If we do not see it, we do not believe it.

Why is all this significant? Why even bother talking about it? Isn't it obvious that we do not believe what we do not see? Perhaps, but it is precisely this inconspicuousness that interests me. What makes sense so great? Are there "truths" that human sense cannot perceive? I think there are. Yet if we accept: "I'll believe it when I see it" as a mantra for truth, we foreclose ourselves from numerous other "truths" that may exist. If sense is our sole pathway to truth, religion and faith can play no part in our lives. Indeed, it would even be impossible to assert that there is such a thing as a spirit, because a spirit cannot be seen, touched, heard, smelled or tasted. Our sensory organs cannot perceive a spirit; we merely "think we feel it." That is not the same as direct sensory stimulation. And if sense is our guide, we must reject the spirit altogether. That is the inevitable result of an empirical approach to truth.

Faith is a fascinating concept because it rebels against empirical approaches to truth. Faith is a form of belief. Belief, in turn, refers to an individual, subjective impression whether a certain state of affairs is true. It is possible to believe something, in other words, without ever having sensed it. To that extent, belief is very different from knowledge. To know something, our sensory organs must have perceived it. We do not "know" whether our wife is at home until we see her at home. Yet we might "believe" she is at home even if we do not see her there. Belief is simply a subjective mental impression. It is that which every individual holds in his mind to be true, irrespective of sense. Moving further, faith is belief without any insistence on corroborating sensory information. When we have faith in something, we believe it without more. We do not need sensory confirmation to subjectively hold it to be true. Faith, therefore, is the bedrock for spirituality: It allows us to believe things that our senses cannot--and physically never will be able to--perceive. From an empirical perspective, such beliefs are "irrational" because they are not based in sense. But that does not invalidate them as beliefs. They simply represent different approaches to truth.

Empiricism has extremely strong appeal because our senses provide us immediate gratification. When a stimulus triggers our optic nerves, the mind responds. The same happens when a sound triggers our auditory nerves. It is immediate. It is reassuring. That is why believe what we see and hear. But does God stimulate any optic or auditory nerves? Certainly not. From an empirical perspective, then, we should not believe in God--or even any spirit--because we cannot believe anything that cannot stimulate our sensory organs. Doubtless there are many people who believe no more than that which stimulates their senses. Given the limitations our our bodies, they have a good argument: "I can prove anything that can be sensed. So if something cannot be sensed, it cannot exist." Our sensory organs affirm that argument.

But there is a weakness in that argument. We simply need to ask this question: "Can you disprove the existence of anything that cannot directly be sensed?" Here, we see that sense cannot provide answers. A spirit, for example, cannot directly be sensed. How can sense disprove it? It cannot; and therefore it is impossible to certifiably say that spirits do not exist. True, an individual can say: "I do not believe that spirits exist because I personally have never perceived a spirit with sensory organs." But the mere fact that one individual has not directly perceived something does not prove that something does not exist. Subjectively, there is no problem saying: "I do not believe what I do not see," but it does not answer the larger question whether there are other pathways to truth. In fact, one would engage in significant judgment by saying: "No one can possibly believe in anything that I cannot sense." That would violate others' beliefs. And because belief is entirely subjective, it would be unfair to use one's own sensory impressions to govern the beliefs of others.

I suppose there is a time and a place for both empiricism and faith. I was raised with an empirical approach. My senses provided my truth and it seemed to correspond with the environment around me. As I got older, however, I began to seriously wonder whether there was more to life than the immediate stimuli around my body. After all, I could not disprove the existence of anything I could not perceive, so how could I say there was not more out there? That is why I do not judge faith. In fact, I leave myself open to faith in some matters. I can accept faith because I accept that my own senses have limitations. There are propositions that human sense cannot disprove, and I cannot say one way or another whether those propositions are true or untrue. But I can decide whether or not I believe those propositions. This is the intersection between sense, faith and belief. As an individual, I decide whether to believe in something that I cannot perceive. It is my choice. No one can make it for me, and no one can prove me wrong because it is my own impression.

Every human institution can choose the method by which it approaches truth. Human sense is a good common denominator for people. That is why government and law ostensibly use human sense as their lingua franca. Most people believe what they perceive. That is why the law insists on formal proof through the human senses. Obviously there are things that could never be proved in a court, such as the existence of spirits. But when it comes to everyday administration, property and tangible "realities," human sense can answer most questions. And when it comes to the limits of human observation, then human sense is all we have. Science depends solely on human sense to formulate truth. Science takes human sense to its maximum potential. Yet even that maximum potential has limits. For sense can work only as far as the subject matter will allow. That is why science--like law--cannot disprove the proposition that spirits exist. Science must admit: "There is nothing in our sensory arsenal that can answer that question." Science can say that it has not observed spirits, but that does not disprove the proposition that spirits exist. At the end of the day, we must concede: "Observation may not reveal every truth." Science, then, is a limited art.

Where does this all lead? I am not afraid to say that I do not know. I do not know because I do not dare to presume that there is a single pathway to truth. As a matter of administrative convenience, sometimes I believe only what I see. But I understand that human sense has limits, and I do not foreclose myself from believing in things beyond my comprehension. Having said that, I can say one thing for certain: I reject any argument that there is one way to truth. I do not dedicate myself to a single approach. In some matters I am an empiricist. In others, I have faith. In either event, I am prepared to believe that there is more to my existence than the sensory barrage that besieges my body every day.

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