TED Conversations

Phillip Beaver

Citizen, Humankind


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Individually possessing the truth seems unworthy: understanding seems a nobler personal objective.

I once thought that by mastering the Word of God—studying the truth according to the Bible—my life would become its best. As time passed, the truth seemed unreachable: understanding became attractive.

For a trite example of understanding, everybody knows the sun doesn’t rise: Earth’s axial rotation reveals the sun in the morning and hides it in the evening. Yet, who’d debate Annie’s, “the sun’ll come up . . . tomorrow.”

It seems there are two quests for understanding: humankind’s ultimate quest and the individual’s lifetime quest. Humankind’s evolution involves over 100 billion humans and spans millions of years. Communications evolved—from motions; to grunts; to symbols; to language; to writing; to the world-wide web—perhaps during a million years. Considerations from before seem manifest in us. Yet humankind seems far from psychological maturity.

Society celebrates chronological age, but not psychological maturity. A person can enlist in armed services and vote at age 18; at age 21 legally consume alcohol in some societies; at age 25 enjoy cheaper auto insurance; and at age 63-68, retire. Age is rewarded, but almost no one promotes psychological maturity.

Quoting Professor Orlando Patterson, “Psychologically the ultimate human condition is to be liberated from all internal and external constraints in one's desire to realize one's self." We owe it to ourselves to want psychological maturity—to discover our preferences—to discover ourselves, understanding that the truth seems approachable yet perhaps unattainable.

Since we share uncertainty, we could understand each other, accepting that the truth knows no favorites.

General revision for clarification: 1/24/2012. See original statements, below.


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    Jan 15 2012: I can agree with that Mr. Beaver, but how is it that we come by understanding without knowing the truth of something? Would that not then be conjecture rather than understanding?
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      Jan 15 2012: Mr. Wilson, please call me Phil.

      Staying with perhaps a basis of agreement, I understand that the usual responses to Liebniz’s puzzle include: because God willed things and life; chaos; the “why” is not valid; we don’t know; and humankind waits for more evidence (Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, 1981, pp 115 ff).

      One way to understand Liebniz’s question is to visit a museum of natural history, either physically or online. So informed (having worked for understanding), to avoid conjecture, an individual seems constrained to: “I don’t know.” Consequently, anything more seems to be speculation. Thus, God or no-god is speculative. And if God is speculated, any specification of the nature/definition of God is speculation about speculation, whether it is done by ancient humans (scripture), contemporaries, or future humans.

      Beyond speculation, humans exercise preferences. Thus, some choose, “I don’t know but prefer to think God—my God,” for personal reasons, such as comfort in the face of uncertainty. Good enough; and the “I don’t know” constraint seems to imply acceptance that another individual might prefer THEIR God or no god.

      This is not to trivialize the God question, but to understand it in a way that provides for peacefully discussing, debating, sharing, considering, and even appreciating personal quests for preferences --personal paths toward understanding--without demanding the truth.

      To persuade a part of humankind to understand the God question as a happily shared concern seems worthy.

      I hope to read your thoughts about this or another example you might suggest.

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        Jan 15 2012: Please then call me Zach.
        So would you define understanding as the journey to truth; that journey being made up of a set of preferences derived from sensory interaction with the world around us (i.e. going to said museum of natural history)? If so I would probably be inclined to agree with you, but then how do we overcome the deceptions to our senses such as mental illness and illusion?
        • Jan 15 2012: Zach,

          "..how do we overcome the deceptions to our senses such as mental illness and illusion?"

          We don't.

          "Whatever philosophical standpoint one may adopt today, from every point of view the erroneousness of the world in which we think we live is the surest and firmest fact that we can lay eyes on... But whoever holds our thinking itself responsible for the falseness if the world.. whoever takes this world, along with space, time, form, movement, to be falsely inferred -- anyone like that would at least have ample reason to learn to be suspicious at long last of thinking. Wouldn't thinking have put over on us the biggest hoax yet? And what warrant would there be that it would not continue to do what it has always done?
          "In all seriousness: the innocence of our thinkers is somehow touching and evokes reverence, when today they still step before consciousness with the request that it give them honest answers.."
          - Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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          Jan 15 2012: Zach,

          TEDster Matthieu Miossec convinced me to stay with standard definitions of terms. As the noun, I am referencing primarily Item 4 in http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/understanding . As the verb Items 2, 10, and 12 apply for study.

          Now, returning to your question, I consider understanding as the journey to understanding . (Thanks to my friend Hugh Finklea for the verb then noun usage recognitions.) In some cases, the truth is discovered. For example, Earth is shaped like a globe. In other cases, the considerations are realized, as in the case of Leibniz’s question.

          When understanding equates to the truth, as in the Earth being like a globe, sensory perceptions have no standing, if they oppose they truth. Thus, preferences have no standing, and the flat-earth idea is merely a hobby or art form, much like Star-Wars expertise is merely art.

          Natural history museums don’t seem merely sensory experiences. They present the products of astronomy and paleontology, which employ discovery and understanding.

          How one interprets these products can be preferential; for example, genomist Francis Collins seems to interpret them as the mystery of Jesus Christ. I do not object to Collins’s choice, but for myself prefer the conclusion, “I know nothing about Jesus beyond the New Testament, which I do not understand.” As for my emotions, awe of reality seems sufficient; I see no need to enhance that awe with intellectual constructs, ancient or personal. (I think that is the point of the Gell-Mann talk.)

          I know nothing about mental illness, except that it is unfortunate.

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        Jan 15 2012: Seth,
        If the surest and firmest fact of the world is that it's wrong, and that statement is a part of this world, then does that not fall into the paradox that this statement is also likely to be wrong by your own view of the world? And there are plenty of cases of paranoid delusions; paranoia of being incorrect does not ensure correctness. And though it may further push us in our path towards knowledge, it also hinders our mental capacity to accept the truth should we come across it. So if we want to achieve knowledge I would say that we do necessarily have to overcome these deceptions as well as our fear of being deceived, it's merely a matter of figuring out how.

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