Truth and Relativity

Philosophy: East and West, Program 14

1960

Through the example of a city, Alan encourages his listeners to reevaluate the definition of their personal identities. Is a person a fully autonomous agent, or might they be a cell in a vast organism? Perhaps it’s necessary to understand both perspectives and recognize that each scale of magnitude depends on all others to manifest as it does.

Originally broadcast on KPFA as episode 14 of the Philosophy East and West series.

Mentions

00:00

I must apologize to listeners for the irregularity with which my broadcasts have been appearing during the last few weeks. And the explanation is simply that I’ve been on the road and traveling over various parts of the country, and under these circumstances it’s rather difficult to get tapes in on the mail. And therefore you’ve had to put up with some rebroadcasts and lapses in various stations of the Pacifica network.

00:32

At the moment I’m settled, however—for a couple of weeks, at any rate—in New York. And this living in New York gives rise to certain philosophical reflections. Whenever I come here to this city of cities, I am flabbergasted and amazed at a miracle: the miracle that the thing works at all. When you consider the colossal density of population covering a huge area in which there are no farms or fields, the problem of, to begin with, providing along rather narrow lanes of transportation the immense quantities of food that these people consume. The problem of transportation involved in constantly rebuilding the place. And above all, the problem of the circulation of the human population itself going in and out, in and out, constantly through these narrow trafficways in which a single car stalled at the rush hour can make everybody an hour late for dinner.

01:58

And you just wonder sometimes whether the day isn’t shortly coming when people will simply leave their cars where they are and abandon them. And at that moment the whole city will go to sleep and become obsolete. But that all seems so highly probable, and the city planners and the prophets of doom for the city like Lewis Mumford feel that that’s quite imminent—and in many ways they may be right. But there is another factor to this picture, and that is that the way in which you look at a city as a stranger, or the way in which you look at it even if you are not a stranger, but look at it to get an overall picture of it—you watch crowd,s you watch almost identical little cars swarming along great parkways. And from this point of view there’s an extraordinary impersonality to the whole thing. Everybody looks alike. Every car looks alike. They seem to be so many ants. And news reports and statistical reports of the doings of human society reflect this same point of view, whereby the individual cell, the individual human being, becomes a sort of ant-like statistic.

03:35

The same sort of thing happens when we confront peoples of other races. They might be Negroes or Chinese, even Hindus, with whose facial characteristics we’re not really familiar. They all seem alike to us of at first sight. We think, for example, that the Oriental has an expressionless face because he doesn’t have a high bridge to his nose, because he tends to have rather smooth skin. And we don’t realize that their first impression of us is that we all look identical, too; that we have bright red hair, and enormously long pointed noses.

04:20

But to go back to the problem of the great city: the reason why it works—or rather, it doesn’t work; it muddles through. And the reason for this must be explained, I think, not so much perhaps of the organizational level as of the individual level. Because the whole mass really consists of little units of intelligence with an astonishing degree of possible varieties of action, an astonishing degree of adaptability, and an even more astonishing degree of persistence in, say, sticking to their jobs and carrying on their daily routines. There doesn’t really emerge—if you look at human behavior at the level of the mass.

05:22

And so much of our impressions of what the world is doing are gained at this mass level that I think our perspective becomes very much falsified. It isn’t that the observations of the statisticians and the newspapers are just frankly untrue. It isn’t that at all. It’s that they represent only a half truth. This becomes a problem in a world where it has for so long been supposed that there is such a thing as the truth. And if there is any really important thing that I think a reflective person has to understand—especially in our own time—it is that there is no such thing as the truth. This always sounds dangerous; I know. It sounds as if one were opening the gates to an extremely slimy kind of relativism where all values and facts become slippery, and history and the physical world becomes something simply to be manipulated.

06:50

Now, one of the real reasons why there are people who can manipulate in this way—why, for example, certain totalitarian states can get away with rewriting history—they can get away with it because people are accustomed to thinking that there is some such thing as the truth. And the moment we are, as it were, suckers in this sense for the truth, someone can very simply misrepresent it and say, “On the contrary. The truth is this and so.” But if we were free from the idea of there being a fixed truth, then we would recognize that anybody who writes history is presenting a point of view. We would know that he cannot really tell us the truth, because there isn’t any such thing. And we would be more inclined to ask: why does he say what he says? From what point of view is he looking at it? And what does he want to achieve by presenting what he sees in such and such a way?

07:55

And this, I think, is the essence of the thing: that what is true is always relative to a way of looking at things and an intention to do something. Thus we can see very clearly that, say, in physics today, light may sometimes be described as a wave behavior, and sometimes as a particle behavior. To ordinary common sense, which tries always to reduce the behavior of the physical world to three-dimensional images—something which, as a matter of fact, can hardly be done. Nevertheless, from that point of view it seems that the two theories of the nature of light are mutually exclusive. Surely it can’t be both a wave behavior and a particle behavior. The fact of the matter is, though, that looking at it from the particle point of view is useful in some circumstances, looking at it from the point of view of wave behavior is useful in other circumstances. In the same way, our common speech reflects the idea (which we know is astronomically obsolete) that the sun rises and sets. But for purposes of astronomical thinking we don’t talk about the sun rising and setting, we talk about the rotation of the Earth. And we would say that the view that the Earth rotates, rather than the sun rises and sets, is more true. Yes, it’s true for a certain point of view. A point of view which is more useful for astronomical purposes and for the daily conduct of human affairs and winding up your watch.

10:00

But we can see that these apparently contradictory points of view can be held together simultaneously without either the sense that they contradict each other, or the sense that there must be some true fact underlying the differences. You see, if we were to try and find out what the truth is, we would have to fill the whole universe with eyes. And they would have to be able to report simultaneously the way everything is from their point of view. As Norbert Wiener once put it rather amusingly, he said, “To get accurate meteorological predictions you’d have to fill the entire atmosphere with weather balloons.” And so, in the same way, to get the accurate picture of the universe, or even of this planet, or of the solar system, you would have to fill the whole of space with observers. And the pandemonium of their all talking at once to explain what they saw could never be digested by any individual mind. And if they were to speak one after another in order so that we could listen to them, time wouldn’t be long enough to hear more than a tiny fraction of the observers.

11:26

It is for such reasons as this that something called the truth can never be established at all, except in such ways as we can do so, for example, by agreeing to certain standards of measurement—whether of rulers or of clocks. Because our agreement to these is standard everywhere, we can say that it really is a fact, it is true, that such and such an object is four inches long, or that such and such an event happened at four o’clock.

12:08

This problem, of course, arises in the very ticklish question of the relative freedom of human actions, and in the assignment of responsibility for their actions to individuals. Because there is, on the one hand, the point of view common to almost every individual in civilized society that he himself is the source of certain of his actions. And he expects to be praised and blamed accordingly, and expects to praise and blame others. But there is of course the increasingly pervasive point of view of the psychiatrist and the social psychologist and the sociologist which sees the behavior of the individual as determined by the social and natural environment. And therefore his point of view with regard to responsibility to the human being as a source of action tends to be deterministic.

13:22

And the point of view of these scientists is naturally rather the same point of view as one who observes behaviors statistically; who looks at it in the mass. And he feels that at that level, what the group as a very large number of people will do is: the more numerous it is, the more predictable it is. And therefore, whatever is predictable seems to be highly determined. But, of course, at the level of individual behavior, what people are going to do is the most difficult thing of all to predict. And just for that reason alone one is inclined to say that what is not predictable is not determined. We have no means of demonstrating that it is determined, even though we may have hunches that it’s so.

14:13

But somehow or other I think we’ve got to be able to look at human behavior in such a way as to synthesize, or take at once, both the voluntaristic version of behavior and the deterministic in rather the same way that we regard light as both particles and waves, even though the two positions seem to be contradictory. It is as if, when we change the level of magnification of observing anything—for example, in the analogy of the city—one level of magnification shows the swarming crowds of automobiles cluttering the traffic lanes. The other level of magnification shows the individually unique, intelligent, and adaptable little human being sitting in the swarming automobiles. Here you see a sort of mad crazyness at the mass level, and relative intelligence at the individual level.

15:21

Sometimes, when you change your level of magnification, it’s the other way around—as, for example, when you examine the constitution of human blood, you find an enormous dog-eat-dog warfare going on of cells eating cells, bacilli of various kinds warring on each other and on the component elements of the organism. But what this turmoil and conflict adds up to at a larger level is the ongoing health of the body composed of all these tiny elements. Logically speaking, you see, health, harmonious functioning, is something totally opposed and exclusive of warfare. But the contradiction exists only if you suppose that these two things are on the same level of magnification. War at one level is peace at another. And so, isn’t it possible to approach the problems of freedom and determinism in rather the same way? That what is free at one level, or voluntary, is determined at another, and that the truth of the matter depends upon the level about which we’re speaking?

16:53

The problem naturally also applies to ethics. That, seen from a very, very vast cosmic point of view, what we do—whether it’s right or wrong—doesn’t matter very much. It all seems somehow or other to work out, to fit in, to build up a harmony at a very vast level. But looking at it from a more circumscribed view, what we do matters very much indeed whether it be good or evil. People seem to be afraid that if a human being takes any of these differing points of view simultaneously, they will fight with each other, and the one that’s easier to take—the one that serves self-interest most—will conquer the other one. There is, of course, always that danger.

18:01

Nevertheless, it seems to me to be vitally important to be able to take both points of view simultaneously. In the case of the illustration of the city it is quite obvious why one should be able to take both points of view. For if the individual unit of the population does not become aware of the vast problems which require intelligent handling and planning, he does indeed run a very serious danger through overestimating the power of his simply individual adaptability and intelligence. On the other hand, the prophets of almost imminent doom for the great cities must take into consideration the faithfulness and intelligence of the individuals, and not regard them as mere statistical blobs.

19:01

So, in the same way, with regard to, say, the problems of guilt. Responsibility and guilt. Where the freedom of action of the individual is enormously emphasized and the deterministic aspect of it is underemphasized, the individual can feel guilty about things he’s done to a completely excessive degree. Guilt can, in other words, become a state of consciousness which really prevents constructive change of behavior entirely. Let’s say the alcoholic situation, who is in a vicious circle of guilt. Because when he feels guilty because he drinks too much, he has to go on drinking in order to get rid of the guilt. Because it seems to me that, at any rate, in its extreme forms guilt is an emotion which blocks the possibility of intelligent action.

20:09

This, then, is why it seems to me constructive rather than destructive for every human being to know that his evil, his selfishness, his immorality, or whatever it may be, only penetrates (shall we say) into his being to a limited depth. Beyond that depth there is a core, a center, which is at once his own and at once universal—something like the Hindus call the Ātman—at which he is beyond good and evil and beyond guilt, where, shall we say, he is profoundly sane.

20:57

I believe it’s a real hallmark of sanity that a person who is fundamentally human and mature always has the awareness of that center in himself somewhere. I never forget the first time I discovered it in myself. It was when I was a child, and I’d just played an outrageous prank. I had mixed some acetylene with carbide and water, and thrown the mixture at someone by way of a practical joke. And there was a frightful uproar. It was done at a neighbor’s house, and my friend’s elder brother bawled me out and said, “Never come back to this place again!” I felt suddenly that I’d done the most awful thing possible, because I didn’t really know that it was relatively harmless, and that he mixture wasn’t going to cause any serious damage. I thought probably I’d done something like vitriol at somebody. And I remember feeling absolutely terrible about the whole thing—and yet discovering somewhere in the middle of this frightful sensation of guilt that there was a curious inner strength somewhere right down, where I knew in the middle of me, somehow, whatever happened, I would weather it. It didn’t quite ultimately matter—although it did matter very much indeed on the surface. That was the first glimmer of the sort of sensation I’m talking about: the sanity of being able to live simultaneously on two levels, where the truth at one is not the same as the truth at the other.

Truth and Relativity

Alan Watts

https://www.organism.earth/library/docs/alan-watts/headshot-square.webp

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