“Real” Reality and “capital T” Truth belong to metaphysics, or perhaps to secret and invisible regions of the natural world, but not to the human mind. We may wish to infer that an absolute, objective level of reality exists, but we must admit that any ultimate reality is largely unknowable to creatures such as ourselves.
The best versions of reality and truth we can capture might be called “Pretty Good Reality™” and “Pretty Good Truth™.” (I’m thinking of the security program called “Pretty Good Privacy”).
PRETTY GOOD will do for most ordinary purposes.
(BTW, “Pretty Good Reality™”, “Pretty Good Reason™“, “Pretty Good Ethics™“, “Pretty Good Truth™“, and “Pretty Good Free Will™” are copyright by Poor Richard under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.)
What about those who hyperbolically and hypertensively crusade against relativism (esp. “moral relativism“) usually without the slightest understanding of it?
They wrongly believe that relativism means that “anything goes.”
People who fret about “moral relativism” are children. One cannot explain subtle matters to them.
Everything in human life is relative, but morals, well examined, can be the least relative things of all. The passion to be a moral person can come from a place of true conscience, compassion, integrity, and nobility, or it can come from a place of fear and conformity. But if it is the former, the desire or passion to know reality and the passion to act morally are inseparable. In this kind of pragmatism, the fact of relativity is acknowledged, but one struggles through constant practice to achieve one’s highest and best approach to morality and objectivity. The life of the mind, properly understood, is not unlike the athletic life. Excellence comes from practice on the field, not only from books and chalk board talks.
Non-authoritarian, adult, secular morals are based on some version of the “Golden Rule“, which is about empathy and reciprocity, and on utility (the highest good or greatest well-being for the greatest number) both in respect to people and the entire interdependent community of life.
Empathy is a feeling or sentiment that evolution has given us (in part via “mirror neurons“) to make the fundamental law of reciprocity more agreeable to us. But reciprocity (or the “law of reciprocal maintenance” as G. I. Gurdjieff put it) is an essential law of living systems and ecosystems, with or without empathy or consciousness.
Some people find in the law of reciprocity a justification for living things feeding on one another, but I question that. To fully satisfy the law of reciprocity one would have to be willing to be eaten or otherwise exploited in return. If there were a species of creatures that treated us as we treat the cow, pig, dog, etc.–would we be happy about that? The question of pain is only one factor to consider when imagining how agreeable such a reciprocal relationship would be to us. Would we only be concerned about the process and not the end? Because nature may be in some respects a “war of all against all” (Hobbes), does that limit the human imagination from devising less cruel and violent relationships with nature? Of course not, unless one is simply a dull clod.
One aspect of human relativity is perspectivism. This is a philosophical view developed by Friedrich Nietzsche that all ideations take place from particular perspectives. This means that there are many possible conceptual schemes, or perspectives in which judgment of truth or value can be made. This implies that no way of seeing the world can be taken as definitively “true”, but does not necessarily entail that all perspectives are equally valid.
A basic idea of epistemological relativity is that the closest anyone can come to objective reality or truth is some approximation. Each brain creates its own simulation(s) of reality based on its sense inputs, its processing of those inputs, its interpretations, and its own intrinsic characteristics. Since brains can communicate with other brains, multiple perspectives can be combined or merged to some extent.
Wheels within wheels
“…and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” (Ezekiel 1:16)
We are further removed from absolute truth or reality by the possibility that all we know of reality may be part of another level of simulation. Reality may consist of recursive simulations within simulations. This is the “simulation argument” or “matrix hypothesis”.
“A simplified version of this argument proceeds as such:
- It is possible that an advanced civilization could create a computer simulation which contains individuals with artificial intelligence (AI).
- Such a civilization would likely run many, billions for example, of these simulations (just for fun, for research or any other permutation of possible reasons).
- A simulated individual inside the simulation wouldn’t necessarily know that it is inside a simulation — it is just going about its daily business in what it considers to be the “real world.”
Then the ultimate question is — if one accepts that the above premises are at least possible — which of the following is more likely?
a. We are the one civilization which develops AI simulations and happens not to be in one itself?
b. We are one of the many (billions) of simulations that has run? (Remember point 3.) In greater detail, this argument attempts to prove the trichotomy, either that:
- intelligent races will never reach a level of technology where they can run simulations of reality so detailed they can be mistaken for reality (assuming that this is possible in principle); or
- races who do reach such a sophisticated level do not tend to run such simulations; or
- we are almost certainly living in such a simulation.
In summary I’d say truth is probabilistic by which I mean that we might know an approximation of some fraction of the truth which may be fit (or pretty good) for a particular purpose. To paraphrase George Box, all facts are wrong but some are useful.