As long as we’re dabbling in a bit of amateur philosophy, I thought I might bring up another notion some of you might find interesting. I spend a lot of time thinking about the principle that truth is consistent with itself, both in the non-contradictory sense and in the cohesive/unified sense, and it has led me to some unexpected conclusions. One of the under-appreciated implications of this self-consistency is that it means we have a faulty conception of what perfection is, for the most part, and I think this is where a lot of Greek philosophy and its derivatives went astray.
This is just armchair philosophizing, of course, so feel free to chip in your own two cents worth, but it seems to me that once you accept the idea of truth being cohesive, you must inevitably accept the conclusion that there is ultimately only one truth, of which all lesser truths are merely aspects. And yet, we are finite beings, whereas truth is potentially infinite, and is definitely greater than any mortal mind can comprehend. It follows, then, that our knowledge of the truth is necessarily incomplete, and therefore imperfect.
We respond to this problem by approaching knowledge as a set of abstractions: we take individual aspects of the truth and isolate them from the rest of the truth, and then, paradoxically, label them as “ideal” or “perfect.” For example, real-world circles are fairly complex things and not a few of them (e.g. planetary orbits) aren’t strictly circles at all. But our brains are finite, and we have limited resources for dealing with all the variations and perturbations that affect real-world circles, so we simply ignore the “imperfections” (as we call them) and define a theoretical “perfect circle” in terms of a mere center and radius.
Notice, we derive what we call a “perfect” circle by taking away information. In the process of simplifying a circle for more convenient (finite) thinking, we’ve removed the actual nature of the real-world circle, and taken just a few bits and pieces of out-of-context information, and declared them to be the “essence” or “ideal” of what a perfect circle really is. It’s like when you find that you can’t fit the whole elephant into the shoebox, you go out and find a smaller box.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly we can learn a lot about the real world by zeroing in on individual aspects of real-world truth and honing our understanding of their inherent properties. But it can give us a misleading notion of “perfection,” and might tempt us to think that reality is some kind of complex composite constructed out of various combination of ideal perfections. Hence the problems with Greek astronomy, and the countless wasted hours spent by early astronomers, trying to get celestial bodies to follow some combination of perfect, unvarying circles.
What we need to learn from this is that when we analyze and philosophize and theorize, we are always necessarily working with imperfect approximations of what reality actually is. That’s why we can’t afford to be dogmatic—we must continually keep going back to the real world, and comparing our projections with the actual, complex, complete nature of reality itself, to correct the errors that creep in and accumulate over time. Any dogmatic description of the truth, even when initially correct, is incomplete, and needs to be expanded and corrected as our experience grows.
Religion does not work that way, and therefore it accumulates error. It tries to reduce a complex reality to a dogmatic combination of abstract “perfections” that allegedly take precedence over what we can see in the real world. And that just won’t work. Presuppositional apologetics (the inspiration for this post) isn’t really a means of discovering the truth, it’s a technique for avoiding discovery of the truth, by overruling the error-correction that you’d otherwise be able to obtain by observation of reality. And without this ongoing, reality-based error correction, your religious beliefs are only going to get more and more out of sync with real-world truth over time.
There is no perfect faith, there is only a perfect reality. And even then it’s perfect in the sense of being complete, not in the sense of being abstracted or simplified or purged of all the unpleasant bits. If we want to get as close as possible to perfection, we need to abandon dogmatic faith, and embrace a continually self-correcting scientific worldview.