In a world with two new fantastic realities, climate change and the internet, it’s time for some new thinking about what is true. Old ways of deciding what’s true have brought us to climate crisis and now that the internet allows us to see each others views like never before, it’s time to redefine truth. Instead of absolute truth it’s time for relative understanding.
I have come to believe that when two people seem to disagree, about anything, they can both be right. To a degree.
The issue is one of perspective, and arrogance. From where I sit, it looks one way. And from where you sit, it looks another way. Fine. And here comes the arrogance part: because I see it a certain way, you should see it that way too.
When I add this arrogance part I am elevating my perspective over yours. I am pretending to see the situation from a higher vantage point, as if I was God. I am pretending that there are not multiple ways of seeing something, that there is only one correct way, and because I am higher, smarter, and more enlightened than you, I know what’s really true.
This way of thinking imagines that there even IS a third perspective; that there IS a higher universal truth. As humans we struggle mightily to believe that there is universal truth — laws of nature or facts or beliefs that apply to everyone everywhere all the time whether they know it or not — but maybe there isn’t. Maybe the only perspectives that actually exist are the ones that we have.
And the issue is one of degree. Many people believe that something is either true or it isn’t. I don’t. I believe that some things are truer than others. Truth is like speed. Being true is like being fast. It’s not that some things are fast and some are not. Some things are simply faster than other things. And no thing in the universe is totally fast or totally slow. Speed is relative. It depends on what I’m used to. There is no universal fast, a speed about which beings throughout the universe can all say, “Okay, now THAT is totally fast.” And at the other end of the spectrum, there is no universal slow. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the universe stands still (except maybe me, but more about that later).
Imagine if we let go of the premise that there are universal truths. This would be big. It would be like letting go of the premise that the world is flat. Our ancestors resisted that premise in large part for reasons of convenience and comfort. It is so much harder to think of the world as round than as flat. Calculus is a lot harder than geometry. And it is quite uncomfortable to think that some of us, maybe even you and I right now, might be upside down.
Same with the notion of universal truth. It is really convenient and comfortable to think that what’s true here will be true there and what’s true now will be true later and what’s true for me is true for you. Universal truths — rules of nature, facts and beliefs — provide incredibly comforting anchors and touchstones and shelters in a ridiculously complex and scary world. It is very hard and very uncomfortable to wrap one’s head around the notion that there simply aren’t universal laws of nature or facts or beliefs. Such a world is much harder to navigate.
Still, imagine if we let go of the premise that there are universal truths and instead of fighting about what is universally true we stopped at: “From where I sit it looks one way and from where you sit it looks another way.” Imagine not taking the next step: “Because I see it a certain way, you should see it that way too.”
This would be an attitude of humility rather than arrogance. It would foster peace rather than conflict.
Imagine approaching problems and conflicts with an open mind rather than with the answer already presumed. Rather than fighting for a solution that fits “my truth,” imagine working to find a solution that fits both of our truths. It’s hard. It’s not nearly as convenient or comfortable as sticking to what I already think I know.
Yet can you imagine a world like that? I would like to help us both do that.
The purpose of this website is to make the case, in a practical and defensible way, that human beings should be more humble and not so arrogant. Arrogance and presumed universal truth have gotten us, as a species, in a whole lot of trouble. Time for some humility and relative understanding rather than fighting for truth.
As humans we work terribly hard to justify self-serving assumptions. My theory implies that we should lay down such assumptions. My theory asks that we make good decisions for our future based on relative truth, not based on absolute truth or on sense of superiority or on false assumptions. My theory appeals for humility.
Caution, amateur philosopher thinking big ideas: I am hoping that my theory might end war and famine and poverty.
Here is a quote from the blog of Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert:
“Most of my posts have a common theme: We don’t know as much as we think we know. That’s the sort of idea that could end war and famine and poverty. If you think about it, wars are generally fought because of a false sense of certainty. Usually some leader thinks he is a God, or talks to God, or descended from the Gods, or thinks God gave his people some particular piece of real estate. The leader’s opinion is the most certain in the land. People flock to certainty and adopt the certainty as their own. The next thing you know, stuff is blowing up.”
Thank you Craig. Enjoyed reading your Reflectionary post at Abbey of Hope followed up with your writings here. Yes, and… it’s all relative.
Thank you for sharing. I love the prayer post.
Thanks Ron for your supportive comment. And thanks to others too.
It is so heartwarming to get validation for these ideas. Very much appreciated.
I am not familiar with “Stages of Change” or “Spiral Dynamics;” I’m just trying to say how things look from where I sit. And in my experience it is narrow-minded and unnecessarily limiting to think that there is only one truth.
Keep those comments coming folks! On this or any other pages or posts. I love them.
I think you hit the nail on the head, Craig. I love your idea. I believe that one of the true marks of wisdom is having deeply internalized the concept of “relative understanding.” And when I first encountered the idea of “stages of change,” such as expressed by people such as James Fowler, Ken Wilbur, and in the “Spiral Dynamics” model, my “world view” underwent a major paradigm shift. As you probably know, this work describes the way individuals and societies evolve in psychological awareness over time (hopefully) to a place where, among other traits, they progressively see “reality” from a broader and more inclusive perspective. In some ways, I think that this continued evolution of individual and collective consciousness may be our best hope as a species.
Of course, that is only my “relative understanding.”
Wonderful stuff here, Craig. This is what the worldwide interfaith movement is all about! I am lucky to be the Community Liaison for the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine (ChIME), which has been educating and ordaining interfaith leaders since 2002. One of our graduates, Lori Whittemore, has started an organization called Abbey of HOPE (Hands of Peace Extended), and publishes a weekly Reflectionary that goes out to ChIME graduates as well as others interested in interfaith in our area. I would love it if you would contact firstname.lastname@example.org and offer to write something about Relative Understanding for the Reflectionary. You can also check it out at Abbey of Hope’s website. I will also post a link to your work at the Interfaith Ministers of New England FB page, a members-only group. Peace out! CM
This is GREAT!
Getting past the dogma teaching in many schools, by changing this one word, would do a world of good.
Love that it leaves ‘truth’ open for discussion. Many years ago I tried to talk to someone about her truth and my truth of what happen during an incident. Unfortunately, there was no discussion.
Love this. Thank you for going public with it. This is truly the basis of restorative justice; sharing perspectives as individual truths and acknowledging them as such.
To the Patti-ann Douglas comment: YES!
This is my hope for the concept of Relative Understanding. That it give ALL people the courage to speak THEIR truth, especially those who have felt their truths were “less valid” in the face of “universal truth.” And that those who have claimed “universal truth,” let go of such claim and make room for relative understanding.
Patti-ann, thanks for publicly posting this comment. It’s really great that you did.
The world certainly needs a new message. I welcome your ideas Craig and appreciate you sharing them. I will look forward to pondering your thoughts. I can get behind this philosophy of relative understanding. It is clear to me that my truth is based on my own personal knowledge and experience, maybe narrow but very real. I have always struggled with putting my own truths out there in the world, knowing they were “just mine” made them feel somehow less valid than those who claim universal truth. I can imagine in a world in which we could all feel we could contribute our ideas.
Looking forward to exploring and engaging with you, Craig. Bravo for the initiative!
The older I get, the less I know.