Monday, September 14, 2015

Absolutes and Objectives

The law of identity is an absolute. Your right to trial by jury is not an absolute.  That humans have a nature is absolute. Existence is identity. To be is to be something.  However, not every claim about "human nature" is absolute (or even true).  

Absolutes are not contextual.  Some people claim that taking a human life is absolutely wrong.  Immanel Kant's deontology ethics were absolute, to be carried out whether any one benefited or not - in his words, to be carried out even if they caused harm.  

Contextual truths are objective: based in physical reality, we know them through reason. But they are not immutable, eternal, or intrinsic. Is gold the best money?  It depends on the context. 
Not everyone wants to be a collector.
Not every collector is interested in coins.
Not every numismatist pursues US federal.
Only some care about Mint errors.

Those errors have special value --
to some people
"Reality is an absolute, existence is an absolute, a speck of dust is an absolute and so is a human life. Whether you live or die is an absolute. Whether you have a piece of bread or not, is an absolute. Whether you eat your bread or see it vanish into a looter’s stomach, is an absolute." -- Galt's Speech.

The law of identity is absolute. This lamp in my office is not. I could paint it blue. I could disassemble it, and some point, it would cease to be a lamp qua lamp. I could use the bulb screw sockets to mount relays and use it as a switch for a model railroad. In fact, I could mount photocells on it, leaving the bulbs in, but rendering it unusable as a lamp qua lamp, while it is a switch. That would be its identity: a switching mechanism made from a lamp. That the lamp has some nature is absolute. Existence is identity. Although the nature of the lamp is mutable, I can do nothing to change the law of identity.  

Some people claim that it is absolutely wrong to take a human life. Libertarians typically offer self-protection and defense of your rights as contexts to allow killing.  The moral absolutists disagree. For them, the wrongfulness of homicide is like the law of identity. They are wrong, of course, and it is because context matters. Taking a life may be wrong, or may not. It depends on the context. Knowing the context requires an objective understanding: perceived evidence explained by reason.    
“Engineers will tell you that the sound barrier is an absolute, like the firmness of the Earth.” – Slick Goodlin in The Right Stuff.
“If you ask me, the damn thing doesn’t even exist.” – Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.
Ayn Rand said that the choice to think is the fundamental choice. But do you not need to be thinking in order to choose to think? You do not. The choice to think is avoided by evasion. Rather than focus – rather than think – the mind goes blank, or switches to some other non-threatening stream of consciousness. The choice to think must be made consciously.  So, too, is the decision to discover and apply context, a choice. That choice is one that absolutists seek to avoid. Once something is true or false, good or bad, right or wrong, there it must remain forever, never to be re-examined.

And, indeed, absolutes do exist. Existence itself is absolute. Your need to choose your values is absolute. If you ignore that, it is no less destructive than ignoring the laws of physics while driving your car. But not every truth is absolute. Absolutes are the deepest and broadest of truths. Mid-range truths are often contextual: they are objectively true, i.e, empirically perceived and rationally explained. The perception might change. The nature of the event might change. Understanding – the theoretical model of explanation – could be improved.

Humans could not hold abstractions in their minds until we had language. By “language,” I mean something conceptually different from animal calls.  By language I mean the expression of a mental state with no external stimulus, i.e., with an internal motivation only.  In other words, the event that triggered the communication was not the presence of a predator or the calling to a mate. It was not the feeling of hunger or thirst. It began within the mind of the creator.

The making of a stone hand axe was taught by demonstration for perhaps one million years across three species of hominids. But the communication by demonstration was necessarily limited. Our modern languages are no more than 10,000 years old. Language itself is no more than 100,000 years old. You began to learn language before you were born when you heard (felt) your mother's voice.  And yet, creators and inventors were (and remain) difficult to understand. We do not share their mental states, the way our ancestors shared the demonstration of how to make a hand axe.

Moral absolutes do exist. They are very basic and very broad. The fact that we must choose our actions is the basis of morality. The fact of choice is morality. Whatever is objectively in your best interest is not of necessity in my best interest. Those truths are objective, not absolute.


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