Saturday, 7 February 2015

Perspective: Relativity

The Ponzo Effect (Mario Ponzo, 1913)

Is everything relative? Even truth?  

The Ponzo Effect shows two lines of equal length, but one appearing to be longer in relation to its surroundings, which appears to be a railway line disappearing into the distance. Our minds are taught the rules of perspective which interpret lines appearing to be converging in this way as creating the illusion of disappearing into the distance. Therefore we then interpret the line further along in the distance as being longer as it is more distant so must be, according to those rules, longer than the one nearer. 

And that's it. Our minds learn rules with which they interpret the world and our experiences in it. We make definitions and distinctions based on our learning. What exists in our worlds only exist according to those definitions and distinctions. In someone else's world or even possibly in everyone else's world they may not exist as in ours. In which case how can we say what it 'real' or 'true'?

Priest and Garfield (2003) tell us about Nagarjuna's 'two truths': 

"He asserts that there are two truths, 
and that they are one; 
that everything both exists and does not exist; 
that nothing is existent or nonexistent; 
that he rejects all philosophical views including his own;
that he asserts nothing."


Nagarjuna considered there to be two truths - conventional and ultimate, the conventional was relative while ultimate was not relative and ultimately not ultimate.

Conventional truth and reality Nagarjuna broke down into three variations:

1. Ordinary, every day or common sense truth
2. Agreed truth  - like rules and laws or traditions
3. Nominal truth - 'true by virtue of a particular linguistic convention' (Garfield and Priest, 2003)

Paul Rinponche in Clarifying the Two Truths talks about relative truth being two kinds, 'incorrect relative' and 'correct relative'. 'Incorrect relative' is when we only see things as they appear to be whereas when it comes to  'correct relative' we view the world with the knowledge that appearances can be deceptive. 

And what Nagarjuna calls the 'ultimate' truth, Rinponche describes as 'absolute truth'. Both, Nagarjuna and Rinponche, from my reading consider that absolute or ultimate (or what I would call, objective truth) is not available to minds which operate in a relative arena, which most minds built on learning from their environments do.

Riponche cites Shantideva:

 The absolute lies beyond the reach of the intellect, 
 For the mind is only relative, it is taught.

We make distinctions between the various items of stimuli we experience with words and thoughts which change their character. The chair is a chair. It being red or wooden or having a person sitting on it or even being an object that is for sitting on or being part of a dining set are all distinctions I make. I am setting it apart from other things by naming the qualities which I can identify it with, based on what I know.

I am still stuck on working out how to view the chair in absolute terms. Maybe that's the point. I can't. It is, only what it is, in relation to everything else unless you see it all connected together and then it is just part of a bigger whole which so vast and varied it is indescribable. 

Even if I simplify it and reduce it to the wood or metal it is made of,  I see it in relative terms, as a type of material which is hewn from the forest or the ground and manufactured in some way to make chairs, which I only know because this is something I have learned.

So the absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth. Everything is relative.

As Nietzsche said, in the 1880s:

 'There are no facts, only interpretations.' 


Garfield, J.L and Priest, K. (2003) Nagarjuna and the Limits of Thought, Philosophy East & West, Volume 53, Number 1 January 2003, 1 – 21,University of Hawaii Press

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