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Philosophical Musings – Interpretation and Meaning

(What is truth?)



”What is truth?”

Pontius Pilate



The life of Caesar is an interpretation. The facts of his life, and even of his times, are like the pieces of a large puzzle that have been scattered over an area of say, the continent of Europe, buried under trillions of tons of earth, with only a few sticking out of the ground; then these pieces are gathered up, and, as worn as they are, placed in some tentative order and fitted together with speculation. Usually the pieces of a puzzle have two characteristics to guide the puzzle assembler, the part of the picture on the piece, and the actual form of the piece. In the Caesar puzzle, the picture has been worn off by time on many pieces, and even in some cases repainted by previous assemblers, while the form of the piece is devoid of useful relevance because so many other pieces are missing.

Interpretation is a Pandora’s box, waiting to be opened by any intrepid explorer. It is as vast in its scope as the army of human beings that populate the earth, and as diverse in its implementation. In pondering it, I will again muse on the philosophical side of this topic, as did the philosophers of old.

We all search for truth, but what is truth? Or better yet what is meaning?

Humankind creates truth as does its societies through law and dogmatism. It defines its truths in words and stores them away (in myth, oral folklore and writing) for the dogmatism of the future. But it always falls before the same stumbling block: interpretation. Time changes speech; time changes languages; time changes interpretation. But even further: meaning is much vaster in scope than statement. The statement of law, as accurate as it is, is open to various interpretations at the very instant of its writing, let alone several years down the line. We would not have a Supreme Court if this were not the case.

There are two parts to meaning: the denote and the connote. The denote is the actual “hard and fast” of meaning; it is buried in the words of definition, or the process of behavior, or the form and substance of an object. The connote is much vaster, and lies in associations always tied to the denote. It lies in the fuzzy logic of the mind, where things are not only black and white, but every imaginable shade of gray in between. The denote lies in objects, facts and behaviors, the stuff of matter, or the forms of Plato; the connote lies in the vagueness of culture, the discipline of family life, the traditions of the clan.

Here we have been speaking of the creators of truth, but the same creators are also the interpreters.

But interpretation is even more challenging; it is tied to the actual history of the interpreter himself. Who knows what lies in the mind of a human? Who knows what creates its various interpretations? The individual forms them.

The individual forms them. The individual stated here, is quite a formidable thing. It is male or female, or even in between; it is black, brown, red, yellow or white; it is any individual of all the nations, or of all the clans on the earth; it is of any cultural subgroup; it is of any religious shading; it is of any sexual persuasion.

A human’s mind is ruled by logic, which at least seems to be a universal characteristic. These rules of logic are hard and fast in all humans (except perhaps mad men and people of religious fervor). But that human's actual thoughts and judgements based on perception are colored by its individual history and societal history. The very things that affect the creation of truth, or its meaning, also affect its interpretation. A human’s interpretation of perception affects its language, both in reading and writing. Thus translators always, in effect create something new in their translation, because one culture cannot always reveal all the connotes it conveys, or even the ones it emphasizes, to the other. It may even alter the very logic of the statements since certain objects might be other objects to a different culture (think here of a primitive group’s thinking on a gun, which they never saw before, may they not perceive this as a supernatural object).

Science in its attempt to “artificialize” the thinking of a human has also been halted in its advance by the immensity of the connote; the ‘frame problem’, for example, in artificial intelligence. What would an artificial intelligence, need to know, in addition to the mere denote, to emulate a human? The connote is the difference – a vast difference – the difference between a human and a machine, a seeming unbridgeable span. Of course this does not even begin to touch the problem of will.

So meaning and interpretation are more or less the same – or are they? Meaning is what we usually call truth. Logical truth is relative to the body of assumptions or postulates in the system surveyed. We create this type of truth, and we interpret it according to the system we live in. Logic and mathematics live in strictly defined systems, where connotes do not exist. They are of limited use in the world of human beings who create laws and philosophize – in other words they abstract or simplify reality, to make it manageable. Plato abstracted reality into a system, and made reason divine, or at least divine in aspiration. The logical positivists on another tack, tried to find all truth in language. Kant found truth coming from two spheres: mortal, (earthly knowledge and reason), and immortal, (God).

What is truth? Or maybe: Where is truth?

It lies in the interpreter. He or she ultimately creates his or her own truth, a truth relative to the individual's own system, its own reality. But is there a reality that we all share – a commonality that has an ultimate truth for the human, and being the ultimate truth for humanity, is perhaps the absolute truth in the universe?

What is truth? Pontius Pilate asked Christ this question, after Christ told him that: “… To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. 1 ” This truth that Christ mentions is the ultimate truth of humanity. Not a rational truth at all; in point of fact, outside of the rationality of Plato 2 or of Science today. This is a truth that lives in all humans' hearts; that is above denotation or connotation, and not relative only to the individual. Understood by all humans universally, for it lives in all, and is defined by humanity itself, in its humanity. This is the Good I have mentioned before. It is the truth that creates human societies and motivates the human search for a government that serves and benefits all equally – the ultimate search for what Plato termed Justice. You need not be religious to see this. Even atheists know it. It is an innate altruism that balances a human’s biological and societal survival instincts, so that it is capable of working with its fellows.

This ultimate truth is the ultimate basis of society, and humanity must form all its social aspirations on it.



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FOOTNOTES

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1 St. John, 18:37-38; King James Version of the Bible.



2 It was outside of the rational, but not the divine. Plato felt the rational reached the divine, since it allowed a human to contemplate the divine Forms. Plato knew the Good as divine but not, per se, in a human, but reachable by it. Christ placed the Good in the heart of every person (or, more clearly, made every person aware of that immortal Good which God had left in mankind's core, the heart), as did the prophesies of the Old Testament, which foretold of the Christ.

All of this brings up the question of reason: Is it a mortal part of the human or a part of its immortal inner core? I take it to be mortal, by necessity, since it is a part of the human perceptual apparatus. It is swayed by the immortal in the human, no doubt, but loses all its force when faced with the immortal. Faith must, at some point, become the only real proof of the existence of the immortal. The existence of the Good (accepted by all) becomes a rational goad to accept that faith, but does not make the leap to that faith itself, or indeed make it inevitable. A human has free will.

I further believe that the Good is indeed the very thing that instills that religious leaning in the human. In building the human community, it also instills within humans, aspirations toward God and immortality.

Immanuel Kant brought forth a kind of Idealism which consisted of three components: The mind which created judgments, and therefore knowledge, through an interaction with the world of sensations, which in turn reflected an ideal, unknowable world (read perfect) where God and something like the forms of Plato lived. Humankind knows only the world of sense (mortality), but could gain knowledge of the transcendental world; the knowledge is his Categorical Imperative: It is our old friend the Good!

See further comments on truth in ERRATA



Originally Published:

October 11, 2007

Revised:

June 29, 2014