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Some sort of relativism, maybe?

In my last post I wrote: "The idea that final certainty can not be reached. That The Ultimate Truth will always be more than the tiny limited capability of the human understanding." But what does that mean, then? If The Ultimate Truth is always beyond human comprehension, doesn't that necessarily lead to some sort of relativism? That in the absence of the final truth we are left with limited opinions? That each opinion is as valid as any other? That the arrogant over-complex theories of scientist are just relative to their strange ideologies, and as such they are no more true than the rock-solid opinions of the common man? That opinions passed down from generation to another are valid because they can't be proven wrong by any sort of final truth? Or, if we say that after the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Baltic States applied for NATO membership, they did so for their own sovereign intention, then that is just one biased opinion seen from the Western point of view, and that we should equally respect the Russian point of view which states that what happened was aggressive NATO expansion violating the justified balance of powers? That Batlic states joining NATO is a proof that The West hates Russia and wants to grab away Russian riches piece by piece, and therefore poor Russia is just a victim rightfully defending herself against enemy aggression? If there really is no final truth to philosophical questions, then should we be happy with rival powers each rallying troops to support their own point of view?

Well. Or maybe agnosism and relativism is only for some cryptic philosophical questions, and on the level of practical daily life there is and always will be universal plain simple undoubtedly true answers to questions like "how many apples there are in this basket?". And if such questions can be answered with integers and other such common-sense plain terms, then surely we can expand that sphere of clarity to cover most of the questions which concern mankind? Yes? No? Or relativism maybe?

Let's investigate further. We ask a plain simple question: "How many trees there are in this picture?" - please, scroll down to take a look at the picture, and then return here to pick your answer;

  • 1
  • 3
  • 5
  • 8
  • 35

And the correct answer is ... obviosly ... well ... the answer is, umm, depending on how you define the concept of "a tree". Sure, you can say there are 3 trees in the picture, if you count only the fully grown big spruces as trees, and ignore those small saplings. But if the saplings also count as trees, then the correct answer is 5. Or, again, that depends on what you count as a sapling? To be a proper tree does a sapling need to be taller than a yard? Or does an one inch tall sapling count as a tree? If so, I think we get 8 trees altogether. But then, if an inch tall sapling is a tree, then what about a freshly sprouted seed? Or a soon-to-be-freshly-sprouted-seed? After all, a seed is a tree-to-be, so maybe we should count seeds, too? No problem. We have 35 trees in the picture. But, hold on - let's go back to counting only the fully grown spruces, yes? You don't even have to look very closely to notice that there isn't a clear line where one spruce ends and a next begins - it is all just a single contour, one pen-drawn line. So maybe we should conclude that there is only one tree in the picture, for in the deep spiritual sense All is One and One is All (and to be a rock and not to roll, maybe?)

What should we think of this example? That we can't find the final truth, but any answer is as good as any other? Oh, not so fast, please! I think it would be better to say that each answer in the list is valid in their own way, given the underlying assumptions and how they match the picture we see. But suppose someone insisted that there are exactly 2 trees in the picture? Or that there are no trees at all, but a picture of an angel and a devil wrestling? Or that the picture shows big master trees oppressing small slave trees? Uh oh. I can imagine the answer "2 trees in the picture" could be justified by assuming things we actually don't see in the picture; as the trees we see above the ground grow of roots unseen - and maybe the situation is that in the picture there are two networks of roots, each network growing several trees visible above the soil, so that what we see aren't any more individual trees than human fingers aren't individual human beings, but parts of a same individual sharing same DNA and being physically interconnected - like the fingers join in the palm, and the above-soil unite in the below-soil network of roots? Maybe this kind of view could be justified, and we could see how the idea corresponds to the picture we all see. But what about angels and devils? Or seeing the picture as moral symbols? I'm sure someone could come up with ways to explain these views, so maybe we can't rule them out? So are we left with some sort of relativism, maybe?

I don't know but sometimes it seems to me that "relativism" is used as if it means that "you can't really prove anything wrong, for any opinion is as valid as any other." But should we really be content with that? First, let me say again that in my examples the given answers are relative to two things; the picture we see, and the way we explain the concepts and ideas used to get the answer. Which means that we can expect to find some sort of relation to the picture we see. If someone gives us a lengthy explanation describing how there is a Father Christmas and A Reindeer and 22 trees in the picture, we sure could find that explanation interesting and entertaining, but I do doubt if many of our readers would be quick to adopt such a view? Or, could we even say "Such an explanation is fascinating, but what we would like to have is something relative to this picture we see, and no matter how hard we try we are having trouble seeing a Father Christmas in this simple naivistic drawing by Erkka."

Another point is that any explanation might make more or less sense given a context. For, I think that only in some imaginary Platonic world of ideas might those ideas exists in-itself, but in this limited world where we humans dwell, things are bound to be relative to a context. (Have you ever tried existing without a context? If you tried, how did it go? Any success, anyone? I haven't yet heard a single positive example, so I'm very interested to hear if any of you has a comprehensible example of existing as a human being without any relation to any kind of context at all.) So, suppose my context is that I'm building a log cabin and I'm going to fell down trees to obtain logs. If that is the context, and we have a patch of forest pictured in my simple drawing, then suddenly "3" is the only answer that makes any sense if I'm asking the amount of trees growing here. But suppose I'm planning some operations which are expected to yield harvest only after 100 years, then suddenly all of those seeds and saplings start to appear more relevant. Because the answer is relative to a context. Which means that in a given context some answers make a lot more sense than some other answers. Is this something horrible? A form of relativism which destroys all rationality and all certainty? Doesn't seem like that to me.

So, let us briefly return to the fears mentioned in the first paragraph. The idea that opinion "There is no climate change because there wasn't one when my parents were kids, and moreover I don't like the faces of people who yell about climate change. It is a leftist progressive propaganda, and I identify myself as a cool-headed calm right wind hard-working individual, so I'm not going to adopt any biased propaganda!" should be treated as equally valid as the scientific statement that "carbon dioxide in the atmosphere helps trap more warmth in the atmosphere. As the level of carbon dioxide goes up the planet gets warmer. In nature there are processes which emit and absorb carbon dioxide, and overall they are balanced - but on top of that since the human industrial revolution there has been additional emissions because of burning fossil fuels, so because of human activity the level of carbon dioxide has been going up in a pace never before seen in the history of the planet. This is going to have severe effects on global level." If you ask me, the credibility of these statements compare pretty much the same way as "There is A Santa Claus and 22 trees in the picture, for that is a story which makes me feel all right!" compares to the answer "There are 3 big trees, 2 smaller saplings, 2 tiny saplings and one freshly sprouted seed (to the right of the rightmost big tree) in Erkka's drawing." Even though we can never find a final philosophical truth about "how to correctly define a tree?" or "what is a santa claus after all?", we still can perfectly well evaluate the credibility of this or that explanation, relative to all the empirical evidence, scientific measurements, observations, pictures and drawings. (Or, of course, we can always ignore all the evidence provided by our eyes and ears. I still do believe that there is no ultimate moral reasoning proving that to be wrong. But I just think that ignoring the evidence has seldom been a wise tactics in any human project...)

Then what about the power politics? Are small nation-states like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania capable of determining their own fate? Should they be seen as credible actors in the world politics? Or are they mere pawn, pieces in the game played by central Super Powers? I do remember that phase in history, and those processes soon after the collapse of Soviet Union, and how we celebrated the end of The Cold War - hoping that from now on there is no more need to see Russia as an enemy, nor a need for Russia to see The West as The Enemy. That is what many of us ordinary people believed and hoped for. But of course my understanding is very limited. To be honest; I really have no way of knowing how much there might have been NATO persuasion and interference going on behind the scenes in the political processed when the Baltic States used their freshly re-gained independence to join NATO. But, again, seen from a point of view of having grown up next to Russia, in a country which has fought hard to defend independence against invading Red Army, I do understand that joining NATO probably seemed like the only sure way to protect the fragile independence of a small country next to mighty Russia. So, even if we admitted that the truth is relative to the point of view, then how could we justify that The Russian Point of View is somehow more valid when it comes to decisions made by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? Or should we just admit that seen from The Estonian point of view joining NATO was the only reasonable way to secure the independence of the country?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not here to argue that Moscow is bad and The West is good. Far from that - I could write equally long post about arrogant colonial politics practiced by The West after the end of the Cold War. And, actually, I do quite like the Russian culture and people. So instead of blaming anyone I'm after a philosophical remark here. Remember our list of answers to the question "How many trees there are in this picture?" What did we learn from that? Did we learn that anyone can pick one answer they like, defend it while saying that the others can be ignored for this one answer is right relative to the story chosen? I don't think so. What we learn is that each answer is relative to the picture and to the story, and that if we are curious we can equally understand each different story, and see the correctness of each answer. That is not a case of rival answers. That is a case of expanding horizons - as we learn to grasp the different stories we also see that the different answers don't contradict each other. They can be all true at the same time, for they are all different ways of speaking about the same picture. And that is not the mindset of those people who argue "I don't need to listen to others because we have relativism, so that I can just keep on fortifying my own dogmatic system of beliefs!". No, the way I understand it is that agnosism and some sort of relativism humble us, making us more inclined to listen to the stories of others, trying to broaden our perspectives. Also, I think something like that might be the only way out of the rivalry of geo-politics.

Oh well =) These are my thoughts for today. Actually, this whole story originated from my wish to clarify what I mean when I write things like "deep down everything is One, for we are all parts of the same Great Existence just like waves on the ocean". This is the metaphor of the trees drawn with a single line. Of course in the practical context of building a log cabin we can clearly count the number of trees and logs. But that doesn't contradict the deeper notion that ultimately A Tree, A Log, A Cabin, An Axe, A Builder, The Process of Building, The Wind and The Idea of An Adobe are all just different aspects of The Unity, That-Which-Is-All-That-There-Is, The Existence. Contours and integer numbers are sometimes very handy tools to navigate our daily lives, but we'd better not let those tools blur the fundamental sense of All Is One. Words and concepts do only that little to convey this kind of meanings. After all, it is just the wind dancing inside our lungs, and the carbon dioxide we exhale gently merging with the photosynthetic processes in the nearby green plants and algae.

How many trees there are in this picture?
How many trees there are in this picture?
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Comments

On whim, I packed up the dog and my friend and headed to some mountains with pine trees and snow. Cooked some beautiful food on a cast iron skillet over some coals. Spent some hours staring at stars and not my phone. Thought of you and how simple and rich life can be in the woods. Would love to share a montage of my trip if you’re interested.

I hope to visit Finland this year. I will be living in Germany for a few years (as an American) and I can’t wait to what you guys have been hiding from the rest of the world. Is it true there’s more saunas than cars? How has the winter been for you?

Sounds interesting, all of that! Feel free to share a montage of your trip - maybe post a link in the comments if the montage is somewhere available for the wide public. Or then just find a way to send a personal message to me.

Fellow adventurers are welcome to visit my place. I live some 14 km away from the nearest railway station, and from there it is almost direct train connection to the capital city, so my corner of the countryside is relatively easy to visit. Another reason to send a personal message so that we can co-ordinate when you start planning your possible visit to Finland.

Hehe, I don't know if there are more saunas than there are cars. Probably the numbers are about the same. Especially when there also are vans which have a sauna built-in =)

But this winter has been more like just moody prolonged autumn. During my lifetime the effects of the global climate change have been clearly visible and growing. This winter we have had two (yes, exactly 2, no more) days with properly freezing temperatures. When I was a child the winter with sub-freezing temperatures and a lot of snow, that started in mid-November and lasted until April or May. For the last ten years or so it has been more like winter starting towards the end of December. And this year the winter has not been that much of a winter at all. (At my latitude, that is. Up in the Lapland they still do have a winter, luckily.) That is how the winter has been, and it doesn't make me happy. But, luckily, on personal levels I have my ways of coping when the world is not what I'd like it to be, so I've been doing mostly OK.

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