The objective truth may not be obvious

One Sunday morning some time ago, I was walking along the River Cam in Cambridge along with families, students, bikers, and other Cambridge residents both young and old.  On the river were the usual array of houseboats and punts with rowers enjoying or practicing for the classic boat race on the River Thames that takes place with Oxford University in the spring each year.

Then I saw a young man standing alone on the side of the river jumping up and down, shouting, raising his arms, and even scrunching down on his haunches.  It’s unusual to see someone, particularly on a Sunday morning, in a state of extreme intoxication, but it seemed obvious to me that this man was either inebriated, drugged, or psychotic.  On my return half an hour later, he was still at it, running alongside the river, gesticulating and shouting.

Then I saw the boat in the water.  The man whom I’d diagnosed as drunk, drugged or psychotic was a rowing coach, and he was giving instructions to a university student maneuvering the punt on the river.  My interpretation of his behaviour changed completely.

The above story is an illustration of why, even when I have seen something with my own eyes, I am never absolutely certain that I am right.  It wasn’t what I saw that was wrong, but how I interpreted it.  It’s another version of the blind men and the elephant story in a way.  I didn’t know I didn’t see the whole picture and so drew the wrong conclusion completely.  I didn’t even have any serious doubts about it.

I wasn’t wrong in what I saw.  But I’m glad I didn’t stand up in court and testify I saw a man drunk that morning by the River Cam.  I would have been sincere in saying I did.  But I would have been wrong about what I actually saw.  Not because there is anything wrong with my eyesight, but because what I didn’t see changed the whole meaning of what I did see.

The truth, in my opinion, is very hard to be certain about.  At least my version of it.

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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