Seeking and Speaking the Truth: Descartes, the Kung San Tribe, and Readers of Christian Ethics Today

By T. J. Mashburn

What is truth? How do we know it? How can we be certain that anthing is true? These questions are fundamental to any elementary philosophy class or philosophical text. Strangely enough, the questions are more relevant now than ever.

Rene Descartes, the young but brilliant 17th century French mathematician, inventor, scientist, and philosopher had a problem. He was concerned about finding the truth and wanted to do something about it. He had studied Aristotelian philosophy and medieval logic but found that these could tell him what he already knew, but were unable to give him new knowledge. He wanted a method that could discover knowledge, not simply confirm it. So, he took it upon himself to think through this issue on his own. He was on furlough from the army, had plenty of time on his own, and…let’s allow Descartes to pick up the story in his short but provocative text, Discourse on Method—“[…] since I found no society to divert me, while fortunately I had also no cares or passions to trouble me, I remained the whole day shut up alone in a stove-heated room, where I had complete leisure to occupy myself with my own thoughts” (Descartes 9).

And that is what he did. He spent days alone thinking about his thoughts, thinking about thinking.

I’m not sure how much time we spend thinking about thinking. I mean, let’s just analyze this for a moment: Your friend says, “Hey, what are you doing this afternoon?” You respond, “I am going to the beach, grocery store, shopping mall, dentist appointment, exercise.” All of these would be perfectly understandable. But, if you said, “I am going to think”—well, what would be your friend’s next question? Surely, it would be this: “What are you going to think about?” And if you replied, “I’m going to think about thinking”—what in the world would your friend think about you? Would your friend think you had been working too hard or were under too much stress? Is it time to see a therapist? Is medication needed? You get the picture.

So, Descartes focused on the process of thinking itself and came up with four rules to guide his thinking. These rules are as follows:

Rule #1—“[…] to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognize to be so” (Descartes 14). In other words, there can be little or no doubt about the truth of what is being contemplated. Knowing something clearly involves the presence of facts, things that are proven to be true. This is what is called the ‘Rule of Evidence.’ It is what is done daily in laboratories, law courts, and testing facilities. We must have evidence in order to accept something as being true.

Rule #2—“[…] to divide up each of the difficulties which I examined into as many parts as possible, and as seemed requisite in order that it might be resolved in the best manner possible” (Descartes 14). Here we examine the evidence carefully, breaking the complex elements into more simple components in order to understand them better. This is the ‘Rule of Analysis.’ Examine, scrutinize, study and research. We don’t make things up; we follow the evidence.

Rule #3—“[…] to carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with objects that were the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little by little, or by degrees, to knowledge of the most complex, assuming an order, even if a fictitious one, among those which do not follow a natural sequence relatively to one another” (Descartes 14). That sounds more complex than it really is. After subdividing the complex into simpler elements, we then put them back together and make observations, theories, and hypotheses. These are not facts per se; rather, they are theories and hypotheses, attempts to explain and organize facts. We do this by connecting the dots in an orderly fashion. This is referred to as the ‘Rule of Logic.’ Again, the evidence leads our analysis.

Finally, Rule #4—“[…] in all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing” (Descartes 14). This is the ‘Rule of Comprehensiveness.’ We don’t want to leave anything out of our analysis. Hence, we include all data, whether we think such data are significant or not. We consider all points of view, whether we agree or not.

Descartes believed deeply that so long as one followed this method, then true knowledge would be the result. Was he right? Aren’t these four rules part and parcel of the modern scientific method? And, by the way, the answer is….”yes.”

Now for a thought experiment. There is a principle that comes to us from a 5th century Gallic monk by the name of Vincent of Lerins. It says, and I paraphrase, that ‘if something is true, then it is true always, everywhere, and by everyone.’ Got that? If something is true, it is true at all times, in all places, and by everyone. It is clear that such thinking goes directly against post-modernism, which says basically that truth is subjective. Truth is what I perceive it to be. Well, let’s just test Vincent’s theory. If something is true, then it is true everywhere, always and by everyone. 

The late Carl Sagan, noted astronomer, cosmologist, and astrophysicist—in his book, The Demon Haunted World, relates this hunting anecdote that comes from the Kung San people of Botswana. Follow me and I’ll connect the dots.

The small hunting party follows the trail of hoof prints and other spoor. They pause for a moment by a stand of trees. Squatting on their heels, they examine the evidence more carefully. The trail they’ve been following has been crossed by another. Quickly they agree on which animals are responsible, how many of them, what ages and sexes, whether any are injured, how fast they’re traveling, how long ago they passed, whether any other hunters are in pursuit, whether the [hunting] party can overtake the game, and if so, how long it will take. The decision made, they flick their hands over the trail they will follow, make a quiet sound between their teeth like the wind, and off they lope. Despite their bows and poison arrows, they continue at championship marathon racing form for hours. Almost always they’ve read the message in the ground correctly. The wildebeests or elands or okapis are where they thought, in the numbers and condition they estimated. The hunt is successful. Meat is carried back to the temporary camp. Everyone feasts (Sagan 312-313).

 How did they do it? How could they gather so much information from looking at hoofprints? Saying that they are keen observers really tells us nothing. What actually did they see in those hoofprints? What specific information did they process, which made the hunt successful? This much we know for certain: If their hunts were not successful, then the Kung San people wouldn’t be around for long!!!

Sagan then shares the findings of anthropologist Richard Lee, who analyzes this somewhat typical hunting vignette. According to Lee,

They [the hunting party] scrutinized the shape of the depressions. The footprints of a fast-moving animal display a more elongated symmetry. A slightly lame animal favors the afflicted foot, puts less weight on it, and leaves a fainter imprint. A heavier animal leaves a deeper and broader hollow. The correlation functions are in the heads of the hunters.

In the course of the day, the footprints erode a little. The walls of the depression tend to crumble. Windblown sand accumulates on the floor of the hollow. Perhaps bits of leaf, twigs or grass are blown into it. The longer you wait, the more erosion there is [and the greater lapse of time between hunters and the hunted].

The galloping herd hates the hot Sun. The animals will use whatever shade they can find. They will alter course to take brief advantage of the shade from a stand of trees. But where the shadow is depends on the time of day, because the Sun is moving across the sky. […] From the swerve of the tracks, it’s possible to tell how long ago the animals passed. This calculation will be different in different seasons of the year. So the hunters must carry in their heads a kind of astronomical calendar predicting the apparent solar motion (Sagan 313-314).

Okay. So, what do we have here? Did the Kung San people ever read Descartes or take a college course on science? What are they doing? Simply put, what we see here is nothing short of forensic science. They are following the Cartesian or scientific method, even though unaware of it. Or, are we following the Kung San method of tracking? It goes to show that this thing we call the scientific method may come in different sizes and shapes. It may also serve to confirm Vincent’s theory that ‘if something is true, it will be true always, everywhere, and by everyone.’

Why am I telling you this? Why am I telling readers of Christian Ethics Today about Descartes, the Kung San tribe and the quest for truth? The great Spanish American philosopher, George Santayana, is credited with putting forth the following idea: ‘Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.’ So, why am I telling you this? Here are some summary reasons with commentary.

First, we have a crisis in this country involving the truth. We need look no further than the 2020 presidential election. Sides have been drawn, minds made up, emotions boiled over to the point of being unable even to discuss the event. And yet, there must be truth in this matter; and each of us has an obligation to seek and to speak it. Of course, this presupposes that we know what the truth is. Descartes is a great help with ascertaining true knowledge; the Kung San tribe also validate that method in a most practical way—they put food on the table.

But what is truth?   That, as you know, is one of those fundamental questions in Philosophy 101. Here is Aristotle’s definition (I’ve yet to find a better one): “To say that what is is not, or that what is not is, is false; but to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true” (Metaphysics 4.1011b). Truth occurs when words accurately describe reality. What we say must reflect what is. So, we all need to be truth speakers, even if it is hard to hear, even if doing so is unpopular, even if it puts us at odds with fellow believers; we have to speak the truth.

Second, since Immanuel Kant’s famous “Copernican Revolution” in which he demonstrated that not only does a perceiver perceive reality, but a perceiver also shapes the reality he or she perceives, there has been a subjective element in truth seeking. That is to say, each perceiver perceives reality in a unique way; this can and will result in differences in perspectives. The question, however, is this: Will subjectivity create a perspective in which something that is “is not” or something that is not “is”? I would suggest not. Yes, individuals may perceive truth differently; there can be aspects of truth, perspectives on truth, nuances on truth, but never to the point that the perspectives are in direct opposition. If so, then the perception is incorrect; somebody has it wrong.

Third, it is not enough, however, to speak the truth as each perceives it to be. Rather, we must take a page out of St. Paul’s playbook and “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Now, that is tough. Why? Because speaking the truth in love means, among other things, that our words need to help, not hurt, those who might disagree with us. We don’t ever need to demonize our opponents; rather, we must try to understand their perspectives and they must try to understand ours.

To put this in terms of popular cable news, try the following thought experiment. Instead of having the existing Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson or Lawrence O’Donnell shows, let’s put Hannity and Maddow together and Carlson and O’Donnell together and have a dialogue about issues. Can there be genuine dialogue in which the truth is sought instead of simply trying to score points or win arguments or attract television ratings? I know this will never happen, but it ought to be tried, particularly if we wish to be true truth seekers.

Fourth, speaking the truth in love, means that we must follow Jesus’ admonition to first cast the log out of our own eyes, then we can see clearly to cast the speck out of another’s eye (Matthew 7:5). In other words, we judge ourselves before we judge others. Who knows? In so doing, we may find that we have issues that we can’t or won’t see. Honesty and humility—what happened to these wonderful virtues in public life? Are they not marketable? Do they not register on the Nielsen scale? Do people fear that these indicate weakness? Just maybe in this kind of weakness lies real strength!

Finally, speaking the truth in love means that we must admit that we might be wrong. “I may be wrong.” That is a liberating and redemptive statement. This is why the motto of my philosophy classes at the University of Mobile is this: Don’t ever, ever, ever drink the kool aid.” Students repeat that on the first day of class and periodically throughout the semester. Don’t ever, ever, ever drink the kool aid. It also includes the kool aid that comes from my lectern. Why? Because I don’t want my students to think like I think; I want them to think for themselves. We’ve got to do the “Descartes thing” and think for ourselves.

Yes, one must be tough to seek and to speak the truth. One has to be even tougher to seek and to speak the truth in love. It is not easy; but if ever there were a time that our country needed this, it is now. And it begins with you and with me.

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