Category: The Renegade Buddhist
By J.L. Pendall
Pat and Jan step into the freezing night. It's literally freezing, 32 degree Fahrenheit.
"Wow, it's so cold, Pat exclaims. "Nah, it's not too bad," Jan replies. So, who's right? Is it cold or not cold? Cold is the easy answer, since it's freezing out, but freezing isn't "cold." Freezing is freezing; it's when water starts to turn into ice.
Hot and cold aren't temperatures, they're the way we experience temperature. If we set aside all of our personal experiences, and just look at temperature on paper, we'd have no idea if 32 degrees was cold or not. The thermometer can't be used as evidence in Jan and Pat's argument.
We can't use popular vote, either. The majority used to think that slavery was okay, so the masses don't determine what's really right or wrong. Today, 99% of the population might side with Jan; a hundred years from now, they might back up Pat.
Who's right, then? Both of them are, but only if they don't think that their view is the only right view. If they do, then they're both wrong.
The actual truth is that most things are personal truths. Pat thinks it's cold, so that's true for Pat. The same goes for Jan. This is called pluralism, and in my opinion it's basically just the way things are. "There's no actual truth (except for this one)" is the actual truth.
Alright, now let's get freaky with this. You are now entering another dimension, beyond space and time, where up is blue and music is edible.
Plurality basically destroys the world.
Morality is as relative as temperature. Morals come from the individual. There's an interaction between nature (who we are when we're born) and nurture (who we learn to be through conditioning and experiences), but what we believe ultimately rests on openness and curiosity toward other views.
Pat: Brrr, it's so cold!
Jan: Is it cold? I don't feel cold.
Pat: I sure do!
Jan: I wonder why you feel cold and I don't.
Pat: Because you're fat.
Sorry, sorry. If that offends you, please be aware that I, too am overweight. "Fat" is our word now. Despite the rudeness, Pat brings up a good point: they have different bodies. That's where plurality starts. Our bodies come from our nat-nur [nature-nurture]. Since everyone's nat-nurs are different, we're different. Our senses, memories and temperaments are aren't the same---aka, they're different.
Since all of our experiences depend on the senses coming into contact with the Actual world, we're each literally living on our own worlds. We're not seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, feeling or understanding the same things. No one can see with your eyes or hear with your ears.
That's always made me sad. I have an insatiable desire to experience something, anything, exactly the same way with someone. Words can trick us into thinking we're having the same experience, but it's physically impossible to your life as-lived with someone else. We're alone.
It isn't hopeless. Let's do an experiment.
I set a walk-in cooler to 32 degrees, and then ask Pat and Jan to step in and tell me how cold it feels on a scale of one to ten. Pat says it's a six, Jan a three. In phase, I invite them in separately. I slowly raise the temp until Pat says three (at 42 degrees) and lower it until Jan says six (25 degrees).
I say, "Pat, 32 degrees feels like 42 for Jan. Jan, 32 feels like 25 for Pat. Even though you both experience 32 degrees differently, you've both experienced how it feels to the other person." That's where empathy comes in, and it's our final directional shift in this article.
Morality is basically obsolete these days. No one talks about their morals, virtue or values anymore. "Are you a consequentialist, deontologist, or a virtue ethics kinda person?" We're right, and everyone who disagrees with us is wrong---that's contemporary ethics.
When you ask someone about their religion or philosophical beliefs, they don't usually lead with the ethical portion. We lead with the parts that razzle dazzle, the things that distinguish our -ism from other -isms.
Really, most secular and religious ethical systems just revolve around the Golden Rule: do unto others as you'd like them to do unto you. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy. That said, it never seems to work. not even when someone is hellbent on being kind to others.
That's because of our old pal plurality. Something might be unpleasant or hurtful to me but not to you. So we could follow the Golden Rule to the letter and still wind up causing a lot of pain. That'd be like if Pat didn't have a coat and Jan didn't offer one because Jan doesn't think that it's cold outside.
That's an extreme example, but it happens all the time in various ways. I can't imagine any other way of saving our species other than being mindful of pluralistic morality. Imagine that Jan got offended and experienced a seven on the unpleasantness scale when Pat said, "You're fat." Pat might only experience a two or one if someone said the same thing. Maybe, "You're dumb," is a seven to Pat.
Jan could respond, "Pat, that was an unpleasant seven for me," and then Pat could understand what Jan's feeling because Pat's experienced a seven too.
This brings the Golden Rule to life, and it bridges the perceptual divide between us.
We're not really alone. Most of us have experienced a seven on the pain scale, a ten on the pleasure scale, a this or that on the other scale. These experiences personal experiences just have different actual causes for each of us.
It's not a perfect system. We can't say for sure whether two people are really experiencing a seven the same way or not, but we can get close enough to have a more accurate understanding of each other. It's tough to empathize without understanding.
And there are people out there who just don't give a fuck. They might know they're hurting you, yet they keep going anyway because they don't see you as a person. There will always be people like that, but we don't have to be them.
So, the next time someone says, "It's hot," or, "It's cold," remember that they're probably telling the truth, even if what they're saying doesn't match your present experience. There are a lot of things like this. From temperatures to colors, to significance, beauty and identity.
Alright, this leads to one big question: what is the Actual? What is objective truth or reality? That's a topic for next time.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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