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    Response to John Briggs...
    Posted by BrianC on June 3, 2003, 5:36 pm


Thanks for these comments. I found them a very useful further contribution to this discussion and towards trying to fathom out precisely what our conscience is.

It seems to me that one of the big problems out there in the minds of people today is that, in simple terms, the world divides herself into two broad categories into what truth is. (With a further split in the second category, making a total of three.) Across both of the divisions I think we can make a universal assumption that all people do seek the truth. As you would put it, that seems to be "hard-wired" into us. Somewhere deep, deep down in each of us we all do have this passionate need for a sense of the absolute, for certitude, for these answers that we would define as "The Truth". This really is perhaps one of the most passionately held quests in the human spirit. Witness to this are the many people from martyrs to terrorists and suicide bombers who will even endure death to uphold what their version of "Truth" is. The truth is we're all pretty passionate about getting to the truth, if you'll excuse the play on words. The question though is: which truth? And how do we determine if we have finally got it?

What you are arguing, seems to me to accord to a large degree with what I take the Church to be arguing in this matter of the Primacy of Conscience.

The difficulty, it seems to me, is that we have two basic paradigms today of the nature of truth. Some people, and not too many centuries ago I suspect this would have been all or at least most people would have looked towards some external authority, such as the Church. The Church told us what the truth was. We learned these "truths" and then you didn't think about it much more in your life. One merely endeavoured to conform one's life to those given truths. There is still a significant sector of the population in the world that still operates in that paradigm. In the total world I suspect it is still a majority. In the educated, affluent, socially sophisticated first world I suspect it is now a minority.

So what is the alternative paradigm to that?

I suspect that somewhere in about the 18th and 19th centuries philosophers and thinkers began to slowly intuit another sense of where truth is to be found. At first most people didn't much care, or understand, or follow the debates being held by the egg-heads. This changed in the early 20th century with some of the great breakthroughs in science when we (humankind) began to move from a Newtonian frame of the reference to the relativistic frame of reference postulated by Einstein. Even though most ordinary jane and jims would not have much of a clue about Einstein's Theory of Relativity or Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, they do pick up that the paradigm has changed. Or they pick up that there is now an alternative one to the one their parent's worked in, through such things as science fiction writing, popular films and television series such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr Who, etc., etc., etc.....

What's the big difference from the old paradigm?

There is still a set of truths in the new paradigm. Einstein's great insight though was that truth (in his case certain scientific truths) were always dependent on their frame of reference. To define truth one not only needed to define whatever it was that you were calling "the truth" (for example the velocity or mass of a particle) one also needed to define from what frame of reference one was speaking for that truth to be able to be translated into some more universal or absolute sense of truth. E=mc2 was the equation that tied this together and there was one absolute truth (so he thought) that did apply irrespective of the frame of reference. This one absolute was the speed of light. (Interesting thought there that we have so much associated Christ with light eh!). All other scientific truth outside the speed of light though was always RELATIVE to its frame of reference.

This use of the term "relative" is different to the sense that some in the Church use the term relative when they postulate that absolutes have been thrown out the door and all truths have become relative. The scientist has a concise understanding of relative in this sense that "to know the full truth about something" we do need to know not only the quality or quantity of what we are observing (such as its colour, its weight, its speed etc. etc. etc.) we also need to specify our own frame of reference. This provides little difficulty to a person who has studied a bit of science, such as myself or my children, it is virtual nightmare territory to a man like my father who almost thinks we are some kind of Martians because of the language we use.

I think part of the problem for the Church is that its prime recruiting ground has tended to be in the humanities rather than the sciences. Those who have gravitated up towards the top of this institution and who are responsible for its outward communication tend to operate in the older paradigm and they simply do not understand this newer paradigm. There are notable exceptions to this as there are always exceptions to a general rule. I would suggest that one of the greatest exceptions is the Pope himself. I think he does understand what he is dealing with -- and has gone out of his way to try and get his head around this problem and the two different ways of "seeing truth". Many others under him have not and are virtually totally in the dark. They are still trying to impose on the world the first paradigm of the meaning of truth and the world simply will not wear it because, either through their scientific frame of reference or their quasi-scientific frame of reference (picked up from watching the latest release of The Matrix) they simply no longer conceive of "Truth" in the same absolute sense that their parents and grandparents did. Part testimony to this is the great exodus from the Church going on in the West.

Their parents and grandparents, and a lot of leaders in the Church, and a lot of the other people who are still stuck in the first paradigm, interpret all this to mean "they no longer believe in any truths" and go on from that into their "the sky is falling in, the sky is falling in" rituals. The sky is not falling in but I do think there is some basis for their concerns. It is not as great as they think there is. I do think there are many people out in the world today who are sort of stuck midway between the two paradigms and are awfully confused. They have half an understanding of the new paradigm and they are, as those in the first paradigm are so worried to say, tending to a belief that there is no truth and they are now free not to believe what their conscience tells them but what their feelings tell them.

In other words, the real confusion we need to be dealing with is not between two different understandings of what truth is, but two different processes by which we define truth -- or, should I say three different processes. The first is the old paradigm (the truth is external and absolute and held in a place like the Pope's head or the Vatican), the second is what I loosely dub the Einstein, scientific paradigm (where the frame of reference needs to be stated alongside the parameters describing "the truth"), and now we have this third one where some in the population have not quite got their heads around this "frame of reference" business and have taken this shortcut to believing that "the truth is how I feel now" (it is relative but in a different way to what the scientist or Einstein mean by relative).

I think Dr Pell's problem is that he believes he can either force the whole of the world back into the first paradigm or he simply does not understand that there are these other two paradigms out there (or he is confused somewhere between these two approaches). He cannot though treat human beings as though they are idiots and have to be spoon-fed what truth is.

What I like about what you are writing, and what I pick up from what the Church is trying to get at in this concept of Primacy of Conscience, is that the properly formed conscience is the only place we have where we can really understand all this stuff. Conscience (which is the place where God resides in each of us) is the place where we determine truth. Conscience is the place where we have to sort through all these rules and laws the Church has and where we apply them to sort out what is the truth in the particular moral dilemmas we are facing in our day-to-day lives, as we sit at our computers or walk down the street.

To take the example I used the other day in "Am I my brother's keeper?": to sort out what I have to do when I come across the poor bugger who's fallen off his bike the Church is not standing there to tell me exactly what to do. She has given me the broad set of rules but I have to sort through how they intersect relative to each other to find what is "the truth" for the particular dilemma or moral choice I am facing.

The challenge for the Church is to show people what is the difference between their feelings and their consciences, to show how the processes of mental reasoning and intuition and these external reference points (such as the rules in a Catechism) all interact with conscience. It is not to try and mount an argument that people do not have consciences, or that their consciences are not important.

As I wrote in one of my earlier posts, this is a profound insight on the part of the Church. It is deeply profound. We cannot afford to have this insight "publicly rejected" in the way Archbishop Pell is suggesting. I would go so far as to say the future well-being of the Church, and her ability to communicate to the world at large, may well turn on this question.


*Just in the last six months or so there has been a new scientific hypothesis put forward that even the speed of light though might not be as absolute as we have taken it to be since Einstein.


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