Twenty five hundred years ago there was an important conversation going on between philosophers in the part of the world that is now Greece and Turkey. The question being debated was whether we can know absolutely what exists in the world we perceive or whether we will always be interpreting what we experience never knowing with certainty that it is true. Those who supported the first view (let’s call it Idea A) believed that we could know with certainty how things are, how they work, their nature and the path to understanding was to gather information about the world around us. Supporters of Idea B said that what actually was going on was that there is something ‘out there’ for us to experience but that all we could ever truly know was our interpretation of those things.
It turns out this is not an antiquated hypothetical philosophical inquiry but rather a fundamental question for each of us. We do believe one or the other of these and act accordingly but we may not be aware which we believe or how that belief results in life being the way we know it.
Idea A proposes that if we continue to gather information about the world around us eventually we will be able to understand the nature of every aspect of the universe, where it came from, how it works and why it exists. It might take eons but this will eventually be the result. Furthermore Idea A says that when we know it all we will possess the Truth. Idea B says that no matter how much information we gather, and even if we could gather all there is, we humans would still reach different conclusions because understanding always comes through interpretation. Idea B says there is no truth with a capital “T” but for each of us the interpretation we have of the world is “true”.
The appeal of Idea A is that it can make us feel powerful as human beings, it can give us a sense of purpose for existence – to discover the mysteries of the universe, to “figure it out” -, it can also provide a sense of safety because if we know what is “True” we will surely know how to act in life. A couple of difficulties with Idea A are that we don’t have any evidence that it is the case. Many times throughout history claims have been made that we had arrived at a place of knowing all only to find we do not. The other difficulty, which is also a danger, is that if one can make the claim one has the Truth it allows that person or group to demand that others comply. This is a favorite strategy of presidents-for-life, dictators, certain religious leaders and even many of us in daily life.
The appeal of Idea B is that it legitimizes each person’s view of the world. It means that interpretations and opinions, if sincere, are true to that person and thus have value. It also helps us understand why any two people having the exact same experience may draw a different meaning from it. If this were not the case everyone would believe that sushi is by far the best meal one could hope for, as I do. But this is a truth of mine not the Truth. One difficulty of Idea B is that it can be interpreted as meaning the universe is random or chaotic or has no substance on which to rely. It can, at least initially, create confusion or something like cognitive schizophrenia where we have difficulty reconciling the seeming permanence of the world with the idea that it is all an interpretation. And it too holds a danger, which is that we might not hold others’ interpretations as valid in which case we will dismiss them as legitimate human beings. We do this individually and history is full of societies treating other cultures in this way.
Ontological learning and ontological coaching does not reject Idea A but does strongly embrace Idea B. We believe that there is a place for the application of the rigor of inquiry and gathering of information but, in the end, how we value that information or learning will be determined by our interpretation. We may often agree widely on an interpretation such as “water is essential for human life” but a statement like “water is essential for life” will not elicit the same agreement. It turns out that the idea of “life” is itself an interpretation.
On a personal level one of the most significant impacts these differing beliefs produce has to do with the emotion in which we live. Idea B strongly contributes to the emotion of dignity, which is the fundamental belief that “I am a legitimate human being” or “I am enough”. Believing that my interpretations are valid produces empowerment and ambition to create a path for my life. Does that mean Idea B is True? To my mind it does not. It demonstrates the idea’s impact and usefulness but it still firmly remains an interpretation. The question each of us needs to answer is whether that is enough to consider it a legitimate way of understanding the world or do we need to know what the Truth is?