One reason why it is hard to talk productively about anything, is because everything connects with everything else.  Most obviously, global climate change connects with every other issue we talk about; so too does overpopulation.  We can't say everything we want to about any of these subjects - instead, we aim to say as little as possible while still being useful, creating a web of useful content and pointing out where this subject connects with that one.

The framework we are using divides all of reality (like Caesar divided Gaul) into three parts: physical, social and spiritual.  This is primarily because each area requires a distinct set of tools and disciplines.  What we call the three areas is, to a large extent, arbitrary: we could equally well describe them as the realms of facts, feelings and values.

  • Particles - physical reality.  Roughly, the subject matter of the 'hard sciences'; answering questions about particles and forces; asking questions like, "What is happening?"  What we discover here is true (insofar as it is true...) at all times and in all places.  If we ever meet intelligent aliens, we will be able to talk with them about atoms and prime numbers and electrical currents.
  • People - social reality.  Roughly, the subject matter of the humanities or 'social sciences'; answering questions about people and societies; asking questions like, "Why do they act in this way?"  What we discover here is often true in specific contexts.  If we ever meet intelligent aliens, they will almost certainly have their own equivalents of psychology, sociology, politics and economics, but they will be different from ours, and their answers may not work for us.
  • Purpose - spiritual reality.  Roughly, the subject matter of philosophy and religion; answering questions about morality, identity, values and purpose; asking questions like, "What should be happening?"  The truth we discover here is often paradoxical, with different truths appearing to contradict each other.  Also, it is less likely to be the discovery of new truth, and more likely to be a deeper appreciation of familiar truth.  If we ever meet intelligent aliens, it seems likely that they will have wrestled with the same big questions as us, and we will each seek to learn from and make use of the answers which the other species has found.

We can talk in a meaningful way within each area about the search for truth, but the specific techniques and disciplines we use in the search for truth vary from area to area: there are detailed rules governing activity in a laboratory and a law court; we recognize that these rules should be different, because they operate in different areas. Different rules apply, again, to the search for truth in the spiritual area.  It can be hard to describe what happens here as 'discovering truth', but progress does get made: slavery has been officially abolished in much of the world, and this is not the result of an improved understanding of mathematics or economics. 

Of course, in the real world, everything we do generally involves all three areas.  For example, the experiments in a laboratory are carefully conducted according to the rules of science; but who conducts the experiments, how much they get paid, and how much recognition they get for their work all depend on the social arrangements; and the people will be conducting the experiments for some reason - maybe because they want to build a reputation, or they hope the result will be useful, or they believe that pure knowledge is worth pursuing.

So most activities can be seen from the perspective of any of these areas.  They can be thought of as three different dimensions: we are free to look at any activity from any of these three perspectives, but conversations get very confused when we start to mix them up.

Searching for Truth

While the specific techniques and disciplines we use in the search for truth vary from area to area, the search itself is a human activity, and there are some basic principles which apply whatever the specifics of the area under consideration.  We express truth as a proposition, but we understand it as part of a story.  When it is (or it is claimed to be) a true story, we look for evidence; this gives us the two most basic questions.

  • What is the story?
  • What is the evidence?

These are the basic questions, whether we are seeking to understand String Theory or voting methods or free will.  But a story is not just a set of propositions - it is told by someone, from a specific perspective.  And it is understood within a context of other stories, which gives it a significance relative to those other stories.  So if we want to properly understand the truth, we need to understand three things: the proposition, the perspective, and the priority.

  1. Proposition.  What, precisely, is the proposition being put forward here?
    1. What is the story?  What are the details?  Is it coherent?  How does this story differ from the other stories people tell?
    2. What is the evidence?  What is the evidence for and against this story?  Are there other stories the evidence could support?  Is there other relevant evidence which should be considered?
  2. Perspective.  A story is generally told from a specific perspective, and making a certain set of assumptions.
    1. What are the assumptions?  What direction are we viewing this story from?  Who is telling it, and why?  What assumptions, does the story assume?
    2. What are the alternatives?  What other directions or assumptions are possible?  How do they change the story?
  3. Priority.  The story exists in a wider context, alongside other stories, giving it a significance.
    1. What is the context?  What are the other propositions we need to understand to fully grasp this proposition?  Do they support or undermine this story?  How does changing the context change the proposition?
    2. What is the significance?  In what direction or directions does cause and effect flow here?  How important is this proposition when we look at the bigger picture?

It's Not That Simple

This division of all reality into three parts is, to some extent, arbitrary.  It is a pragmatic approach, which seeks to use categories which people are already familiar with, and find helpful.

It would be possible to neatly divide all reality into just two parts - the physical and the spiritual (for want of better names).  This would have the advantage of providing clear lines between the two: the physical deals with objective reality, everything which can be counted and measured; and the spiritual deals with subjective reality - everything else.

This twofold division is the default framework used in the ancient worlds we are familiar with, by the ancient Greeks and the Hebrews and (as far as I can tell) every other civilized nation.  So, for example, at the start of Genesis, God creates two things: the Heavens (spiritual reality) and the Earth (physical reality).  In the next chapter, the human race is created by combining these two realities and forming the first person out of spirit and dust.

The middle part, 'social reality', is essentially constructed from the overlap of the other two - where you deal with items belonging to the spiritual reality, but handle them (in theory, at least) only in ways which derive from the physical reality.  In practice, the ancient world generally recognized that this required a distinct treatment - see the comments in 'Further Reading' below - so while you can, in theory, work with the twofold division, the middle part is hard to ignore in practice.

So, for example, money belongs to the spiritual reality - the value of an object cannot be determined by scientific examination - but you can successfully study economics as a strict materialist. Similarly, you can practice law without believing that justice really exists, or psychiatry without believing that guilt really exists: it is enough that people act as if money, or justice, or guilt, exists.  Margaret Thatcher famously said, 'there is no such thing as society', but that did not prevent her from engaging in social engineering.

While it is in theory possible, in practice people are generally incapable of dealing with spiritual reality in purely material terms.  We believe in morality and justice, we treat human life as valuable, we recognize the need for a higher purpose - something beyond simple survival and sex.  Our social reality is an ongoing attempt to span two worlds, each with its own assumptions, terminology, tools and disciplines; bridging this gap is incredibly hard.

It is in this middle area where most of our practical challenges lie: few of us will be engaged in the creation of a commercial fusion reactor, or in the development of more efficient batteries from less polluting materials; for most of us, our task is to be a part of the social movements which seek to reshape society in the ways we need to change, to persuade our politicians to create laws which reward the useful activity and punish the destructive activity, and to persuade others that these need to be our priorities.  And, as this is where most of our energy needs to be directed, it is probably helpful to engage with these challenges as a single unit.

Further Reading

The most obvious origin of this threefold division of reality lies in the traditional elements of rhetoric as described by Aristotle: logos, pathos and ethos; the immediate source material is a couple of articles which were circulated and discussed before Just Human? began.  As with everything on this site, further comment on these articles - or the present one - is welcome.

While we can find the explicit division of our three parts described by Aristotle, he was only (for a very specific value of 'only') describing a framework which would have been very familiar to the people of his time - we can see it used in many places well before his time.  For example, in the ancient world, there was a common literary creation which we call the 'city lament'.  The earliest ones we know about are five Sumerian city laments, which are dated from the late third to early second millenniums: they are constructed to bring together physical, social and spiritual concerns.  The same can be seen in the city lament in Ezekiel 27 (see Delbert R Hillers, “Book of Lamentations” in volume 4, pages 137–141 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1992).


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