No such thing as truth. If “Context is all” does it mean that there is no such thing as truth? I start to wonder in what context Atwood made this statement. However, I do not believe that the context when Atwood made this statement is all, or as a matter of fact of hardly any importance when attempting to answer this question but I believe it would be more beneficial to try to answer it in more general terms. I will do this by discussing truth as a concept in different areas of knowledge and thus in various contexts.
When it comes to science I, as a knower, can claim to know whatever I have been taught at school, in class, through experiments and so forth. It has been presented to me as a fact that the whole universe is made up of atoms and thus molecules. I have seen these molecules react when I did some experiment in chemistry class with sugar and some chemical with an odd odour and all of a sudden the whole class smelled like ammonium chloride, the sugar turned a greyish black colour and became a solid substance.
So, accordingly I can say that I know that different molecules react to one and other, according to the theories that I have studied, and that is how the world works. The atom models that I have seen in chemistry text books are described as simplified and as theories. However, trough perception and reasoning I have no reason to doubt that those would be true. Or at least quite accurately represent the truth.
Consequently we can consider the question: what is reasonable doubt? The people who lived before the 16th century and Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system had, in fact, no reason to doubt that the universe is geocentric i.e. that everything, the sun, the stars, the moon in fact the whole universe would orbit the earth. It seemed probably very plausible. The people observed the sun go up in the morning and they saw the sunset in the evening, therefore it seemed that the sun orbits the earth. For people in that day and age, it seemed true. The geocentric model was considered as an accurate portrayal of reality. Just like atoms and molecules and such for us today.
What if the atoms are portrayed wrong? If someone in later years would discover that the whole theory of atoms should be the complete opposite of what it is today, as it turned out to be in the case of heliocentric versus geocentric theory. That would not change the fact, or the truth if you like, that the sugar combined with a chemical resulted in a reaction in my chemistry class. What it would mean is merely that we would have portrayed the truth in an incorrect manner.
The same pattern of thinking can be linked to my history studies. I have learnt that during the 1930s Stalin was responsible of horrendous purges, he had anyone opposing him, or even anyone who was suspected of opposing him or his line of thoughts sent to Gulags (prison-/working camps) and that he used his position to glorify himself and lift himself up to become a godlike figure creating a cult of personality. I have learnt that all this was not a good thing, in fact I could say on the basis of what I have been taught that the USSR under Stalin was not a nice place to live in. But does that mean that it is true? It has come to my understanding that the history of that time period is taught quite differently in Russia, even today.
The Stalinist-era with its terror is considered there as something necessary for the creation of a prosperous nation, Stalin is actually described as a hero who was the most successful leader of the USSR and the most dreadful events are not even spoken of, as is described in Helsingin Sanomat (Rislakki 2007) when a new text book for Russian high school students was introduced. Does this mean that I am being taught wrong knowledge or that the students who are studying the successes of Stalin’s regime are being subject to false information? I do not think of it as such. In my opinion these are just different interpretations of the same facts, different sides of the same coin so to say.
It seems as though the study of history is bound to be full of positive statements i.e. that you cannot purely objectively study history. Any material studied is bound to represent merely the subjective interpretation of an event or such like of that particular historian. Accordingly I believe that historical “facts” can rarely be considered as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. However, although it may seem impossible to portray accurately the truth about our history, it does not mean that the things we study and learn about are not real i.e. that the study of history would not represent the truth, for there is one; it simply fails to do it completely truthfully. So, on the other hand it can be considered whether it is necessary to actually do so in order to understand our past, it may in fact be of benefit that we are able to perceive many different interpretations of the very same situation or event as we that way are able to better understand the different attitudes that different people have today.
When considering the purges in Stalinist USSR or as a matter of fact any situation where people are being killed for one reason or another (that at the time could seem ethical): war, capital punishment, euthanasia, self-defence and so on, the question of is it never right to take the life of another human being, or is context all? Is there a definitive right and wrong or can the ends justify the means? I think these are the most difficult questions to answer. In various religions there is a sacrificial elements, the one that comes into mind is Christianity where God gave his only son to settle the sins of the whole world.
This is an excellent example of utilitarianism; God was willing to take the life of his own son to save so many others. One could question whether that is what Stalin or Mao or some other dictator did, merely sacrificed some people so that the greatest possible amount of people would become better off? Regardless of that, the question of whether or not that makes killing justified remains. Yes, it seems reasonable, 1 000 000 killed but 20 000 000 living happily could be considered a better option than 21 000 000 living in misery. But who is to decide whether it is morally right? The same is in the case of self-defence.
Who am I to claim that my life is worth more than someone else’s? It seems as ethics is an area of knowledge where it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to find the truth or even represent it accurately. Everyone will shape their “own truths” about what is right and wrong based on the society they live in i.e. the moral truth is largely shaped by the context, in saying that I do not mean that there would not be an absolute moral truth, it just seems very hard, if not impossible to find.