Orwell Versus Tolkien: Truth

Post by nebcanuck, Stephen’s son: Orwell Versus Tolkien is a series of posts which seek to compare key components of the worldviews presented in Orwell’s 1984 and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by considering excerpts in tandem.

Drawing upon previous posts, we will go with the assumption that distinct worldviews underly both 1984 and The Lord of the Rings, and that each has a unique perspective on human nature. According to 1984, God is a nonfactor in human interactions, and yet human beings have some degree of moral value, due to their individual capacity to reason. On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings establishes God as central to the universe, and derives humanity’s moral weight — in their capacity for both good and evil — from a Christian worldview. In a sense, these two posts have considered two fundamental questions asked by any worldview: Who is God, and Who is Man? Running alongside some material in Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project, I would argue that there is a third question necessary to lay out the foundations for any worldview: What is Truth?

The importance of the question “What is Truth?” may not be entirely apparent in a largely postmodern world. In general, we are taught very early on that interpretation and opinion are very important to understanding poems, puzzles, and life in general. However, despite the validity of this teaching, too seldom is there any emphasis on discovering fact or, even less often, discovering truth. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that truth, as a category, is genuinely difficult to ascertain. One cannot say “I have empirically proven that God exists”, and even if one can, one cannot say “this particular empirical method is failproof”, since groundbreaking discoveries like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity have proven that even the most solid understandings can be shaken. However, the avoidance of truth goes beyond a simple issue of logistics. I would posit that for many people, ignoring the presence of truth is an excellent way to avoid topics like Good, Evil, God, Heaven, Hell, et cetera. If one takes the previous logic — that truth is possible or even likely, but difficult or impossible to ascertain — and turns it into a worldview of its own — there is no truth — then one can avoid any long-term considerations and live for the moment, instead.

However, despite the difficulty of guaranteeing the validity of a single truism, it is even more difficult to actually maintain the position that truth simply does not exist. One particularly good analogy is referred to by Ravi Zacharias. He gives the example of a man who he met once, who had constructed what he called “the world’s first postmodern building”. It had staircases leading nowhere, random slopes and inclines, and so on. The only “rule” for the building was seemingly that there were no rules. The question which Ravi asked in response, however, was this: “Did you build the foundation in the same manner?” The inevitable answer was, of course, no! You can’t build a foundation with no guidelines… the building would collapse, the investment would be lost, and the entire endeavor would lie in shambles. The point of Ravi’s question is clear: You cannot truly live as if there is no truth, no matter how much you might wish to believe it.

And, accordingly, no comprehensive worldview actually holds that there is no truth. Most acknowledge the limitations on human knowledge, but none actually denies that underlying truth can be understood and grasped by human beings. Postmodernism, as such, is not truly a comphrehensive worldview, it is an ideology; the denial of understanding cannot be the basis for understanding the world.

On the other hand, both naturalism and Christianity are truly comprehensive worldviews. Both seek to understand the entire universe through a series of assumptions. Both convey a very specific understanding of truth. Consider this passage from 1984:

“Do you remember,” he went on, “writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four’?”

“Yes,” said Winston.

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.

“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”

“Four.”

“And if the Party says that it is not four but five — then how many?”

“Four.”

The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.

“How many fingers, Winston?”

“Four.”

The needle went up to sixty.

“How many fingers, Winston?”

“Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!”

The needle must have risen again, but he did not look at it. The heavy, stern face and the four fingers filled his vision. The fingers stood up before his eyes like pillars, enormous, blurry, and seeming to vibrate, but unmistakably four.

From Orwell’s perspective, as in many atheistic perspectives, truth is synonomous with fact. What exists imperically, exists. There is no higher being upon whom all of existence depends. Rather, Winston, a single individual faced by overwhelming odds, becomes an advocate for truth by the mere fact that he holds onto the idea that two plus two equals four, and understands that Oceania has not always been at war with Eastasia. And we, as readers, are privy to the truth alongside Winston, knowing beyond all reasonable doubt that these things are true.

However, herein lies the biggest difficulty of naturalism, which is the source of views like postmodernism. Winston’s perspective is challenged by O’Brien before and after this scene. Directly preceding it is a passage which I believe haunts Orwell:

O’Brien smiled faintly. “You are no metaphysician, Winston,” he said. “Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?”

“No.”

“Then where does the past exist, if at all?”

“In records. It is written down.”

“In records. And — ?”

“In the mind. In human memories.”

“In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?”

“But how can you stop people remembering things?” cried Winston, again momentarily forgetting the dial. “It is involuntary. It is outside oneself. How can you control memory? You have not controlled mine!”

O’Brien proceeds to stop Winston from remembering things, and shape his memory to the Party’s will.

At the root of this is the biggest problem for naturalists. It is concievable that human memory can be controlled, through lies, substance, or social hysteria. Thus, the pivotal question becomes “what is meant by existence?” It is plain that events happen, and that in the present truth exists. But the present becomes the whole of existence, since consciousness is temporary and confined to the present. Although this is not quite postmodernism — after all, truth exists in the present — all past and future are shaped by those who can shape human consciousness, thus removing the possibility of any enduring truth.

Orwell does not provide a solution to this problem. The Party wins. Winston becomes a believer, and a haunting final scene leaves the audience feeling disappointed and disconcerted.

Tolkien and the Christian worldview do provide a response, however. To save on space and time, I’ll avoid transcribing a full passage. But consider scenes like the one mentioned in the first post. Or consider Tom Bombadil, or even the Elves and their journey across the sea. All of these demonstrate something which is essential to a Christian understanding of time: Eternity. The existence of beings or a Being that are outside of time is absolutely necessary for determining fact. It is their perspective, not ours, which ultimately determines what is real. The best example is that Tom Bombadil, unlike the Hobbits, can see Frodo even with the Ring on. Just because the others cannot see Frodo does not mean he is not there. And ultimately, in the world outside of fiction, reality must depend entirely on God. If God understands it to be true, it is. Nothing we can say, do, or see will change that in the course of eternity.

This difficulty found in Orwell’s writing will become an important factor in considering other concepts, such as morality and society. Ultimately, the inability to ascertain truth outside of the present is a major issue in any atheistic worldview. This is not to say that Christians do not have problems to contend with. It is simply to say that most if not all of the problems found in naturalism stem from the fallibility of man, a problem to which Christians have a solution.

I’ll close with this video, which offers perhaps the only response to Orwell’s depression. Is it satisfactory? I find it hard to believe, but it’s still common logic: If nothing’s true, why fight?

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ally
    Jun 05, 2009 @ 06:38:14

    Truth certainly does exist in 1984: it is whatever Power (in this case the Party) says it is, regardless of what the individual may perceive or think to the contrary. In this, the regime resembles all theocricies, and the ideology of the Party is that of Christianity: it doesn’t matter what you may think or see, you must believe what those in power above you tell you to believe. The “2 + 2 = 5” passage is a reference to the struggle between Galileo and the Catholic Church. There is nothing postmodern at all about the novel.

    Reply

  2. nebcanuck
    Jun 05, 2009 @ 18:25:41

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean about truth in the novel being “what those in power above you tell you to believe”. I didn’t get from the writing itself that Orwell was trying to say that the Party was capable of changing truth. They are capable of shaping the individual will, but all signs are there that Orwell is trying to defend the individual. And yet, he can’t escape the conclusion that, for all intents and purposes, reality is limited to that which is temporary and immediate.

    Are you suggesting that Orwell actually wants outside readers to believe that 2+2=5?

    Reply

  3. snaars
    Jun 16, 2009 @ 22:15:03

    Hi nebcanuck. I read a more recent posting in this series and was curious so backtracked to this one. You point to some interesting problems in metaphysics such as the nature of truth, knowledge, and reality. I’ve posted comments in this space before, but it’s been a long time. I happen to be an atheist with a strong interest in metaphysics and a degree in philosophy. I would like to offer a few points for your consideration.

    There are various conceptions of relativism about truth. Many people religious and secular subscribe to a popular form of relativism about truth as a means of promoting tolerance in a multicultural world. All forms, however noble the motive of belief, are sadly self-defeating from the standpoint of knowledge theory – a point which you seem to sense by instinct. It’s one thing to say that each person has a unique perspective; it’s another, quite erroneous thing to say that all of reality is dependent on someone’s perspective.

    What many theists claim is a ramped-up version of relativism, which says that God’s perspective is the ultimate one which trumps all other perspectives. As a non-theist, I have a perfectly viable, (and to me, much more comprehensive and intellectually satisfying) alternative: the metaphysical claim that the universe operates according to blind, purposeless laws which are the same at all times and everywhere, and which are discoverable by us. This is in fact the claim upon which all scientific discovery rests, without which science would not be possible. To me, this seems a solid, rational foundation for knowledge, more so than the theistic claim that God set up natural laws but can suspend or manipulate them whenever she wishes.

    1984 is less about metaphysics and more about power – the power of a few to control the perceptions of many. The reader knows the truth of what happens to Winston. And, through science (like forensics, for instance) truth can be ascertained well after the events we are interested in. In the world of the book, however, no one is interested in discovering those truths anymore – and that, it seems to me, is the warning Orwell is giving us.

    Reply

  4. nebcanuck
    Jul 03, 2009 @ 20:47:26

    Sorry for the time it’s taken to reply, snaars. I appreciate your comment, but have been busy of late!

    I’ll respond to some of your points, as best as possible. I admit that my own skill in metaphysics is limited… I’m a pretty tangible thinker on average. But I love to wade in the water once in a while, and these posts are obviously an example of that!

    It’s one thing to say that each person has a unique perspective; it’s another, quite erroneous thing to say that all of reality is dependent on someone’s perspective.

    Thanks for that. That’s a nice concise way of describing what I was trying to get to in the post. If all of reality depends on the perception of individuals, then controlling all individuals’ perceptions is essentially the equivalent to controlling reality. The only way to escape this is by looking to something outside the individual. Which you do when you say:

    As a non-theist, I have a perfectly viable, (and to me, much more comprehensive and intellectually satisfying) alternative: the metaphysical claim that the universe operates according to blind, purposeless laws which are the same at all times and everywhere, and which are discoverable by us.

    It’s essentially the same argument, I think, as the one I’m making. That being that transcendence is necessary for any sort of absolute claims to be made. The difference is that your perspective is that nature itself is transcendent, and that everything within it is operating according to rules that are part of the box, whereas I turn to the argument that something must be outside of the box in order for the box itself to operate.

    What many theists claim is a ramped-up version of relativism, which says that God’s perspective is the ultimate one which trumps all other perspectives.

    This is true, to a certain degree. But I would argue that it’s not so much that “God sees things perfectly” as “God creates things”. It’s not relativism… it’s creation. It’s not that reality depends on how God sees things, it’s that reality depends on how He designs things.

    1984 is less about metaphysics and more about power – the power of a few to control the perceptions of many. The reader knows the truth of what happens to Winston. And, through science (like forensics, for instance) truth can be ascertained well after the events we are interested in. In the world of the book, however, no one is interested in discovering those truths anymore – and that, it seems to me, is the warning Orwell is giving us.

    Again, true, at least in part. A couple of thoughts:

    One: Metaphysics and power cannot be mutually exclusive. Yes, the book is primarily about the power that is wielded. But the metaphysics underlying the book is an absolute necessity for the people wielding the power, as well as the conclusion which Orwell comes to. Without concepts like Truth and Reality, there can be no analysis of power.

    Two: The thing is, I think that Orwell was deeply troubled by the thought that it’s impossible to genuinely prove what happened to Orwell in a world in which humans only have their own perspective to depend upon. Of course we know what happened… because that’s the way a novel works. We have a privileged position as readers. But it’s not just that no one in the world is interested in finding out truth… it’s that the people who are interested are made to believe a different truth! Winston, our inquisitive hero, our advocate for Reality, is beaten. Which leads to point three:

    Three: In a world without God, may there not as well be no outside world? Yes, my observation right now says that empirical rules exist regardless of my observation. But if every single person is convinced that this is not the case, then, at least from a human perspective, there is no such thing as an unbreakable rule. As O’Brien says: If he wants to fly, all he has to do is convince everyone that he did fly. Even if it’s not true in a testable sense, since the past is untestable anyways, the effect is the exact same as if he had flown.

    Four: Who cares, anyways? With no God, I think it’s hard to justify any sort of moral code. As you say, relativism isn’t a good means to this goal. Surely scientific naturalism isn’t, either, since there’s no oughts within the animal world. I want to steer clear from the argument that we should believe in a God because that then gives us morality. God should not be a means to the end of a happier world. Rather, I would argue that the persistence of some moral code within mankind is a demonstration of something beyond nature, something which nature itself cannot explain. Of course, that’s an entirely different argument; the concept of natural law is one of the longest-running debates in the history of thought. But I know I cared about how Winston’s story ended, and I think any honest person feels that way too. And that, to me, is an indicator that God exists.

    A potential step five would be to bring in a lot of other fields, such as physics, to attempt to debate that an infinite universe could not exist in a physical sense. But that’s just too much for one post and one comment.

    Thanks again for the thoughts!

    Reply

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