In my secondary school or junior college days, my teachers (usually teachers teaching an arts related subject such as general paper or integrated humanities) often told us, “There is no right or wrong answer.”
I was often confused when my teachers do so because when we eventually arrived at an answer, there were times when they simply frown and said, “Hmm.. not quite right. ” In those times, I still believed that my teachers had an answer that they were inclined to believe in their minds and hoped that they were able to steer us in the “right” direction.
After a sociology lecture on Methods, Types and Paradigms for SC2101 (Methods of Social Research), I finally understood what it really means when a perspective to an issue is neither right nor wrong. As teachers or students, we may have subconsciously understood this concept, but have never really understood why.
Dr. Feng explained that in sociology, there are 3 main paradigms: Functionalism, Conflict Theory and Symbolic Interactionism. Functionalists believed that “society is a system, in which each part performs a function to serve the whole”. Conflict theorists believed that “society is a field of confrontations between people dominating and people being dominated”. Symbolic Interactionists believed that “society is a stage of communication with a shared meanings system, which comes from social interaction. ” All these 3 perspectives can be used to understand a social phenomenon. No matter what beliefs one holds which leads him or her to be inclined towards a perspective, no one can say that any of these 3 perspectives are wrong.
The question is: Why? Why does the study of the natural world often leads us to one single answer but not for the study of the social world? Why does the study of cells, atoms, atmosphere, energy etc require so much more objectivity than that of the study of inequality, genders, power relations etc.?
The answer lies in the characteristics of humans. Dr. Feng notes that humans are non-examinable and non-debatable. This is because the psychological processes of humans are invisible. As such, the things we note about another person may not be true. They are inevitably based on assumptions which are influenced by our own cultures, subjective experiences, knowledge and beliefs. I was once fascinated by a quote by chinese scholar, writer and poet 王国维 (Wang Guo Wei). He wrote, “以我观物，故物皆我之色彩。” It skilfully encapsulates the idea that everyone’s perception of the world is coloured by his or her own subjectivity. In other words, we can only attempt to understand others via an understanding of ourself. But it is questionable whether we truly understand ourselves as well.
This issue got me thinking about the study of religion. Perhaps, religion is a human need simply because humans need a simple and perhaps even convenient answer to all the questions we cannot answer. I was reminded of an excerpt from Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith.
“Look, if you say that science will eventually prove there is no God, on that I must differ. No matter how small they take it back, to a tadpole, to an atom, there is always something they can’t explain, something that created it all at the end of the search.
“And no matter how far they try to go the other way – to extend life, play around with the genes, clone this, clone that, live to one hundred and fifty – at some point, life is over. And then what happens? When the life comes to an end?”
He leaned back. He smiled.
“When you come to the end, that’s where God begins.”
“When you come to an end, that’s where God begins. ” Personally, I believe that God exists. However, what I do not know is whether we perceive God to be what God really is. Perhaps God is not omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent or benevolent. Perhaps he is just a supernatural being without all the values and meanings we have attached to it.
I do not know a lot about religions. Considering the nature of the study of human society, I doubt that I can ever know more about religion with any confidence that what I know is “correct”. But after this lecture, what I now know is why it is so difficult to understand the society and a subject like religion.
Dr. Feng concluded by sharing with us the story of the elephant and the blind men. (Source: http://www.jainworld.com/literature/story25.htm)
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”
They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said.”
“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.
This story is commonly known among everyone. Yet, its concept is not easily applied and exercised. As humans, we have to acknowledge how small we are and how limited our perception and knowledge of the world is. It is as true for the wise men to say that all the blind men are right as it is true to say that all the blind men are wrong. The only thing we can do and ought to do is to suspend our own judgement and be open and more tolerant of other perspectives.
After all, there is truly no right or wrong answer.