Who are we to judge? Well, without us (or some other sentient species) the concept would be meaningless, right? Humanity is the source of all meaning (being that there are no gods and the universe is not conscious), and thus the only source for any judgment, criticism, or any analysis at all about anything, right?
So what of Protagoras’ statement on the right? Are we, as people, the measure of all things? Perhaps. But allow me to draw out two possible interpretive directions which we could go with this to tease out a potential problem here.
On one hand, this could be interpreted to mean that human individuals are the arbiter of measurement. On the other hand, we could take this to mean that the collective set of humanity is the scale of this measurement. This, of course, brings about all sorts of potential problems, because the first leads to a kind of solipsism or egoism in terms of our making sense of things, and the other opens up the many problems involved in communication, understanding, and all the related sociological and cultural issues related to agreement and disagreement.
And from either, chaos only can ensue.
Individual power and Groupthink
In some sense, I create my own meaning and value.* But I only can do so for my own life. If I were to try and spread this meaning any further, at best I could only make connections with people of similar perspectives (whether due to physiological similarity, common experiences, or some combination of both) or manipulate or control people (who have less strong senses of self worth, perhaps) towards opinions and behaviors which are in my own interest. The first is simply accident, the second is potentially abusive and toxic.
Strong, intelligent, and/or charismatic personalities have been finding those connections and leading people towards their values for as long as humans have been able to communicate concepts, very likely. The results of this type of human interaction over the millennia are every aspect of culture which we see; concepts, languages, religions, tribes, families, cults, etc. But there are many such people, with varying degrees of ability, intellect, and desire to control. Most of them will have little to no actual control.
And do not get me wrong, I’m not describing evil, sociopathic, power-hungry people solely. In fact, there are many people who have done many helpful and non-harmful things with their ability to control. This ability, itself, is neutral. It is merely a power set which has one type of effect on groups. We must distinguish between the ability to control and inspire people and the message being disseminated. Of course, certain types of messages will spread easier than others, and whether all of those viral ideas are bad or good are well beyond my ability to judge with any authority; I simply don’t have the data to support any hypothesis on the matter.
The bottom line here is that if I were to attempt to impose my own values onto the greater world, at best I could lead or join a group of people with similar ideas. At worst I could find people who would be willing to obediently submit to my ideas for reasons related to lack of self-worth, co-dependency, or simple apathy. In most cases, people end up in some space between those two, and the larger sociological and cultural effect is groups of people who stick with their own. In-group and out-group effects take shape, and the next thing you know is you have would-be autocrats and groups thinking similarly.
And not all of them will get along. It’s pretty universal, sociologically speaking.
So, what are the standards? Are they those of my heroes? My tribe? Are they mine? Are they the standards of my group? Probably one of those. But are they my standards because they are right, or are they right because they are my standards? And how much does the tribalistic and Groupthinky tendencies of all of us affect what standards I’ll think of as right? After all, I likely either chose my group because of our similar values, had my values shaped by someone else who was able to influence me, or influenced others towards my values to create a group of like-minded individuals.
At some point in the past, I would have written some nice-sounding composition about how the scientific method, logic, and critical thinking would step in here to be the arbiter. And, to some extent I believe this still; whatever method eliminates, best, personal bias and errors is extremely useful in determining what the truth is. But this is a naive and, I believe, short-sighted solution to the problem. It sounds nice, it’s technically true, but the simple fact is that it does not actually cut through all the noise.
It’s impotent against our tendencies to get stuck within our webs, whether those webs are of our own making, our hero’s making, or if we worked together on it as relative equals.
So, perhaps I should not be talking about patience. I, as those close to me know, struggle with patience. It is, in many ways, the point at which I am weakest. But, perhaps because of this, I have a somewhat privileged perspective over how powerful patience is. I see people who are, by nature, patient and I see how powerful it is. I also see how it’s lack (usually upon later reflection) can be a detriment.
OK, so what does that have to do with finding meaning, measuring the truth, or how to behave?
To be honest, I am not exactly sure yet. But that has been a thing I think about, recently. And I am not sure if I’ll ever figure it out, precisely. I have some thoughts which are partially formed, immature, and growing, but I do not want to spell that out yet. To do so would be to impatient. I need to allow myself to settle back, let the thoughts mature, and keep watching, listening, and when I better understand maybe I’ll come back to this.
For now, I don’t have a lot of answers. I have a lot of questions, uncertainties, and (certainly) insecurities. I have a lot og unknowns. They are becoming less terrifying to me, recently. They are still scary (and perhaps they always will be), but perhaps they will no longer compel impatient fearful reactions.
But, in the end, these are my values, my meanings, and my struggles. I can only hope that some of you recognize what I;m talking about and maybe you can identify with me in that sense. And if this leaves you cold or confused, then this is not for you.
So, what about Protagoras’ saying? Are we humans the measure of all things? Well, trivially yes. But right now I doubt that it’s any one of us, any group of us, or even any one philosophical system which is the scale upon which to make such measurements. That measurement, I think, comes more from those small, subtle moments of uncertainty and questions which are the connective tissue of growth and maturity.
My recommendation is to be wary of not only absolutes and certainties, but also over-confidence. Those who appear certain may not, in fact, have anything to offer you except their own certainty.
*That is, the extent to which we actually can choose our meaning and value is somewhat dependent upon whether our will is in any meaningful way free. In either case, the creation of this meaning happens within me, so free or not is is of my creation.