What is Truth?

Drawing a Line

Photo Credit:  ellyn. – Follow the link and read the short but profound post that accompanies this photo.

We disagree—you, me, everyone.  Like fingerprints, every single individual’s worldview and perspective are unique.  No two people on this earth will agree on everything.  So we argue and fight over the issues that are most important to us.

Working through issues on which we disagree can be extremely educational, but our disagreements can also create severe divisions between us.  So we gather with people whose views are most like ours and attempt to increase the power and influence of our group.  The fact that it is so hard for us to come to universal agreement should be extremely telling and should in itself shape our worldview in a significant way.  More on this later.  Ultimately, our disagreements always revolve around one fundamental question:  “What is truth?”

Pontius Pilate asked this question of Jesus, and taken at face value, this is a valid question—especially for a judge; although I would contend that Pilate should have had this question worked out well in advance of condemning a man to death.  Just as significantly, the religious leaders who brought Jesus up on the capital charge of blasphemy should have thoroughly examined this question; and perhaps they did to a point.  They were obviously certain enough that their views were The Truth to the extent that they felt no compunction about sending a decent man to his death simply because he spoke against their politico-religious views.

Of all the things we disagree on, religious and political views are generally the most divisive.  Other disagreements can usually be tolerated and worked through, but when it comes to religion and politics, we simply can’t find a way to bridge the gap between us.  Virtually every religious and political group is absolutely certain that their set of beliefs is the correct one.

So in contemplating the truth, there are only a few possibilities, each of which is popular in certain circles:

  1. There is no truth.
  2. There is truth, but no one can really know the truth.
  3. There is truth, but truth is relative.
  4. There is an absolute truth (or reality) that is external to individual opinion or belief, and it can be discovered.

As to the claim that there is no truth, any worldview that embraces this view is self-defeating.  The self-contradictory nature of the statement “The only absolute is that there are no absolutes” precludes the use of the laws of logic—not the least of which is the law of non-contradiction which essentially states that mutually exclusive concepts cannot both be true, or stated another way, a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time (provided the context is identical).  In a practical sense, a belief that nothing is true denies the nature of reality, and erodes every foundation for one’s life.  One who carries this view to its ironically logical conclusion will destroy his own life and will quite likely damage the lives of those with whom he comes into contact.

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, addressed this worldview quite succinctly in the early 1600s when he said, “I think, therefore I am.”  I’m told that his questioning of reality and subsequent certainty of his existence was not a result of having too much time on his hands, but was driven by a popular supposition that human existence was merely a dream state controlled by a god who gave man the illusion of reality and free will.  Descartes concluded that if we have the ability to think (or think that we have the ability to think), then it is logical to behave responsibly as if we live in a real world and have the ability to make choices.  Sounds reasonable enough to me that I think we can logically eliminate the first possibility.

So most of us have concluded like Fox Mulder, that the truth is out there.  I agree that finding the truth can be a daunting task, but emphatically saying that the truth is unknowable seems to be an intellectually lazy answer that leaves us ethically bankrupt and spiritually empty.  So on to the two remaining possibilities.

The third possibility is that there is truth, in a sense, but it is relative to the beholder (or believer).  We hear people say things like “your truth” or “your version of the truth.”  This worldview is often stated but rarely practiced to its logical end.  If truth were merely a function of individual opinion, then morality would be an invalid concept.  Ethics would be a joke without a punchline.  This worldview too, leaves people spiritually floundering, with self-interest the only governing mandate.  Fortunately, most people that espouse this view, hold it selectively.  They preach relativism when it suits them, but they generally don’t live lives that are completely hedonistic or self-serving.  Nevertheless, the relativistic nature of this worldview gives many people the mental permission to pursue behavior that is destructive to themselves or others.  In other words, I think that most people who claim to hold this worldview don’t actually believe it.  They can’t logically formulate an absolute truth, so they deny it; yet they can’t emotionally free themselves to live as if truth were whatever they deemed it to be.

The fourth view of truth holds that there is a reality that is true regardless of individual opinion, and it is discoverable.  This view is the most logical, but if not carefully and critically held, is potentially the most destructive.  The behavior of most people is to a great extent, in line with this view, whether they espouse it or not.  In other words, most people behave according to a moral or ethical code of some sort, most of the time.  One might argue that the presence of law and government drives this behavior in many people, and I would accept that premise as likely.  Certainly, many people simply behave themselves only because they fear punishment from an external coercive agency.  But most people still view some acts as so abhorrent that they would label them as being wrong—a transcendent moral truth that exists external to human opinion.  So far, so good.

Along with most Christians and probably most religious people around the world, I believe in truth.  I believe that there is a reality that exists regardless of what you or I believe about it.  This reality begins and ends with the Creator—the nameless One who identified Himself as I am.  But with all the contradictory theistic theories and atheistic theories, who’s to say that this is a correct statement?  For me, evidence is the key.  If life spontaneously generated, then evidence will bear that out.  If life is the product of intelligent design, then the evidence will point to that.  What convinces me more than anything else is the apparent order in the universe around us.  That order has two immensely significant factors:  a harmonious relationship among systems and the observable existence of cause and effect.

Take gravity for instance.  No one knows exactly how gravity works, but it is a phenomenon that is observable and measurable.  The fact that we don’t know exactly how it works does not invalidate the concept.  Our understanding of gravity has progressed over the centuries, and I expect that over the next few centuries, our understanding of gravity will continue to increase.  I am not unconvinced of the effects of gravity by the gaps in our knowledge.  In fact, I have so much faith in gravity, that I will walk out of my house tomorrow fully confident that I will not float away from the earth.  Nor will I step off a rocky cliff based on the questioning of a scientist who undermines our current view of the cause of gravity.  There is enough cause-and-effect evidence that some force is pulling us toward the earth, that makes belief in gravity both reasonable and prudent.

So for the sake of the discussion, let’s assume that there is a God who is the origin of truth.  The problem is that none of us can fully agree on who that God is, or what He is like, or what His rules are.  This is where the fourth view of truth can get destructive.  I want to tread carefully here, because I firmly believe in absolute truth—in transcendent reality.  I also believe that this truth is discoverable, to a point, and I don’t want to sway people into giving up the search for the truth.  The problem begins when we feel that we have arrived at The Truth.  Many religious and politically minded folk fall into this trap.  I admit, that I too, am susceptible to it.  This is what fuels our arguments.

There’s almost always an assumptive foundation at the bottom of someone’s claim of arriving at the final truth.  Evangelicals stand unapologetically on the Bible.  Catholics stand unapologetically on the Church.  Mormons stand unapologetically on the teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.  Muslims stand unapologetically on the Koran.  Having grown up in the Evangelical strain, I’m most familiar with that dogma, so if it seems like I’m picking on Evangelicals, that’s not my intent.  Other religious systems are just as futile.  Evangelicals always fall back on two related positions.  The first is the “we stand on the Bible because the Bible is God’s Word.”  I’ve worked through this and recorded my thoughts here and here.  The second position is a response to the fact that even bible-believing Christians can’t agree on virtually any biblical issue.  So they say, “Well, it’s important that we agree on The Essentials.”

Yet even the essentials are not a good line of demarcation.  The doctrines that are deemed to be essential to salvation vary from group to group, and the resulting divisions between Christian cliques damage relationships between believers and damage the reputation of Christ-followers as a whole.  But for religious people in general, with Christians being no exception, doctrinal disagreement is often a deal-breaker in relationships.  I would contend that disagreement is ok—arguing and dividing into cliques is not.

So what about the truth?  Shouldn’t we care about the truth?  Of course we should.  The pursuit of truth should be foundational to our lives, because truth is of God.  We should seek the truth but not make our dogma a criteria for fellowship.

Another ironic conundrum perpetuated by religion is that in their attempt to defend the truth, people are required to assent to certain tenets whether or not they believe them or even understand them.  You can frequently see this played out when people defend their faith, and they use the collective phrase “we believe.”  As in “well we believe such and such theological position.”  Or “we believe that such and such doctrine is correct.”  “We believe” is not the right answer.  A peer-driven, crowd-held opinion is not a good indicator of the truthfulness of a matter.

If you seek the truth long enough, mightn’t it be possible to move beyond a point of faith to a point of knowledge?  Or maybe a better way to articulate it is to move beyond a point of wishful thinking to a point of knowledge.  Perhaps faith is a good term for “imperfect knowledge”–sort of like our gravity illustration.

So how can truth be discoverable, but not certain?  The best way I know how to explain it is that there is a transcendent reality that we should be seeking.  Though our perceptions in this life will always fall short of a complete understanding, they should come closer to matching that reality as we mature.  Listening to the perspectives of others can help increase our understanding.

I said earlier that the fact that we can’t all come to a common understanding is revealing and should significantly influence our worldview.  It is revealing because it reminds us that there is not one person who holds a perfect understanding of The Truth.  It should shape our worldview in the sense that we should humbly seek the truth, yet be patient with others who haven’t reached the same conclusions that we have.  This takes work, I know.

Paul the apostle understood this issue and summed it up brilliantly when he said that our understanding is distorted like looking at the world through a dim mirror.  For the time being, we know in part, but eventually, we’ll know completely.  In the mean time, let love be your guide.

I look forward to the day when, as Paul said, we will know as we are known—our perception will match reality.  Until then, continue to seek the truth and be benevolent to those who disagree with you.

2 thoughts on “What is Truth?

  1. Pingback: Truth vs. Certainty | The Wild Frontier

  2. Pingback: Misinformation About Misinformation | The Wild Frontier

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