WHAT IS TRUTH?
Pontius Pilate posed this question (What is truth?”) in response to Jesus’ statement, “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Although we don’t know the tone of voice in which Pilate posed his question, it seems reasonable to suppose that it was with a certain amount of cynicism. If so, Pilate would be right at home in the 21st century, where there is considerable cynicism about the existence of any objective, universal truth that is always true for everyone, everywhere. The post-modern, post-Christian western world poses this question with a cynical sneer, by and large.
Most of the questions that people who do not believe the Christian faith ask fall into three major categories:
1. How can one believe that only Christianity is true in this enlightened age of tolerance? This is a question that has to do with the nature of truth as we will see.
2. How can one believe that Christianity is true in this enlightened age of science and reason? This is a question that has to do with content of truth. Another way to ask this question is: “If truth exists, how does one find out what it is?”
3. How can one believe in an all-loving and all-powerful God when there is so much evil and unjust suffering in the world?
The third question is often a personal question as much as it is a theoretical one. That is, those who ask this question have often suffered for no apparent reason. Or, perhaps, someone they love has suffered in the same way. Often those who ask this question need empathy in their suffering more than they need philosophical answers about the nature and content of truth.
The first question has to do with the nature of truth, whereas the second has to do with the content of truth. The second question as to whether or not Christianity is true assumes that some things are true and others are not, that the law of non-contradiction applies. Simply put, the law of non-contradiction says that if propositions A and B contradict one another, only one, at most, can be true. They could both be false, but they can’t both be true. This is the nature of truth assumed in the world of science, as we will see.
The first question which has to do with the nature of truth, however, tends to contradict the law of non-contradiction in that it implies that two contradictory propositions can both be true. This question reflects the post-modern idea that reality is created as much as, or even more than, it is discovered. For example, when someone asked Jacques Derrida, arguably the world’s foremost post-modern philosopher, if he believed in the existence of God, he replied: “Look at all the people who believe in God. Therefore, God exists, even if He doesn’t exist!” In other word, belief creates reality. This is the quintessential post-modern idea, and it trivializes truth claims by reducing them to just one among many “truths”. This is often expressed as: “There are many truths. You have your truth and I have mine. Your truth is true for you, and mine is true for me.” For this reason, it will be helpful, perhaps, to examine the nature of truth, especially in the world of science.
THE NATURE OF TRUTH
The fundamental question posed by post-modernity is whether or not there is any universal, objective philosophical truth that is always true everywhere for everyone. The fundamental assumption of modernity was that there is such a universal truth, and we can find it by human reason alone. The problem was that philosophers never could agree on what it was, so that by the mid-19th century philosophers like Nietzsche and Hegel began to question whether such a thing as a universal, objective philosophical truth even existed. This idea “hit the streets” in the 1960’s in the U.S. with the anti-Vietnam war movement, and has being formalized by post-modern philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Richard Rorty. In other words, the nature of truth has been called into question by post-modernity.
Before examining the nature of truth, we should acknowledge that Christians have often come across as arrogant in their insistence on absolute truth. This is repulsive to many who do not share their belief in absolute truth, not because of the nature of the absolute truth itself, but because of the absolute certainty with which many Christians express it. This is perceived as arrogance leading to intolerance or even violence, as in the events of September 11, 2001. Many people lump Christians who insist on absolute truth with absolute certainty into the same category as the 9/11 hijackers.
For this reason, universal truth is perhaps a better term. In addition, those who believe in universal truth need to hold that conviction with a certain humility and not be like a particularly arrogant Christian about whom Winston Churchill once remarked, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God!” In response to the idea that there are many truths and “Your truth is true for you and mine is true for me”, one can respond, “There is only one truth, but no one holds it perfectly.” This is the view held by most men and women of science. The development of science has been guided by the conviction that there is a universal, objective truth which is always true everywhere for everyone and we are getting closer and closer to it, but we are not there yet. For example, it was once believed that Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation .were exactly correct, but Einstein’s theory of relativity showed that Newton’s laws were only approximations which become increasingly inaccurate when one approaches the speed of light. Since very few of us have traveled at anything near the speed of light, Newton’s laws are “close enough for government work” for most of us!
Science, therefore, is guided by the conviction that the universe is coherent, that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” in the words of Einstein. Scientists believe in the existence of universal, objective truth about the physical universe, truth that can be discovered and verified by the scientific method. Moreover, non-scientists share this conviction about the physical universe. It is common sense that the law of gravity applies to everyone whether or not they believe in it. Not even Jacques Derrida would fly in an airplane designed by an engineer who did not believe in the proven principles of aerodynamics, nor let himself be operated on by a surgeon who didn’t bother to “scrub in” because he didn’t believe in the existence of germs.
Scientific research, therefore, consists in searching for objective, universal truth which is always true everywhere for everyone. The earth revolved around the sun long before Copernicus figured it out, and universal gravitation was a fact long before Newton understood it. Science assumes that objective universal truth exists and that this truth is coherent and dependable, independent of any and all ideas about this truth.
With the advent of modern physics, however, several misunderstandings have spread among the general public, such as:
a) Einstein’s theory of relativity has shown that truth is relative.
b) Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle proves that nothing is certain and that we can’t know anything with certainty.
c) Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has shown that we can create a new reality by a “paradigm shift”.
An illustration of how this works would be the presidential election in Florida in 2000. The margin of error in the Florida election was no greater than normal, but the margin of victory was so small that the margin of error became significant. No one ever worried about “hanging chads” before, because the margin of victory was always thousands of times greater than the margin of error. In 2000, however, the margin of victory was as small as, or even smaller than, the margin of error, so it was impossible to know who really won, even if we had recounts for the next 100 years.
Many believe that Kuhn said that we can create a new reality by a paradigm shift, but that isn’t what he said. A paradigm shift doesn’t change reality; it only changes our perception of reality. In other words, reality is objective, but our perception of it is subjective. Scientific truth exists independently of any and all ideas about it.
But how does all that apply to philosophical truth? Is there an objective, universal philosophical truth, and if so, how would one go about finding it? The history of philosophy is the history of the search for this kind of truth, but philosophers have never been able to agree on what it is, which is why post-modern philosophers say that there is no one universal truth for everyone, but many truths established by sincerity of belief.
One problem, of course, is that it is much more difficult to test philosophical ideas than scientific ones. The scientific method consists of forming an hypothesis and conducting experiments to prove or disprove the hypothesis. If the hypothesis succeeds in predicting without fail the results of numerous experiments, the hypothesis is accepted to be true. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to test philosophical hypotheses than scientific ones.
In addition, there is a problem of objectivity. It is pretty clear that a scientific experiment can be conducted objectively; the problem is to do a broad enough range of experiments to ensure that the results are universal. But what experiment could be conducted to prove the veracity of a philosophical proposition? We can test it in our personal lives, but others could say that our conclusions are subjective. In fact, this is why many say, “To each his own truth”. Since the only way to test a philosophical proposition is by personal experience and because the interpretation of the results is necessarily subjective, many have a hard time believing in the existence of a universal philosophical truth.
THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH
Historically, in the west at least, there have been two “authorities” in the search for universal philosophical truth: divine revelation and human reason. Up until the scientific revolution and especially the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the “final authority” in determining truth was divine revelation. Over the past 500 years and especially the past 200 years, however, human reason has dethroned divine revelation as the final authority in the search for truth. In fact, human reason was even pronounced the “state religion” in France during the French Revolution, although Napoleon reversed some of this trend ten years later. As we have seen, human reason failed to establish a “one size fits all” universal truth, which is why post-modern philosophers have, in effect, replaced human reason with the autonomous self as the final authority, which eliminates the possibility of a universal truth which is always true for everyone (“You have your truth and I have my truth. Your truth is true for you and mine is true for me.”). In other words, universal truth doesn’t exist and everyone is free (and obligated) to find his or her own truth.
As a matter of fact, Solomon made a very similar criticism of the ability of human reason to discover universal truth 2500 years before the advent of modernity! He wrote:
“’Look’, says the Teacher, ‘this is what I have discovered: adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things – while I was still searching and not finding.’” Ecclesiastes 7:27-28a
“When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth – his eyes not seeing sleep day or night – then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” Ecclesiastes 8:16-17
These two statements summarize the futility that Solomon experienced in searching for truth using human reason as his final authority. The phrase “under the sun” appears 26 times in the book and the word “vanity” (also translated “meaningless”) appears 39 times in the book. He therefore concludes the book by suggesting that we reconsider divine revelation as the final authority in the search for truth:
“The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails – given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard, here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:11-14
By “firmly embedded nails”, Solomon is referring to divine revelation (“given by one Shepherd”). The idea of firmly embedded nails suggests that divine revelation is not exhaustive (all truth has not been revealed) but it is true. Moses put it like this:
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29
After Solomon has spent 11 ˝ chapters searching for truth “under the sun”, i.e. using human reason as the final authority in his search, he suggests divine revelation as a more reliable authority in this search. But how can we know that divine revelation even exists? In reality it is a choice one makes by faith. But how can one live by faith in this age of science and reason? We will consider this question in a subsequent article which will treat the second question about the content of truth, but for now suffice it to say that we all live by faith. Either we live by faith that divine revelation is the final authority or by faith that human reason is the final authority or by faith that the autonomous self is the final authority. The choice of final authority will be the subject of the subsequent article mentioned above.
John Ed Robertson
November 17, 2003