Posted by: gcarkner | May 27, 2021

What is Truth and Why does it Matter?

What is Truth and Why Does it Matter?

The Truth About Truth Revisited

What is truth? (Quo est Veritas?) ask the skeptical undergraduates at the dorm bull session. They join famous judges like Pontius Pilate from the Greco-Roman world in this inquiry. We all have opinions, viewpoints, biases, or prejudices. There is lots of circulating fake news to make us cynical. The internet and social media provides us with a plethora of opinions on almost any subject, plus plenty of extremist conspiracy theories. There is your truth and my truth, your perspective and mine. But how could we possibly know the truth? That seems like a fantasy in much of contemporary university discourse. French philosopher Michel Foucault talks about relativistic truth-games and power relations (aka power/knowledge). Certain perspectives are loaded, political, even explosive. Many late moderns do not see truth as an objective description of reality. Richard Rorty, an anti-realist, astounded the audience at UBC in the nineties with his proclamations.

Wittgenstein speaks of important language games that shape culture. But perspectivalism, the ideology, is the view that no one has the truth, and that we are all destined to fight for our viewpoint in a pluralistic environment, complicated by globalization and cultural diversity. Best of luck. Clearly, everyone has a perspective on what they think is the truth. The primary lens through which many individuals interpret the world today is relativistic (anti-realist). There is no really real world in this view, only our ideas and perceptions. It can reach an absurd level that says that we can never know things as they actually are. In this climate, how do we ever come to know something to be true or sound and something else to be definitely false or wrong? It can make people a bit wary and cynical about any truth claim besides their own. They often feel a bit isolated in their gut, as they buy into cultural relativism and historicism. Dialogue on this important issue is vital. So we want to approach the topic responsibly and optimistically. 

Rodin’s Thinker

Truth is a Treasure Not to be Squandered

Perspectives can of course be biased, prejudiced, ignorant or misinformed. But this does not mean truth itself is relative. That position leads us into a self-contradictory stance which is unhealthy and unliveable. Are we completely mad to claim that there is actually something we can call truth for all people in all places at all times—timeless truth? We want to assert that there is such a thing as truth, and that it matters a lot to all of us. Truth is more than, but not less than, rational. It is existential, personal, moral, dynamic and life-changing. It matters for our very orientation in the world, our identity and our personal flourishing. It is essential to the health of Democracy, institutions and sound business practice. We need truth like we need air, water and food. For example, a young woman wants to know that the man she is dating is not already married. A young man wants to know that his new employer is not involved in organized crime. There is a fullness and depth to truth worthy of being fathomed. This is one reason that I began my academic career in the life sciences. I wanted to do bottom up thinking about our world and my own body. Human Physiology was my major. For three years, it made me feel more secure intellectually, gave me confidence that I could study and come to know truth about things that count. Later on in graduate school, I became curious about philosophy, social science and the humanities where there was more disagreement about any particular perspective on human culture, history or the world. I learned how to evaluate the veracity of viewpoints in those fields as well.

Metaphysical Objectivity (Realism) is Compatible with Epistemological Subjectivity.

There are currently a number of tests for truth: Coherence, Liveability/Existential Value, Historical Reliability, Scientific Verifiability. But a good place to start this discussion is with one of the oldest and most established, the Correspondence Theory of Truth. It offers a fundamental building block. Language philosopher John Searle believes that it is quite viable, since correspondence is the background presupposition of all language and propositions. The idea of correspondence goes way back to Socrates and especially Aristotle. Socrates was constantly testing truth claims or assumptions through tough questions to make his students think harder. Correspondence Theory recognizes the bias of my subjective perspective (the knower), but does not buy into the reductionism of perspectivalism. Realism is the background presupposition of much discourse, not just science, and an important assumption for correspondence. There is a common sense appeal here. When most people speak of the truth, they are most often referring to ‘what is the case’ as in ‘the cat is on the mat’. A perspective is always a perspective on or about something or someone independent or outside the perceiver’s viewpoint. Even our moral perspectives relate to an objective good, ideal or virtue outside of us (Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self). Perspectives represent various degrees of success at capturing reality and we can respect that. In the end, we cannot flourish on lies, confusion, distortions, illusions, bad scholarship or fraud. This is not the rationalist undoubtable certainty of René Descartes, but a fallible certainty with high probability or strong plausibility. We call it competent, robust rationality, reason appropriately applied.

Deflationary Nihilism is Highly Problematic for the Quest for Truth

Critical Realism (CR), within correspondence theory, lies mid-way between naive realism (I know reality exactly as it is) and epistemological skepticism (I could never know anything objectively). CR is always trying to get a more accurate perspective about the matter, to get us closer to the truth—credible verisimilitude. It allows for progress in knowledge and the toughening of theories over time as scholarship and science grows. We are dealing in degrees of objectivity, probability and fitness. Obviously, not all beliefs can be held with equal merit. We know this in historical knowledge or theories about causes of an event like World War I. Some are worth keeping; others must be jettisoned as inadequately rigorous, lacking good evidence or revealing incoherence. We must indeed apply critical evaluation to truth claims. In our knowledge, at our best, we try to move towards the best explanation as judged by criteria such as parsimony, elegance or explanatory power. Mathematics offers a high degree of certainty about natural laws, for example. It has high verisimilitude and as a result is very useful in many areas of society.

Some Important Distinctions: Truth itself must be distinguished from how one arrives at the truth, the effects truth has on persons or laws, and our limitations as knowers.

a. The Nature of Ontology (metaphysical reality): absolute, universal, objective, exclusive, eternally engaging, one.

b. Tests/Ways to Discover Truth: Our knowledge of the truth (epistemology/methodology) is influenced by culture, biology, political environment, upbringing. It involves a hermeneutical frame of reference that can help us better understand truth within our fullest context. So we need to be self-critical in our quest for truth, in order to better recognize the truth when we encounter it, and weed out bad data, weak assumptions and outdated theories.

c. Degrees of Conviction about a Matter or Situation: logical certainty, mathematical certainty, moral certainty, virtual certainty, relevance, robustness. 

d. Our Limits as Knowing Agents: This involves the variables such as level of intelligence, background beliefs, education, gender, motivation, personal interest or bias, upbringing, genetics, mentoring experience (school of thought) in our education, the influence of ideologies such as neo-Marxism. But this should not deter us from making truth claims, defending what we know to be true, and in turn, testing or scrutinizing the claims of others. But we should never, never, never give up on truth. For example, one female author recently shared that her life was totally turned upside down when she decided to stop lying to herself and others for one year and live by true speech, by what she believed to be true and cogent. She made a serious decision to rebuild her own integrity and live responsibly.

Honest Speech Moves us Towards a Truthful Stance in Life

The Truths of Religious Faith

In this light, what constitutes responsible, thoughtful Christian faith? The truths of the faith, non-trivial truths about God, should never be seen as mere stepping stones built on top of the conclusions of reason. This is a mistake made by some of our predecessors who fell under the thrall of rationalism. On the other hand, the faith flourishes in a healthy engagement with reason, as we have demonstrated in the YouTube video seminar Can We Make Peace Between Faith and Reason? The grounds of our faith are founded in God’s creation and revelation to humanity: his great speech acts. Epiphanies are key moments of breakthrough insight in the Christian story. Revelation offers an enrichment of reason, not a spurning or constriction of it. It is important to emphasize that having faith does not stretch the shape of truth in a direction that is unnatural to it, but strengthens and clarifies what persons naturally desire to know about themselves and the world. It offers more insight. And of course, there is the interpretive or hermeneutical aspect of such belief. Reason helps us understand the assumptions and identity conditions of the faith, helping to make it more resilient and relevant. We use sweet reason to interpret the tradition handed down to us through Scripture and the church together with our own personal experience of God. We look for resonance. Interpretation in search of truth and meaning is a powerful tool. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life…. I came into the world to bear witness to the truth.” What did he mean by this staggering claim? Faith involves both top down (revelation) and bottom up (scientific reason, historical verifiability, philosophical soundness) thinking and inquiry. For an example of this balance between truth, faith and reason in the arena of science and theology, see Alister McGrath’s excellent 2009 book A Fine-Tuned Universe.

Aristotle believed in Correspondence Theory of Truth

God works through the intellect of an individual to lend credibility and depth to the decisions of faith: to follow Jesus and build a life on the foundation of agape love. Christian faith is neither fideistic nor irrational. Faith is not a blind leap in the dark without evidence. It must be believable, coherent, make sense of life, society and the world (philosophy calls this knowledgeable belief). At its core, the Christian faith is based on the redemptive life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. There is public truth (Lesslie Newbigin) in the well-recorded and documented life of Jesus. Phenomenal levels of scholarship has worked to establish the robustness of the story of the New Testament. We can and should marshal the best evidence in science, history and philosophy for the Christian apologia. Christian teaching, from another angle, can be seen as an explanatory hypothesis that accounts for a wide range of features including history, the cosmos and the nature of humanity. It offers explanatory power. It is a holistic, comprehensive world and life view of both God and the many-splendored world in which we live, a hermeneutical big picture (Jens Zimmermann, A Short History of Hermeneutics).

Credible Verisimilitude

Worldviews: Sir John Polkinghorne, deceased eminent Cambridge physicist/theologian favours Critical Realism. He holds that believers can retain their presuppositions when comparing and contrasting their views with competing claims. This is a truth-game that works well for everyone–a good reflective baseline. Even the best reasons for faith will impress some and not others, but good evidence can offer a sign to the seeker and point in the direction of truth. We now know that there is no such thing as a view from nowhere. People of every persuasion have to stand behind their worldview, critically reflect on their assumptions and answer tough questions. This is why worldview understanding is so vital to dialogue and debate concerning the truth about truth. We can freely ask whose worldview makes best sense of the evidence or problem in front of us (for example, human suffering). Worldview dialogue offers a great space for increasing understanding between people of different convictions. This has been extremely valuable and intellectually pleasant for me over the years. I wish I had known about worldviews in my late night dorm discussions in freshman year undergrad. They are essential to living a good life, an examined life (Plato).

Unexamined Assumptions are not Secure and may be Dangerous.

Scientists are familiar with evaluating their theories through multiple lines of criteria. So do Christians. For example, South African mathematician George Ellis uses four standards for scientific theories: simplicity, beauty, accuracy in prediction and verifiability, and explanatory power (a capacity for giving the most adequate account of problematic data). Cambridge University philosopher of science Ernan McMullin uses: predictive accuracy, internal coherence, external consistency, unifying power, fertility and simplicity. There may well be other criteria in a particular discipline that graduate students employ. Worldviews offer a very helpful map of the whole, answering such questions as what is ultimate, what is a human, what is the character of the natural world, what is the basis for morality, where is this world headed (James Sire, The Universe Next Door). Such a map situates the visible world within a larger invisible, transcendent whole and helps us think ontologically, not just epistemologically. This is often a major gap in people’s understanding of truth. The irony is that everyone has a metaphysical perspective, even atheist Richard Dawkins who denies the possibility of transcendence. Such perspectives involve faith which can be tested for its veracity.

Faith is a Rational Step into the Light. It is not a Credulous Leap into the Dark or Anti-scientific Superstition.

Church Truth Claims: Truth is an invitational absolute (applies to all people, at all times, everywhere); objective (true regardless of who believes or doesn’t believe it); eternally engaging (never exhausted); unified and systematic (not self-contradictory); an end in itself, never a mere means to an end. This is why John Dewey’s pragmatism poses a problem for clear understanding, because it settles for the default of what works. What works often lacks veracity and moral substance. Truth for the Christian is the tradition and narrative (grounded in love and grace) faithfully preserved and handed down through the ages and generations. We can unashamedly and quite firmly believe Christianity as truth and still engage in argument and evidence both for and against. Religion, in the end, is not reducible to reason, but we can use reason to defend the faith to our friendly interlocutors of other viewpoints. We can ask them tough questions as well, employing good reason. No truth of reason is expected to contradict the truths of faith (for example, the three laws of logic: non-contradiction and excluded middle, and the principle of identity). In this sense, philosophy is compatible with biblical truth. Currently, there is a virtual Renaissance in Christian philosophy in the Anglo-American world.

So we are now assured that faith is neither irrational nor antirational. We can inquire into other religions and beliefs, examining presuppositions, coherence, unity, relevance and correspondence. Trying to understand the Christian faith will always involve ongoing vigorous intellectual work (George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship). It doesn’t mean that we are totally without error in our understanding at this moment, but the heart that earnestly seeks the truth is in the right place and ought to make healthy progress. This process is all part of the exciting, growing edge of one’s faith and the development in one’s individual theological knowledge. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga (Knowledge and Christian Belief) shows how truth plus warrant (very firm belief) are the key to real knowledge. 

To Act on Truth is to Believe it Existentially, at a New Depth

Launching a Life from the Truth Platform: For language philosopher Donald Davidson, any theory of truth is also a theory of meaning. There is an intimate connection between meaning and truth. Christian truth is eminently liveable, morally constructive, very practical and fruitful in everyday life. It changes our outlook and our lives. Upon conversion, the truth of Christianity carves out space for development of individual gifts, virtues, creativity, callings and personality types (Romans 12; I Corinthians 12). There is a lot to discover. Accepting Christian teaching and Jesus’ Lordship invokes the high stakes of discipleship. We don’t have to second guess every act of discipleship once we are convinced that obedience is the correct stance for spiritual flourishing, personal freedom and intimacy with God. Christian faith is intentional about responsible thinking and common sense action or praxis: humility, caring for the poor, hospitality, going the extra mile, redirecting someone who is stuck or lost. To execute and deepen your truth is to believe it existentially. God is evidentially very interested in the lives of human beings as we see from: Abraham, Moses, Paul, Augustine and onwards. The Old Testament prophets and the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth are key aspects of God’s communication and invitation into communion and community. Having a faith rooted in truth about God stimulates both personal inquiry and increased self-understanding. I remember a time in my last year of undergrad when it set my mind on fire. It heals broken relationships and it is full of surprises as C. Kavin Rowe writes in Christianity’s Surprise: A Sure & Certain Hope. Truth opens up the world and provides solid ground on which to stand, live, love and heal. 

In the Ethos of the Incarnation, Christians Make Truth Present in the World.

Incarnational Thinking involves a commitment to the highest value on truth livedLately, we have heard much about the post-truth age. The Oxford Dictionary claimed that 2016 was the year of “post-truth”, the year the term was coined. The CBC Radio Ideas program hosted a very insightful series (Fall 2016) on the topic “The Truth about Post-Truth” with Paul Kennedy. In this discussion, top Canadian and American political scientists and philosophers were interviewed. It was pointed out that many influential people today are devaluing truth and settling for propaganda. They are caught up in tribal, divisive, combative thinking. One neuroscience writer is a bit more direct, calling the phenomenon weaponized lies (Daniel J. Levitin, 2016). Fake news is essentially lies dressed up to confuse, obfuscate, deceive, manipulate public opinion, to get away with fraud or a power grab. Tyrants, greedy bankers and oligarchs want us to believe whatever makes them look like saviours. Thus, it is vital in a day of half-truths, slick sales pitches, deception, and raw prejudice to call people back to the importance of speaking, measuring the truth, and living with integrity (Henry Cloud, Integrity: the courage to meet the demands of reality). Christians carry a high value on truthfulness as a key aspect of incarnational spirituality. One of the godfathers of twentieth century church leadership, John Stott from All Souls Anglican London, often spoke of having the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. He believed in a robust engagement between faith and culture, not a posture of fear and flight, but finding the truth wherever it resided. I have spent my whole career among students and faculty wrestling with the relationship of faith and reason, Christian belief and academic scholarship.

Noted University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter opines on the lived concept of Incarnation:

If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with whom we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate. When the Word of all flourishing—defined by the love of Christ—becomes flesh in us, in our relations with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our spheres of influence—absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. (J.D. Hunter, 2010, 252)

 Jesus stood for the whole truth, sincerity and realism as well as goodness: “If you obey my precepts, you will be my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8: 32). From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture speaks the language of realism: truth about the God who is there, the wonders of our world and honest appreciation of human beings with their checkered track record. The Judeo-Christian story is a narrative of fundamental commitment to live and pursue multi-dimensional truth (Psalm 119): with the purpose being to see better, think better, live better. In our day, we need wisdom, discernment and courage to push back against hyperbole, lies, prejudice and half-truths. The Apostle John is honest with us in his letters: if we claim perfection, we are liars, not truth-tellers. We do not incarnate truth. 

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Graduate Students, PhD University of Wales/Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Author of The Great Escape from Nihilism, and Mapping the Future.

Bibliography

Sarah McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.

Alister McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths: Building Bridges to Faith through Apologetics.

James Emory White, A Mind for God.

Jerry Wallis and Trent Dougherty (eds.), The Plantinga Project: Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God.

David Adams Richards, God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular Age.

Dallas Willard (ed.), A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions.

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics.

Paul M. Anderson (ed.), Professors Who Believe: the Spiritual Journey of Christian Faculty.

Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: the Gospel as Public Truth.

Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. 

James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue.

James Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All?

Raymond Gawronski, S.J., Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology.

Arthur Holmes, All Truth is God’s Truth.

Professor Questions the Liveability of Relativism
Philosopher Roger Scrutin on Moral Relativism

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