What is Truth?

What is truth? by Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch GeWhen Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus “what is truth,” he didn’t stick around for a reply (John 18.28).  The Postmodern world seems to have abandoned the question altogether, at least in terms of absolute reality.  Any claim about things that lie beyond the empiricism of science or the logic of mathematics is considered conjecture, speculation or opinion.  We can know things like the fact that unsupported objects fall towards the center of the Earth at a rate of 9.81 meters per second per second because it can be verified in a lab with measurable and consistent results.  It is, however, debatable that humanity’s powers of observation and cognition are reliable sources of truth, and that notion will be entertained in a later post.  But, suffice it to say that in today’s world the reality of gravity and that 2+2 equals 4 are the only kind of truth.  This isn’t a recent development.

Popular philosophical, or quasi philosophical ideas are generally born decades, if not centuries, befor they become part of the popular thinking.  The famous Scottish philosopher of the 18th century, David Hume, made this statement about what can qualify as truth.  “If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics let us ask this question, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can be nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Bertrand Russell put it this way, “what science cannot discover mankind cannot know.”

What is ironic, perhaps even a bit humorous, about about these statements from Hume and Russell is that they both make a claim that cannot be supported by science or mathematics.  They, therefore, fail to stand up to their own standard for validating a truth claim.  Hume’s statement would itself need to be tossed into the flames.  In a similar vain, Russell’s statement proposes to know that nothing that is outside of science can be known, which would include his own claim.  Ravi Zacharias has said that, “the morass of relativism is systemically self defeating.”  And these are illustrations of that point quite precisely.

Even so “we have arrived at a time in human history when science claims to be the ultimate authority for everything.”[1]  Allan Bloom points out in the opening of The Closing of the American Mind that, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”[2]  Absolute reality such as the existence of God, Objective Morality, and so on, in the view of a growing number of people, particularly young adults and college students, are really just personal preference and opinion.

The creed of relativism,“That may be truth for you, but it isn’t truth for me” is a sentiment repeated ad nauseam whenever discussions of these absolutes come up.  But what does that statement mean?  As a fundamental premise it must hold that there is no absolute truth.  If the discussion is, fore instance, about the existence of God, then the statement means something like this: ‘You hold a opinion that God exists, and your belief in God brings you comfort, peace, maybe even hope, and that is great.  I am happy for you.  But my opinion is that there is no God and my belief grants me the same things.  Be happy for me.’  The glaring issue with relativism’s creed is that it is logically inconsistent.  It violates the law of non-contradiction.

The whole statement attempts to find a third option where there is none.  God cannot exist and not exists at the same time and in the same sense.  He either does, in fact exist, or he does, in fact, not exist.  Either the theist is right or the atheist is, and it cannot be the case that both positions are wrong.  This brings into question the validity of a “agnostic position, but I digress.  The point is, if one is reflective and thoughtfully engaged,it is quite clear and easily discovered that the notion that there is no absolute truth doesn’t make much sense.  Not to mention the fact that “there is no absolute truth” is a truth claim about absolute reality itself.  And so it is another one of those self defeating statements.

The point is this.  The claim that truth is relative is an illogical statement, and it is simply incorrect.  God exists or He doesn’t.  There is an absolute moral authority or there isn’t.  Humans have an eternal soul or they are nothing more than stardust.  This debate over the essential nature of humankind and the cosmos, whether there is only the natural or there is the supernatural also, goes back at least to Ancient Greece.  But the debate has always presupposed that either one or the other had to be true.  Why it is that a position that is, it would seem, obviously irrational is held by so many is a topic for another discussion.

With all that being said absolute truth forces one to either conform to it, or rebel against it.  Truth is not a mater of opinion.  One’s belief does not affect absolute reality any more than it does something like gravity.  One can accept gravity and learn to work with it and adapt to it or ignore it, but gravity will do what gravity does.  And if one were to jump off the roof of a tall building he or she would fall, at roughly 9.81 meters per second per second, regardless of his or her belief on the mater.  God’s existence or non existence is beyond opinion.  Truth is NOT relative, and so the pursuit of any rational individual is to seek an answer, and do so honestly, to Pilate’s question.

[1] Zacharias, Ravi. Why Jesus?: Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality. New York: FaithWords, 2012, Kindle EBook. (Ch. 3)

[2] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012. (Pg. 25)

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Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy
4 comments on “What is Truth?
  1. alwayscon says:

    I’m happy to have stumbled upon this as I used to be an avid believer of relativism when it came to questions such as these. But I thought and reached the conclusion that indeed not all of us can be right at the same time. Either there is Truth or there is not, if there is no absolute truth then it is a very confusing world we live in.

    My opinion is that the ultimate truth is floating somewhere way above our limited knowledge, and so different people at different levels of understanding grasp different angles of this one single Truth.

    Perhaps, in cases like these, keep on questioning and seeking the answer is more important than the answer itself.

    • Thank you so much for visiting and commenting on my blog. It is, as I am sure you noticed, a young blog. My intention is to address Truth in more specific ways in later posts. Questions like “Can we know The Truth, and if so, How.” will be among those topics. I hope that you will continue to visit and comment.

      F. W. Smith

  2. paul says:

    An interesting read can be found by those arguing that science is, in some sense, grounded in relativism. I have linked to an article by Greg Bahnsen about how science ends up as pragmatism in many cases (paragraphs 20-22). In the history of thought, at least in the Western tradition, it seems that the search for certainty almost always ends in relativism or skepticism. http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa044.htm

  3. […] or in spite of proof to the contrary.  The logical issues with these statements were addressed in What Is Truth?  Besides these logical issues there are deeper problems with the common view of science’s […]

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