What Is Truth?
"The truth is like clean, cool water - it is only of benefit to the thirsty." from the "Quo Vadis?"
Our journey will need to begin first with a fundamental understanding, and the universal definition of what truth is.
Truth helps us to distinguish the difference between believing in what we think we know to be true and knowing what we believe is true. You see, for most of us what we believe or understand to be true influences how we think, our behavior, the morals we seek to embrace, the faith we look to follow, and the means by which we conduct our lives. It shapes the decisions we make and the actions that we take. It ultimately shapes our worldview.
Today's social media has surprisingly become the main source of news and information for many in society. Often this information is accepted at face value as reliable and true, even if sources are not listed, are able to be validated, or can be followed up on. Many do not have the time or inclination to research anything for verification, authenticity, or accuracy. Therefore, we find ourselves believing things that turn out to be untrue.
Truth matters. What we know to be true matters.
How do you define truth? Are there truths that are absolute? Can be verified? Truths that are universal?
Truth is literally defined as "what is real and genuine, that corresponds with reality, facts and in actuality; that which is correct, and that which is or is characterized by being in accord with what is, has been, or must be."
There are those that hold to definitions of truth that are separate from what we have accepted as the standard. These typically are philosophical in nature. A belief system as it were that looks to challenge the norms. Examples would be considering life, death, pain, and the physical world as nothing but an "illusion". Sickness and disease as being nothing more than a mental mirage with Eastern religions being especially noted for this.
Years ago I had inquired about an old brick building in the community we were living in at the time that had been boarded up. It had a mountain of wide steps leading up to the large front wooden double doors. I was told that it was once a meeting hall for a group who were followers of Mary Baker Eddy, and her teachings as found in Christian Science. The "mind over matter" theology they adhered to may have sounded good while they were young, but as this group got much older they found they could no longer navigate the steps to meet. Bad hips and knees, walkers and canes were no match, and apparently, neither were the teachings that they followed. Theology met reality and ideological truth met real-world truth. Mindpower could not overcome the fact that their health was not an illusion, nor was it what it used to be. Consequently, they moved and found another place to meet, one that was handicap accessible.
Aristotle noted that there are two things that are self-evident. First, existence, and second, reason. He noted that to think and to be aware of oneself proved existence. The "I think therefore I am" shows existence. This reveals that life and our world are not some illusion. And, because we are able to think about ourselves, such as existing, demonstrated the ability to reason. Aristotle pointed to these two things as necessary components for any rational thought and logic.
Three Laws Of Thought
Law of Identity - An object is what it is
Law of Contradiction - A cannot be both A and B. No proposition can be both true and not true.
Law of Excluded Middle - Every statement is either true or false. There is nothing in between.
The Law of Contradiction" therefore means that two opposing propositions cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. As an example, if an atheist believes God does not exist and yet a theist does, it would be impossible for both to be right, or true. One truth is not also another truth. No assertion or statement can be both true and also not true. The Law of Excluded Middle" states that either one claim is true or the other is, but both cannot be equally true. There is nothing in between these two claims, propositions, or statements that can instead be true.
As individuals, we can convince ourselves of a lot of things, but given time we will eventually find ourselves confronted with having to test it in the real world. In application, it is what we find to be verifiable. We base truth on evidence, eyewitness accounts, knowledge, and so forth. For something to be true then, it must conform to what we know to be legitimate and real (i.e. I am my father's son.) To what is right, and to a standard of rule. An example would be answers to math problems. They are always exactly the same. They follow the same pattern or rule found in mathematics. It must be proven to be constant, consistent, and regular such as nighttime always comes after daytime. Truth must harmonize with what was, what is, or must be.
We have the unique ability at an early age to understand what is true and what is false. And, to make judgments based on that. It is elementary of course, but nonetheless a distinction worth noting. In a grade school math test that asks if 2+2=4, the answer is always (Y) for yes. It is constant. That never changes. That is a true and factual statement. Why? Because it conforms with what is known to be correct, conforming to the rules of mathematics that verify that the answer will never be anything other than four. The information is factual therefore the conclusion is correct. The answer turns out the same each time, for each person, no matter where they are, no matter when. This is a reality.
When we challenge the laws of gravity we find that it remains stubbornly the same. What goes up must come down. This is a real and undisputed fact that has been verified over and over again to exist with the same outcome. It is the same law no matter where, no matter when that impacts all people.
"Truth Statements" such as these are objective and impartial in nature due to the type of truth being utilized.
Objective truth, or "impartial truth", refers to the fact that it is neutral, fair, unbiased, factual, verifiable, and undeniable. It is the intellectual, relational, and universal aspect of reality that we can discern in a limited but useful manner. True statements requiring a true or false answer have one thing in common.... they are always true. Some simple examples would be:
1. A dog always reproduces a dog
2. The moon is closer to the Earth than Pluto
3. A person needs to eat to stay alive.
4. Gravity is real. What is thrown up in the air falls back down.
All of these require a "true" or "false" answer. And since these are true propositions, the answer to all of these examples will always be true.
Therefore, objective, impartial truth is something that is always true for all people, in all places, and at all times.
In other words, truth ... objective, impartial truth, is something that is for all people, everywhere at any time, found to be the same. The answer will be the same, the result will be the same, the consequence will be the same, and the reality will be the same. A dog will always reproduce a dog, no matter where in the world, no matter when. It is true always, everywhere for everyone. An external reality apart from ourselves that all share and can agree upon. It is therefore a real, tangible, and undeniable truth.
On the other hand, we have subjective truth. Subjective truth is something that is more personal in nature. A self-styled reality that conforms to one's personal views, feelings, likes, and dislikes. It is here that we begin to move into the realm of moral and ethical relativism, commonly found in the social and philosophical arena. We all exercise this to some degree.
This type of "truth" has become so pervasive in our society, and in the world, that increasing numbers of people are becoming more convinced that few things are black and white with regard to what is real, but specifically what is "right".
Today we find an attempt through social media and others to control the flow of information. Social media companies have attempted, quite successfully, to be the arbiter of truth. Unknown people in positions of power and influence are now deciding what the public should see and hear by filtering out what they consider to be "disinformation". Unfortunately, we are never given the criteria by which these decisions are made.
This approach to truth helps explain the spreading effect of individualized reality upon the current changes in our laws, decisions, judgments, and the like. Subjective truth is especially popular among our institutions of higher learning. We find many of our college professors steeped in the use of subjective truth. This preferred view moves one from "facts" to "values". Factual judgments, those that are objective and external, give way to value judgments which are the internal and personally expressed attitudes. This removes truth from having to be validated and consequently removed also from any challenges.
If, by example, I said that I believed opera music was a total waste of time and void of any musical value, not only am I making a personal statement of my own feelings and expressed taste, but also what I believe to be true for me concerning opera. There is no objective truth to the foundation of my statement. It is merely my personal position on the subject. Should you consider opera not wasting one's time and state emphatically that you consider opera of great worth, you are doing likewise. And, because both of these statements are subjective truths, both of these statements would be equally valid. My truth about opera is not your truth but who am I to say your truth is wrong? Your truth is equally valued by you as my truth is by me. In fact, here is my truth on music:
We see here two different truths of equal value. Valued judgments cannot be challenged by any common criteria since they are personal in nature. These truths are not of a factual kind that can be challenged by any rigors of testing, but of a personal inclination. And, of course, mine is so much better!
When it comes to subjective truth we discover the following:
1. Subjective truth exhibits a peculiar temperament and personal bias.
2. Subjective truth is introspective. What is true for that individual is not true for everyone.
3. It springs from a belief that individual feelings or apprehensions are the ultimate criteria for determining what is good, right, and true.
4. As belonging to reality as it is perceived, or known, by the individual as opposed to the reality that is independent of the mind. In other words, it is a reality that is inwardly perceived rather than reality as it actually exists.
5. Experience, feelings, and conscious states are supreme determinants of truth for the individual.
6. Tends to deal more with the philosophical realm.
7. Does not hold to having to be verified, be right, or supported by any evidence.
Subjective truth then is shaped by an individual's personal proclivities, leanings, emotions, and knowledge, or more accurately, the lack thereof. It may be influenced by personal trauma and experiences that color and distort facts. Sometimes one's subjective truth is caused by an honest lack of knowing any different. Other times it is a preferred, chosen means of a worldview.
It is also here where statements such as "What is true for me may not be true for you" come from. Because the foundations of one's subjective truth are established more on internal "ingredients" than external facts, these "truths" are subject to change during a person's lifetime.
Problems arise when we confuse what is personal with what is universal, what we feel with what we know, what is true with what is preferred, and what is right versus what is by choice.
An example of this clash came to Oprah Winfrey's doorstep years back on her daytime show. Over the years Oprah has, like many, developed her own brand of "New Age" spirituality and subjective worldview. A hodgepodge of various things she has found appealing to her "sensibilities" and "self-help" philosophy. Her wildly successful book club has helped many an author. Especially those that align with her views. One such book is entitled, "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey. It was initially promoted as fiction but was later re-tooled as a graphic memoir of an addict's road to freedom. It was described as touching, moving, compelling, and sometimes almost unbelievable. Just the right touchy-feely stuff, and "how you can do it too" cheerleading for the readers of Oprah's book club. Yet there were those who questioned the authenticity and truthfulness of some events found within its pages. Warnings were given and word spread that Frey was not forthcoming with the facts. Oprah was caught in the firestorm for continuing to support a book that was increasingly being shown as more fiction than the truth. The author continued to defend his life story. On one occasion, while being interviewed on a past Larry King's show, he stated that the "emotional truth" was there.
Oprah even phoned in to lend her support for the book. Her comments were that the flap over the book's details was "much ado about nothing." She continued on Larry King's show by saying that:
"What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil from the time he was 10 years old drinking and tormenting himself and his parents and stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves.... the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book..... if you're an addict whose life has been moved by this story and you feel that what James went through was able to-to help you hold on a little longer, and you connected with that, that is real. That is real. And it's --it's irrelevant discussing, you know, what -- what happened or did not happen to the police."
Her statement revealed what she considered of greater import than the lies that were being uncovered, the inaccuracies found in the facts, and in seeing relevance in objective truth. Emotional connections and resonating feelings that hopefully stir a person internally toward self-help and self-salvation were the expressed important components. The end justified the means, demonstrating that subjectivity is really what seems to be at her core. But Oprah learned quickly that facts still mattered to everyday people such as her faithful viewers, no matter how something "resonated" or one "connected" with, was moved by or agreed with the "emotional truth" of James Frey or her. That people did not consider the facts as irrelevant and "much ado about nothing." How can an addict be inspired and have real hope in a story that in fact was not actually a true success to the degree they were made to "believe"?
To her credit, Oprah went on the air and apologized to her viewers for seeming to not value truth and the facts. Some critics said she was only protecting her brand and empire when it seemed the fallout could be damaging to her career, finances, and future. One is hard-pressed finding the original airing of this now beyond the control of her media empire. And in this particular one, she now includes commentary to paint her in a better light.
Oprah, like many, has been conflicted on the subject of truth. She has expressed the importance of telling the truth but as she has said since then on her show, you should live "your own truth". This is a popular phrase today. How does that play out and what does that really mean? Well, there do seem to be guidelines. For Oprah, it seems that it is not okay to selectively believe you are telling the truth as you remember it. However, "living out your own truth" is okay. It is as clear as mud.
This selective subjectivity approach didn't help James Frey on his second appearance on Oprah's Show when she grilled him for lying and making her feel like an idiot. However, that is something she brought upon herself. Reality collided with her subjectivity. She was conned, lied to, got stung, and had to face the fact that she was promoting a lie. She recognized, at least here, that obvious external truths cannot be trivialized.
Another painful example of subjective truth would be the fallout that transpired with a famous TV news anchorman who was let go, many believe, over a story he was doing on a then sitting President. It was a story based on certain aspects of President Bush's military service that was predicated on information that was later found, upon scrutiny, to be fabricated. There were no "facts to the matter". In an interview after his departure from the station that he served for many years, Dan Rather still defended his decision to go on the air with the story even though knowing there were no facts to it. He did so because he personally felt and believed it all to be true, as he put it, he just couldn't prove it.
His hopes were that in the end his "truth" would be validated and the facts would catch up to his breaking story. In the end, it did not matter what his convictions were, his personal bias blinded his ability to objectively report the facts. This is another prime example of an individual's internal truth colliding with the real world.
We all have had a "gut feeling" or had hunches that were sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Most of the time when they are right, it is because there was some other external input involved beyond just our feelings that added greater credence. Dan should have waited to get the proof he needed to line up with that gut feeling he felt he had before his rush to judgment. But then again, most of us have been guilty of this too. Ah, life lessons learned.
The definition of prejudice is to "pre-judge". Today it seems more than ever, we jump to conclusions and make judgment calls prematurely. All of us need to exercise more restraint until we actually know what we are talking about.
I had a boss one time who often would say "The facts of the matter are..." It was his way of turning the conversation away from being emotional and personal on a subject and back onto objectively looking over the matter at hand.
The major force around the world, in our respective societies and in our personal lives, is driven more by what we embrace to be truths in an ethical, moral sense. These moral truths will be based on which truth application is applied. These truths shape what we consider to be fair and just among men. What is defined as right and wrong, good or bad. It will be reflected in the laws of the land, the conduct of the people, in shaping the culture and our worldview. It is one thing to acknowledge that for everyone 2+2=4, it is quite another thing to suggest that there is a moral truth that is universal. Much of the personal and world conflict we have comes from these clashing, morally held worldviews.
But what are these moral truths based upon? Is there moral, objective truth that holds all people at all times in all places to the same code of ethics and morality? Moral truth that is not subjective? And if there is, where is it derived from? How can that be verified, validated, supported? Is there one source or many from which to derive these truths? Is it the truth that is based on facts and on reality? That is not biased? And, by what authority? Of God? Of man?
Those at the Nuremberg trials had to wrestle with such questions as Nazi officers were on trial for "war crimes against humanity". In what manner could the rightness or wrongness of what Germany did be judged? The trials were groundbreaking with regard to international consensus on the issue. Germany adopted several "truths" that shaped its identity, ideology, policies, and actions. Adolf Hitler embraced Nietzsche's view of truth from statements Nietzsche made, such as:
"Since there is no God to will what is good, we must will our own good..."
For Germany, the "good" they came up with was to weed out the "sub-human" and "inferior" races, with gypsies, Jews, and Blacks being at the bottom of the ladder. They were considered "life unworthy of life". Germany considered itself the stronger people and the rest of the world the weaker. This was based on adapting Darwin's principle of the "survival of the fittest". Hitler wrote:
"The stronger must dominate and not mate with the weaker, which would signify the sacrifice of its own higher nature. Only the born weakling can look upon this principle as cruel, and if he does so it is merely because he is of a feebler nature and narrower mind; for if such a law did not direct the process of evolution then the higher development of organic life would not be conceivable at all... If Nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one..." (from Mein Kampf)
Added to this mix of social Darwinism, scientific racism, pan-Germanism, and evolutionism theories was the insertion of mysticism and the idea of an "Aryan race". Hitler and his followers shaped their own social and moral truths, which in turn was propagated upon the German people. It permeated every aspect of German culture. And, for them, since there was no higher authority, the atrocities of World War II were seen merely as part of the process of naturalism and evolution. There was no wrong that was being committed. This is why at the Nuremberg trials after World War II, those German officers claimed innocence since they were simply following orders. Orders surely based upon Germany's law and moral code, and in what was best and right for Germany in its ascension.
Who was to say what they did was wrong? By what authority? There was no guilt in their minds because there was no higher moral authority to dictate anything contrary. Man had, and has, been reduced to merely an evolved animal. Their truth was their truth.
What was the outcome? It was determined that there was a higher authority for which man should obey if the laws of man became so immoral. Just because a government authorizes, approves, and passes laws that condone murder, as an example, it does not make it right.
So, is there truth to the fact that there is a "higher authority"? And if so, based on what?
These questions lead us to the next phase of our journey.