“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” – Flannery O’Connor
“There are no facts, only interpretations.” – Friedrich Nietzche
Today we begin a short series on truth. We’ve written about truth many times already, especially as it relates to reason or serves as perhaps the most important pillar of worldview. One’s view of truth is a primary clue indicating one’s worldview.
At top we offer a playlist totaling 45:43 that focuses on truth, featuring 13 different PC Contributors and 26 clips, averaging 2:14 per clip. In order presented it includes: Roger Scruton, Ladelle McWhorter, Eben Alexander, Os Guinness, Anne Bradley, Bart Ehrman, Ashely McGuire, May-Lily Lee, Heather McDonald, John Reid, Victoria Cobb, and Hugh Whelchel. All of our Contributors have made significant comments on truth. Worldviews expressed as they relate to truth vary widely and will really surprise you in certain cases.
One can spend ones whole career arguing for truth, yet we believe it’s unknowable at the end of the day without the aid of the outside world!
As a whole, the clips included above offer an overview of truth as a concept, beginning with comments from the “realist analytical” philosopher, Roger Scruton, and the “postmodernist” philosopher, Ladelle McWhorter. While those clips alone express some agreement, it would be hard to find two professional philosophers in more opposing camps, easily evident in Sir Roger’s and Ladelle’s writing. As our series of clips progresses, related concepts are introduced. In general, they illustrate how central ones position on truth is to some of the most important social and political issues of our times.
Until the early 1800’s, the West viewed the search for truth as an obvious human good, if not one of the most important goals of life. Since at least the 1960’s, however, in America’s elite institutions, truth has been under all out assault. If you belief that truth is important, then you should learn to defend it.
With this in mind, a place to start is to learn as much foundational knowledge about truth as you can. Again, one’s position on truth is the first building block of worldview. To some, truth is a presupposition used without much thought; to others it’s a conscious choice firmly and confidently held; to still others, it’s one flexibly employed to maximize benefits situationally or to serve other important goals, like toleration . . . or increasing wealth, power, and domination (or all of the above).
Of course, the purpose of this Series is to offer truth more granular treatment than we have in the past, and we want to begin with this post’s primary theme, “The Leap of Faith”: that everyone, whether naturalist or supernaturalist, scientist or priest, or modernist, postmodernist, or post-postmodernist, takes his or her stand on truth purely on the basis of faith.
There are no exceptions. While Praxis Circle comes predominately from a Christian worldview where truth is bedrock, we believe that theologians and philosophers today generally agree that no human being has a “God’s eye view”on his or her own.
All of us without exception rely on faith, and we hope to begin explaining why in this post.
Preliminary Definitional Comments
But before we move on to the importance of faith to truth or relativism, we offer some definitional comments to frame the issue.
One definition of truth that kicks the can down the road in classic Merriam-Webster fashion is “a judgement, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true.” An idea is true if it is in accordance with reality, accepted definitions, or accepted concepts. Within these constraints, a tight proposition cannot be true and false at the same time, though loose propositions can be parsed into their true or false elements. Of course, confidence in any one proposition can vary depending on the situation, individual, or group. One accepts a fact, claim, or belief as true only with high confidences, and probability often influences making a judgement.
In general, however, most understand that truth does not vary according to any individual’s or group’s opinion or even existence. A traditional view of truth dictates that it unfolds with time but becomes locked in historical fact with each passing second. If human language is involved, then a true claim would be in accordance with reality and accepted definitions or concepts. Often, we refer today to objective and subjective reality, and a good, simple definition of truth might just be “consensus reality.” Many argue today that decadence is allowing us to venture increasingly far from reality, which always ends in destruction.
As a slight aside, it’s our own view that the ancients in the West alone, but certainly globally, considered all of the philosophy related to the subject of truth that exists today, but that they did so with much less recorded historical human experience and with much less of what is referred to today as global and scientific knowledge.
This significant, added knowledge has influenced how we talk about it today. In other words, while not everyone agrees here, we believe that truth was seen to be just as either “true” or “relative” in 1,000 B.C. as it is today in 2022 A.D.
What is very different, however, and this will be the primary focus of the rest of this post, is how modern philosophers since the Renaissance have focused their attention. In ancient times, truth tended to be a presupposition with attention focused from the subject out into the world of objects and action; whereas, as modernity progressed, theological and philosophical attention turned from almost a sole focus on objects and the outside objective world to the “I” and the inside subjective world.
In other words, as “Jane hit the ball,” Jane in modernity has tended to turn her attention from her bat and where the ball went to herself and her mental and physical activity. This tendency helps explain current phenomenon like the “therapeutic society” and “helicopter parenting.”
There were many reasons for this—religious, political, scientific, etc.—but it’s important to keep this general trend in mind as we explain why we all rely on faith today.
The three primary philosophers we mention below (Descartes, Kant, and Pierce) represent a broad trend that became influential in the West in their day and has maintained its momentum right up to current times. Each of these men started lasting philosophical traditions and intense debates that are just as lively today as they became almost immediately in their early modern or modern times.
Actual Being (Ontology)
While Renes Descartes’ (1596 – 1650) extremely skeptical philosophy gets heavy criticism today, much of it has stood the test of time. And while there are counter arguments, most regular people derive confidence in the reality of being (though few have the luxury to doubt it seriously) from his famous observation, “I think therefore I am.”
Similarly, his observation about the Evil Demon who could be fooling us about the existence of reality has stuck to some extent, as well. You could even give Descartes credit for the dominant ideas that went into The Matrix movie series.
The reason faith is required concerning whether actual being exists beyond our own consciousness is that there is genuine disagreement among us today over whether “being,” if any, outside ourselves is all consciousness (see PC Contributor Eben Alexander as an idealist) or all matter (see PC Contributors Ladelle McWhorter or Bart Ehrman as naturalists). Then, within the middle ground realm of extended-materialism or dualism itself, there is the conventionally Christian dual position that there is a usually unseen though occasionally experienced realm of largely unknown character that’s spiritual or supernatural (not material). That might include the mind, other forms of spiritual being in this world, heaven, and God.
Humans have held these metaphysical positions since ancient times, and, as far as we know, no one has been able to prove absolutely the nature of being one way or the other. Furthermore, it doesn’t appear to us that over thousands of years the world’s opposing camps have moved the ball at all.
Persons are generally persuaded based on their upbringing, their own personal experience over the entire course of their lives (the primary consideration), secondary accounts of many varieties, or the culture of the times. Indeed, even advanced science today through the quantum world has produced evidence that matter can be both particle and wave and perhaps two places at once, with no measurements of certainty possible. At best only probabilities. Similarly, as human experience finds limits looking upward toward outer space, our astro physicists offer mostly highly specialized theory. There is nothing close to certainty.
Where Enlightenment philosophers and scientists were convinced they were dealing with fact and explanation, science increasingly looks like pure speculative description, though highly mathematical and detailed. Even long standing views like evolution are experiencing great difficulty, with evidence mounting as science progresses for a Creator. Any talk of a “theory of everything” (TOE) is only a description of everything that humans can know, without any clue of how it got there without an Omni Power. Professional scientists seem to be admitting the end of determinism, positivism, and scientism in greater numbers.
Some of these issues might be resolved in time through further revelation from science, God, or more advance space aliens (what the hell). In any case, no matter how confident one appears to be, no one has a monopoly on the nature of being, and we believe the trend is toward a more supernatural, enchanted view. Then there is what is believed to be actual in human nature itself.
One conclusion? Even sociologists with a naturalist worldview have declared the secularization thesis dead.
Perception of Actual Being (Ontology/Epistemology)
Moving right along in time well into the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) influenced heavily by David Hume (1711 – 1776) noted a further problem for certainty in truth in causation versus correlation, but much more important in the perception of being itself. We do not need to dwell here long, but there is an obvious problem in assuming, if there are material “things in themselves” out there in objective time and space, that our senses perceive them as they actually are. Do we see things like spiders or eagles? How do we know our sight is real?
This is why Kant divided the world into the phenomenal that we experience and the noumenal that remains outside of us, where God might be (if He, She, It, or Them exists). He then argued that our minds are formed in advance to organize our phenomenal experience into set categories similar to those (space, time, quantity, substance, relation, etc.) proposed by Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B.C.).
So, the problem for truth this time isn’t the nature of actual being, but our ability to perceive objective truth in any case, whether it be real or not, consciousness or material, natural or supernatural, or both.
It’s not a big problem teenagers think about much when eyeing those jumping off the pool’s diving board during the summer or when being chased by the local bully, but it’s a real issue that can further loosen our degree of certainty in truth.
Agreement over Perception and Meaning of Actual Being (Ontology/Epistemology/Teleology)
Finally, there is the issue of how human beings create agreement about what they perceive in moving from subjective points of view to the objective. Charles Pierce (1839 – 1914) was the pragmatic philosopher who gets credit for introducing the term quale (plural qualia), which signifies those subjective experiences human beings share usually as universals, but cannot verify as being the same. The example always given: How can we know that the color red I see is the same as the color you see? There are many examples of qualia usually involving bodily sensations, the primary point being there’s no known way to verify identical natures.
Philosophers have hotly debated this issue ever since, without a winner surfacing.
Added to the baseline issues of being, perception, and agreement are issues such as whether sufficient experience can ever be consolidated for all “blind persons” to understand fully the elephant of truth of any sort (using the common Hindu metaphor), whether facts are different than values and why human values often vary so widely, whether human universals and natural law exists, whether all truth is really just local or cultural, whether miracles (as defined) are even possible, and whether there is any meaning or purpose at all to life in which we can have confidence.
When human beings with consciousness and memory exist together in space over significant periods of time, what happens is they create stories (or better understood as truthful narratives) to reason about their world. They create concepts, metaphors, and fictional stories, as well, to deal better with and explain their lives and existence. We seem to look for meaning and purpose, exhibiting a natural sense of teleology. We will not comment further here on this, but it’s another major subject under the whole rubric of truth.
We will take on some of these issues as the Series continues, but we hope we’ve sewn a bit of doubt into anyone 100% certain about truth either way. Indeed, we believe these considerations affect the arguments of hardcore naturalist, positivist scientists as much as they do faith-healers.
Looks like Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) can rest easy: Truth isn’t really as “Either/Or” as we thought—we’re all taking a huge Leap of Faith in building our worldviews, beginning with a thoughtful position on truth. We cannot be certain about being, perception, or agreement (these issues just getting us started in the truth debate), and faith can take us either way.
So, it’s up to you to think about it and choose.
Next time, as we review the nature of personal experience down through the ages, we will argue that the dive into truth isn’t so scary after all.
In fact, it’s absolutely necessary for most people to live a good life for themselves and for their loved ones and friends.
PS – If any of you philosophy lovers want Sir Roger Scruton’s view of where modern philosophy began, you can get it here (Descartes versus Kant).