"It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it."
-Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived, and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic."
-John F. Kennedy
"Science has promised us truth. It has never promised us either peace or happiness."
-Gustave Le Bon
IS THERE IN TRUTH NO BEAUTY?
(-Star Trek Original Series, season three episode title)
Today’s discussion is based on a simple question: What is Truth itself?
You have thirty seconds. No pressure.
Well, it certainly sounded simple, didn’t it?
This is indeed a complex issue, and so I hope you’ll forgive me if I ramble a bit. I will strive to not be too “disconnectedy.”
They say (whoever “they” are) that one man’s truth is another man’s folly. This seems to have a grain of “truth” in it, to me. The idea being that the Truth is a subjective thing. Or at least it is so in effect.
(Tangential conundrum, also derived from an old Star Trek episode: “This statement is absolutely true: everything I say is a lie…”)
(Don’t fry your brain over it)
At its most basic level, in the make-believe world of black-and-white, the truth is one of two choices, the other being falsity. Right and Wrong. Simple. Unfortunately the real world that we all live in is far from black-and-white.
In the world of mathematics, one plus one is always two. This then can be said to be a mathematical “truth.” However it is only so easily defined as such because mathematics is a “closed system” in that it is a ‘world’ that is in its entirety rigidly defined and explained by logical rules and axioms. It is implicit that the truths of mathematics are all within the contexts of mathematics. One cannot for instance, quantify love.
The real world is more complex by far than the mathematical one. One has to take the human variable into account along with a myriad of other factors. In many (if not most) situations, there is no black and white, there are only shades of gray to choose from.
How to choose? Therein seems to lie the difficulty.
The Truth can be defined as such only within the contexts of the question or statement involved. For instance, if I were to ask “Is your name John?” the context of the question is easily understood, as is the only true answer. Your name is either John, or it isn’t. If your name is not John, then it is not true that your name is John. And you can easily tell that your name is not John if it isn’t John. You would be in an excellent position to know what your own name is. In fact, you are the definitive authority on your own name. So if I were instead to make the statement, “Your name is definitely John” and your name is in reality Fred, then you can know that my statement is untrue. (But if you have amnesia...)
However if I were to state (for instance) that “I am certain that there is a God, and that He is Jesus Christ,” the definition of ‘Truth’ becomes more problematic.
If I am certain that it is true, then I can hardly be said to be lying as I maintain it to be true. But if it were to happen not to be true, then I am unknowingly telling, or at least repeating, a lie. And let’s face it; there either is or isn’t a God, and if there is one, then it either is or isn’t the Christian God. We may not be in a position to know yet, but these are the choices on the table, and all of them can’t be true. The possibility exists that there is no God whatsoever, and thus that all religions are wrong. If I cannot acknowledge this, then I cannot acknowledge reality itself.
If I try to investigate this question of God’s existence and even His divine identity using logic and science, agnosticism is the only rational result. Even complete atheism is assuming too much. There is just no way to tell, so there is just no way to tell, period. Anything more is, alas, wishful thinking. All indications may point to ‘no God or Gods,’ but in the end, there’s no real way to tell. So to claim such knowledge one way or the other is to be rather silly.
However the only real way to investigate the truth or falsity of anything, including the deity, is still by the application of logic and reason, and of course their avatar on earth, science. If these things fail, substituting faith is never a viable option. It may be an attractive option, but never a viable one.
The man of faith claims that he knows that his God is “true,” because of that very faith. In essence this is saying “I know it, because I know it.” This may sound fine to another believer, but to the unbiased it’s a complete absurdity.
One cannot claim the strength of one’s belief or faith as proof of that very belief or faith. This is a completely circular argument. It is less than senseless. It is ridiculous. If one believes something to be true, it’s still only a belief, and will not approach the strength of a truth until it is subjected to rigorous testing, and by that I mean logical testing and not religious. The believer certainly cannot point to scriptures as proof of their belief either, for the same reason. Scripture is a statement of faith, is designed to strengthen faith, and as such is hardly unbiased. The Bible is no more an unbiased view of Christianity than the Koran is of Islam. All religious texts are biased toward the religion that they represent, for what should be obvious reasons.
And I need unbiased, yes I do.
John Keats said in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” And yet, the truth is often ugly, or so it seems. And the beautiful is often a lie. The Easter Bunny is “beautiful” in that it brings eggs to little children and has a cute nose. Alas, it’s a lie. Bot flies are the Truth, and they lay eggs in little children's noses. Not much beauty there.
Perhaps the Truth is in reality always beautiful, but is perceived as ugliness by those of us that are incapable of understanding it. (Some can see beauty in even bot flies…) Or perhaps it is simply that while all Beauty may be Truth, the set of all Truth additionally includes much that is not Beauty. Maybe old Keats was saying that we should just ignore the ugly truths and concentrate on the beautiful ones in order to be happy. Perhaps even that we should concentrate on some beautiful “truths,” in spite of the fact that they may only be true in our minds.
Unfortunately if this is so, I’m one of those annoying people that can’t ever be happy with a pretty lie when I just know that the ugly truth is out there somewhere.
I think that in many real-life situations there is no precise formula to apply so as to always arrive at the absolute truth. To my mind it is usually a process of considering all possible options, of thinking laterally as much as you can, and choosing the best, “most true” option.
When confronted with a deep question with no clear resolution, to me finding the “truth” is and must be finding the best available option that works optimally in the given context, in our consensual reality. Note that I say “our” reality, meaning the reality agreed upon by the maximum number of unbiased observers. Note that I say “unbiased” meaning not followers of any particular belief system, as this would skew results.
(To those that would say that logic, reason, and science are also a belief system, my reply is “Yes, they’re the only one that gets real-world results, which is why I chose them over yours in the first place.”)
Getting back to religion as an example, if I were to choose a particular faith instead of my agnosticism and claim it to be true to the world and to myself, then I would be invalidating all the other many faiths by my choice of that one. I’d be saying that not only is my God true, but that all the other Gods are false. Yet, I can find no justification for doing this that doesn’t also work in the opposite direction, if I for example happened to be a believer in one of the other faiths instead of the one that I chose. This therefore to me seems a very bigoted and inherently flawed method of finding the truth. It seems mere wishful thinking, when you really look at it. The simpler and I think more “true” choice for someone like me in this situation is by default to reject all religions as highly unlikely, since there is not one that stands out as any “truer” than any other one, and to look back to consensual reality again for my answers. After all, none of the world’s religions are “necessarily” true, and indeed none of them have any real-world evidence of being true, except to someone that is already a believer in one of them and is therefore willing to accept the word of other heavily-biased believers or the evidence of their own biased feelings as their “proof” in lieu of actual verifiable evidence.
So what is Truth? To me the Truth is a word whose meaning is particular to the situation and context, because it is an indicator of the “least false option of all available options” and not some metaphysical absolute. Telling the truth as you know it may still not be telling the Truth. There is more responsibility to it than that. One must educate one’s self adequately in the given contextual paradigm in order to select the truest option, and if you haven’t done that, ignorance is no excuse. And one must doubt in all things, especially in one’s self, for the truth to eventually be revealed to you.
You have to learn to see the truth before you can tell it.
And to some people, that’s the hardest thing in the world.