by ProfDave, ©2020
(Dec. 28, 2020) — Have you had your truth cleaned within the last six months? Any cavities? How do you drill and fill a diseased truth? Does your truth need a root canal? A crown? What does it mean to be long in the truth? What about the reverse: promise to tell the tooth, the whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth? How about tooth in lending? Now you try it. Think of a saying or truism (toothism?) that has the word “truth” or the word “tooth” in it and switch them. Fun yet? That’s just the warm-up.
Do you believe in absolute truth or is everything relative? We could have some fun with the word “relative,” too, but I digress. ‘Absolute truth’ refers to objective reality: something that is really real whether I know it, understand it, like it, or none of the above. Reality, not as I know it, but as it really is. In theory, I can discover it, deal with it, make more – or less – true statements about it, but I can’t create it. Sir Isaac discovered the law of gravity; he didn’t write it. For the realist, at least, the real is the true, the true is the real, and the truth is a true statement about what is real. The idealist, incidentally, sees the realist’s ‘real’ as an imperfect reflection of the ideal – a whole new level of reality and truth. The ideal is real in the realm of ideas, but it is controversial whether mortals participate in creating it, whether it is eternal, or whether it comes from Deity. Eternal or divine ideals would be absolute truths but recognizing them could be a challenge. If ‘absolute’ is too metaphysical a word for you, we’ll call it ‘objective truth,’ for short.
Western science is based on the notion of objective truth. Under the influence of ethical monotheism, the western intellectual tradition came to assume that ultimate reality was rational, consistent, and inherently intelligible. Furthermore, monotheistic science says there can be only one right answer, be there ever so many wrong ones. 2 + 2 = 4, two hydrogen atoms plus one oxygen atom make one water molecule – always. You could figure it out if you followed the best authorities (Middle Ages), thought about it long enough (Renaissance), or examined it carefully enough with the right instruments (Scientific Revolution). Reality was not disrupted by the whimsical interaction of multiple gods and goddesses, nor could it be manipulated by sorcery. There was one Creator who spoke the language of logic and mathematics. His laws were immutable. If the experimental results in one lab differed from another, there must be a reason for it. Science depends on truth being truth no matter who does it, where, and when. Knowledge is a voyage of discovery, not a seance. Even relativity attempts to explain what is really out there. If there are multiple universes (fun for science fiction), you need to remember which one you are in.
Of course, much of what popular science says it “knows” isn’t really objective truth, but theory. A theory is an educated guess at what the truth might be. Making and testing these guesses is what the scientific method is all about and the history of science is littered with also-ran guesses that seemed right for a while and turned out to be wrong as more truth was revealed. Science isn’t done yet. What keeps the scientist going is the belief that there is a true answer.
Of course, in ordinary life we are all in the same boat. Most of what we think we know is only approximately true. Our knowledge is finite, often mistaken, and warped by our bias – not to mention insanity. So all human knowledge is relative. But does that mean all truth is relative? What is true for you can be different from what is true for me? Non sequitor – it doesn’t follow! What you think is true can be different from what I think is true – we can both be wrong – but objective truth – by definition – has got to be independent from what you and I think it is. Give us a math test and we may get different answers, some of them wrong, but different ones. The right answers would be objectively true, the rest false, and our scores different – and somewhat less than objective truth. Do you want to argue with the teacher on the basis of your truth?
In our Post-Modernist world, many of us in high places believe there is no such thing as absolute truth – is that statement absolutely true? Everything is relative – including the statement ‘everything is relative.’ Disclaimer: I haven’t read the philosophy on this – I kan’t understand Immanuel Kant and it’s gotten a lot worse since him. But on the popular level, where historians dwell, I see three strains. First is the impression made by quantum physics – guessing what sub-atomic particles are doing because they move too fast to be observed. So Schroedinger’s cat is there and not there, dead and alive, at the same time. No, I don’t understand that either, except that it inclines us to overrule the law of non-contradiction in other things, too.
Second is the de-constructionist attack on language in philosophy and literature. Language itself is relative. Words are not things. They are not real or objective. They only mean what we mean by them and what the recipient thinks they mean can be something entirely different. Then how can you say that Trump is lying? How can you say the Devil himself is lying, for that matter? How can you say that abortion or gun control, garlic or oregano are not in the Constitution? A statement about truth is not the same as the truth itself under the best of circumstances.
Third is the rise of relativism and activism in the social sciences. Even in history, we recognized sometime early in the 20th century that perfect objectivity was impossible. Everybody has a bias, even when they are trying hardest to appear objective. There is bias even in science, by the way, as in the global warming debate. But that is nothing compared to the personal bias and subjective distortion we have in human society and within our own heads. Subjectivity rules. What I think, I am. Or is it, I become what other people react to when they see me – the social mirror theory? Self-esteem is more important than what you know. What you convince people is a social problem becomes one. Image sells products, elects Presidents, causes wars. Subjective reality combined with socio-political power creates facts on the ground. Psychologists and social workers can create and wipe out pathologies with the stroke of a pen or the vote of a committee. Anything is possible with a good lawyer or an activist judge. Absolute truth and objective reality are irrelevant. The purpose of education is to transform society – into what the teacher’s association wills. It all boils down to the “will to power.”
There is, I suppose, a fourth and older source. Beginning with the 16th century, Westerners have been increasingly exposed to cultural and religious diversity. There is something in us that is drawn to the different, the exotic, and the alternative. We would justify, in the name of fairness, even what we know to be nonsense and give to folly the benefit of the doubt. We are particularly enamored of Eastern thinking which, we think, will allow us to hold two contradictory notions at the same time – “both and” reasoning. We long for a universe in which there is more than one right answer. And so, we dream, along with Kipling, that “there ain’t no Ten Commandments on the road to Mandalay” – wrong and wrong, by the way.
Who needs objective truth anyway? Even in India, as the late Ravi Zacharias liked to point out, when you cross the street it is either you or the bus, not both and. There is only one right answer. If the “truth” I tell is just one of several possible truths, spun out of my own will and not anchored in anything beyond myself, it loses its integrity. When I give you the time of day, you have to ask yourself whether I want it to be late or early. On so many levels we need to be told the Truth: an honest, fair, as-near-as-we-can-tell approximation of the objective truth. In our hearts, at least, all truth wants to be related to objective truth. Our dismissal of the absolute and perfect excuses us from the honest and conscientious. Truth decay.
Because we cannot know everything, are we not responsible for knowing anything? Does not being so confident as we used to be about what is Absolutely True mean we are no longer bound to tell what we think is true? Because it could not be shown just how this cigarette caused this case of cancer, is Philip Morris absolved from all responsibility? Are politicians and advertisers now free to carefully craft their words to mean to the hearers just exactly the opposite of what they really mean – and we to shrug it off as “spin?” Because we cannot agree on the hole in the ozone layer or the Loch Ness monster, does it mean there is nothing there? Is it OK for manufacturers or scientists or junior high students to falsify tests to prove their point? For a man to say “I love you” when he doesn’t know your name? Is it OK to hire a lawyer to prove you innocent when you’re as guilty as sin? Or a judge to find something in the Constitution that was never intended? How about those “low fat” labels and bottled tap water “from” Blue Mountain Springs? What do all these things have in common? Truth decay!
So, at the first, ground-level we need objective truth to undergird common honesty and conscientiousness. If what we tell our friends and neighbors, our hearers and our readers, our customers and our constituents is based only on the point we are trying to make and the reaction we are trying to produce – then we cannot trust each other. Life becomes paranoid, unlivable. “Buyer beware” is a worthy caution, but in the extreme it makes commercial conduct impossibly risky. If our communications do not conform to the same standard of truth – an approximation of the objective – then we cannot do business. Oaths, promises, commitments, contracts – express or implied – that mean different things to different parties are worthless. A truthful person can err, misspeak, or disagree but he must aim at objective truth. Anything else we rightly perceive as dishonest. Truth decay!
On another level, we need objective truth in learning and science. There can be no accurate information without absolute commitment to truth. Fabricating lab results to support your theory is wrong in any discipline. Graphs, charts, and animation do not make a theory factual. Illustration is not proof. Science cannot be advanced if the researcher is allowed to just make things up. Even good fiction is good because it is in some sense true. Garrison Keilor’s monologs were so funny – to some people, at least – because they were so true to human nature. Teaching propaganda as fact is also wrong. Why is this so, even in our post-modern age? For the same reason: learning cannot be advanced if the teacher is allowed to just make things up. Parroting the teacher’s opinions will not get the student beyond the head of the class. It may be more obvious in math than history, but when the rubber meets the road the bubbles burst. Learning is only valuable if it is true – not bogus, not misleading – related to objective truth. Anything unrelated or disconnected is – you guessed it – truth decay!
Another level: sanity. It used to be, if you lost your grip on reality – if the universe you lived in did not correspond to the universe around you – the nice young men in the clean white coats would come to take you away. Now they put you on medication. Did you take yours this morning? Now we are told to create our own reality. The trouble is, it may be a nice place to visit, but you aren’t allowed to live there. Mental health requires a certain nodding relationship with objective truth. Positive thinking can, to some extent, remake you: improve your golf game, up your sales, even get you a date, but disconnect too much from who you really are and you become delusional. True, it takes a lifetime to find out who you truly are, but heaven help you if you get it wrong! Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to yourself is the only way to peace. And a double life will eat your lunch. Post-modern pantheism – especially combined with self-medication – justifies denial and hypocrisy. Truth decay.
At the ultimate level, our Post-Modernist rejection of objective truth is our way of dealing with the conflicting truth claims of religious and moral systems. This is not about incidentals, but the most fundamental questions of human existence: Absolute Truth – with capital letters. All systems agree that there is only one right answer. No truth is no answer. To be fair to everybody, we degrade all claims to objective truth – except the claim that all truth is relative. Thus we create an official religion that few of us really believe: that there are multiple right answers, or none at all, to the most important issues of life! A hollow fraud. Even though we cannot agree on the One True Faith, most of us cannot live without faith – or a secular substitutes (often the worst answers of all). How likely is it that there are no answers? Is it safe to ignore the most important issues of life? Truth decay.
With moral systems, we are less innocent. Morality is closely identified with all the major world religions and strangely, they are virtually unanimous on it’s content. Yet we vastly prefer more than one right answer – especially since just one answer would restrain our way of living. It looks suspiciously like we want to adapt our morality to fit our vices. There is a word for a way of life that is not restrained by objective moral standards: immorality. Subjective morality – true for you but not for me – is no morality at all. Everyone doing “what is right in his own eyes” is a recipe for anarchy. Truth decay is a threat to the survival of commerce, of knowledge, of sanity, of civilized society, and of mankind as a species. Let’s get that cavity filled!
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.