What is Truth?
“Quid est Veritas?”…“What is truth?”…this was the question Pontius Pilate asked Jesus at his trial. We do not know whether he asked with cynicism or sincerity in his voice, but history tells us that he walked away without waiting for an answer. What is truth? Does truth exist in reality, or is it an ever changing perception relative to individuals and cultures? Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1828) defines truth as a thing that exists in reality…
1. Conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be
2. True state of facts or things.
Is this non-politically correct definition ‘true’, or is truth whatever a person or culture proclaims it to be? In other words, is there absolute truth or is everything relative to our perceptions? In this first of three articles looking at the concept of truth, my goal is to briefly examine this question… “What is Truth…Real or Relative?
I recently recorded some verbal interviews with students at CCBC Essex, asking the question “What is truth?” The majority of responses were along the lines of… “Truth is whatever you believe it to be”, or “we each have our own truth”…in other words, relativism. Several people answered in a narrower sense, saying that truth is interpersonal honesty, and a few people stated more of a Webster’s- like definition…that truth is an accurate appraisal of what actually exists in reality.
I would have to agree with the Webster’s kind of answer, that truth is something real and absolute…something that stands, regardless of whether my perception of it is accurate or not. Here are a few small thoughts on the issue and why I think this definition stands up to reason, and fits with our experience in the real world.
When someone makes a statement that all truth is relative, are they not making a self-refuting claim? They presume to express an absolute truth statement about the proper way to view truth, which according to them is always relative. In other words, if there were truly no absolute truth, than their very statement that all truth is relative, would itself be relative by their definition, and therefore not worth asserting as a universal truth claim. So if someone claims, “there is no absolute truth, everything is relative!” We can reasonably ask, “Are we to understand that as an absolute truth statement, or is it just your opinion?” If it is absolute, than obviously you do believe there are absolutes, and have contradicted yourself, but if it is a relative statement of opinion, why would you seek to have others accept it as their reality? Does the ‘no absolutes’ concept only apply to views of truth that don’t agree with yours? If therefore, nothing is true, that would include your ideas, so why bother to express them?” The relativist cuts off the very branch on which he sits.
The person who claims there is no absolute truth, does not, indeed cannot, honestly live with his own claim. Every day, in myriad ways, we live as though truth exists, and that it is somewhat knowable. Some drunk runs a red-light and t-bones another car. Do we not seek to find out what really happened? Although someone may arrive at a false conclusion, does that change the fact that something really did happen? Is there not an accurate account of that historical event that is real, regardless of whether or not we find it? In taking classes at college, are we not making the assumption that we can benefit by gaining knowledge that will enhance our understanding of what is actually true in the real world? Relativism breaks down in reality.
In metaphysical discussions we often hear statements of relativism such as these… “It doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere” or “that is your truth, but I have my truth, and it’s all good”. This is nonsense. If something is true in reality, it’s ‘trueness’ is not dependent on anyone believing it true, or not believing it true. Millions of people sincerely believing the earth to be flat hundreds of years ago didn’t make it flat, nor do billions of people believing the earth to be spherical today make it so. It is true or not in and of itself, and has nothing to do with whether we perceive it accurately or not.
The reality of things would suggest that it is beneficial to line up our actions with what really is true, in spite of what our perceptions may tell us. One could stand on a balcony of a skyscraper and with sincere confidence deny the existence of gravity, and yet upon jumping, their sincerely held false perception would not keep them from their gravitational appointment with the ground. The relativist may cry foul at this juncture, and state that it is wrong to apply principles of truth existing in the material realm, to the metaphysical realm. Oh really? Who made that rule? Are we to take that to be an absolute rule when considering the metaphysical realm? Hmmmm.
Without claiming to know all of the answers to the great questions of metaphysics, one thing is clear…whatever reality exists, does so independently of our perception of it. It also stands to reason that for certain things to be true in the metaphysical realm, then of necessity other things must not be true. For instance, if there is in fact no creator God or deity, then atheists would be right, and all who believe in some deity would be wrong, and vice versa. It is nonsense to say these contradictory claims are equally true and valid, if in fact one must not be true for the other to be true.
So, my first small thought about truth is that it exists in reality, even in the metaphysical realm, and though we may discover truth, it is not dependant on our perception to make it true.