What is truth?August 24, 2007 — Deacon Duncan
In preparation for todays XFiles Friday, I’d like to take up a couple of philosophical questions that have practical, and important, answers.
1. What is truth?
2. How can we distinguish between real-world truth and that which is not truth?
A decent philosopher could probably write a whole book about truth, but for our purposes here we will limit ourselves to real-world truth, and practical answers. Truth is reality, i.e. that which exists independently of our perceptions of it, which is self-consistent, and which has a significant impact on our experience independent of our wishes and/or perceptions.
This is a somewhat oversimplified definition, naturally. For example, it could be perfectly true that in some far distant galaxy, some small, subatomic particle is interacting with some other small, subatomic particle in a way that will never have any significant impact on anybody’s experience. That’s fine; this definition of truth isn’t meant to be all-encompassing. I’m just highlighting those aspects of the portion of the truth which is relevant to the subject of apologetics. There may be quite a bit of truth somewhere out beyond the realm of that which will ever have a meaningful impact on our individual experiences, but as far as this discussion is concerned, it is sufficient to point out the connection between truth and objective reality.
How can we tell the difference between real-world truth and that which is not really true? I’ve hinted at the answer above: genuine, real-world truth exists outside of our subjective perceptions, is self-consistent, and has a significant impact on our experience regardless of our perceptions, desires, fantasies, etc. That means we can distinguish between truth and untruth by looking first and foremost for consistency.
Truth is consistent with itself, which means (negatively) that it won’t contradict itself and (positively) that it is interconnected with other truths in a constrained manner, such that our knowledge of one part of the truth can reveal the existence of more truth that is consistent with what we know. This is the principle upon which all valid science is based, by the way.
There are a couple other principles which also stem from the nature of truth: if truth is that which exists independently of our perceptions, then we should be suspicious, at least, if we find some alleged “truth” which depends on our individual, subjective perceptions for its existence and character. Such things may be “subjective truths,” if you like, but they’re not necessarily real-world truth (i.e. truth that has a significant impact on our experience regardless of our perceptions and desires).
Likewise, if real-world truth is that which has a significant impact on our experience apart from our perceptions and desires, then we should be at least skeptical in the fact of any alleged “truth” that has no possible impact on our experience apart from perception and desire. This is not to assume that such things are automatically false, but they need to be examined to see if they are indeed consistent with objective reality, or if they are merely pleasant but irrelevant fantasies (or unpleasant but groundless fears, etc).
Notice that the above answers do not arbitrarily eliminate what might be called “spiritual” experiences. Suppose, for example, that there exists some spiritual being who, having no material component, cannot appear in physical form. Yet people claim to be able to communicate with this being, subjectively. If our subjective perceptions are the only means we have of interacting with this being, does that mean we cannot determine whether this being actually exists?
Not at all. Truth is consistent with itself, and real-world truth exists independently of our perceptions. All we need to do is to see whether or not the behavior of this alleged being is consistent with that which exists independently of our perceptions. For example, take two people who claim to be able to communicate with this being. Separate them so that they cannot communicate with each other (except via this spiritual being), and then give one of them some short passage of text to relay to the other via the spiritual being.
If the communication takes place, and the message is successfully transmitted, that would be consistent with the idea that the spiritual being actually exists. If the believers are forced to consistently make excuses for why the communication failed to happen, that would be consistent with the spiritual being not actually existing in the real world, outside of the believers’ perceptions.
Truth can be a tricky business. Sometimes you don’t have all the information you need, and sometimes you misperceive the information you do have. In the long term, however, the truth tends to make itself known because of its inherent consistency with itself and with the real world, and untruth tends to make itself known by the accumulated need for additional speculations, rationalizations, fantasies, and other self-deceptions required to maintain belief in the face of increasing self-contradictions and inconsistencies with reality.