What Is Truth?
“Truth” is a large granite stone by the side of Interstate 35 in southern Minnesota. Or it was.
Years ago, if not today, there was such a large rock sign that simply said “Truth.” Then it disappeared. That was a metaphor for what is happening in American culture—the disappearance of truth.
(Truth was the name of a business; they decided for some reason to remove that particular sign.)
Near the end of Jesus’s life on earth, Roman governor of Palestine, Pilate, asked “What is truth?” Ever since, and before, people have been asking “What is truth?” Probably no more important question has obsessed the minds of philosophers and others. Not only “What is true?” but “What is truth?” What do we mean when we claim that something is “true?”
Tremendous confusion results when and because people mean different things by “truth.” Unfortunately, there is no consensus about what that word means or signifies.
I will dare to wade into this confusion with my own meaning of “truth.” When I say something is “the truth” or “true” I mean it is real.
Years ago, when teaching at a Christian liberal arts college in Minnesota I delivered an address to the students and faculty in convocation entitled “What happened to truth?” My “hook” was the story about the removal of the large stone sign mentioned above. Then I talked about a variety of subjects related to the apparent demise of truth in American culture. I must have mentioned the New Age Movement and Shirley MacLaine and reincarnation.
The larger context of that was the title of a book I had recently seen in a bookstore: I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy by self-help guru Ashleigh Brilliant (a man).
After my talk, in which I decried the virtual disappearance of the concept of what Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer called “True truth,” a colleague, a professor of history, confronted me and said “Reincarnation can be true for Shirley MacLaine even if it’s not true for you.” He was serious; he meant it as a rebuke and rebuttal to my presentation.
And there it is—the death of truth itself. Truth reduced to subjective belief open to the possibility of the truth of absolute contradiction about reality.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
This man, a man I liked and considered a friend, had succumbed to relativism. At least at that moment. I never followed up with him to find out how or why he could say that about reincarnation. How can something metaphysical, real, actual, be true and at the same time false? How can reincarnation be “true” for Shirley MacLaine (who at that time was claiming to know about previous lives lived) and false for me?
In the face of people who claim to believe in parallel universes and relative realities, I will dare to say that either reincarnation is true for everyone or it is not true for anyone. I am as certain as I can be that my colleague did not believe in parallel universes or multiverses or any other metaphysical reality of that kind. So what did he mean? What do people mean when they talk about “my truth” and “your truth” being different truths?
Communication is important and that requires some agreement about the meanings of words. (I’ve argued that here many times before and read all kinds of rebuttal responses, but I will stand by that claim.) “Truth” has traditionally meant real. A claim that something is true has meant that it is real; it exists. In other words, when someone claims that something is true, he or she has meant that it corresponds with reality (or used to correspond with reality or will correspond with reality).
Of course, as we all know, there are all kinds of exceptions to clear communication. In “street language,” people often say things like “The truth is that you ought to do such-and-such.” They may have no intention of describing reality; this often is simply a way of saying “You ought to do such-and-such.” “Truth” gets implanted in all kinds of assertions and exclamations and injunctions.
Here I’m talking about truth claims—claims about what is true and that means what is real. And if it is a real truth claim (and what other kind of claim is there?) it intends to be intersubjectively informative about reality.
Serious truth claims aim at universality.
How truth claims can be verified or falsified is another subject, but the importance of that subject depends on this definition of truth. If a truth claim is not meant to be about reality and is not meant to be intersubjective, then the question of how it can be verified or falsified is irrelevant.
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