Does Truth Actually Exist?
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Have you heard of “the Rashomon effect?” I had not heard the term until I watched a fascinating Youtube video entitled “The Rashomon Effect – Does Truth Actually Exist?” Now I have a phrase for a well-known and often observed, even experienced, phenomenon.
But the part of the title and video that really catches my attention is the author’s and narrator’s questioning of the existence of truth ONLY because of unreliable alternative eyewitness perspectives on the same event and the unreliability of memory.
To jump right to the point, I decry the video’s confusion of “truth” with “knowledge”—something I think has become extremely common in modern American (and perhaps other) culture. I have taught philosophy, history and theology to thousands of mostly youthful, mostly American, mostly Christian students over forty years. I have noticed this confusion at work in many of their minds. I “see” it all around me in culture. This confusion expressed in the video and elsewhere reflects the larger cultural confusion and contributes to its continuation.
”The Rashomon Effect” is a term borrowed from, or developed from, a 1950 Japanese movie entitled “Rashomon.” The film presents the same event from four eyewitness accounts and seems to demonstrate or at least depict the absence of truth because all four accounts radically differ and yet all four eyewitnesses are telling the truth. Psychologists and storytellers, including film makers, have picked up on this trope and interpreted it and used it. The video shows its use in many American movies such as “Gone Girl” and “Vantage Point.” So, the video itself is mainly about storytelling especially in modern movie-making, but it claims that the “effect” is common and should be recognized and used as an interpretive tool even in criminal court cases.
The philosophical point derived from this common human experience is that “No two people experience the same event in the same way” and that, therefore, truth is subjective.
And yet…toward the end of the video the narrator says that in some cases the different perspectives actually contribute to the discovery of “objective truth.” He cites the movie “Vantage Point” as an example. Then, however, he returns to talking about “subjective truth.”
With “the Rashomon effect” I now have a term for something I have experienced many times. One story will suffice. I was just beginning my teaching tenure at a Christian liberal arts college. I taught a course entitled “Introduction to Christian Theology.” Most of the students were college freshmen. After a few lectures, two students in that class came to me separately on the same day. In the morning one said to me (paraphrasing) “Professor Olson, I wish you not indoctrinate us but just tell us what are the options of belief and let us make up our own minds.” In the afternoon, another students came to my office and said (paraphrasing) “Professor Olson, I wish you would not just tell us the different options for believing but tell us what we ought to believe.” They had both attended the same classes.
Now, that is clearly an example of “the Rashomon effect” and yet I knew what I was doing—some of both. Neither student’s perspective was totally wrong or totally right. But that did not make what happened subjective. Their perspectives were subjective, but my teaching was objective IN THE SENSE THAT it was what it was. Their differing eyewitness accounts of my teaching did not mean there was “no truth” about the matter.
Over my years of teaching especially undergraduate students raised in Christian homes and churches (a total of about 17 years) I noticed something very interesting. Especially the brighter students, and they were the ones who spoke in class during discussion times, believed that Christianity is true but alternative religions are not false. When this sentiment appeared I would often ask them if both belief that Jesus Christ was God incarnate in a unique way not true of any other human being and denial that Jesus Christ was God incarnate…. You get the idea. In most cases I could tell they didn’t like being made to think that way. Of course I always admitted that there are some beliefs shared by several religions; that’s not the issue. But can we really say that “Christianity is true but alternative religions are not false?” I dug deep into that mindset and came to the conclusion that these students were confused. They were NOT just saying that other religions are “not totally false.”
Then a colleague, a Christian professor of history, told me (as I have said here before) “Roger, reincarnation can be true for Shirley MacLaine and not be true for you.” (Whether reincarnation is true or not is not the issue here; the issue is whether it can be true for some and not true for others.)
I believe many people, including the makers of the Youtube video (and perhaps the book they mention on which it is based), confuse “knowledge” with “truth” and vice versa. Just because “no two people experience the same event in the same way” does not mean that truth itself does not actually exist. Truth itself is what is real, what really happened—independently of different perceptions and perspectives. Truth itself is never subjective; it is always objective. Knowledge about truth often contains an element of subjectivity.
The danger here is that people who buy into the “subjective truth” theory and belief may give up “the search for truth” once they experience “the Rashomon effect.” This is illustrated in the title of a popular 1970s book “I’ve Given Up My Search for Truth and Now I’m Just Looking for a Good Fantasy.” (I’m going by memory here and the title may be a little “off.” The author was Ashleigh Brilliant.)
I don’t deny “the Rashomon effect” and now am glad I have a phrase to name a common human experience and one I have often had. However, I think Christian pastors, teachers and other influencers need to work against the false interpretation of it that says “truth is subjective” and/or “truth itself does not actually exist” and/or “I have my truth and you have yours.” We need to teach our people not to conform to this way of this world (culture) and to embrace belief that truth itself is reality itself and that God knows it as it really is even if we often do not.