Tag Archives: knowledge

“What Is Truth?”

“What is truth?” is a question. You realized that, and you also realized that it is the title of this post. What you may not have fully registered is that the title is in quotes. I am not asking, here, what truth is. I am asking what the question is.

That may seem rather ridiculous. I say it is no more ridiculous than many of the things that people think, and say, and believe are true. At least I am not claiming anything significant. I am just observing that those three words, arrayed in that order, comprise a question.

But if you’d like, I can try to explain why the question would catch my attention. To me, there are two noteworthy things about it. First, it focuses on truth, and truth is commonly considered important. Second, it is the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38).

Pilate’s question has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Wiersbe (2007, p. 303) observes that Pilate may have been either “sneering or sighing . . . we do not know.” Wikipedia, citing Wiersbe, suggests that Pilate could have been implicitly criticizing either the nature of Jesus’s trial or his claim to speak the truth.

Pilate’s utterance is probably why the question seems to be of interest especially to religious people. For example, at this writing, among the first 50 results in a Google search for that question, the large majority are patently religious — mostly Christian, but with a few Mormon entries and at least one that looks Hindu. Christian commentators (e.g., Rolheiser, 2011; Sancto, 2012; A Catholic Thinker, 2012) often consider Pilate’s question ironic, insofar as he seems to have been expressing uncertainty about truth while looking directly at the one who claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

These insights suggest a characterization. “What is truth?” is a question that matters to many Christians because it highlights the contrast between their religion and the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. In that tradition, someone like Pilate could (and perhaps Pilate did) snidely or sincerely allude to the complexity of philosophical truth, while completely missing the presence or possibility of religious truth.

Pilate, presumably not stupid, was able to miss the significance of Jesus (as portrayed in the New Testament), just as many Christians fail to understand various philosophical truths, because the alleged answer to the question of truth was not provided in an acceptable form. In that light, “What is truth?” points to the phenomenon, witnessed recently in the polarization of American politics, in which a given event can be interpreted in deeply incompatible ways, depending on one’s prior mental and emotional needs and commitments.

It could seem reasonable to respond to this state of affairs by striving for an open mind, freeing oneself from the distortion of those prior commitments. Unfortunately, while that may make sense from a secular perspective, it could be the exact opposite of what faith requires. In response to Thomas’s doubts (John 20:29), Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The greatest faith, within this religion, may be that which is most extremely capable of disregarding or reinterpreting evidence, so as to conform with prior mental or emotional commitments.

From a secular perspective, that may seem like craziness. Playing games with reality is a good way to get hurt or killed — even more so when believers exult in their freedom to behave irrationally, by seeking out endless nonsensical sociopolitical perspectives that have little or nothing to do with faith. You can support the Bush Administration’s counterproductive wars; you can insist on keeping guns in your home as a political statement; you can fight against vaccines and taxes; you can claim expertise in climate science and other fields in which you have no training. But your faith does not require you do to any of that — if anything, it is directly opposed to most of it — and if you insist on looking for trouble, eventually you will find it.

It is neither considerate nor intelligent to behave as if you need not try to make sense to your neighbors. And yet one might say the same thing to the philosophers. At least the believers do have a relatively coherent response to “What is truth?” By contrast, among the results of my Google search, I found these words in the introduction to the Truth entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP, Glanzberg, 2013):

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.

So, not a bad start, given 2,500 years to work on it. With religion as an obtrusively irrational counterpoint, it has been easy for the secular types to assume that they all agree on science as a superior alternative. Yet this is not so. Another SEP article (Oberheim, 2013) observes that Kuhn (1962) and Feyerabend (1962) were labeled “the worst enemies of science” because their philosophies supported doubts about the rationality of science. Oberheim says the sociology of science became a recognized discipline as a result of that challenge — and, again citing the SEP (Longino, 2015), research within that discipline has contended inter alia that “philosophical analyses of rationality, of evidence, of truth and knowledge, [are] irrelevant to understanding scientific knowledge.” Going further, Good (1999, p. 186) says that some views held by mainstream philosophers of science “have actually been serious hindrances” to the science of chemistry.

So the philosophers are not consistently on the same page with one another, much less agreeing en masse with the scientists. “What is truth?” thus leads us around to the suspicion that truth may be perceived in multiple ways, depending upon one’s perspective or purpose. And — as if to suggest that we might finally be approaching the actual state of affairs — that sympathy to multiple perspectives may irritate believers, scientists, and philosophers alike, insofar as all seem to think they know a lot about truth, and are prepared to explain it to me in detail.

If I had to venture a guess at this point, I might say that truth appears to begin with those statements that must be true, in order for a certain enterprise to proceed. For instance, you have to start by assuming certain things about Jesus, in order to proceed with the Christian project; and you have to assume things about language or the physical world, if you are to get anywhere in philosophy or science. The assumptions will seem well founded in some situations, less so in others; the assumptions of one project may seem much more solid than those of another; but their basis in reality typically becomes less of an issue, once you roll up your sleeves and get absorbed in the details of the project.

That seems to explain Balkin’s (2003) contention that “law creates truth” — that “[i]t makes things true in the eyes of the law. And when law makes things true in its own eyes, this has important consequences in the world.” For instance, what the law makes true regarding taxation is “not true and false from the standpoint of mathematics or natural science” but rather just “from the standpoint of law . . . in ways that matter to us.” The idea seems to be that you start with your own little corner of the world; you say and do things that seem true within that limited physical or mental space; and then, at some point, what you have been saying and doing begins to affect people and things outside of your sphere. As Balkin observes, that can become problematic:

As soon as law creates a category or an institutional structure, it is possible for things to become true or real in the eyes of the law whether or not they are judged true or real from another perspective– for example the standpoint of medical science, religious belief, or political philosophy. . . .

As in religion, philosophy, and science, Balkin observes that legal truth gives people “tools to think with” — “a way of understanding”:

When law “recognizes” a cause of action for sexual harassment, for example, it sees that such a thing exists as a legal wrong. At the moment the wrong becomes cognizable to the law, it becomes real to the law, whether or not it had been real to generations of individuals before that point.

Balkin suggests that other forms of knowledge, behaving in roughly similar fashion, include medicine, psychology, social science, and history. These ways of knowing can conflict because “truth and knowledge are shaped by institutional purposes.” For instance, to a doctor, a person who walks into a hospital’s emergency room is “a set of clinical problems to be tested, identified, diagnosed and cured” but, to a lawyer, that same person is “a potential tort suit.” Both perspectives may be correct, but they can be unrelated or even opposed to one another.

In words that also apply to religion, philosophy, and science, Belkin closes with these remarks:

Law’s construction of a social world and its development of the social imagination can do enormous good. But it always also has other effects. It always also serves other ends, including the empowerment of legal institutions and legal forms of thinking. . . .

My point is to focus on the ways in which legal concepts, legal thinking, and legal imagination colonize moral and ethical imagination. To do this, we must pay careful attention to the many ways in which . . . the moral imagination becomes ensnared by and held in servitude to the legal. Then the truth of law does not necessarily set us free. . . . Law’s power grows organically and relentlessly out of law’s colonization of social imagination.

With those words, “What is truth?” takes an ominous turn. No longer are we talking about a familiar conflict between the old antagonists, God and science, each comfortably sealed in its own self-congratulatory echo chamber. Now, much to the contrary, Belkin portrays truth as an aggressive, colonizing force, a weapon with which to take control of what people think and do. This characterization resonates: this is, after all, what religions and philosophies have always seemed to be hoping for.

In such a setting, the question may be whether truth is your friend — whether the world is actually better off when you or I think we can answer the question, “What is truth?” The image comes to mind of two theologians or lawyers, fighting for years on end, to advance their own firm convictions as to the only permissible outcome of some dispute. When people think they have the truth, they dig in their heels. They become angry; they become hardened. This, it seems, is where wars begin.

Yet there is, perhaps, a response to such concerns. This post adopts a God’s-eye metaposition, standing above the fray, critiquing claimants to the prize of Truth. These various special-purpose forms of truth — legal, religious, etc. — do not generally seem so wise and true as to justify ignoring other forms of truth. In other words, by writing about these perspectives, I have implicitly taken the view that these are all just pieces of the puzzle. The heretofore unstated claim is that, approached honestly, “What is truth?” ultimately drives us toward questions and adaptations, rather than answers and verities.

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” We don’t know what he meant by that. And that is fortunate. Because what he achieved, by leaving us in limbo, was to exemplify the nature of the question. The query pushes us to keep asking him, and each other: Why do you say that? What do you mean? If the scripture is to be our guide, in this case it guides us to keep thinking about religious people, like Jesus; and about philosophers, like the Greeks and Romans in whom Pilate may have been schooled; and about the political and legal and other influences at work, in that moment of Christ’s Passion.

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Taking Ministry Seriously, with Humility

I started first grade in 1961, in a one-room elementary school just down the road from our home in rural Indiana, as the child of a housewife and a railroad worker. The teacher, and the preacher in the Lutheran church supporting that school, were the first professionals whose work became familiar to me. When Mr. Gemmer, the teacher, would ask the two dozen (or so) kids in our eight grades how many of us wanted to become teachers, a majority of hands went up. Mine was among them.

In 1967, the school closed and Mr. Gemmer went away. I finished my primary and secondary education in public schools. In the last two years of high school, I became involved in the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. During my senior year especially, a group of perhaps 15 students, participating in our school’s prayer group, generated an environment of caring and companionship that I have never forgotten.

At times during my junior and/or senior year in high school, I taught Sunday School in the Lutheran church next door, worked as the president of that church’s youth group, and served as an office assistant to the minister, Rev. Hillmer. In my private religious practice at that time, I was studying the Bible intensively, memorizing substantial pieces of it verbatim, fasting (for one or more days at a stretch), speaking in tongues, praying at length, and wrestling with the real or imagined demons of the pentecostal worldview pervading our portion of the Christian life.

These experiences gave me a foundation of religious conviction as well as some minor exposure to leadership, in those roles as Bible teacher, informal prayer group leader, and elected leader of the youth group at the Lutheran church. Through my encounters with Rev. Hillmer, I began to see that it could make sense to pursue a career in the ministry. That was the basis on which I decided to attend college rather than just study my Bible and await the Second Coming of Christ, which I understood was imminent. In fall 1973, I became a pre-ministry student at Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, MI.

In their work at that time and in years to come, Rev. Hillmer and Mr. Gemmer embodied the faith of the committed Christian. I did not find, in their Lutheran church, the drama and intensity of our prayer group and of other Christian worship and practice in the Jesus Movement. But there was no question of their sincerity and devotion to the Christian faith.

It appeared that such devotion likewise motivated many of the professors at Concordia. By contrast, my pre-ministerial classmates were more of a mixed bag. Some did go on to become ministers, but others visibly lacked the kind of personal religious commitment that would motivate them to be vigilant against the Devil and to strive to expel sinful thoughts and acts from their lives. Frankly, in some cases I saw no real difference between these would-be future ministers and the completely secular young people I had known in high school. For instance, I wasn’t surprised that a first-year college student would want to have a female student climbing in his window at night; I was just surprised that he would want to be enrolled in a conservative religious college, much less a pre-ministerial program.

My own future as a minister did not pan out, but for a different reason. What waylaid me was not the temptations of the rich life, but rather the intellectual problems of faith. As described in another post, I discovered that things I had been taught and/or had assumed about the Bible and about Truth were not necessarily so. Starting during my year at Concordia, and with increasing intensity over the next two years, I struggled, sometimes rather desperately, to find a way to continue in the faith or, if necessary, to be certain that leaving it was the right thing to do.

I was not always alone during those years, but that was an extraordinarily lonely experience. It seemed like nobody else among my acquaintances wrestled with this sort of thing. It was as if I were somehow required to endure my own version of what Martin Luther had endured more than 450 years earlier, when he rejected the religious orthodoxy of his time with the famous words, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” Luther’s drama might seem overblown to some; but in fact that moment, as much as any, heralded more than a hundred years of religious war that would rage across Europe.

As such, that moment may have more current relevance than meets the eye. Because — to move quickly through the subsequent years — what happened next in my own life was that I drifted some distance away from conservative Christian practice and belief. I became a philosophy major and then moved to New York City, married a Jewish woman, and became a lawyer. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, I watched scornfully as Christian conservatives confronted sex scandals in their midst, including adultery by famous ministers (e.g., Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker) and sexual abuse of minors, as well as fraud within churches. To me, such developments vindicated my hard-won realization that wanting to believe something does not make it so. If it’s not the cold, hard truth, then you have no business dragging God into it. He did not create your problems, and he is not likely to fix them for you.

I say that Martin Luther’s line in the sand has contemporary impact because now, in this U.S. presidential election season of fall 2016, we are seeing a quasi-religious confrontation among true believers reminiscent of Luther’s 16th century.

There was a time, in my years as a lawyer and, later, as a student of social work, when I could join liberal America in smug agreement with St. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, “Few of you were wise in the world’s eyes . . . when God called you.” In other words, religious rigidity tends not to be very compatible with worldly concepts of intelligence; smart people tend to remain skeptical. My own experience persuaded me that people committed to finding truth will realize that the Bible is not what believers want it to be.

But I failed to take account of what happened next. Luther’s followers became as legalistic and dogmatic in their beliefs as the Catholics ever were — and now, as if to follow their example, liberal America has likewise departed from a commitment to truth, however unpleasant it may sometimes be, and is preferring instead to take a perverse pride in the sometimes destructive poses that it adopts on behalf of its self-appointed crusades. Like the Lutheran armies inflicting death on fellow Christians, supposedly in the name of a God of love, today’s liberal opinionmakers too often use their purportedly truth-oriented occupations — in academia, in journalism, and, yes, in liberal churches — to promote their preferred beliefs, distorting reality to win arguments. Such behavior recalls, all too clearly, the deplorable conservative habit of lying for the Lord.

In this 2016 presidential election season especially, I have been appalled at the supposedly educated liberals who evidently lack the capacity to think critically about their chosen dogma. In conversation after conversation, I have seen the kind of extremely partisan thinking that insists it is right every time, about every issue. That is not the mentality of a thoughtful person. And it comes out in public displays. Consider, for instance, the conflict between the New York Times‘s self-perception as a national “paper of record” and the palpable fact that the Times is grossly partisan, or the contrast between Hillary Clinton’s stated desire to bring Americans together and her claim that “you could put half of [Donald] Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” Regardless of my own dislike for Donald Trump, these are not the behaviors of people who care enough about truth to have learned that it quickly departs from those who claim to own it. In the words of The Guardian (Mallaby, 2016), the privileged class “has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings . . . . its arrogance enhanced by the conviction that its privilege reflects brains and accomplishment, not luck and inheritance.”

Unfortunately, I have experienced this deadly liberal arrogance about the truth in my own life and career. In other blog posts, I have described, for instance, the corruption of procedures for fairly resolving grievances in the very heart of the liberal enterprise, in master’s and PhD programs at the universities of Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Arkansas. As documented in those linked webpages, the professors and administrators responsible for that corruption tend to prioritize other things over the truthseeking that society has traditionally expected from its intellectuals. Today’s university ambiance favors those who will readily sacrifice principle for self-advancement, so for the most part this corruption has become a de facto element of university ethics. In some cases, truth is disregarded, not only where it is inconvenient, but also where it would interfere with the gratification of power — with, that is, the latitude to abuse those who cannot protect themselves. Such sadism is perhaps most notorious in the university’s treatment of graduate students, but it also emerges in abuse of junior faculty and, in many ways, of the public trust.

To recap, earlier paragraphs in this post explain that I was dismayed to encounter instances of false faith among conservative Christian ministers, and these last several paragraphs explain that I have been, if anything, even more dismayed to see that false faith is rife among the alleged truths with which liberal Christians and nonbelievers confront the conservative believer. Yes, there are many problems with claims based on or implied by the words of the Bible. But, these days, those who claim to prioritize reason over faith are not championing a consistently superior worldview. Yes, to cite one example among many, they do far better with their medical machines than the believers do with prayer. But that is merely an argument that certain matters are best left to science. One can just as easily retort that other matters, including some very important ones (e.g., faithfulness; generosity; the richness of present-moment experience) tend to be better left to a worldview that does not glorify selfish individualism above all else — a worldview, that is, that prioritizes, not the corruptible pursuit of personal advancement, but rather an unselfish commitment to the well-being of one’s community or, possibly, the expectations of one’s God.

It is easy to assume that you know the truth and that others do not. But how can you be so sure? Those who have attempted the philosophical and/or psychological study of what we know, and how we can be sure we know it, are likely to affirm that such questions are vastly more difficult than one might expect. In fact, human beings tend not to have simple and clear knowledge of things. Learning this about oneself is essential, if one is to be well educated.

It is regrettable that colleges and universities are so frequently failing to introduce students to those fundamental insights. Their failure leaves us with the spectacle of this year’s election contest, in which Americans seem more partisan and less truthseeking than ever before — where one can observe, as just discussed, that the supposedly smarter and more reasonable liberals remain unable and/or unwilling to grasp and respond effectively to conservative concerns.

But even if the universities are no longer reliably able to teach students what truth is like, at least the schools of religion should do so. The person who claims to have the answers, thanks to his/her own liberal intellect or conservative interpretation of selected Bible passages — the person who simplemindedly rejects the knowledge, intelligence, experience, and sincerity of those who disagree with him/her — may lack a basic sense of perspective on the breadth and complexity of life. Such a person does not seem a likely candidate for a divine calling.

You’re Wrong

You may think you’re right, but you’re wrong about that too.

But what was I wrong about in the first place? you might ask. That’s a good question, but not important. The point here is just that you’re wrong.

This may seem like a ridiculous claim. A person can’t just be wrong; s/he has to be wrong about something in particular. You’d be right about that, except for just one problem: you’re wrong.

But I’m not wrong, you might say, and I can prove it. I say you can’t. You say, Well, how about 2 + 2 = 4? I’m not wrong about that, am I?

And the reply is, yes, obviously. Because 2 + 2 can only really equal 2 + 2. You can define 2 + 2 to be equal to 4, but that’s where you start to go off the tracks. Because defining 2 + 2 = 4 leads, pretty quickly, to strange creatures like division by zero (which cannot be defined in this number system), and irrational numbers, and numbers that cannot exist, like the square root of minus one. You can define yourself as being right, by defining 2 + 2 = 4, but that’s like defining yourself as Bill Gates and then living as if you were rich. It doesn’t add up.

Try again, if you’d like. The sky is blue? Which part of the sky? Where? Does the person blind from birth agree? Would you care to compare it against a color chip from the paint store, to make sure it’s not actually aqua or periwinkle?

The point here is not that everyone is always wrong about everything. It’s that it is hard to be right, and even harder to stay that way. When I say you’re wrong, I’m just generalizing, because you usually are.

Well, how about me, you might ask – am I not wrong too? Good question. If you think it’s important, I encourage you to get your own blog and write about it. But you’d be wrong – it’s really not important.

So, to clarify: yes, you can define 4 to be 2 + 2. You can define blue to be what a certain part of the sky is, at a certain place and time, as if it were possible to preserve that lost moment. You can carve out bits of being right, from a larger world in which you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

The reason you’re wrong is that being right tends to be a matter of contingencies and particulars, the tentative and usually temporary result of concerted effort in the face of a general reality of being wrong. On 3 + 9, you nailed it, but only because you had already given yourself that trophy, starting with your definition of things like 2 + 2. On that little spot of blue, congratulations, and big deal.

But surely you know things more important than that. Or do you? Example: you think your kids love you. Do they? Maybe. Janie, down the street, loved Jimmy, and that’s why she shot him. Do your kids love you like that? No, of course not. So you see. You have to define the word the way you want, and keep tweaking it until it doesn’t fit any of the situations that you don’t want to include. Your knowledge isn’t an apple that just falls off the tree into your hand. It isn’t an apple at all. It is a creaky little gizmo that you invented out of bits and pieces, and then tried to glue together. It takes work, the result looks awful, and it wants to fall apart.

Well, but doesn’t being right about lots of little things add up to being right on the big level, about some pretty impressive problems? Good question: does it? You’re right, in some ways, about things like hemoglobin, and viruses, and the body’s immune system, and somehow it all adds up to a polio vaccine. But (a) you, yourself, weren’t right about those things; invariably your path required reliance on other people, sometimes finding truths contrary to what you might have expected, and (b) what you were right about is still not keeping up with what you were wrong about. Among other things, polio is back. Again, congrats.

Collectively, the things you are right about are like the time when my brother’s wife got a job in a department store. They were always having sales. She would come home with new merchandise, telling him how much money they had saved. He said to me, Ray, I saved money yesterday on a new microwave. Last week I saved money on new drapes for the windows. I’m saving so much money, I’m going broke.

You are so right, these days, about so many important things, that humanity is at the point of jeopardizing its own existence, in a world that is on its way to becoming unliveable. If you were any more right, we would all be dead already. So keep it up – you’re doing a heckuva job.

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See also this Kathryn Schulz excerpt and my own later post on the arrogance of experts.

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