19 Dec Navigating in a Post-Truth World
We live in what is known as a post-truth era. This means that the present generation no longer believes that there are absolute truths. For them, all truth is relative, situational and subjective. Let us try to clear some clouds surrounding the topic and think through some of the issues that are at stake.
Truth and Reality
Our first task is to answer the question, ‘what is truth?’. This was the question that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor asked when he conducted the trial of Jesus (John 18:38). Interestingly, Pilate had no patience to listen to or see the Truth who was standing before him!
A very simple yet profound definition of truth is: ‘Truth is what corresponds to reality’. This answer Immediately raises another question – what then is reality? Reality is ‘what is’ independent of opinions. I can make a statement “It is now raining outside”. The statement can be true or false depending on whether it is really raining. What emerges is very interesting. While reality remains, a statement made about reality can either be true or false. To cite another example, a teacher asks how much is 2+2 to a group of students. Let us imagine all the students give answers like say 3, 5 etc. We say these answers are false because it does not correspond to reality (which is 4). Four (4) is the right answer because it corresponds to reality. I also need to add here incidentally that reality can be more complex than this as 4 can be 5 minus 1 also which opens up various dimensions of the same reality.
To sum up, reality remains out there objectively like a solid rock independent of perceptions and opinions. One can make statements or truth claims about reality. These statements can either be true or false. Truth is tested with propositions (statements) about reality. It is also another matter that truth can also be tasted (experienced)! Some years back a thief broke into our house in Kerala in the wee hours. In the morning we all could make a ‘truth claim’ that there was a theft in the house last night. Evidences showed that the above statement corresponds to reality and therefore it was true. We also ‘experienced’ the truth as certain valuables were missing and the doors that were latched the previous night were lying open! Evidences play an important role in establishing whether a truth claim corresponds to reality or not.
Is truth relative or absolute?
This is one of the most vexing questions when it comes to the nature of truth. To grasp the difference between the two possibilities of relative and absolute, imagine a husband making two statements about his wife:
Statement #1: My wife is five feet four inches tall
Statement#2: My wife is the best cook in the whole world.
The first statement must be absolute as it is objective – measurable by anyone and it excludes all other answers than the height measurement mentioned. This truth has to be absolute and cannot be relative – changing from place to place or time to time. An important concept emerges- when the truth claims are ‘mutually exclusive’ truth has to be absolute.
The second statement obviously is very subjective like beauty which is in the eye of the beholder. Others need not agree with this statement. And we cannot verify if this statement conforms to reality. Truth in this sense can be relative.
Jesus made the statement – “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6). Just think for a moment to which category does his statement belong? I am sure it is very obvious to us that he was making an absolute truth claim. See the exclusivity introduced by the definite article ‘The’ – The truth, The way and The Life and also the Father.
Options are very few!
When it comes to truth, we have very few options! For a moment let us examine the statement ‘There is no truth’. This statement self-destructs if we ask a simple question to that ‘truth claim’(statement about reality) – Is that true? If the truth claim is right, the statement also is not true. This is an example of a self-contradicting statement. In fact there are only three options when it comes to truth claims about reality:
Option #1: All views about reality are true. The problem with this view is that one of the views possible is that this view is false. That view also needs to be true as all views are true! This view about reality destructs itself.
Option #2: All views about reality are false: The problem with this view is that this view also needs to be necessarily false as all views are false! This view about reality also self-destructs.
Option #3: Some view(s) about reality are true and some are false. It emerges that this is the only option available. Now, how to decide which view is true and which ones are false, one needs to examine which claims correspond to reality. Logic (the science of right thinking) and epistemology (the science of right knowing) can be of immense help here. These are two major branches of philosophy.
Nonsense and probabilities
I am coming back to the question how does one establish if a truth claim is true or false. Two answers can be given. First the truth claim cannot defy logic. Secondly the evidences associated with the truth claim should point to high probabilities. Let me explain. Imagine a vertical scale with markings 0 to 5. Each of the number corresponds to the following:
1-Possible but very Low Probability
4- High Probability
5- Very High probability
To cite an example on the low end of the scale, the famous question ‘Can God create a stone which He cannot lift?’ falls to the category of nonsense as the expectation is that God can perform acts that are logically contradictory. Nonsense will remain nonsense even if God is the subject!
Now coming to the higher ends of the scale, a good point to start is the question of the origin of the universe. Either the universe is spontaneously self-generated or it is a result of design by an intelligent agent. Both are possibilities. Both are equally valid truth claims. But where does the evidence take us? A strong case can be made for intelligent design to demonstrate that the universe is a result of intelligent design and belongs to the category of ‘very high probability’. Similarly the claim that God does not exist (Atheism) or God exists (Theism) are truth claims about ultimate reality. Both are valid possibilities. Both cannot be proved through empirical research. But collecting the evidence (forensic method) we are able to establish which statement is highly probable. More the evidence, the claim moves up on the scale from possibilities to probabilities. Obviously, we need to put our trust(faith) in what belongs to high probabilities.
Deception and counterfeiting
The discussion on truth and falsehood will not be complete unless we also look at counterfeiting. Error and Evil are the two realities which we need to confront in this world. God’s word offers both revelation (against our ignorance and errors) and redemption (against our fallenness and evil). The evil one is a master of deception where we see falsehood masquerading as truth. This process is achieved by counterfeiting. He takes what is truth and distorts it into error. And this error passes as truth. We, in the process get deceived. That which is truth gets counterfeited. We need discernment in processing the original (the version of truth) and the counterfeit (the version of error).
In the final analysis, the Christian claim is that ultimately reality is God, an all-personal, all-loving, wholly divine holy trinity. Therefore, truth about this reality will be like a multi-faceted diamond of great beauty. The Bible is a fairly exhaustive dose of reality emanating through its truth claims. The claims about this reality are absolute and objective when it comes to exclusive claims.
There can be relativeness when it comes to subjective experiences of God’s people. This powerful combination of objectivity and subjectivity, absolute (prescriptions) and relative (description) truths makes the biblical revelation both mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive for salvation. Jesus said: “…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’( John 8:32)!
Biju George hails from Nilambur, Kerala. After his engineering studies at Palakkad and IIT, Kharagpur he joined Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Ltd for which he is the Director now. He was a member of Palakkad EU and his wife Molly was a member of Kothamangalam EU. Their daughter Sarah is doing her postgraduation at Vellore Institute of Technology. They live in Navi Mumbai. Biju is involved in the church and UESI as a Bible teacher and mentor.