In a famous scene where Pontius Pilate is questioning Jesus about the charges brought against Him, Pilate asks Jesus,
“What is truth?” (John 18:38)
Surprisingly Jesus remains silent. He doesn’t answer. So the question stands: What is truth? Does it even exist? Many modern philosophers deny its very existence!
Does it matter? Would we order our lives differently depending on what we accept as truth? And if it does exist, how do we know that we’ve found it and understand it?
Great philosophers have debated this issue for centuries. They have proposed many theories and definitions. They have written books on it, and acted on their opinions. But the question still remains
“What is truth?”
We will tackle this difficult topic in this essay.
Definition of Truth
The dictionary defines truth as:
Conformity with fact, reality, actuality.
Truth is something that is verifiable and indisputable. Truth may or may not be limited to the physical realm; it is absolute. It could be a mathematical truth such as 2+2=4. It could be something that transcends the physical realm. For example, the truth is that every human being has various emotions; but emotions aren’t physical. There may be other truths related to the supernatural and spiritual realms, but we may not perceive those truths due to our limitations as physical beings.
Truth is independent. It simply exists the way it is; it is independent of the viewer. For example, the truth is that our sunlight includes infrared light. The fact that I can’t perceive it with my eyes does not eliminate the infrared from the sun’s spectrum!
There may be different perceptions of truth, but truth itself doesn’t change. This is best illustrated by the well-known story of the elephant and the blind men. The blind man examining the trunk of the elephant says “It’s long and slinky.” The blind man examining the legs says, “It’s strong, like columns.” And the blind man holding the tail says, “It’s like a broom.” The truth is that the elephant is an elephant with all these features; the blind men simply are unable to perceive and comprehend the truth of the elephant in its entirety.
Truth is unique. By definition there can be only one statement of true (we will address “relative” truth later). All other statements must be false. For example, if the statement “This is a square,” is true, than all other contradictory statements such as “This is a triangle, etc.” must be false. There may be multiple truth statements, such as “This is a square. This is blue. Etc.” and each one may be true. But any statement contradicting a true statement must by definition be false. If both were true, we would end up with a self-contradictory statement which cannot be true. So in a very important sense, truth by its very existence forces us to make choices.
A misconception of truth is that “an idea or concept that is accepted as true is truth.” Nonsense. Truth never changes, but what is accepted as true changes like the weather. In the middle ages it was accepted as true that the earth was flat. We no longer accept that as truth, although there are some people who still believe in a flat earth. More recently it was accepted as true that atoms are the indivisible building blocks of matter. We no longer accept that as truth. Similarly, as recently as 100 years ago, it was accepted as true that cells are the fundamental indivisible building blocks of life. We no longer accept that as truth; we now know that cells are complex structures just as atoms are complex structures.
Lastly, truth is not an opinion. An opinion is an unverified belief, conclusion, or judgment about a matter. It may be true by chance, but an opinion does not necessarily have to be true because it is unverified. Therefore there may be many opinions but only one truth regarding any particular matter. However one must be extremely careful to separate truth and opinion since opinions tend to be presented as truths. In fact, a statement may be a statement of truth or a statement of opinion depending on the context! For example, the following statement, “That square is large” is an opinion because the word “large” was not defined in advance. What is large to me could be small to you. What is large in one context could be small in another context such as when the statement is made in the context of comparing two squares of different sizes. However, the same statement would become a truth if the word “large” had been defined previously as any square over 1 inch per side, and the square is actually 2 inches per side. Now let’s say I measure the square incorrectly and conclude it’s less than 1 inch per side, but still make the same statement. Then the statement is still falsehood, not an opinion.
Important note: One definition of opinion is “the prevailing view.” We must be extremely careful to avoid the trap of falling into believing something as true just because it is “the prevailing view.” The prevailing view has been demonstrated repeatedly to be incorrect. A particularly relevant example of this situation arose in the Middle Ages, where for over 200 years a debate raged whether the earth orbited the sun, or the sun orbited the earth. Both concepts satisfied all the physical measurements available. Thus they both qualified as true statements because the instruments available were not accurate enough to differentiate between the two. We experience similar controversies today. For example there are scientists claiming truth on both sides of the issue of global warming. Which is the real truth? Can we discern it?
Philosophical Concepts of Truth
The concept of absolute truth is, by definition, our only anchor to reality. If we deny the fact that absolute truth exists, we quickly wander off into a world of make believe and delusion; we get lost in an Alice in Wonderland world of fantasy; and we become trapped in a world of nihilism and desperation where nothing matters. Absolute truth in a sense gives us the very reason for living a meaningful, fulfilled life! We are as a boat firmly moored to a dock, and the concept of absolute truth is the line that keeps us there. When that line is broken the boat drifts wherever the winds blow and the currents flow, and the boat will be lost.
But there is an easy, invincible philosophical defense against all views that seek to deny the existence of absolute truth: Simply ask the question, “Is that true?”
If absolute truth does not exist, then any definitive statement regarding truth or reality must be untrue, invalid, and untenable because it is self-contradictory. Only a delusional person will try to convince you that a square is round; that the two objects are identical. Any such argument is delusional and borders on insanity. Yet that is exactly what modern philosophers will have you believe. So let’s examine briefly some modern philosophical misconceptions about truth:
The most prevalent view is the concept that truth is relative. You have your truth and I have my truth, and both are correct. Can that be? If we are examining the same square object, how can one say that it’s square and another say that it’s round, and both statements be true? Impossible. Worse yet, if every one of us has our own relative truth, then the statement “Truth is relative” is itself absolutely true, thus denying itself. It is simply impossible for truth to be relative.
Well, many retort, clearly it’s not an issue of truth but an issue of perception. Clearly there is something wrong with the eyesight of one of the two people, and one perceives the object as square while the other perceives the object as round. So truth to the one person is one thing, and to the other it is another thing because truth is what is perceived. Truth is merely an illusion in one’s mind. But if it is merely an illusion, then isn’t the statement itself “truth is merely an illusion in the mind” an illusion (or more correctly a delusion)? Since everything must be perceived in our minds as existing for it to be recognized, is not everything in this world an illusion, a figment of our imagination? The logical conclusion to that statement is, “The world doesn’t exist. Since I’m part of the world, I don’t exist.” What a devastating and utterly insane thought!
Therefore to overcome this problem some modern thinkers attempt to break truth into various categories, to classify truth and make distinctions between types of truth. The most common approach is to categorize truth into tangible and intangible truths. Tangible truth is everything that can be verified through scientific measurement; everything else is intangible.
- Since the tangible can be verified by scientific measurement, it can be considered absolutely true.
- But that which we cannot measure, the intangible, must be considered either relative or untrue.
This argument is routinely used to eliminate religious concepts, thoughts, and beliefs from the public discourse. The premise goes something like this, “Only statements proved scientifically – ie. based on scientific measurement – can be true.” Let’s apply the requirement to the statement itself. Can it be scientifically measured and proven? Of course not. Then it must not be true. Now let’s take the argument to its logical conclusion. Our thoughts, emotions, and morals can’t be scientifically measured. Therefore love, righteousness, justice and so forth cannot exist. Everything must therefore be permitted, and ultimately we find ourselves living in a society characterized by anarchy, greed, power, and lawlessness. Sound familiar?
So, failing that argument, modern thinkers have proposed, continue, and will continue to propose “new, improved” definitions of truth. But all definitions other than “conforming to reality” inevitably will fail the test of self-contradiction. And anyone structuring their life around an untruth is in danger of living a delusional life with disastrous consequences:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Jesus speaking in Mat 7:24-27)
The following two booklets provide a more in-depth discussion of truth and its relevance to our lives. They are easy to read, well documented, about 50 pages each, and relatively inexpensive. Both are available via www.rzim.org
- “Why Bother with Truth” by James Beilby and David K. Clark
- “Is Everything Really Relative” by Paul Copan.
Why bother with Truth?
Have you ever met a person who was not “living in reality?” For example, have you ever met a person who simply refused to believe something that is a fact? What was the best name for such a person? Delusional. Anyone who is not “living in reality” is delusional, or living in a world of fantasy.
What’s wrong with that? Why not live in delusion if it makes you feel better? Because living in a world of fantasy will inevitably end up harmful to a person: For example, a delusional person may choose to jump off a building thinking he can fly. We know the outcome of that action. The impact of some delusions may be less apparent but just as devastating: A person may falsely believe that their spouse is being unfaithful and takes violent action based on the belief. The result is likely to be a broken relationship and perhaps death. The above are some concrete examples of why it is essential for our well-being to search for and live in truth every day.
Furthermore, no person lives in isolation. We all impact others. Some, such as celebrities, politicians, and leaders impact many people. Others, such as a mother, a father, a brother, sister will impact fewer people. So what? What’s the big deal?
The problem is that delusion is highly contagious! How, you ask? Let me give you an example: Recently there was a rash of pregnancies in schools. How did that come about? One young girl in the school noticed that her favorite celebrity, who was about her age, was pregnant. She thought it would be fun to follow her example. She then convinced her friends to do the same. Voila! A rash of pregnancies occurred in that school. Then a neighboring school heard about it and decided to follow suit. Now there was a rash of pregnancies at two schools! …and on and on.
Some would say that it was simply a poor choice or a mistake for the girls to get pregnant. Absolutely, it was a poor choice. But what is the root cause of the poor choice? The girls became pregnant because they did not know the truth; they were deluded. The girls thought pregnancy would bring them joy and honor. In truth it brought them shame, difficulty, and long-term struggle.
But there is an even more important reason to seek and live in truth: It may have irrevocable consequences beyond our imagination. For example, assume – just assume – that the truth is as follows:
Assumption #1 (= truth): This life is but a prologue to a life in eternity, that the decisions you make in this life will determine how you will spend forever, and one decision in particular will determine whether you spend eternity in joy and peace or in agony and despair.
Now let’s assume – just assume – that my belief of truth is mistaken in that I believe
Assumption #2 (≠truth): There is no life after death.
So to me it doesn’t matter what choices I make in this life. But remember, it doesn’t matter what I believe: The truth is – according to assumption #1 – that where I spend my eternity is the result of a single specific choice I make now. So, when I am faced with the choice, because my belief in truth is mistaken per assumption #2, I am most likely to make the wrong decision, the one decision that will result in eternal life of agony and despair.
You don’t have to agree with the scenario I have just painted that there is more to life than death. But what if there is? Is it not worth the effort to consider it for the sake of eternity? What is there to lose by simply looking?
Everything is not as it looks. It is foolish and delusional to simply assume or believe without a second thought, or to dismiss a possibility out of hand. The stakes are higher than anyone can imagine. In fact they are more important than anything else in this life, for this life is temporary and short, but eternity may be forever.
The truth will set you free; delusion will enslave you forever. (see John 8:32)
Unique Christian Definition of Truth
Christianity is unique among all world views:
- Secular humanists believe that this life is all there is; they may seek the truth but they lack defensible answers to the big questions of life.
- All other major religions of the world teach how to find truth based on the experiences of their founders, who are now dead.
- Many major religions don’t even bother with the truth; they simply teach that we must act thus and so without question because that is the doctrine of the religious teachers.
Judaism invites us to seek the truth through reason and careful deliberation with our Creator:
Isa 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
Christianity takes that invitation one step further and provides the answer:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Everything is not as it looks. Christianity alone is based on Truth, on reality, on verifiable fact. Christianity alone answers all the big questions. Christianity alone asks –it demands – that I not check my brains at the church door. (Unfortunately too many so called Christians do just that.)
Christianity alone demands each and every one of us to look, study, compare, and then decide. Christianity alone provides not only the answer but explains the consequences. It’s a personal choice for you, for me, for each one of us. We all make this choice knowingly or by default. We all must die. What happens next? Christ alone is the answer.
We have examined truth and found that it must be absolute, that it must be unique, and that it forces us to choose. We have seen the definitive claims of Jesus to the exclusion of all other choices. Do you believe the Truth?
Let us reason together and find the Truth…
© 2012 Notasitlooks