Saturday, August 15, 2009

What is Truth?

Here's a topic that is probably long over due.

Not too long ago I came across a person who told me that what was true for me was not true for him, and what's true for him may not be true for me. This would not be a big deal, if we were talking about the best burrito in the fast-food industry. But we weren't; we were discussing reality. Specifically, religion and beliefs.

Let me start by defining truth. Truth is a notion or idea that accurately describes reality as it is.

There are two categories that truth falls under. First, you have "relative truth". "Relative truth" is a truth like what my friend was promoting. A relative truth is one that can conflict with another, yet not cause any issues. These tend to be matters of opinion, perspective, and taste- such as one's preference for Taco Bell over KFC, while someone else can hold it the other way around. Have you ever heard someone say "Its freezing in here!", while the person standing right next to them says, "Are you nuts?! Its burning up in here!" The temperature (freezing or burning) of the room is a relative truth.

Second, you have "objective truth". This is a truth that is true whether someone believes it or not, proves it or not, or observes it or not. 1+1=2 would be an example of one of these truths. Two opposing claims in the same context cannot be both objectively true. Only one can be true. Now, many can be false (1+1=3; 1+1=4.2; etc...), but only one can be true.

Many people like to deny the existence of the second type of truth because by definition, it is quite intolerant of false notions (and labels them quite noticeably) and is exclusivistic. "Exclusivistic" means that it alone is true, and no other opposing claim (in the same context) can be true. It seems to me that in today's global society we want so badly to "get along" that we are willing to compromise the very notion of truth itself to accomplish it.

Unfortunately, for these people, the Law of Noncontradiction stands in the way. This law states that no two opposing claims can be true simultaneously in the same context. Anytime that someone attempts to escape this law, they affirm it. The way an escape is attempted is to simply say that it is incorrect- one does not need to try to justify it because it has already failed. The way the attempt at an escape has failed is that the person making the claim- that the law is incorrect- is saying that the opposite (contradiction) is not correct in the same context. The Law of Noncontradiction is an example of an inescapable objective truth.

This is why I always urge people to do their best to make sure that when they debate someone, they understand the other's position. If the two of you are debating an objective truth, but don't define a few things (establishing the context), then you could be debating when realizing that the fact that you are referring to different contexts is the solution to the problem. Part of establishing context is to avoid a strawman argument (I discussed this in my post "Misengaged in Battle") and defining your terms (I'll go more in depth on this one later in a series of posts).

Objective truths are debated all the time in philosophy and theology. The most popular example is if there is a God or not. Another (less popular, but related) is if objective morals exist or not. Here's one that gets the emotional juices going- are all religions true or not?- or in another way- do all religions eventually lead to God (if He even exists) or not?

The different disciplines of science also search for objective truths. However, different from philosophy and theology, science focuses on the objective truths of nature. Please see my post "Consistency Among Disciplines" for more.

All of these truths (either from philosophy or science) are either true for everybody or they are false for everybody, regardless of anybody's opinion, perspective, or taste.

I have found that in a debate, it is crucial to establish if agreement exists between the parties as to whether or not the topic being debated is a "relative truth" or an "objective truth". If a topic is actually a "relative truth", then there really is no sense in debating (neither side will be held responsible for disagreeing with the other). If it is an "objective truth" then whoever is wrong (not, necessarily, who "wins" the debate) must recognize that the he will be subjected to the implications of disagreeing with the true side of the debate.

Ravi Zacharias gave a talk called The Basis for Truth. This talk was recently provided on Just Thinking. Here are the episodes:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Stuart McAlister from Ravi Zacharias International Ministries discusses truth on this episode of the podcast Just Thinking.

The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society- Part 2

Randall Niles recently posted a video on YouTube discussing the pursuit of truth. Here it is:


  1. I'm on an epistemology binge, but I don't know if I'll be able to put my time and effort into research and study. I also need to touch up on formal logic, but it's dreadfully boring and I think I sold my textbook.

    Strawman's are when you mis-characterize another's argument to strengthen your own. It's a different thing than a genuine misunderstanding.... although if you misunderstand something and create an argument against it, then you have a strawman.

    Anyways, before one can even debate what truth is, the epistemological argument must take place. What is knowldege? How do we come to aquire knowledge?

    A lot of theistic apologists make their arguments on epistemological grounds that are simply unacceptable to the more empirically minded among us, myself included. Their argument may be logically valid, but logic is not a determinent of truth, only validity. If the epistemological foundation an argument is built on is different from whoever is evaluating that argument - we can say that the argument is objectively valid, but we've gone nowhere to getting to the truth of the matter.

    "Have you ever heard someone say "Its freezing in here!", while the person standing right next to them says, "Are you nuts?! Its burning up in here!" The temperature (freezing or burning) of the room is a relative truth."

    This is why most of the natural sciences are quantitative rather than qualitative. The temperature of the room IS NOT a relative truth. In my house it is 75 degrees fahrenheit, and that's that. My perception of heat, and the actual heat are two different things. Most natural science disciplines are only concerned with the measurable quantitative data because the rest is meaningless.

    Preferences, as you have stated, are not statements of fact, so by your terminology, they would qualify as relative truth.

    But when you get to issues like God and ethics.... the epistemological problem that MUST be addressed is whether statements about God and ethics are objective or relative.

    What criteria must one have to establish the objectivity of a fact? The only empirical argument for God is from natural theology and it isn't without it's flaws.... the most obvious and glaring which is that it tells us nothing about the supposed "designer" (see Hume, I posted an excerpt on my blog of the entire work I would reference). Intelligent design tries to apply some standard of empiricism, but once you get to the point where you are inferring what your proposed designer would be like based on what you see.... you aren't talking about objective facts anymore - you are merely taking objective facts and trying to put an interpretation on them.... which is where the epistemological objectivity breaks down and we are back into subjectivity land.

    To put a cap on this.... good post.
    But it doesn't solve the problem for the Christian - there are no sound arguments for God that are compatible with empiricist epistemology.

    So before we talk about truth, you need to establish how 'truth' is 'known', and unless you want to concede that opinions and interpretations count as objective truth - you are in a pickle to count God as an objective fact.... so that basically all statements about God become meaningless or at least subjective so long as there is no objective way of knowing the truth about the proposed deity.

  2. addenda:

    Further discussion points: Rationalism, Empiricism, Kant's epistemology, Hume's critique of natural theology (intelligent design 300 years ago, same thing), basic rebuttals to Anselm's ontological argument - the name of the most famous one escapes me but "the perfect island" counter-example to Anselm is what I am talking about, Hume's philosophy of mind..... I suck at making comments short.

    But one last point,
    when you ask the question "are all religions true?" that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

    I think you're take on the question is, "are the factual statements made by all religions equally true?" Of course this is false. Easy. Cake. I don't think pluralists will argue with you there unless they are just stupid.

    But if it means something along the lines of "do all religions have elements of truth that work for a common good?" we can make more sense of the other way of perceiving the statement that more pluralistically minded people hold. Further, for religions that do not promote peace or harmony or whatever, those pluralists might consider those religions "bad religion" much in the same way that Augustine interpreted sin as "good gone bad." Of course, no faith tradition is uniform, and within each there are a variety of descendants. So to those people, a Sufi Moslem mystic might be an example of the "true religion" while a Wahhabi suicide bomber might be a part of the "bad religion".... but we are dealing with way too much at this point for one comment thread.

    Epistemology comes first.

  3. *Most natural science disciplines are only concerned with the measurable quantitative data because the rest is meaningless.

    Correction: the rest is meaningless, IN THE CONTEXT of the discipline they are in. I am not trying to say that the perception of cold is a meaningless fact, but that it often has nothing to do with the research and work natural scientists are doing.

    In something like psychology, where qualitative methods are employed and are useful, it's a different story.

  4. In this post I was simply explaining the difference between Objective Truth and Relative Truth.

    Thank you for including the extra info about temperature scales being an objective measurement of temperature (vs. perception of temperature). I should have included that in the original post.

    As a clarification I do recognize that all religions CAN and DO have statements and beliefs that are true, but not ALL their statements and beliefs are true. When I say that "only one religion is true" I am stating that ALL the statements and beliefs of ONE religion are true.

    Do you have a problem with how I separated "objective" from "relative" truth or my clarification?

  5. No, the post is quite alright.

    This would be for a different post.... but I would be interested to know your theory of knowledge and more definition of what truth is.

    "Let me start by defining truth. Truth is a notion or idea that accurately describes reality as it is."

    Kant would say we experience things as how they appear to us, but we cannot comprehend things as they are in themselves.

    I think what the past few comments to the fasts few posts have me begging for is a theory of knowledge (epistemology) that will serve as a foundation and a justification not only for your arguments, but for your very statements themselves.

    For example, the statement ". Truth is a notion or idea that accurately describes reality as it is" implies that 1) we can accurately describe reality as it is 2) there is a means to accurately know reality as it is.

    I think I am trying to get more and more fundamental with your philosophy.... to the bare bones.

    So far, you've talked a lot about *what* you know.
    I am interested in *how* you know it.

  6. I agree that an entire post should be dedicated to my theory of knowledge. I just wanted to make sure you didn't have a further problem with the content of THIS post.


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