Reflection on What is Truth (Part 1)


As Jesus stood before Pilate, the Roman official was trying to reach a decision on what to do with this Jewish preacher and possible insurrectionist. Pilate asked him, “What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

This is an essential question, “What is truth?” It is a question that divides much of society. It is an issue not only in this era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” but has been at the heart of human conflicts for all recorded history.

Humans are story tellers. It is part of our nature. It is how we organize our understanding of the world around us.  We don’t experience one moment to the next as random and unconnected events but as part of a sequence of events that make up an overall story line. Our individual stories fit into a larger story, that is the story of our city, nation, religion or ethnic community. These overlapping stories give us a specific place in time and space, as well as give us a sense of purpose, as we play a role in some larger story. These stories are the foundation for the reality in which we find ourselves and our sense of meaning within the world.

The stories can differ profoundly from one another in their details, as well as the attitudes and expectations toward the world in which we find ourselves. However, they are similar in that they describe reality and truth for the people who find themselves in the worlds to which these stories give shape.

One of the problems is that there are many different societies with many different foundational stories. The people of those societies often view their foundational stories as being true. Many of the stories speak of how the world came into being; or, how humanity came to experience its present condition of pain and suffering. How can these stories be true, especially when the details may conflict among them?

If one defines truth as historical accuracy, in the sense that if a person took a video camera back in time to the event in question and recorded the event so all the details were documented, what you recorded could be defined as the “objective truth”. Using this definition, scholars will argue that it is unlikely that all of the foundational stories are true, even if they describe some aspects of events that happened. So, for example, most Scripture scholars do not take the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis as a literal historical event, in the same way that one might define a presidential inauguration as a historical event.  However, scholars will concede that what is described in the Book of Genesis is true when it is talking about the spiritual and moral relationship between God and humanity, as described in the Adam and Eve story. The specific events described in the Book of Genesis may or may not be historically accurate but the meaning behind the events described in the story is true.

When you start dealing with different religions, even if you are describing the same incident, the foundational stories can be different on key points. For example, Jesus is described as crucified both in the Christian Scriptures and in the Koran of Islam. In the Christian Scriptures Jesus dies because of the crucifixion. This is an important truth for Christians because Jesus’ death is redemptive and his resurrection is evidence that God has intervened in human affairs to establish the Kingdom of God. In Islam Jesus does not die because of the crucifixion but God removes him and raises him to heaven. Islam views Jesus as a prophet of God and does not view a death by crucifixion as redemptive. So, the same event is interpreted very differently from the perspective of these two different religious traditions. Which one is true? The Christian would obviously argue for the former understanding, the Moslem from the latter.

If truth is historical accuracy then the only way to be sure is to travel back in time and video the events of the resurrection. If the truth is the extent to which the story gives meaning, then both stories are true, at least to the Moslems and Christians involved.

The truth element of a foundational story is the fundamental meaning conveyed by the story. This aspect of the narrative isn’t always obvious or easily proven.  Often the truth element of the story requires a degree of faith that the story may inspire.

So, we have seen that one basis for perceiving something as true is faith. We believe something to be true because it has been handed down to us as a statement of truth through Scripture or some other authoritative source. We have also seen that such authoritative statements can be in conflict, especially between one religious tradition and another. The statements are perceived as true from the perspective of the narrative tradition but outside that narrative tradition they lack objective truth.

How do we find truth that is consistent apart from any narrative tradition? How do we find truth that is objective? Science attempts to provide criteria for identifying objective truth.

It does this by limiting its area of competence to observations of the material universe. Further, it focuses on issues of “what” and “how”, while avoiding questions of “why” and “meaning”. Science can tell us about the mechanics of how something occurs but is unable to speak to the moral value of the occurrence.

Science uses observation of the natural world and experimentation as means to document and analyze the natural world that it studies. From this observation and analysis, the scientist develops hypotheses; that is, tentative conclusions about the process under study. The scientist then tests these hypotheses through further observation and experimentation. Eventually the scientific community builds up a sufficient body of data that a statistically significant conclusion can be reached, either accepting the hypothesis or rejecting it. The result of this process is always tentative because the scientific method always leaves room for an understanding of nature to be modified as human knowledge develops and further research offers new insights. However, the requirement of statistical probability as a criterion for scientific “truth” helps to ensure that the generally accepted understanding of the scientific community is as close to objective “truth” as is reasonably possible.

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