Thursday, July 5, 2012

What Is Truth?


Pascal said that to arrive at truth, all contradictions 256px-Grant_DeVolson_Wood_-_American_Gothicmust be reconciled. (Pensee 684)  When you consider his statement, it makes sense.  If one person tells us that a paper we cannot see is black and another tells us that it is white, we must reconcile that contradiction to arrive at the truth.  But, how do we do that?

There are two common techniques. Using either of these techniques, we must first believe that both people believe in the truth of their statements, and that by reconciling the statements we can arrive at the ultimate truth.  That is the bedrock to any inquiry. 

We must also retain or eliminate other assumptions.  This is not trick paper which changes color.  Neither person has put on colored glasses.  There are two people in a room with a sheet of paper that each one sees differently.  

The first way to reconcile these two contradictory statements is to say that the two people are viewing the paper under different conditions or at different times.  The room must have been lighted for one, completely dark for the other.  In this way, the paper is viewed as both black and white.  Under similar conditions we can also say that a river is both dry during a drought and free flowing during the rainy season.  Conditions change. 

We might also posit that the paper is truly both white and black, white on one side, black on the other.  If we hold this view, the paper and the conditions remain stable, but the underlying assumption that paper is only white or only black has changed.  This assumption or point of view (POV) is critical to knowing truth.

Your personal POV may be influenced by parents, peers, or culture.  Your POV has its own underlying assumptions of which you may be unaware.  To reach awareness, you must be willing to release closely held assumptions and beliefs if you discover them to be in error.  That is one hurdle too high, one climb too difficult for many people. 

Let me give you an example.  I have a deeply held underlying assumption that some of my innate, inborn traits are symptoms of sickness.  This is not true, but my belief became embedded due to input from parents, teachers, and my culture.   It would not be a problem if it was simply a philosophical assumption, but it affects how I view life and how I act in response to stimuli.  It governs my entire life and needs to change.

In an effort to change my assumptions, I asked my spiritual director (aka counselor), “how can I get my mind around the truth?” “You’re looking at it from the wrong perspective,” he told me.  “You think this is rational and you can solve it by reason.  But this is emotional, rather than rational and you cannot confront or challenge your erroneous point of view by reason.”

And that’s the way we need to view our own points of view.  They may seem reasonable, even right, but once you try to challenge them by gathering relevant evidence, your efforts will end with emotion:  sorrow, anger, dismay, depression.  The result of a confrontation intended to change POV is as loud and loaded with emotion as  a ticking bomb which, when it explodes, will kill a cherished part of you, because the truth is that the beliefs handed us by our parents, teachers, peers, and culture are deeply rooted, deeply cherished. 

Think about that the next time you hear someone speaking about an emotional topic.  Use your rationality to gather all the facts on both sides, then try to reconcile the contradictions.  If your view is a deeply held belief, you cannot perform the reconciliation without losing part of your cherished self. 

Look at the arguments between the Creationists and the Evolutionists.  (For purposes of this discussion, I am greatly simplifying the positions of both sides. )  A Creationist cannot believe that people were created by anything other than a direct word from God.  An Evolutionist cannot believe that we exist apart from natural selection.  To see the truth, the Creationist must accept all geologic, biologic, and other scientific evidence.  However, the Evolutionist must accept that our existence may be ordered by a being that is outside of scientific proof.  For most of these people this is a highly emotional subject (yes, even scientists have hidden emotions) and neither side really desires to reconcile.

But to reach truth, they must be reconciled.  Reconciliation works only when we move outside our place of comfort and grab onto the opposing belief, accepting it as true, and then looking for the one thing that reconciles them.  Think that’s easy?  Then you haven’t tried it.

Here’s another problem:  we tend to reach conclusions, to reconcile the contradictions, too quickly.  We think we have all the facts, but we don’t.  We think we know the answer, but the answer may reveal itself only over a span of days, weeks, months, or years.  In our rush to reach emotional security, we play with logic, constructing syllogisms with false premises.  Instead of conclusions, we reach delusions and, satisfied, continue on.   

Other philosophers agree.  Thomas Merton said that you cannot reconcile contradictions.  (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) Instead, you must find the larger unity which contains both.   Someone else (I can’t remember who) said that rather than reconciliation or unity, we must find coherence.  Unity is grinding spices together so that you still have the spices (the contradictions).  Coherence is separating the spices into a logical arrangement that makes sense (you might put all the Asian spices in one place in the cupboard, the French spices in another, and everyday spices like salt and pepper in another).

Let’s use some of these principles to discuss issues of our day, without being too quick to reach conclusions.  Do you have any ideas for discussion?  I’d be happy to try to reconcile contradictions in a later post.


Thanks to John Leax’s talk at the Festival of Faith and Writing 2012 for getting me to think along these lines.


Picture by By Grant DeVolson Wood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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