August 24, 2005

On the Nature of Truth

For most Christians, it appears that "truth" ultimately boils down to what they believe. They are confident in their beliefs because of what is written in their bible. They are confident that what is written in their bible is true because they believe it is the word of god. For these Christians, belief/faith is taken as evidence of truth.

There is one and only one truth - the one reflected in external, objective reality. Did Karl Rove leak information about a CIA operative to the press? There is only one correct answer, and the correct answer corresponds to what actually happened in order to be called true. The measure of truth is simply correspondence with objective reality (i.e., what actually happened). While there may be multiple interpretations of this truth, only one can be true. Similarly, it is meaningless to talk about subjective or experiential truths. If I ate cereal for breakfast yesterday but strongly believe that I ate eggs instead, I am mistaken. The truth is that I ate cereal, and no amount of belief that I ate eggs can change that. To say that my experiential truth of having eaten eggs is somehow valid is absurd. It may be relevant, but it cannot be called truth.

John never believed in ghosts until he encountered one during a stay at an old hotel. The visceral experience he had during this encounter has convinced him of the existence of a spirit world. "I know it is true because I experienced it for myself." This is the old truth-through-revelation claim that is central to religion. But John's experience does not determine what it true because reality is independent of John and the manner in which he interprets his experience. Maybe John is mentally ill. Maybe John was feverish, under tremendous stress, or simply mistaken. Can his experience be confirmed, verified, replicated, etc.? If not, this cannot be considered anything more than John's interpretation of an event.

Sarah believes that the bible is the literal word of god and should be read from this perspective. She believes that the world is approximately 6,000 years old because of what Genesis says. Moreover, she does not consider this to be a belief at all but pure truth. Volumes of scientific evidence have accumulated that paint a very different picture of the age of the earth. In fact, the scientific community has reached consensus about this. "They are wrong," Sarah insists. She knows "the truth," and her "truth" is not going to yield to contradictory evidence. Again, what Sarah calls truth is based on her belief system and has no correspondence to reality. The fact that she can find others who profess the same belief has no bearing on its veracity. Worse, her continued insistence that her belief is correct in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is the very definition of delusion.

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