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home » articles » "What is "Truth"?"

What is "Truth"?

Joh 18:38 Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.
Religious Fundamentalists claim that there is an Absolute Truth and argue that this tenet is essential to their faith. It is unfortunate for them that so much of their faith hangs on truth being absolute because we can show definitively that truth is indeed relative.

The attack on the relativity of truth is summed up as follows:

  • Relativist Claim: All truth is relative to each person; truth is not absolute.
  • Fundamentalist Challenge: Is your statement that 'Truth is not absolute' an absolute truth?

The challenge is clever in that it seems simple and straightforward. But it is actually deceptive in that while the challenge is a brief sound byte, it takes more than another brief sound byte to defeat it - it's a lot like a baby that takes only a second to spit up on your clean shirt, but it takes you hours to get the stain out. So as the challenge demands, the response will be a little lengthy - but it will get the stain out and leave your shirt smelling fresh.

First, to be clear, the challenge is not about truth as in "the opposite of a lie"; the challenge is about Truth as in "the Ultimate Reality": the measure by which we can discern what is real and what is not. To illustrate, consider the following sentence: "This sentence is a lie." If the sentence is true, then it is a lie. But if the sentence is a lie, then it is lying about being a lie so it must be true. But if it is true... You see the problem. This kind of "truth" (the opposite of a lie) is clearly not absolute since we cannot say with absolute certainty whether this simple 5-word sentence is true or a lie! So I will address the challenge about Truth in the sense of Ultimate Reality.

The challenge itself begs the question. In other words, the challenge presupposes what it must prove: that Truth is "a thing out there" (a reification) rather than a judgment that each of us makes. To ask the question: "Is your statement an absolute truth" presupposes the existence of a reified Absolute Truth by which the statement, "All truth is relative" can be measured. Truth is no more "a thing out there" than a word is a "thing out there." What you see on paper is ink that represents words, you don't see the words themselves. Truth, like words, is a function of our minds, not a thing that exists outside of us.

Tao Te Ching 1: The Way that can be experienced is not true; The world that can be constructed is not true.
Our brains are the only link to the universe we have. We have no direct knowledge of the universe. We have only our brain's interpretation of the myriad of nerve impulses it receives from our 5 senses. The sum total of all our experience, everything that we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell is produced in our brain. We don't see with our eyes; our eyes generate nerve impulses which must undergo several layers of processing in our brains before our brains finally "see" the flower. To illustrate this point, consider people who are blind due to damage to the vision center in their brain. Even though they have perfect eyes and perfect nerve pathways to the brain, they are completely blind.

Each of our brains is unique due to its physical makeup and due to the unique things each of us has experienced in our lifetimes. For example, some people are smarter than others, some are better communicators, some are more superstitious, compassionate, empathetic, etc. The list is endless. And each of these ways in which we are different makes each one of us perceive his universe in a slightly different way. Someone who is smart might perceive an ordered, logical universe where someone else might perceive a chaotic universe that is impossible to fathom. Someone who was raised in poverty might perceive a cruel, unjust universe while someone else might perceive a universe full of opportunity. Which is The Truth? Is the universe logical or chaotic? Is it cruel or fair? If the entire sum of your experience is constructed in your brain, and the entire sum of my experience is constructed in my brain, and our brains are different, then our realities cannot be identical. Your "truth" and my "truth" cannot be identical.

But can't we at least say that whatever it is that is "out there", that which our senses perceive and send to our brains, is the True Reality - even if we each perceive it differently? The very notion of "Truth" itself is also in our minds. It is a concept, like words that only lives in our minds. And like any other construct of our minds, the idea of "Truth" is not "a thing out there". If there were no intelligent beings in the universe to ponder Truth and Reality, the concepts of truth and reality would not exist: "truth" and "reality" do not exist outside our brains. Truth is a judgment that we make about things in our universe, and about the universe itself. Judgment is a function of our brain. Our brains are all different. Truth is different for each of us.

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