What Is Truth?

For some years now a very hot religious and religio-political topic for debate, both in the Christian and secular media, has the subject of Intelligent Design (I.D. for short).  I have heard it debated on radio and TV.  I have read articles about it in secular newspapers.  If you go to Christian websites, such as that for the Christian Research Institute (Hank Hanegraff) or John Ankerberg’s site, I.D. has been prominently featured.  It is a concept that secular, naturalistic scientists disavow—and creationists find helpful. 

Several years ago I remember listening to an episode of Fresh Air, a regular broadcast on NPR, that featured the issue of teaching I.D. in public schools.  Now this post is not directly about Intelligent Design, but thinking about it and listening to the Fresh Air program prompted another line of thought for me.  The scientist who was arguing against teaching I.D. in public schools based his arguments on a certain perception.  His view was that both creationism and I.D. are inherently religious rather than scientific.  He kept repeating things like:  “This is not science,” “This is bad science,” “This cannot be proven scientifically.”  I would disagree most stringently with his position that creationism and Intelligent Design are unscientific beliefs.  Yet, there is to me an even more fundamental issue.  For it was obvious from his comments that this individual thought that if something was not scientifically verifiable then it was obviously NOT TRUE.  Get the point?  The issue here is not what is or is not scientific; instead, it is how do we know what is true.

Of course, this is a classic question.  Pilate himself inquired of Jesus:  “What is truth?” (John 18:38).  Philosophy, religion, theology, science and other disciplines have wrestled with this thorny issue for millennia.  I will attempt to present just a few thoughts that you may find helpful in this regard.  However, I really want to address only two matters—what is the nature of truth, and how may we discover or discern truth?

First, what is the nature of truth?  A few centuries ago this would have seemed a silly question to many people, even to most eggheads.  Truth was understood as being what is factual, genuine, real… what is, what exists.  Truth is an absolute.  It is fixed and actual, although our perception of it may be obscured, diluted, or confused.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, who had an opinion on just about everything, addressed this matter in one of his discourses with Boswell.  Dr. Johnson noted that there is a difference between what he called “moral truth” and “scientific truth.”  For instance, suppose you had a met a man named John Doe.  However, you had not met, and were unaware that John had a twin brother, Josh Doe.  Now suppose that you looked out of your living room window one day and saw Josh Doe walking down the street.  Your wife asks you what you are looking at.  You answer, “I was watching John Doe walking down the street.”  According to Johnson, you would not be guilty of lying, for you were not intentionally attempting to deceive your wife.  You actually thought that Josh Doe was his brother John.  Your statement to your wife would be morally true.  However, it would not be scientifically true.  For you did not actually see John Doe, but his (unknown to you) twin brother, Josh.  The fact that this was Josh and not John Doe is a scientific truth.  Thus, Johnson asserts, one could in unintentional error violate a scientific truth and still maintain moral truth.

Thank you for a fine distinction, Dr. Johnson.  This reasoning can be helpful in the discussion of ethical issues.  However, there is a finer point here.  Note that Johnson assumes that there is an absolute “scientific” truth underlying the entire situation.  There is a reality that is fixed and real, no matter what the misunderstanding or perceptions of an observer may be.  Johnson understood truth in the same way that the apostles, prophets, sages and teachers of the past did.  In fact, he understood truth in the same way that Jesus did.  Our perceptions of truth may shift and alter, but truth remains the same.  It is there, real and absolute.  Our task is to discover and adhere to it.

But this is not the world view accepted by most people today.  Dr. Johnson would be totally perplexed (and enraged, I think) at the modern view of truth.  (Or should I say, postmodern.)  Truth is now commonly thought of as fluid, changing, and relative.  Truth is only truth as perceived, experienced and defined by the individual perceptions of each person.  My truth is not your truth.  What is true for my parents would not necessarily be true for me.  What was true for Jesus is not necessarily true for the 21st century Christian.

What is the proper response to such an idea?  Well, I think that there is only one sane, logical, mature and scientific way to react.  Indeed, it can be simply answered with one word:  HOGWASH!  Although this view is popular (and we know what is popular must be real and valid—HA!), it is manifestly false.  Further, it is manifestly ineffectual.  Want to see the everyday consequences of such a view of truth?  Look around you.  Look at the violence, terror, murder and rapine, thievery and dishonesty of our society today.  Look at the kids killing kids in our schools.  Look at the moral deceptions and trickery of our politicians.  Look at the disintegration of marriage and family in the pursuit of self-interests.  Look at the misnomers of “choice” and “privacy.”  Look at the immoralities masking as “alternative lifestyles.”  Look at the materialism and hedonism feigning spirituality and divine approval.  Look at our disregard for the poor which we posit as ignorance.  All of this is a result of the rejection of absolute truth, truth as a fixed star to aspire after and to follow.

The second matter before us is the nature of the discovery of truth.  In other words, how is truth made know to us?  Listening to the gentleman on Fresh Air, I was struck by his obvious bias.  He has a prejudicial view about reality… and as with most bigots, he is unaware that he is himself biased.  He thinks he is fair and unprejudiced in his opinions.  However, as an evolutionist, a naturalist and a scientist, he has chosen to accept a view of the world in which only things which can be proven scientifically are to be believed.  Science is the great god at whose altar all are expected to bow.

I must hasten to point out that this perspective is not really science at all.  Rather, it is scientism.  That is, it is a belief in the hegemony of science over all fields of knowledge.  Science and the scientific method possess the final word in what we know, and how we know it.  But this is not science.  It is philosophy.  And for many—it is religion!

As I listened to this evolutionary scientist denigrate creationism and I.D., I was struck by his obvious view that truth is derived by and through science alone.  I remember sitting there thinking:  He doesn’t even fully understand what he is saying.  He is asserting that only science is a basis for knowledge… for truth.  What this man fails to realize is that truth, absolute reality, the genuine nature of things, can be discovered through means other than just science.  There are other methodologies for discerning truth.

For instance, there is the legal-historical method of discovery.  This is a method that is necessary when we want to discover the truth about the past.  There are facts which may not, most often cannot, be demonstrated through scientific inquiry.  The Scientific Method requires the positing of an idea (the hypothesis) and then a process of experimentation to test the validity of the hypothesis.  The original hypothesis is then reevaluated in the light of the experimentation, verified, perhaps modified, and then retested.  Good enough for chemistry or physics.  But this is a lousy method for determining if Lee fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.  You see, this is a historical event which is not repeatable through experimentation.  You can examine physical evidence, and demonstrate that something that looked like a battle happened at Gettysburg.  But to learn what went on there in July of 1863 you have to use other means of discerning truth.  You have to examine the reports and documents of the battle.  You have to read the records of eyewitnesses.  You have to examine the human evidence that is not always physical… and consider this along with the physical evidence.  This, then, reveals the TRUTH about the situation.  Thus, this process of inquiry, the legal-historical method, is the means to verify historical and legal matters—both subjects that deal with the reality of past events.

Now it should be pointed out that in America today there is a very subtle attack on the legal-historical method.  We are a society which has fallen in love with scientism.  We like to think that we are an enlightened scientific people who know that science is the final judge of all truth.  Therefore, we often summarily reject other methods of discovering truth.  Let me give you an example of this attitude.  Consider the TV show CSI, popular for so many years.  I liked CSI.  I used to watch it a lot.  Although, I will admit as the years went by I watched it less and less.  It not only became gradually more gory and graphic  but also more sleazy.  I guess I should not have been surprised at this—after all, it does take place in Las Vegas.  Anyway, back to my point.  For many years Gus Grissom was the main CSI character.  Even though this was years ago, one thing I vividly remember was the disdain that Grissom has for eyewitness testimony or other types of evidence that are not “scientific.”  Only hard, physical evidence, such as what may be brought into the laboratory, had evidentiary value for Gris.  The message conveyed to the American viewing public was this:  Only what can be proven scientifically in a lab is really “true.”  This is so false, and so dangerous!

Think again, Gris.  There are so many facts and so much truth that neither you, nor Sherlock Holmes, nor Stephen Hawking, nor even Einstein or Newton could prove scientifically.  You cannot even prove scientifically that Einstein or Newton were born or lived.  For you cannot repeat the fact of their births or their lives in any laboratory.  We only know of these men through the historical method.  Indeed, the very scientific truths that we accept from these men comes to us through the means of written records—documentary evidence, in other words.

I am sure that if you were to interrogate that scientist on the NPR radio program, you would find that there are many “unscientific” things that he believes in.  For example, I would bet that he believes in:  His own birth, the births of his mother and father, WWI, WWII, that George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776, that Socrates died by drinking hemlock, that Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter, and… oh so much more!  All of these are non-repeatable facts that can only be discovered through historical methodologies.

I must hasten to a conclusion.  But before I do, I should mention that there are other means of discovering truth besides the scientific and legal-historical methods.  For example, there is the empirical method.  We all learn by experience, and know so much truth through what happens to us personally.  A valid epistemology, indeed.  As another example, there is the exercise of pure reason.  Don’t discount Descartes reasoning through to the first principles of the universe while hidden away in his barrel.  (Cogito ergo sum:  “I think, therefore I am” is still an incredible statement not only in philosophy but also in man’s discovery of truth.)  However, there is one other method that we must deal with, be it ever so briefly.

This is a methodology that our NPR scientist would disparage, and most likely deny its validity.  It is, in some ways, preeminently unscientific (or so he would assert).  This method is divine revelation.  The Holy Scriptures declare in Deuteronomy 29:29,  “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”  We must recognize that there are many truths that we can only discover if they are made known to us by a higher source, a much more knowledgeable source.  For instance, God Himself, in His eternal omniscience and infinite Being, is past knowing without His own Person assisting us.  Our radio scientist friend most likely eschews the supernatural and operates in a very tightly closed naturalist reality.  Nothing exists for him that is not material and scientifically discernible.  Yet, there is so much more truth to be known than what is merely material and natural.  There is a reality, and a Supreme Reality, that is above and beyond the physical universe!

We who know and love the Lord are privy to the counsels of the eternal God.  We know that there are wonders and mysteries that scientists will never discover in labs, through telescopes, or by peering in microscopes.  When Pascal viewed the heavens, he said he was afraid of those infinite spaces.  Wise man, indeed!  Science may tell us of the nature of the stars, and perhaps even the matter (or dark matter) between the stars.  But our omnipresent God fills the spaces between the very atoms that make up those stars.  His glory is greater than the sun, or any star, or galaxy, or cluster of galaxies.  His life is more powerful than the biological functionings of all of nature’s creatures, and is ultimately stronger than death itself.    His will and intelligence and loving heart are more vast and powerful than the seemingly infinite reaches of the physical cosmos.  This is the One whom we come to fully know only through revelation, only through a supernatural manifestation of divine truth.

Finally, we must note that this great Omnipotence has indeed truly revealed Himself to us.  He has made it possible for us to discover His very nature and Being in the Person of the One who said, “I am the Truth!”  The infinitely unknowable One has unveiled Himself in Jesus Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

What is truth?  HE is truth.


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