Closer to the truth
Can we uncover universals that can be shared by everyone?
By Emilie Christy
Eating red meat is bad for your health. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Honesty is the best policy. It’s wrong to buy goods from a company that treats its employees badly.
Are these truths, old wives tales or just claims made to promote a certain idea? We have to contend with declarations of truth on a daily basis, making decisions and taking action based on what we discern as valid or true. Granted some issues are graver than others, but how do we reach conclusions?
Many theorists have proposed that history tells us that there is an ever-increasing approximation of truth. Scientific knowledge, in fact all knowledge, is not complete but “optimal.” That means it contains the optimum of truth available in a given historical period.
In addition, different cultures have emphasized various aspects of the truth, and some theorists propose that increasing interaction among cultures allows these aspects to reconcile and integrate, increasing the further approximation to the truth.
However, do we get closer to the truth? Let’s take a look into the history of truth, following thoughts by present-day Italian philosopher Antonio Maria Baggio.
The search for universal truth
Baggio says that at the onset of Western civilization, the problem of philosophical truth was raised in a conscious and explicit way, and the search for it began. It was not understood as only an individual effort, but a communitarian one.
In a 2012 article in the journal Claritas, Baggio shows how Plato explains that philosophy is like a flame that is ignited in an individual’s soul only after spending a long period of life with others and in much discussion.
“The flame is lit only after philosophers have lived together in a true and proper school of life and thought,” he wrote. “The very idea of truth arose as a common patrimony and became incomprehensible the moment it was considered merely a heritage of an individual. The trend is toward the universal, suggesting that there is an absolute truth that is possible to comprehend and accessible to the human mind.”
In the centuries following Plato, a myriad of theories of truth have been proposed by philosophers, theologians and scientists, and while each makes valid contributions in defining what is truth, they fall short of the perfect and enduring explanation.
Is there a universal truth?
Today, the idea of a universal truth is contested, and therefore different ways of discovering truth exist.
One of the theories popular again today — going back to the ancient Greek philosophers — proposes something is true if it corresponds to some fact or to some reality. This “correspondence theory” maintains that there is a world external to our beliefs that is somehow accessible to the human mind. For example, the fact that grass is green is true because it corresponds to what I see.
Another popular stream of thought is “coherence theory,” which describes truth in terms of an interconnected belief —
something is true if it is consistent with other beliefs I have. So if I haven’t previously been exposed to green grass, I’ll not be able to entertain the concept that it exists.
In our times, the so-called postmodern era marked by relativism, observed truth is influenced by a belief system, which acts as a filter for one’s view of reality. Truth is thus appreciated by what we perceive and believe. It is shaped by different life experiences, background beliefs, personalities and dispositions, and even genetics.
Postmodernists deny there is “absolute truth,” since the view of the world is determined by the individual’s perspective. Our worldview creates lenses through which we interpret everything; therefore, interpretation and perspective is always variable.
Community agreement is another factor in postmodern thought about truth. When two or more people or a group agree on a certain claim of truth and form a shared agreement, that fact or reality is considered to be true. When a scientist, for example, makes a discovery and peers validate that discovery through their own examination, it is considered true.
A communal truth is also constructed by social processes that are historically and culturally specific and shaped through the power struggles within a community. Perceptions of truth are viewed as contingent on convention, human perception and social experience.
All of these theories have limitations since a view of truth is closely tied to one’s perspective colored by life experience, culture, a formed belief system, the language used to express the belief, mental and physical acuity and the depth of discernment undertaken.
When truth transcends
Instead, the major world religions speak of truth that transcends the human experience and intellect, expressing something that is universal and absolute. Most define truth as unchangeable: that which is beyond the distinction of time, space and person; that which pervades the universe in all its constancy.
This raises the question if there is a universal truth. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas affirmed in Question 16 in Summa Theologiae, “And thus, although the essences or forms of things are many, yet the truth of the divine intellect is one, in conformity to which all things are said to be true.”
We have come a long way from the era of Thomas Aquinas to today’s world, which according to Pope Benedict XVI is marked by a “dictatorship of relativism.”
“Today, having a clear faith based on the creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism,” he says. “Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,’ seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
For Christians, he continues, Christ “is the measure of true humanism.” A mature adult faith, deeply rooted in friendship with Christ, “gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.”
This, however, is only valid for Christians. If in a multicultural society there is no longer a truth that is recognized by most people, then how can we even talk about truth?
My truth needs yours
Baggio points out that it was Socrates who taught a method for how to get to the truth together. “It meant forgetting yourself, putting yourself in another’s position, taking the other’s point of view, and then carrying on in the search for truth in total cooperation with the other. The philosopher leaves the territory of his or her own soul — which is illuminated, secure, and quite familiar — in order to venture into the space of another.
“If we in the West want to be coherent with the core of our being and the civilization that has formed it, we would always have to start with this presupposition: that the truth I bring must encounter the truth brought by the other.” As a consequence of Socrates’ thoughts, one can understand that “my” truth and “his or her truth” need one another.
Our world today struggles in finding a sound foundation for the pursuit of the age-old question: “What is truth?” Traditional institutions have been recreated to fit the current mores of the day; faith traditions are challenged by a more relativistic, hedonistic lifestyle; a live and let live philosophy has often replaced the genuine concern for seeking what is right and what is wrong.
Not knowing, still searching
So how can one engage in a true discovery of truth, a universal truth that can be held by all?
Baggio answers: “It may be the time to courageously undertake a radical step that involves not only individuals but the entire community as well. We would do well to start even if we do not know where the process will take us.
“It is not necessary to know everything. Indeed, it may be best not to know, and to be aware that we do not possess the solution.”
That last concession, however, should not limit our action. “Not having the solution leads us to search for it with others; it helps us avoid falling into an ideology that thinks we can impose our rationale on everyone.
“The last thought of the authentic person will always be for the other,” concludes Baggio, always in search of a fuller understanding of the truth.
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