Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

What is Truth?

What is truth?

This is the famous statement Pilate asked Jesus just before he crucified him. Spiritual revelation aside, this is also the question humans have been asking for nearly all of our existence on the earth.

But does truth matter? Does it really concern any of us if someone else has a different perspective about what is true and what is false? What are the ramifications if we hold the truth to be subjective and relative?

While I would argue the implications are enormous and far-reaching—much more far-reaching than can be addressed in a blog post, or even a single book for that matter—it will  benefit us all to take a preliminary stab at the controversial culprit.

Your Happiness Depends On It

If the measure of our happiness is always directly proportionate to our capacity to apprehend and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful, then it most definitely matters whether or not we know what are each of these transcendentals, or properties of being, how they can be apprehended, and how they are to be appreciated.

In this post, I’ll start with truth because it seems to me that goodness and beauty are related to each other where they are connected to the property of truth. So this brings us back to the original question, what is truth?

What Truth Is Not

In the first place we can try to say what truth is not. Truth is not falsehood, for one thing. But to know entirely what falsehood is, we would have to know its opposite, truth. This could easily bring us back to the beginning again, forcing us to try and answer what we were asking originally, what is truth?

For the sake of our discussion for now, I believe we could probably all agree that falsehood is that which does not appropriate itself to reality—or that which is contrary to what is known to be reality.

In the next place, we can say truth is not taste. There is a famous Latin maxim, de gustibus non disputandum est. It means that in matters of taste, there is nothing that can be disputed.

To argue about a person’s favorite color, for example, is futile. I may like orange and you may like blue. These statements are both true as they pertain to each of us, respectively. In other words, they are matters of subjective taste.

Blue is not more or less morally or valuably significant than orange. They are just different colors, and different opinions about those colors cannot be rationally argued to a conclusive objective agreement. Imagine the absurdity of one philosopher pontificating on the value or morality of the color blue, and another doing the same for the color orange. At the end of the day, there is nothing objectively moral or valuable about either color.

What Truth Is

This brings us to the third place. If truth is not falsehood, and truth is not subjective taste, then truth must be that which can be objectively held in common having not been falsified by rational arguments or negative instances. For whatever deficiencies one might attribute to my definition, at least it gives us a place to start.

Yet, the fact that within various arts and disciplines truth is pursued differently makes it that much more nebulous. For example, the historian does not pursue truth the same way a mathematician pursues truth, or even a scientist, for that matter. Each discipline has its own method for identifying and correcting errors and enlarging its body of objectively agreed-upon knowledge.

One begins to see why Pilate might have been so uncertain. Or perhaps he was not as uncertainty as he was self-deceived. In any case, coming to an understanding of truth that is indisputable among those who are competent to judge is much more difficult than it first may seem.

The Pursuit of Truth

In the following lengthy excerpt from his book, Six Great Ideas, Mortimer Adler explains,

The complete realization of the ideal that is the goal—the whole truth and nothing but the truth—will never be achieved in any stretch of time. The pursuit is endless…we find that experts who are competent to judge—mathematicians, scientists, historians, each in their own department of learning—have reached agreement about a host of judgments that they have come to regard as settled or established truths in their respective fields. This does not mean, of course, that all these agreed-upon truths have the finality and incorrigibility of certitude. It means only that the shadow of a doubt that still hangs over them because of what an uncharted future has in store does not at the present moment threaten their status as established truth, temporarily undisputed by experts competent to judge.

So where does this leave us? If our success in the pursuit of happiness is dependent upon our capacity to apprehend and appreciate that which is good, true, and beautiful, is happiness achievable when truth is not finally and incorrigibly certain?

Is it enough to call truth that which is for the time being the objectively agreed-upon, or settled judgments in any given field that have yet to be falsified by rational arguments or negative instances?

As we have seen, human beings are naturally divided over tastes, be those tastes of color or fashion or cuisine or something similar. But over matters of truth, human beings must be able to judge objectively the accuracy or error of a thing through rational inquiry directed at the resolution of our disagreements, however arduous or protracted the process.

Because whatever truth is, by virtue of its mere nature—the absence of what is false; that which is in accordance with reality—it must be an ultimate human good, one that transcends culture, ethnicity, geography, language, or time.

If human happiness depends on the apprehension and appreciation of the truth—along with goodness and beauty—then it seems it would be inhumane, a real injustice, to not pursue truth.

And who knows, for all our honest efforts directed toward the pursuit of this seemingly indeterminate, but ultimate human good, it may be the case that we discover the truth was right in front of us, silently staring us in the face all along.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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