- Education and Science
#TruthFinder Episode One: How do we know what is really true?
A legitimate first question to ask is why a person should even bother to search for truth, whatever that may be. After all, as many can argue, why consider the question of ultimate truth—whether that means belief, non-belief, or something in between—when there are so many interesting and urgent things to deal with in everyday life? A person could, in theory, live a perfectly content existence never wrestling with the questions at hand.
Well, one of the things that has always resonated with me is a statement made by the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the podcast Radiolab many years ago. I can still remember driving through Westchester County to a night shift in the E.R. when his words, for whatever reason, had an immediate and piercing effect on me. I’ll paraphrase slightly, but when asked how significant humans are in the context of the universe, Mr. Tyson said, “We are specks upon a speck upon a speck.” So indeed, our “speckedness” serves as a humbling frame of reference for our position in the majesty of the cosmos. As it pertains to the truth, I first admit that I am a speck and will never be able to fully grasp everything in the universe. But not only are we specks in physical space, but we are also specks in time—that is, we may live for 80 years or so, but in the context of eternity our brief life is but a speck on the radar of time. Hence, as it pertains to the truth, our present is significant, but eternity matters more simply because there is so much more of it. Finally, any person with a pulse can be absolutely, irrefutably 100% certain about a concrete fact: Valar morghulis. And for all those who do not speak High Valyrian or watch Game of Thrones, this translates as, “All men must die.” Death is not only the great equalizer but the inescapable endpoint of all life. As it pertains to the truth, my search therefore turns not necessarily to what I’m doing now but to what will happen later. True, nothing may happen, but I cannot simply dismiss the great equalizer with a shrug of the shoulders. Accordingly, when I contemplate all these things (speckedness, death, and eternity), I begin to wonder what is really true and how that imputes meaning, purpose, and significance to everyday life. In the end, even if I am just a bag of DNA, my humanity yearns to know and understand, and an existence in which I deny my humanity, in my opinion, isn’t a very pleasant existence. Consequently, in pursuit of understanding, the purpose of this series is to look for answers to critical questions, and I hope you will join me in the search for truth.
How do we begin to search for what is really true?
This question is easy: you have to use your senses. In The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins expounds a systematic formula on how we can know if something is real and therefore true. He explains that the most basic tools we have are our five senses. We know that a rock is real by looking at it and touching it, and we know that the warm apple pie is real by smelling and tasting it. For more complex things, however, we have to use devices that augment our senses. For example, we know bacteria are real by using a microscope, and we know distant galaxies are real by using a telescope. In some cases, we may not be able to determine what is real using our senses directly. In this case, we build models based upon what we think may be happening. The model is either a real-life model or a mathematical computer simulation, and we can test this model based on what we guess or imagine might be real. If the model correctly predicts what happens, then our confidence grows that the model reflects reality. If the model does not accurately predict, then it’s back to the drawing board. Of course, models can always be redefined based on new information. As Dawkins makes clear, truth is an objective, rational system. It is not an encounter or a personal experience.
Now, is our perception of reality the ultimate barometer of what’s really true? Of course not, because these models make no claim on ultimate truth. They are simply vehicles in the pursuit of ultimate truth. Hence, as Dawkins writes:
Reasonably speaking, then, even those things that we regard as hard “facts” are open to “readjustment.” When it comes to truth then, there are known things that can be explained, known things that can’t be explained, and unknown things that (obviously) cannot be explained. The point is that even our truth-finding formula is fallible. This is a striking point, because in a recent discussion I had with an acquaintance, I asked why she believed a particular thing was true. She said (I will paraphrase):
[What I consider true] isn’t a belief. It’s a fact. It is a fact, and will remain a fact whether a person believes in it or not.
The first problem is that this is an assertion, not a proof. The second problem is that as we have already learned, the system in which we ascertain what is true is not ultimate, nor is it final. The third problem with this assertion is that it is quite unscientific. People who simply declare “this is a fact” disallow said facts from being reevaluated or reinterpreted. They actually shun new information and reject reasonable skepticism, doubt, and critical questions. In the past, if a person held this statement too close to their chest, they would still hold “true” that the Earth is flat and held up in place by Atlas.
TruthFinder is also a podcast. Listen so you can be proud of your mature, vetted beliefs.
So can we even know the truth?
Of course. The statement “We can’t really know the truth” is based on an unproven conjecture. So saying something like “We can’t ever know” establishes bias as a starting point. Consequently, just as scientific reasoning informs us, if there is a question that is perplexing, we ask serious questions and engage in debates. For example, Immanuel Kant famously wrote that if a supernatural being exists—whoever that being is—it exists in a realm that is beyond our realm; a figurative wall separates the physical world from the metaphysical one. For this reason, we cannot see, feel, taste, or touch it, and a rational inquiry for truth is impossible. After all, how could we know of such a being that is beyond sense perception? Isn’t the framework for knowing what is true based on our senses?
Well, if Kant has taught me anything, it is that we ought not be afraid to use our intellectual prowess. So certainly, the statement “We can’t know” isn’t true because Immanuel Kant said so. The reasonable, objective, rational inquiry then becomes if a “God” exists, is there any empirical proof or evidence of that being’s existence? Can we either prove or disprove a link between the metaphysical and physical realm? Can we either prove or disprove a “wall” that separates these two realms? Can reason alone lead us to either the non-existence or the existence of a metaphysical being? Are there clues in the natural world? My point here isn’t to answer these questions but to illuminate the rational approach to truth finding that begins with these questions without assuming an answer.
Is the truth always objective?
Well, the truth is always objective, but the way we arrive at truth is always subjective.
In his famous essay “The Ethics of Belief,” mathematician W. K. Clifford wrote, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” In the same line of thought, Carl Sagan once said that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Both of these statements are supported by the very reasonable principle that in order to determine what is true, we need proof. This principle brings much clarity and significance when applied to the material world. Yet, when applied to all of human existence, this principle sets the bar of empirical proof so high that it makes life “unprovable.” Allow me to explain.
If human beings needed an argument so strong that no reasonable person could reject it, they may find themselves holding onto a truth claim that is impossible to defend. Take, for example, justice and love. Certainly, when I think in my own mind, logic and sense experience inform me that both these things are true. Yet how would I prove the “truth” of justice to you? How would I quantify what love is to someone I don’t know? How would they—beyond the shadow of a doubt—“prove” to me what justice and love are? What happens when we disagree about what justice is (e.g., is the death penalty just?) and what love is (e.g., is it selfless?) using logic and our own empirical evidence? In fact, following Clifford’s and Sagan’s advice, the absolute claim that we cannot believe something without irrefutable proof is itself a statement that has to be proven. And how would you prove that?
There are simply some aspects of our human existence (like our subconscious) that remain mysterious and cannot be neatly mapped onto reality and effectively measured. With this is the honest realization that no person is completely objective; people always make choices and weigh evidence with some form of bias that persuades their logic. Let’s test this hypothesis: Barack Obama. Now I will presume that no matter who you are or where you are, you have some type of opinion or “truth” about this person, even though many of the “facts” are the same. My point is that you are in no way neutral or genuinely indifferent, and what you regard as true has been shaped by experiences, other beliefs, and how you are currently living your life.
 A full-text PDF is available at http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/Clifford_ethics.pdf
 See Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice, Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1988).
 A central thesis put forth in the critique of “strong rationalism” in Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds., Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1983).
 Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012), 13.
 Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012), 37-38. Here, the author makes the case that the effectiveness of the choices that we do make cannot be accounted for because those effective choices are the end results of a subliminal process that we, as conscious agents, are wholly unaware of.
So does that mean the truth is relative?
No. Ultimate truth is not conditioned by a person’s perception of it, because truth is independent of personal meaning. This is a proposition, so allow me to elaborate.
The first way to think about the relativity of truth is to consider that truth is meaningful regardless of whether or not a person assigns a positive or negative value to a truth claim. For example, when patients come into my office, I often tell them that their blood pressure is high. So, the statement “John has high blood pressure (hypertension)” is a truth claim. Now I, the treating physician, assign positive value to that truth claim: “Yes, John, your hypertension is real and it exists.” A patient who is stubborn and skeptical may assign negative value to the same truth claim and therefore will say, “No, I do not have hypertension, and the number 170/100 is not really real.” Or John may claim that hypertension is irrelevant to his life. In this scenario, a truth claim exists, and to different people, that truth is relative based upon how they receive and interpret information. But, this relativity in perception will never change the fact that the truth is still relevant and very meaningful to both me and John. Ascribing positive or negative value to truth has no bearing on the truth’s meaningfulness. In our example, the presence of high blood pressure can have detrimental long-term consequences on the heart (heart attack), the brain (a stroke), and the kidneys (renal failure). The truth claim is meaningful to me, as I now must manage the patient’s long-term problem. The truth claim is meaningful to John even if he rejects the truth of the claim. Patients, and by implication everyone, often fall into the trap of faulty logic by thinking something can only be true if they ascribe positive value to it. This is simply not the case.
The second and simpler way I have been persuaded to think about the relativity of truth is because of a question posed by Timothy Keller. He asks, “If you insist that no one can determine which beliefs are right or wrong, why should we believe what you are saying?” This is a valid question, because if truth relativists take their support of relativism too far, even they are not exempt from relativity, which quickly dismantles their entire argument. So when people say things like, “There is nothing that can be universally true,” what they are tacitly saying is, “I’m going to make an absolute statement exempt from relativity, but everything else is still relative.” The fallacy is evident.
Granted, relative truth does point us toward the very real phenomenon that people are the products of their environment. One of the most well-known applications of this principle is in the realm of religious belief—that is, there is a powerful correlation between people’s beliefs and their environment (table). The reality is, when the Pew Research Center projected the growth of world religions to the year 2050, very few individuals (less than 1% of the world’s total estimated 9.3 billion people) will have switched into a belief system. But guess what? This social conditioning extends to what people believe is true in general. Take, for example, politics. There is a strong correlation with living in the Northeast and on the West Coast with voting Democratic. In addition, white evangelicals tend to be Republican, and Asians prefer to vote Democratic. Here, the voters vote for who they think best aligns with what they believe is true. If you are born in Boston, chances are you will be a Red Sox fan and not a Yankee fan. Here, the fans follow who they believe are the true winners. What do these realities tell us? That what we believe is true in general is largely influenced by social conditioning, and this therefore makes evaluating competing truth claims exceedingly difficult. So yes, perceptions of truth are socially relative, but that does not mean truth is relative. At the very least, this information persuades us to recognize that, because our truth-finding system is unreliable, we need a systematic way of scrutinizing what we believe is true in order to ascertain what is really true.
 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Penguin, 2009), 11.
What’s really true has to be exclusive
In order for the truth to be the truth, it has to be exclusive, or else it can’t be truth. If the sky is blue, this is an exclusive truth claim, and by definition, if the sky is blue it cannot be red, black, or pink. W. K. Clifford wrote, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to ignore evidence that is relevant to his beliefs, or to dismiss relevant evidence in a facile way.” This challenges everyone at the very least to consider evidence both for and against what he or she considers to be true. To weigh evidence that is only inclusive of a person’s beliefs diminishes the value of what they consider to be true and dismisses “relevant evidence in a facile way.”
Certainly, in 21st-century America, “inclusiveness” is a popular buzzword that suggests progressiveness, but when it comes to the truth, you will inevitably reach a point where the truth is not inclusive at all and must exclude non-truth. In fact, if a person were to explain away exclusive truth by some means—for example, as “arrogant,” “elitist,” or a “personal preference”—they will inevitably find themselves in an untenable position. Total ideological inclusion is never possible for two reasons: (1) contradictory truth-claims cannot both be valid, and (2) the commitment to inclusion in and of itself excludes ideas not committed to inclusion. Does this promote narrow-mindedness and oppression? Of course not; exclusive truth is perfectly compatible with human inclusion. Indeed, some people will regard the truth as offensive, but truth by necessity corrects thinking.
Doesn’t absolute truth crush freedom?
As the classic argument goes, absolute truth is to be shunned for two reasons: (1) it oppresses people who do not conform to it, and (2) it is the enemy of freedom, for absolute truth crushes individual liberty and inhibits people from doing what is true in their own eyes. This sentiment has been expressed by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy when he famously said in a 1992 ruling that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
My response is that the common objections to absolutism simultaneously minimize the importance of ultimate truth and reduce freedom to something much less complex than what it really is. I contend that ultimate freedom comes from ultimate truth, because in this dynamic, a person has taken hold of a reliable, enduring, and trustworthy claim that can assist them in navigating life. Yet, in 21st-century America, we tend to believe the opposite: anything claiming to be the ultimate truth limits our options. Why? Because of the assumption that ultimate truth claims are subliminal attempts to control people. Certainly, some truth claims will be power plays, but not all claims will end up being the actual truth. When it comes to doubt and skepticism, “seeing through” all truth claims puts you in a position where you can’t see anything. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” If you open a dirty window to see the street more clearly, then you have a better picture of the world. If, however, you open a window and then claim you can now “see through” the street, the bedrock, and the earth beneath it, then in actuality you can’t see anything at all. In essence, the incessant revolt against truth is an assault on reality and an ethical denunciation of what reasonable human beings can think in their own minds. Freedom means reasonably seeing through something in order to see the truth and then being empowered to live it.
 “Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey,” Legal Information Institute, last modified July 30th, 1992, accessed August 2nd, 2016, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/505/833
 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 48.
 For analogous sentiments, see G. K. Chesterson, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 33, 41-42.
So how do I figure out what is really true?
By weighing the facts and determining what is reasonable.
The fact is, we live in a world full of fallible human beings. These human beings often cannot be reduced to logic, cannot be shrunk into a formula, and often do things that don’t make empirical sense. With this honest perspective in mind, it is clear that no matter how “air tight” the truth is that a person claims to present, no argument will be totally convincing for everyone. And if a person does think their argument is 100% persuasive, they assume that their particular argument is more reasonable. So, what do we have left? We have what the philosopher Karl Popper called “critical rationalism.”
Critical rationalism says that truth is an endless quest of continual re-evaluation based on new evidence and new sense experiences. Total knowledge with complete answers is not possible, but workable knowledge with workable answers is possible. Critical rationalism assumes that, indeed, there are going to be some arguments that an overwhelming majority of people find reasonable, cognizant that no argument will be convincing to everyone. It says that, indeed, some beliefs are based on a truth that is more reasonable than others, but ultimately, a logical argument can be raised against any system of belief based on truth claims. How does this help us to figure out that what a person believes is really true? It informs us that realistically speaking, everyone can scrutinize their beliefs by evaluating their underlying truth claims, but to insist upon irrefutable proof is not only unfair but impractical. Modern science doesn’t demand irrefutable proof, and the model of reality testing discussed validates this. Even Darwinism, the bedrock of evolutionary biology and the explanatory theory for life less a Creator, is not considered a “proven fact” but rather is regarded as something open to change. As Richard Dawkins writes, “Darwin may be triumphant at the end of the twentieth century, but we must acknowledge the possibility that new facts may come to light which will force our successors of the twenty-first century to abandon Darwinism or modify it beyond recognition.”
Where do we go from here?
If we begin with the truth as a question, we can reach some intelligent answers— not answers that are irrefutable and beyond the shadow of a doubt, but sensible answers that weigh the evidence just as in a courtroom. This way, people can be realistic and not have absolute certainty, but can be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt and with plausible certainty as in a court of law. In the end, there is a great difference between knowing all the facts about what is true and knowing enough to be practical. Just like loving spouses or dear friends, we may not be able to master everything about these people, but that doesn’t mean we can’t know them well enough to have clarity, meaningful answers, and the fuel for a lifetime relationship.
Join me next time for episode two that searches for meaningful answers to the question, “What are the consequences of ideas?”
 Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (New York: Mariner Books, 2004), 81.
Do you believe there is a thing as ultimate truth?
© 2016 CH Elijah Sadaphal