Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Truth and Errors on Truth

37 Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

There is a certain group of people who deny we can know any objective truths.  They claim all knowledge is subjective in relation to us.  Then they take the religious believer to task for being "illogical, when they say truth is objective."

There is a certain irony to such a claim of course: The use of logic requires the existence of objective truth.  If [A] = [B] is true, and [B] = [C] is true, then it follows that [C] = [A] is also true.   However, if we deny that we can know that [A] = [B] and [B] = [C], then we cannot logically establish that [C] = [A].  Why?  Because if we cannot know that [A] = [B] is true, then we have nothing to use as a basis to discover the relation between [A], [B] and [C].

By denying one can know objective truth, the person making the claim is in fact denying the use of logic and reason.

What IS Truth

The best definition of truth comes from Aristotle.  To say of a thing that is, that it is, or to say of something that is not, that it is not, speaks the truth.  To say of a thing that is, that it is not, or to say of a thing that it is not, that it is, does not speak the truth.

In the quest for truth, it is in fact speaking of the reality of what is and rejecting what is not.

Now if something IS, then what it is cannot be said to be true only in relation to something else.  If a dog is a canine, it is always a canine, even if someone does not know that fact.

"All Truth is Subjective" Is A Paradoxical Statement

One of the unfortunate modern assumptions is that all truth is subjective.  The irony is this statement is in itself an objective statement, and if it is true, it must be false.  Why? 

We can demonstrate this as follows:

Statement: All truth is subjective

Now, is this true for all people or in all conditions?  If it is, this means it is objectively true, and the statement is contradiction, because if something is objectively true, it cannot be subjectively true.

However, for it to be subjectively true, it means that it is true in relation to some conditions, but not to others.  However, this means that the term "All" is false.

It's like saying "This statement is a lie."  is this statement true or false?  If this statement is true, it cannot be a lie, but the statement says it is a lie.

See what a mess it becomes when a belief contradicts itself?

The only way one could salvage the idea is to change it to "Some Truth is Subjective."  The problem is, to say "Some truth is subjective" means some truth is not subjective, but objective.

Truth: Subjective and Objective

Objective and Subjective are words which can be equivocations because each one has different meanings.  So to be precise, we should look at these different meanings.

Objective can be commonly understood to mean either

  1. not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
  2. not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.

Subjective can be commonly understood to mean either

  1. based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
  2. dependent on the mind for existence.

In both cases, definition #1 is often used.  However in terms of logic, it is definition #2 which is properly used and this is how these terms are understood by the Church.

Unfortunately Objective is often misunderstood to mean "known by all" or "believed by all."  However, even if 100% of a population believes a lie, it is still a lie.  Nor does it mean "publicly known."  If [hypothetically] only I know where a million dollars is hidden, the location of where it is hidden is true even if I should meet with an unfortunate accident and die before revealing this information.

In terms of logic, Objective and Subjective demonstrate two different states.  Something is objectively true when it is true always and exists independently of the mind or experience.  It is subjectively true when it depends entirely on experience to be known.

"I itch" is a subjective truth.  The itch does not exist independently of the individual suffering from it.

"I ought to follow my conscience whether I want to or not" is an objective truth, because it is true whether people believe it or reject it.

Can We Know Objective Truth?

This is the next topic.  Some people claim "OK, so objective truth can exist.  But we can't know truth objectively, only subjectively.  Therefore what we know is only subjective truth."  This was brought to the foreground by Immanuel Kant, who called the concept "the Copernican Revolution in philosophy."  He argued we could not know "things in themselves" but only know things as they relate to the mind.

The problem is this is again contradictory.  If objective truth can exist but we can only know truth subjectively is true, it is in itself an objective truth, not a subjective truth.  If we know we can only know things in relation to the mind, you have an endless paradox.

There is a half truth in this.  It is true that we do use our senses to see some things (eyes for sight, ears for hearing and so on), but these things we sense are objective to begin with.  It has to be received by the senses before it can be evaluated by the senses.  If I read that the Statue of Liberty is 151 feet tall, it is not subjectively 151 feet tall on account of the fact that I learned this from using my eyes to read.  The truth of its height was objective, not subject to my knowing it.

An Exercise to Consider

Let us consider something.  The idea that "We ought to always follow our conscience and never act against it."  Let's set aside (for now) what individual religions understand our duties to be.  Even defined in a secular manner, conscience can be taken to mean "a person’s moral sense of right and wrong." Is this idea Objective or Subjective?

  • Is this something which is true only for me? [Subjective]  Or are others required to do this as well? [Objective]
  • Is it possible that tomorrow it would be acceptable act in a way against my conscience [Subjective] OR Is this something which is always true for me? [Objective]?
  • Is it true only if I believe this? [Subjective]  Or is it something which is true even if I claim not to know it or refuse to follow it? [Objective]

If we claim we can only know truth subjectively (whether we claim truth is only subjective or whether we claim that even if objective truth exists, we cannot know it objectively), we cannot claim to know that a person who does not follow their conscience is wrong in doing so.

This may seem too abstract, so let's make it more concrete.  Consider the evils of Nazi Germany, where the state has called for some quite horrific acts.  A young soldier has to consider whether to obey what the state says and participate in the extermination of Jews or whether to defy the state and follow his conscience, even if it means he will suffer for it.  Others around him are following the state.  Let us consider the following:

  1. Is the conscience of the young soldier objective or subjective which tells him to defy the state?
  2. Are the soldiers around him who are following the state doing something which is good for them?

If truth is subjective, how can the young soldier know he is right to disobey an order to kill Jews?  After all, if his conscience tells him this, but others tell him his conscience is unimportant and truth is subjective, then it means that we cannot know absolutely it is wrong to take part in genocide.  In such a view we can say we think it is wrong to do this, but we cannot say objectively "This is Wrong!"  After all, you might think it is wrong, but if truth is only subjective or if truth can only be known subjectively, then we cannot say that the Nazis were wrong… only that we think they were wrong.

Only if truth is objective, we can appeal to it when confronting an evil.  If we say racism or sexism is wrong, for example, then either we mean "I don't like it" [which is what subjectivism can tell us] or else we mean "This is something which is always to be condemned and never tolerated" [Which is what objectivism tells us].

What It All Means

The denial of objective truth is one of those things which is commonly cited as a means to deny the Christian truth, especially in the area of morality, as binding.  If objective truth is binding, and is something which places obligations on us, we either must follow it or be hypocritical.  However, because so many things which contradict the truth are popular, it is easier to tell us that what Christianity teaches is "subjective," an "opinion" and so on.

The equivocation of meaning is then introduced.  "Depending on the mind" is replaced with "formed by emotion and opinion."  From this, we get the idea that "truth is subjective" or "truth is relative" and anyone who believes in objective truth is being emotional, but not rational or logical, while the person who denies objective truth is considered rational and logical.

Yet (as we stated in the beginning) if we want to believe in reason and logic, we have to believe in objective truth, because both assume there are things which we can know objectively.  Logic works as follows (using a classic syllogism]:

  • All [Men] are [Mortal] (All [A] is part of [B])
  • [Socrates] is a [Man] ([C] is part of [A])
  • Therefore [Socrates] is [Mortal] (Therefore [C] is part of [B])

If the major and minor premise are true, we can see the conclusion is true

However If the premises are not objectively true, we get:

  • It seems that All [Men] might be [Mortal], but we can't know that for certain
  • [Socrates] could be [a man], but since we can't know this objectively, this might be wrong.
  • Therefore, it isn't impossible that [Socrates] is [Mortal] unless we're wrong about [A] and [B].

If the premises are not clear, we cannot get to a clear conclusion.  If we don't know the premises are true, we cannot know if the conclusion is true

The first example is logical and rational.  The second example is neither.  The first example is logical and rational.  The second example is neither.  The first example is Objective.  The second is Subjective.

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