7/26/2015 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Ben Love ~
Three years ago, if you had asked me what truth was, I would have said this: “Truth is a person.” I would have, of course, been referring to Jesus Christ. That is the “person” that I and all the other Christians would have maintained was the personification of truth. I am no longer a Christian, however, and my views on truth have shifted. The interesting thing is that when I was a Christian and answering in this fashion, my answer was based only on that which I had been taught. It was a patented answer. A parrot’s answer. But did I ever really know what I was talking about? Had I ever really ascertained for myself that this answer was correct?
The answer was based on biblical teaching, specifically that of John 14:6, where Jesus Christ makes his famously exclusive claim: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I took this claim at face value, as do millions of Christians everywhere, and assumed that since it was in the Bible it was automatically correct.
But is it?
One of the problems with assessing this question while one is still within the realm of Christianity is that the inquisitor is approaching the question through an “a priori” reasoning. In other words, they are coming to the question with a conclusion already in mind. What conclusion? That truth is a person and his name is Jesus Christ. Thus, they have, in a sense, already decided at the outset of the inquiry what direction their search will take and a partial pre-understanding of their deduced conclusion. In other words, the Christian approach assumes a truth (i.e., “Truth is a person named Jesus”) before any truth seeking actually occurs. This is, like it or not, illogical. Even if the Christian is correct and truth is a person and that person is Jesus Christ, it is illogical and incoherent to begin a pursuit of truth by assuming the conclusion ahead of time. This means that their inquiry will never be impartial, unbiased, or even untainted. With what is it tainted? An agenda. What is that agenda? This: the believer wants to be justified in his belief, so he will view certain evidence through that filter. He may even select which evidence is useful to him, ignoring that evidence which might thwart his agenda. He is therefore not accounting for all of the data, but only that data which serves his objective.
He may find what he is looking for, or he may have to contrive and connect dots to make his conclusion seem sound, and he may even feel good on the inside about this (and there is nothing wrong with feeling good on the inside), but this is not a responsible way to approach the issue. If truth is truth, then it should be attainable through any means, through all channels, based on all the evidence, and with as much impartiality as is humanly possible. Otherwise, whatever you have on your hands may be the truth to you, but that doesn’t mean it is the Truth. And if it is not the Truth that you seek, even if the truth hurts, then all you’ve really done is commit an act of philosophical masturbation. It may leave you feeling pretty damn good, but your juice was spent to no productive end.
Therefore, perhaps we ought to ask whether there is a responsible, respectable, and much more effective means to embark on a pursuit of truth. First, let’s observe the definition of the word “truth” as found on Wiktionary.com (pay particular attention to item #4):
· The state or quality of being true to someone or something.
· True facts, genuine depiction or statements of reality.
· Conformity to fact or reality; correctness, accuracy.
· That which is real, in a deeper sense; spiritual or ‘genuine’ reality.
I cannot speak for you, but I take this to mean that if truth does exist it exists on its own, without any help from me (or you), and that truth, whatever it is, was what it is before I was born and will be so after I die. As such, truth is not contingent upon me, dependent on me, or in need of my definitions. This is a very important distinction to make, because it means that 1) I do not and cannot create truth, and 2) I cannot alter it to fit my agenda. It is what it is. My job therefore is not to invent it, contrive it, concoct it, twist it, modify it, distort it, or politicize it for some personal gain. My job, as the honest seeker, is merely to discover it, observe it, understand it, and then live it. That’s it.
So what is truth? Even if we don’t know its particulars, can we have some sort of vague idea of what it ought to be? After all, how do we really even know what reality is? Is reality contingent upon the individual asking the question, or is reality a fixed fact that remains unchanged and existent without humanity? Further, can reality, even if it is existent without humanity, only be known when inquiring humans are around to ask the question? This would seem to be a paradox, because it implies that reality actually is in some way contingent upon the human. These are deep questions that are difficult to answer. For the purposes of this discussion, however, let us maintain that truth is the accumulation of all that is real at the heart of existence. Truth is the sum. Truth is the nucleus within the manifestations of what can be known. Truth is the beginning, the end, and the middle of any possible piece of actuality that exists within the scope of reality. Truth is the final word on all that everything is, could be, or will ever be. Truth is a factor that brings all equations back to the number one. Truth is the center of being.
Already we have a major problem. Since, at the outset of our search, we do not know what the particulars of truth are (assuming, of course, that we are being responsibly objective), how then do we know where to find it, what it should look like, how to observe it, or even if we are searching in the right place? Assuming that there are a million roads to take, how do we know which is the right one?
You actually know the answer even if you don’t know that you know. The reality of the situation is that every human being, whether he/she knows it or not, employs the process I’m about to articulate. What is this process? It involves two very interesting words:
1. [Epistemology] – The branch of philosophy dealing with the study of knowledge; theory of knowledge, asking such questions as “What is knowledge?”, “How is knowledge acquired?”, “What do people know?”, “How do we know what we know?”
2. [Methodology] – A collection of methods, practices, procedures and rules used by those who work in a certain field, and the implementation of such methods.
To make things simple, let us say it in this way: an epistemology is the accepted format one uses to acquire knowledge, and a methodology is the process by which the knowledge is acquired. This does, in a sense, make them sound like the same thing, but there is a distinction. An epistemology could be called your “starting point,” and a methodology could be called “the road thus taken.”
For instance, let us say that your objective is to track down a suspected killer. Since you do not know at the outset of your search who it is you are looking for exactly, how could you possibly know where to begin looking? The best way to approach this is to decide on an epistemology and a methodology. What would your epistemology (your “starting point”; your accepted format for gathering knowledge) be? Physical evidence. You begin by determining that your best chance to achieve your goal would be to rely on whatever physical evidence is at your disposal. After all, it’s no good trying to dream up the identity of the killer, or consulting a psychic, or asking a Ouija board. If you did these things, how could you be positive you made the right call? So, you decide that the best place to begin is with the evidence. Thus, you have established an epistemology. But now what do you do? Since you’ve decided that the evidence is going to be the ticket to finding the killer, the next thing you would have to do is establish a methodology by which to interpret that evidence. What would your methodology (the “road taken”; your accepted process for acquiring information) be? Analysis. Evaluating the evidence. Thus, you would compile and accumulate data (fingerprints, blood samples, tissue samples, witness testimony, photographic evidence, and so on) and begin to piece together a loose idea of the big picture. Who did the murder victim know? Did he have enemies? Was the door forced open or did the victim know his killer? A thousand questions could be asked, and using the evidence to accurately answer those questions to the best of your ability would, one would hope, lead you to the killer.
In our case, we are doing a bit of detective work as well. We are trying to locate and know truth. So, we too need an epistemology and a methodology by which to accomplish this. Question: are some better than others?
Empiricism: The Best Epistemology
Here is a very interesting question that you may not have ever considered before: how do you know what you know?
Think about it. If you in any way possess knowledge (and as a human, I’d like to think that you do), then how have you acquired that knowledge? What is the process by which you, born as a blank slate, have filled that slate in with all the things you currently know? Whatever that process is, it is your starting point for knowing and/or achieving anything in life.
All starting points, whatever they may be, are a form of epistemology. And we all have them. All of us. Whether we know it or not, we all have a starting point that includes a premise and presuppositions and even biases. The question, though, is whether it is possible to shed all that and adopt a completely new one, one that is designed to be effective. This is crucial. Sometimes, the road you take depends wholly on the place from which you begin. Thus, having the correct starting point is essential. But this only creates more problems. What is the best starting point? What is the correct epistemology? How do we know that it is correct? What happens when two different people, both of whom are honest seekers, have differing starting points and thus arrive at different conclusions? Who is correct? What if both are wrong? Again, since we don’t even know what it is we are looking for, how can we possibly know where to begin?
Admittedly, this is a gamble. The pilgrim is beholden to make a choice. Is there a way to know the right choice? In my opinion, yes, there is. It’s called Occam’s Razor, named after the Medieval scholar and philosopher William of Ockham. His famously concise statement, which has been adopted by thinkers in all corners of the globe for several centuries, is as follows: “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity).” What does this mean, you ask? It is basically the principle of preferring the simpler of two competing theories. In other words, the simplest or likeliest explanation is usually the best or correct one. For instance, if you walk into your living room to find a precious vase shattered on the floor, and you ask your son how it happened, and he responds that a Leprechaun did it, you then have two choices in front of you: either he is telling the truth, or he himself broke the vase. Of these two choices, which is the most likely? Which is the simpler explanation? Using Occam’s Razor, you could safely conclude that not only is your son a bald-faced liar, he is the one who broke the vase. Now, granted, as an example this is a gross exaggeration, but the analogy is useful to explicate the idea.
What thousands of people all over the world have discovered is that by using Occam’s Razor, a suitable starting point that holds the most promise does indeed surface. Yes, an unbiased, effective epistemology does reveal itself through the application of Occam’s Razor. What is it? Empiricism.
[Empiricism] – 1) A pursuit of knowledge purely through experience, especially by means of observation and sometimes by experimentation, and 2) a philosophy which holds that the only or, at least, the most reliable source of human knowledge is experience, especially perception by means of the physical senses (i.e., the natural, observable world).
In other words, empiricism maintains that there is nothing that you as a human being could possibly know that is not acquired through one or more of these six channels:
Thought is, in many ways, the sixth sense, because nothing of the other five senses could be processed without thought.
Now, those who subscribe to empiricism (I among them) assert that there is no other possible way to acquire knowledge. That is, you don’t know anything for a fact within yourself that did not first pass through one or more of the channels listed above. Even if you are a Christian who reads the Bible every day, you are still using sight to ingest the printed material into your consciousness (or touch, if you use Braille). Furthermore, both sight and touch employ th
“Intuition,” you might say.
Okay, well, what is intuition if not the chemical processes of a physical brain? We are still dealing with the natural world here.
“History,” you might say. “I have never seen, touched, smelled, or tasted Julius Caesar but I know he existed.”
Do you? If so, how do you know? How have you, living in 2015, ever even heard of Julius Caesar? Isn’t it because pieces of evidence (documents, letters, reports, artifacts, sculptures, engravings, etc.) exist that allow scholars to theorize the existence of Julius Caesar? Aren’t we still dealing with the natural, observable world here? If there were no single piece of physical evidence to suggest a man named Julius Caesar once lived, how would any of us even know about him? As it is, the existence of Julius Caesar is not a fact (and you can tell your History teacher I said so). It is a theory that best accounts for all the data at our disposal. You and I have, after all, never seen him, talked to him, smelled him, heard him, or touched him. But physical evidence (passing through the five senses and thought) has led others to postulate his existence. You and I then accept it as a fact.
“No,” you say. “Sometimes I just know things in my heart.”
You do? When you say “heart,” are you referring to the fist-sized organ in your chest that pumps blood through your body? You are able to “know things” with that organ? No, of course not. When you say “heart,” you are speaking about a place down deep in the bed of your consciousness. But what is consciousness if not sentient awareness produced by a physical brain? We are still dealing with the natural world here. And that is all empiricism is, really: limiting oneself to the natural, observable, tangible, physical world.
Three years ago, if you had asked me what truth was, I would have said this: “Truth is a person.” I would have, of course, been referring to Jesus Christ. As such, empiricism rejects superstition, the supernatural, the immaterial, and the ethereal. It’s not that these things are not good or even non-existent; it’s just that we cannot depend on them for the accumulation of knowledge. This renders them irrelevant to our original objective, which is to know truth.
That is why, according to Occam’s Razor, empiricism floats to the surface as the best epistemology. Are there problems with it? Of course. Nothing is perfect. Empiricism is taking for granted that you can fully trust your senses or your thoughts. Perhaps you cannot. The good thing is that the empiricist is not alone. There are other empiricists keeping him accountable, asking the same questions but coming from differing vantage points, and their senses might be better or worse than his. But when we all share the data and its evaluations, we can all move in the same direction in the long run.
How does Occam’s Razor validate empiricism? Consider the alternatives. Supernaturalism, superstition, speculation, conjecture, assumptions, even faith are all epistemologies that are far less sound and dependent on unverifiable data that can change with the individual seeker. Empiricism, though it too has its own problems, is the only one that deals with 1) hard data, and 2) the human’s evaluation of it. If Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest or likeliest explanation is the best or correct one, empiricism fits the bill perfectly. It is simpler and likelier because it is limited to natural, physical, observable, tangible data. There is no room for speculation, conjecture, or assumptions (do not confuse an assumption with a tested hypothesis). Are speculation, conjecture, and assumptions important? Yes, they are. Are they interesting? Yes, they are. Are they sound and useful? Not inherently, no.
Thus, for the seeking of truth, the pilgrim’s best starting point is to embrace empiricism, thus limiting himself to that data which is in his grasp and therefore observable, testable, verifiable, and subject to accountable interpretation. After all, evidence is not evidence if it is not in your possession.
Reason: The Best Methodology
I saw a documentary two nights ago about scientists who were studying quantum particles in the brain. Their assertion is that these quantum particles can and most likely do contain a data dump of our DNA in such a way as to allow for consciousness. What is interesting is that quantum particles never die, can never be destroyed, never change or mutate, and, for all intents and purposes, remain existent for as long as the Universe will remain existent. What this implies is that the human being may indeed have something eternal within him―that which some might call a soul. The theory these scientists were playing with was this: it’s possible these quantum particles, remaining after the physical body has died, can carry consciousness on after death. In other words, science may finally be pointing toward some sort of afterlife. Now, it’s important to remember that this information is not definitive at this point, it is only suggestive; and even if it ends up being correct, this does not automatically imply your particular religion or brand of spirituality is affirmed. At this point, all we can say is that science in this field is emerging and it’s quite interesting.
Theists at this point might be smiling and saying, “Aha! We knew it.” Well, an important distinction needs to be observed here. You theists actually did not know anything. You believed something…and let’s be honest, you believed it with no true evidence whatsoever. And just because science might indeed confirm something eternal, this needs to be seen for what it is: scientific discovery, not religious confirmation. But I know that my pleas in this regard will fall on deaf ears. I’ve played this game before, after all.
In any case, the difference between you theists and us empiricists is that we have limited ourselves to the observable, natural world―that which can be studied through empiricism. Thus, when we make any kind of discovery, we can have the sure confidence of knowing what we know rather than just believing what we think we know. Is this distinction important? You bet your sweet theist ass it is. The pursuit of truth should never be about conjecture, speculation, assumption, or that warm fuzzy feeling of faith inside our gut; it should always be about the attainment of solid knowledge obtained in the natural world through a responsible, respectable method.
That brings us to the next topic of our discussion: methodology.
You will no doubt recall from our previous discussion that an epistemology is a starting point, an accepted format for attaining knowledge. A methodology is the process by which you do that. What is the best methodology? I say it is reason, and I will tell you why.
We hear about reason all the time but it has, in many ways, become a sort of buzzword that people use to mean all sorts of different things. I therefore feel I need to establish its correct meaning here. “Reason” is, basically, a true umbrella term under which is housed several others disciplines. But put in simple terms, reason is really nothing more than the use of logic.
[Reason] – The power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.
I call reason the best methodology, but this isn’t strictly true. There are actually several methodologies that exist under the umbrella term, all of which are useful, all of which are responsible, and all of which can be effective in reaching conclusions. Right now, let us observe a few things about reason, the umbrella term for all the others.
Reason is the safest, most responsible, most reliable means of reaching conclusions because it intrinsically embodies the following three traits:
1. Reason is neutral. By this, I mean that reason is itself a pure process that has no vested interest one way or another regarding what your conclusions might be, unlike some other processes. Faith, for instance, definitely has a vested interest in your journey and where it leads you. What is that interest? Self-interest! Faith wants to be confirmed, faith wants to be maintained. Faith, then, is a lens that distorts what the eye can see. Faith has an agenda. Reason has no agenda except for that which it is built to employ: reaching the most sound conclusion possible. Bias has no room to breathe here.
2. Reason follows the evidence. Reason doesn’t invent evidence, it doesn’t distort evidence, it doesn’t select among the evidence (picking the parts that serve an agenda, in other words), and it doesn’t have a bias in interpreting evidence. Reason allows the evidence to simply tell whatever story it is inherently telling. Through reason, you can go where the evidence is leading. Other methodologies allow you to take the evidence where you want it to go. This is far less responsible, because you could be and likely are serving an agenda. Agendas are rarely objective.
3. Reason is “tried and true.” This may sound trite, but don’t underestimate the importance of this fact. Ever since the days of the Enlightenment humans have been employing reason to reach conclusions. By and large, seekers from all corners of the Earth over a period of about 250 years have all been coming to the (roughly) same conclusions. This is very strong validation in reason’s favor. If truth is observable and measurable, then one would expect seekers separated by geography and time to observe and measure the same things, thus reaching the same conclusions. And this is exactly what we see. Those who employ faith come to all sorts of varying and bizarre conclusions, which is also exactly what we see. Try to get two religious zealots to agree and you might have a bloodbath on your hands. Try to get two empiricists to agree and you will likely succeed.
Now, there are two kinds of reasoning, deductive and induc
1. Deductive Reasoning – Beginning with a premise and using the evidence to deduct a conclusion that fits that premise.
2. Inductive Reasoning – Using the evidence to induct first a premise and then a conclusion.
Both have their uses, depending on the situation, it just depends on what your objective is. If your goal is to attain a knowledge of something that you have no prior understanding of, and assuming you have no agenda breathing down your neck, then inductive reasoning is the best way to go because it will allow you to be as unbiased as possible.
To demonstrate this, suppose we assume two men, who do not know each other, are hoping gain an understanding of what women want. I mean, don’t we all wonder that? Okay, so Man A has a theory, and he is entering the investigation with this theory. As such, he is entering the investigation with a pre-formed premise (even if it just a theory, he wants to prove it, because it is his theory). What is his theory? He believes women only care about a man’s sense of humor. Now, he may speak very eloquently about how he is hoping to be objective and unbiased and how he just “wants the truth,” but even if he doesn’t try to be biased, he will filter the evidence through that premise. Why? That is what premises do; they color, or taint, your perception. So, he interviews several women, conducts research, watches the behavior of women closely, and begins to corral the data toward some sort of conclusion. Since he happens to be a funny guy, many of the women he spoke to laughed flirtingly at his antics. To him, this is feedback, confirmation of his theory. Because this data, on its own, matches his theory, it is accorded special status during the examination, and other data, which might contradict his theory, is pushed to the side. Thus, he has taken (some) evidence and used it to deduce a conclusion that fits the premise he already possessed when he began the investigation. This is deductive reasoning. Man A’s conclusion: women want a funny man.
Now, suppose Man B interviews the exact same women, and suppose, just to make it interesting, that Man B even asks them the exact same questions. To make it even more interesting, let us further suppose that Man B is also a funny guy and that the women laughed flirtingly at his antics too. However, Man B did not have a theory going into this exercise. He decided that the only premise that was useful was to make nothing his premise. In other words, he wipes the slate clean of any pre-conceived suppositions and vows to let the accumulated data induce a premise for him. From there, he can further assess the data to test conclusions, and will hopefully end up arriving at the correct one. This is inductive reasoning. Man B’s conclusion: women want a man who is real, which may or may not include being funny.
One goal, two investigations, and two conclusions. Which do you think is better?
The Truth about Truth
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
― Flannery O’Connor
This quote is extremely important. It reminds us that the pursuit of truth should always be about understanding what truth is, not distorting truth to be what you want it to be. You may have some sort of investment in the pursuit. Perhaps you desperately want to confirm that truth really is a person and that this person really is Jesus Christ. But if you begin your investigation with this kind of a priori reasoning, isn’t very likely that you will indeed confirm that which you wish to prove? Isn’t it very likely that your desire or agenda in this instance will determine your perception of all you examine? And isn’t therefore likely that you will skew your conclusions to match your agenda? Perhaps you don’t even know that you are doing it, but knowing what you know about human nature, isn’t this very likely? I think it is. And I’m not alone.
More and more people are choosing reason, empiricism, and rationalism to determine truths because it has proven itself to be fair, impartial, open, unbiased, and unmotivated. What do I mean by unmotivated? Reason, if it is used correctly, doesn’t care about your agenda, and it only leads you to that which is. This is why you can trust it. Question: can you really trust your faith? Isn’t faith, by its very nature, invested in itself? Isn’t self-preservation a large part of faith’s agenda? And if so, is this really being impartial? Reason is sterile in this regard; it is there only to be used as an effective tool, provided you use it correctly.
The truth about truth, therefore, is that it is what it is regardless of whether you seek it, whether or not you have an agenda, and whether or not you will like what you find when and if you find it. Truth doesn’t care about you and your desires. It’s just there to be observed and examined. So do yourself a favor and leave your agenda at the door. If you’re on the road to find truth, let yourself find it exactly as it is, not as how you want it to be.
That is the truth about truth…