What is Truth and Can It Be Known?
(Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash)
You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
In our world today, you will find many people who no longer believe in absolute truth. Of course, most aren't talking about truth that can be seen. For example, if you are getting ready to cross a street, you will only cross if no cars are coming. You understand the fact that if you walk in front of a moving vehicle, you will be hit. If I tell you I am wearing a ring and you see that I am indeed wearing a ring, you know it is true. Or as you are leaving the grocery store, you find your vehicle. Out of all the vehicles in the parking lot, only one of the cars belongs to you. Most would agree it is absolutely true that your car belongs to you.
TWO KINDS OF TRUTH
Like I said, in the modern world, objective, absolute truth is in question. The world agrees, though, on two kinds of truth:
Truth that is determined by your own experience. Let's say you have a favorite movie. Will you spend your time trying to convince someone else they should like your favorite movie and make it their favorite as well? Does your truth have to be their truth? Probably not because you understand that it's personal and that your favorite does not have to be someone else's favorite. And as long as they have their own favorite movie or no favorite at all, that's all that matters.
Truth that is universal, non-negotiable, and applies to all. This is like the truth of knowing which side of the road to drive on or the truth that if you have a cure for what ails someone, you will share this cure with the person who needs to know. Hopefully, you will. You understand that it's important that people drive on the right side of the road. You know that if someone is sick and you have the medicine they need, that it would be wrong to tell them, "Whatever you think will work is fine." No, you would say, "I have what you need to make you better, and here it is."
SPIRITUAL TRUTH DOESN'T EXIST AND CAN'T BE KNOWN CLAIMS
The same people that accept the two kinds of truth will turn around and say when it comes to spiritual truth or the truth about God, there is no way to know what is true. Others will say all ways are equally valid. But can that be? Can Jesus be both only a man as Jews claim and God as Christians claim? Can it be true that there is no personal god as Buddhists say and yet there be a personal God as Christians claim? No these are diametrically opposed to each other. They can't both be true.
In a world where the internet essentially breaks down all barriers, and more views and perspectives than you ever imagined are easily accessible, it's no wonder people doubt or say it's not possible to know what is true. The sheer amount of different views and perspectives is mind-blowing. Therefore, much of the world makes these two claims: 1) objective, absolute truth does not exist and 2) Even if it does exist, it can't be known. The first claim is an ontological argument. Ontology is the nature and essence of being. Therefore all truth depends on one's own personal perspective. The second claim that truth, if it does exist, can't be known is an epistemological issue. Epistemology is the nature of knowing or being able to know something. Some philosophers go as far as to question if knowledge is even possible.
CLAIMS THAT SPIRITUAL TRUTH CAN'T BE KNOWN ARE SELF-REFUTING
But these claims are self-refuting. First, by making the claim that objective, absolute truth does not exist, you are claiming that what you say is an objective truth. You are saying there is at least one truth that is absolute. If truth doesn't exist, then how do you know the claim you make that it doesn't exist is true? Second, if you say truth is a matter of one's perspective, you are claiming this is true for everyone rather than saying it's just your perspective. Those who have a different view are wrong, you say. You are taking their right to their own perspective away from them. Therefore, you have refuted your own claim, that truth is a matter of one's own perspective. And third, to claim that truth cannot be known is contradictory because you can't possibly know that truth cannot be known. One person puts it this way: "If certainty is impossible, how can we be certain that certainty is impossible?"
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEF
You can believe something to be true and be wrong, but you can't technically know something that is false. Wikipedia says, "Whether someone's belief is true is not a prerequisite for (its) belief. On the other hand, if something is actually known, then it categorically cannot be false. For example, if a person believes that a bridge is safe enough to support her, and attempts to cross it, but the bridge then collapses under her weight, it could be said that she believed that the bridge was safe but that her belief was mistaken. It would not be accurate to say that she knew that the bridge was safe, because plainly it was not. By contrast, if the bridge actually supported her weight, then the person might say that she had believed the bridge was safe, whereas now, after proving it to herself (by crossing it), she knows it was safe."
FOUR POSSIBLE WAYS PEOPLE DETERMINE TRUTH
Pragmatic Way: whatever works--Someone might say, "I'm glad God works for you, but He doesn't work for me." Pragmatism is an insufficient way of determining truth though. Something may be true but not work for you such as death or a diagnosis of cancer. Or you may find something that works for you such as getting away with telling a lie, but the lie will never be true.
Empirical Way: whatever can be experienced using the five senses-- For example, a person may tell you, "I know it's true because I experienced it myself." This way is also not adequate in and of itself because two people may experience the same thing and come away with a different truth. One person may tell you the experience of riding the roller coaster was exhilarating and another person who rode the same roller coaster may walk away dizzy and nauseated. The empirical way reflects the first type of truth we talked about earlier, but it is not a universal truth.
Emotive Way: however it feels--We all know our emotions can change on a dime and what about people with irrational fears? Does what they feel reflect the truth? It may be true for them, but again it's not good enough because it doesn't encompass a truth that applies to everyone. Our emotions cannot be trusted to reflect the truth. And sometimes emotions don't apply to the truth. Such as me telling you I'm wearing a ring. You can see that it's true, but most likely it won't cause an emotion unless it's exciting news; as in me telling you, "I'm engaged!"
Correspondence Way: whatever is claimed corresponds with what is there--If you say it is and it is, or you say it isn't and it isn't, then you speak the truth, but if you say it is and it isn't, or it isn't and it is, then what you say is not true. If I tell you there is a chair in the next room and then we walk over to the next room, and there is a chair, what I said is true, but if we walk over to the room and there is no chair, then what I said is not true. We use the correspondence way every day of our lives.
Unfortunately, many in the Christian world use the first three ways to determine truth. Most people who are Christians were either raised in the church, or they've had an experience that demonstrates for them that Christianity is true. But so does every person on the planet that believes something about God, whether they be Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Mormon, Jehovah Witness, Jew, or Christian. I've met many Mormon missionaries. Most were raised in the church, but not all of them. All have shared with me their testimony. Mormons place a high value on their experience of God. They have received healing and seen the miraculous. And they have all read the Book of Mormon and felt a "burning in their bosom" as they say. But Christians would say that Mormon faith is not based on truth. Why? Because they believe differently? Is that good enough to determine truth?
Next post we will look further into ways to determine truth from a biblical standpoint and how we can follow the evidence.
Does Truth Exist, and Can It Be Known? (podcast)
How Can We Share Truth With Mormons? (podcast)