Richard J. Severson
“Truth” is one of the few ideas that modern scientists employ as often as ancient philosophers did. They don’t use other metaphysically-freighted terms much, like goodness, beauty, God, or being. What makes truth so distinctive? I think it is an indication of what we hold dearest. Not ethics (goodness), not aesthetics (beauty), not religion (God), certainly not metaphysics (being), but knowledge. We have pinned our hopes on knowing as much as we can about the universe. The evidence of our success in that wager is all around us. Truth is so vital today because it is how we speak about the accuracy of our theories and knowledge. Is the theory of relativity true? It is if we can verify that its predictions about how inertial systems behave relative to one another are true.
Generally speaking, there are two common usages of truth. First, there is truth as conformity to the facts, which is the sense that has become so significant for scientific verification. Second, there is truth as conformity to a pattern or ideal. I am a “true” Christian if my life resembles the life of Jesus in some fashion since he is the Christian ideal. This second usage is less significant for its ethical implications (imitation as the means for acquiring virtue) than it is for its engineering implications. Precision manufacturing—constructing parts and machines that run true to their design specifications—is as vital to technological innovation and scientific discovery as anything else. Without the telescope, to pick the most iconic example, where would we be as a science-based civilization?
As one might expect, there are myriad philosophical theories about what truth is and is not. The most widely accepted one is the correspondence theory of truth. The correspondence between my mental constructions and the real world outside my mind is what we usually mean by truth. If I tell people that my car is red when it is actually blue, I am being untruthful because what I say does not correspond to what is really the case. Common sense is sufficient to convince us regarding this obvious conception of truth (we don’t need a philosopher’s explanation). But there are problems with it.
The biggest problem pertains to two interrelated issues about the mind and how it is connected to reality. First, the correspondence theory implies that we can somehow judge whether our thoughts match what they are referencing. How can we be both the source of the thoughts under scrutiny and the judge of their accuracy? There is an inherent conflict of interest, an opening to the biases that we so famously possess. “Objectivity” is an ideal, not something truly achievable because so much of what we think and believe serves our own purposes. Every biological organism is adapted for survival, and for us that entails both conscious and unconscious mental agendas that are hard to recognize or overcome. Consider how natural it is for us to prohibit the mistreatment of humans while at the same time enslaving other living species without a moral twitch.
Second, the correspondence theory implies that our minds easily get it right about what goes on outside of them because they function like a mirror, to recall Richard Rorty’s phrase (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979). This idea that the mind is in harmony with nature or reality runs deep, making the correspondence theory seem so obviously true. Unfortunately, the mind isn’t a mirror of nature. It is almost the exact opposite—a constructor of what nature appears to be, not a passive reflector of what nature really is. Yes, we see what we see and we verify it with scientific experiments when necessary. But even the framework that we use to interpret the flow of data from our senses is a mental construction designed to filter and “see” what natural selection determined that we should see. Neuroscience is confirming Kant’s thesis that time and space—the broadest “natural” categories we employ in understanding nature—are themselves interpretive filters that the mind contributes to experience. Does that mean there is no such thing as time and space in the natural universe? No. Instead, it means that whatever time and space really are, we only have access to how our minds organize them to fit our purposes.
How is it possible to step outside of ourselves and assess the truth about what we perceive and think when so much of it is contrived by us? Existentially, we are like blind bats flying by sonar alone. We receive “echoes” in response to our idiosyncratic probes, and we use them to speculate about what might be out there. But to believe that what is out there is exactly what we “see” would be naïve. The correspondence theory of truth works fine concerning straightforward matters of everyday life. But as a serious attempt to understand “truth” it is incomplete at best. Like every other animal species, we simply do not have access to reality as it is in itself.
Where does this leave us regarding truth? I agree with Rorty, who stands in the tradition of American pragmatism. Truth, like reason, is a convention from a pragmatist point of view, a way of speaking about what most of us can agree upon—nothing more. Truth is also like a scientific paradigm in Thomas Kuhn’s sense (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962): it holds sway when consensus about its legitimacy is reached. There is no privileged foundation to our sense of truth concerning reality, such as Descartes’s cogito sum that supposedly withstood all doubts. That metaphysical ghost is discredited even though its traces still linger in many theories about truth, including the correspondence theory.
The truth about human knowledge is that it does not mirror nature exactly. We are fallible interpreters of nature. Knowledge is a form of self-correcting interpretation. If that were not the case, why would we need to work at improving our knowledge? We can get closer to the truth in the ideal sense (how things really are) through better and better interpretations. But the line separating our efforts from reality itself is an asymptote, which we can never cross.
There is another ancient legacy of truth that I must address. In the Christian tradition, for instance, truth is often viewed as a characteristic of God. What does that mean? In part, I think it means that to know God is to know reality in its truest, most ideal form. God is the one and only perfect “mirror of nature” in this case, which appears to violate my assertion that we do not have access to reality as it is in itself. How can I claim to be a Christian believer and a pragmatist regarding all truth claims? Am I making a supernatural exception for God?
According to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s famous definition (The Christian Faith, 1821), faith is a feeling of absolute dependence. It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable position than absolute dependence. It is also hard to imagine possessing the trust to willingly accept such a condition. How is that possible? God’s truth is a blinding light (to paraphrase Augustine) that strips everything down to its essence. To stand in that light, to be possessed by that truth, to feel that absolute dependence, is salvation in the Christian sense. From that core experience, we become our truest selves. That is the briefest snapshot of what a Christian life is supposed to entail.
Is the experience of Christian salvation supernatural? It is often spoken of in that way. I believe it is supernatural to the same extent that the desire to comprehend more than I am capable of understanding is “supernatural.” The experience of salvation reaches beyond my capacity to comprehend in ordinary terms. As Augustine described it in the Confessions (396 AD), salvation involved a disruption of his internal sense of time-consciousness. His memories and expectations were reconfigured by the experience. That is something he did not have the capacity to understand without the use of a salvation (spiritual) narrative. Salvation narratives, by definition, describe extraordinary events. Is the experience of having one’s sense of internal time-consciousness disrupted an ordinary event? Thankfully, it is not. Is it supernatural in that sense? Yes. But is it something beyond the realm of natural possibility for a human being? Is it supernatural in that sense? No, it is not.
Mental illnesses, brain traumas, seizures, electrical probes of the brain, etc.—these experiences may also lead to extraordinary events. The mind responds to such events like it responds to all experiences: it interprets them, and does its best to make sense of them in a narrative framework. How does the schizophrenic patient respond to extraordinary mental experiences suffered from the disease? One common trope is the construction of imaginary voices delivering special messages and commands. No one doubts the hallucinatory nature of those responses to the disease. What is remarkable about them is the creativity with which the mind attempts to do its job in extraordinary circumstances. From the point of view of faith, salvation is a lot like a brain trauma that transcends the ordinary. The difference is that its outcome can be counted as self-improvement instead of disease.
The experience of truth as part of faith—as a characteristic of God—is no different in kind than many other human experiences. It is subject to the same biological and psychological limitations, and to the same capacities of human understanding. Does it cross the line separating truth as we can know it from reality as it is in itself? I do not believe so. Despite the overwhelming nature of the experience of salvation, and the accompanying conviction that one has encountered the absolute truth, when it comes time to try to understand what happened we are left with the same capacities and skills that we always had. Nothing has changed except the fact that we experienced something extraordinary. It is typically a unique experience, not one that could be controlled and reproduced at will like a scientific experiment. Like a vision quest in Native American traditions, or a temple oracle in ancient Greece, an experience of salvation becomes a gold mine for endless interpretation and life-long reflection. It is a creative, self-transcending event—emergent—an opening for abundant new meaning. To reformulate an old definition, God as truth is that than which nothing more meaningful can be encountered; and to experience a full measure of meaning—meaning unbounded by imagination—is the epitome of salvation.
Finally, I disagree with those who hold that possessing the truth that faith engenders is a form of certainty that extends beyond the normal certainty of knowing. There is no certainty except for the certainty that our knowledge is bounded and our interpretations are fallible. This side of the grave, we are only capable of glimpsing God’s truth, never possessing it fully. Faith points to what lies beyond itself, always. To be overly certain, particularly in matters of faith, is a dangerous misinterpretation of what limits we live under as biological organisms. Truth is never equivalent to certainty because knowledge is always improvable. The opposite of certitude is openness to mystery, and the opposite of fanaticism is mysticism.