“What is Truth?”

“What is Truth? Christ and Pilate” – by Nikolai Ge, 1890

“What is Truth?” Pilate asked those words of Jesus almost 2 millennia ago. Johnny Cash had a song with that title back in 1970. Some questions never go away, I suppose. While there are actually several theories of what “truth” is, I want to focus today on the classical version that, I think, is still the best. Let’s dig in!

The classical view of truth is the correspondence theory of truth: a statement is true simply if it corresponds to reality. Aristotle expressed this well when he said that to speak truth is “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.” This seems like simple common sense, but since our culture today seems to be struggling with the very notion of truth, let me provide an example.

In engineering, we know that when we idealize a joint, it doesn’t correspond perfectly to reality, and we accept some loss in fidelity in favor of simplification for analysis… to a point. But sometimes we have to say, “This has gone beyond simplification and is now misrepresenting the object being analyzed.” Our model doesn’t correspond to the real object anymore.

For instance, we tend to model truss joints as being “pinned” – i.e. not rigid. And for most trusses like the open web steel roof joists you might see in a retail store, that’s a relatively accurate model.

Now compare that “simple” pinned truss joint to a giant truss joint like the one pictured here. That’s a pretty beefy connection and probably more accurate to assume a high degree of stiffness in that joint. Somewhere in between those 2 extremes, our model passes a point of unacceptable noncorrespondance to real joint behavior. What about these in-between situations? Just because that point is in a gray area doesn’t mean we deny the idea of truth being what corresponds to reality. Sometimes, in critical applications, it’s warranted to invest the extra work in modeling the joint as a rotational spring to capture that behavior in between a rotating pin or a fully rigid joint. Likewise, in diaphragm design, we are allowed to assume flexible or rigid diaphragms for the obvious extremes like thin metal or wood decks versus thick concrete slabs. For those unclear areas in between, we use the more accurate method of a “semi-rigid” diaphragm using a finite element analysis to analyze our floors or roofs. Why? Because our profession recognizes that truth still exists, even in gray areas. It’s just more difficult to ascertain, and requires more thorough investigation to find it. So in real life, the existence of gray areas and difficult situations doesn’t preclude the existence of a “right”, or true, answer; rather, what we are recognizing when we classify something as a gray area is our uncertainty of the truth we are seeking in those situations.  But we stillrecognize that the truth is there, somewhere, or else we wouldn’t seek more accurate answers. And this recognition of a reality holding the right answer, outside of our own interpretations of reality, points to the premise that truth is objective and not subjective. In other words, the truth about an object is based on the object itself, not on our subjective perceptions of it.  If I’m colorblind, I might perceive an object’s color very differently from another person, but the object is absorbing and reflecting photons of light in a manner independent of either observer. Therefore, the true color of the object is based on the properties of the object itself, and I describe the object truthfully when I call it by the color it has rather than the color I think I see.

Gray areas in moral and ethical questions are often used to undermine the idea that there are objective moral truths as well as physical truths like my examples above. Yet this is a similar situation to those examples: just because we can recognize the right answer in the easy,  obvious cases doesn’t mean there isn’t a right answer for those less-obvious cases. It just means we might have to dig a little deeper, and possibly remain unsatisfied with potential answers until we find the right one.  But there’s a shortcut, of sorts. The one true God who created the physical universe with its objective physical truths also established the moral truths we seek.  In God, we have that independent “third-party” that can referee between competing truth claims from different people, cultures, times, or places. And who better than the very source of moral truth, for whom it is impossible to lie? [He 6:18, Ti 1:2] Until next time, never waver in the relentless pursuit of truth!

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