Tag Archives: Objective Truth

“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!

Qualifications

Black Diamond - for experts only...
Black Diamond – for experts only…

There is a trend I’ve noticed in debates (especially online) where it is put forth that who you are disqualifies you from making any statement on a controversial issue. Those familiar with logic will recognize this as the genetic fallacy, that a statement’s origin can determine whether it’s true or false. And yet it persists in the public square. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve been personally challenged with: you can’t speak about human behavior unless you’re a psychologist; you can’t speak about science without being a scientist; you can’t speak about abortion unless you’re a woman; you can’t speak about legal issues unless you’re a lawyer, and on and on. Since this is often brought up, let’s look at this in more detail.

First off, does someone trained in a particular discipline and working in that area have an advantage over the typical layman in discussing that topic? Certainly, but this doesn’t preclude other people from forming reasonably valid opinions on the same topic. For instance, if you want to know whether your office building can support a heavier rooftop air conditioning unit, by all means, call an engineer like myself to investigate that for you. We’ll apply our knowledge, experience, and specialized analysis software to your situation to work out the safest, best solution to the problem. But if you’re in your office, and the roof is starting to visibly sag, the sheetrock on the walls is starting to buckle inward, and you can hear loud noises as bolts suddenly snap, please, don’t think you need to wait on an “expert” to tell you that you need to get out! That situation doesn’t require an expert to say “Run!” There is a difference between needing the fine-tuned conclusion that a subject matter expert can bring to a topic and needing to establish the broad, basic solution that can be deduced by anyone applying valid reasoning to the evidence at hand. In the roof collapse example, it doesn’t really matter to the occupants whether the roof beams are failing due to lateral-torsional buckling or by block shear at the column connection. They can look at the ceiling getting closer to their heads, and listen to the building, and reasonably come to the same basic conclusion as the engineer: this building is collapsing and we need to evacuate. Likewise, you don’t need to be a psychologist to recognize the guy trying to run people off the road has some serious anger issues he needs to deal with. And lawyers, despite their expertise, actually don’t decide the guilt or innocence of a person charged with murder. They can only explain the case; average citizens on the jury make the decision.   This idea that only experts on a topic can speak on any level about that subject leads to blind faith in those experts, and is really a forfeiture of our responsibility to dig deep and understand the issues we face. Please understand, this is a standard I hold myself to as well. If you hire me as an engineer, and I make some crazy-sounding recommendation that I can’t explain any basis for, don’t blindly trust me either – by all means, call me out on it.

Something else to consider is that amateur enthusiasts often develop extensive knowledge in those areas that attract them. For example, I don’t often have to deal with liquefaction as a design consideration, but someone whose house collapsed in an earthquake because it was built on susceptible soil may devote their life to learning everything they can about liquefaction mitigation. Even though they may not have the engineering credentials that I do, I might still do well to heed what they say about that topic. I’d want to verify how they arrived at their conclusion, but we should never discount someone’s statements simply because of the person making the statements. You see, ultimately, the objective nature of truth determines the validity of the message, not the qualifications of the messenger.

Often, when I get this kind of pushback, the person I’m debating ironically also doesn’t meet the qualifications they demand of me before I can speak on the topic. By their own standard, they shouldn’t be voicing their opinion either. But typically, this is just a tactic for attempting to shut down the conversation. For example, one time, an abortion supporter told me I couldn’t comment on anything about abortion because I wasn’t a woman. And yet, the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of abortion in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case were all men. The difference? Only that they were agreeing with her position.

Are we free from the duty of making informed decisions? Can we just “leave that to the experts?” Can we ignore the claims of those who aren’t experts? Not as Christians, we can’t. The Bible tells us to “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[1] That may surprise some who assume the Bible demands a “blind faith” or a “leap in the dark”, but we actually aren’t allowed to check our minds at the door. We need to study the evidence, reason through the implications, and make the wisest, most discerning choices we can, in whatever the matter is at hand, even if we’re not experts.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

You’re So Vain

freeimages.com/livingos“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you…”

Carly Simon may not have had in mind the exclusivity of truth claims when she wrote those lyrics back in the 70’s, but that charge of vanity is also sometimes leveled at anyone who claims to be “right” about something, especially in the realm of morality. I read an opinion online recently that any one religion feeling their beliefs are superior to another is “egocentric and self-centered”. But it’s only egocentric and self-centered if all views are equal. If, for instance, Jews were actually correct that Jesus was not God incarnate, but only a blasphemous rabbi, or if the Muslims were actually correct that Jesus was a prophet and nothing more, then I would not say they were egocentric for saying they were right and I was wrong. On the contrary, their statement would then be rooted not in themselves, but in the objective truth that Jesus wasn’t really God (assuming for the sake of argument that was correct). This is actually the opposite of egocentrism and self-centeredness because the nature of objective truth means that we can be genuinely right or wrong based on the object we make a statement about, not our subjective opinion of the object. This is really other-centered rather than self-centered.

In fact, it’s the relativist worldview that is egocentric, as it seeks to define truth relative to one’s own standard. But some things really are independent of any standard we invent. Think of it this way: suppose I were color-blind and about to eat poison fruit that looked identical to a certain edible fruit except for the critical detail that they are the 2 colors I can’t differentiate. Should you, coming up to me right before I take the fatal bite (not being color-blind and knowing the danger I was in), refrain from telling me the truth for fear of appearing self-centered? No! First off, that would be selfless of you to try to warn me of the danger I was in. But I also wouldn’t call you self-centered because your warning was not simply your own personal opinion, but rather your awareness of the objective toxicity of the fruit. It’s poisonous whether or not either of us are aware of it, and whether or not either of us do anything with that knowledge. Regardless of whether I think the poison fruit will kill me, I’d still be dead in the morning.

Likewise, there’s another poison called sin that is killing each and every person on this planet, and there’s only one cure: Jesus Christ. It’s not self-centeredness, but rather selfless love,  that motivates (or at least should motivate) Christians to try to warn people of the danger they’re in. “But”, you might ask, “don’t other religions think they are helping people just as much with their proselytizing, too?” Yes, I would say they probably do, and they are probably very sincere in those efforts. But that is precisely where objective truth comes into play. Being sincerely wrong doesn’t alter the consequences of our choices. And so it’s not vain or self-centered for the Christian to believe they’re right and others are wrong if their beliefs are grounded in the unchanging standard of God’s truth instead of their own opinions.

Some would accept that truth is conformance to reality, but then say that only applies to description, not prescription. In other words, moral values prescribing what is right and wrong are allegedly outside the scope of objective truth because these aren’t statements about “real” physical objects that can therefore conform to reality. Yet the same unchanging God who made all of our physical reality also prescribed certain behaviors as right and others as wrong, whether we agree with them or not. And if reality is that which exists, then if these laws have been decreed by God, and so exist, then morality is simply part of the non-physical portion of reality. Just as descriptions of the natural world will be truthful when they conform to physical (or natural) reality, behavioral prescriptions will also be true when they conform to that non-physical (or supernatural) reality.

In the general revelation of nature and the special revelation of the Bible, we have a unified message from the Author of all of reality. And our understanding of both nature and morality need to be rooted in God’s truth if we don’t want to be tossed about by every new wave of ideology that comes across the bow as we sail the seas of this life. Rather than self-centered vanity, this is a most humble reliance and focus on our Creator as the only transcendent source of Truth.