Tag Archives: 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!

Mission Impossible?

endless-debate-norman-rockwellI was talking with an atheist friend the other day, and he made 3 interesting statements in the course of our conversation: 1) that he considered himself open-minded, 2) that there was nothing that a religious relative of his would ever be able to say that would convince him Christianity were true, and 3) that the two of us would probably never agree on either religion or politics, so there wasn’t much point to discussing them. Setting aside the oddity of saying one is “open-minded”and yet there is nothing an opponent can say to change one’s mind, let’s look at the 3rd statement.

Is dialogue between opposing sides pointless? Or worse, a Mission Impossible scenario with little chance of success and almost guaranteed failure? Can people of opposing views never come to agreement, except to “agree to disagree”? I would certainly hope not. What a disappointing world that would be if we were all condemned to continue in our set ways, with no hope of ever being able to exchange wrong beliefs for true beliefs. We all have wrong beliefs about different things at different times in our lives. But the act of learning often involves correcting those wrong beliefs and replacing them with truth. So it seems to me that if human learning is possible, then it is possible to change our beliefs. And if that comes about by another person sharing new knowledge with us that convinces us of its truthfulness, and it’s simultaneous incompatibility with our current beliefs, then we have the potential to genuinely benefit from our dialogue with an opposing view.  As Thomas Aquinas said, “there is no greater act of charity one can do to his neighbor than to lead him to the truth.”[1] Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft instructs future debaters reading his logic textbook that, “the aim of both parties must be simply to seek and find the truth,” and “The essence of the Socratic method is this logical cross-examination of an idea, following the argument wherever its inner logic takes it. Thus the impersonal laws of logic become a ‘common master’ rather than either person mastering the other, and the argument is not ‘me vs. you’ but ‘us vs. ignorance’; not ‘we are not together because we differ about what is true’ but ‘let us try to find the truth together.'”[2] This does require humility, on the part of both sides, as it requires both to be willing to admit that we might have been wrong before, which most people (myself included) don’t like doing. The alternative, though, is possibly continuing in error, which isn’t very satisfying either, if we’re honest. But when the discussion is about the very existence of God, the cost of error is potentially much greater than simple dissatisfaction. If eternity hangs in the balance, then there can be no topic with more serious consequences or more far-reaching implications. If there is even room for debate, then it behooves one to not simply dismiss the question as a pointless topic.

So is it pointless to discuss these matters? It can seem that way, particularly when tempers flare. Yet with humility and honesty on both sides, sensitive discussions can be exceptionally fruitful. “But,” you might ask, “what about when that attitude is absent on one side?”  While that makes it more difficult, I don’t see it as an insurmountable obstacle. And I say that having been that ungracious, defensive, “difficult person” in the past. I’ve also been the person getting steamrolled and losing the debate in spectacular fashion. But even then, it was never pointless. We tend to learn more from our failures than our successes, and those failures motivate me to be diligent to show myself a workman not needing to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth [2 Tim 2:15], always speaking graciously [Col 4:6], and better prepared the next time to give a reasonable and respectful answer for the hope I have [1 Pet 3:15].

Let me close by saying that talking about a “point” to a discussion entails a goal or purpose. If the goal is to “win” the argument, then there will be a combative or aggressive stance from the beginning that may sow the seeds of its own defeat, so that even winning that particular battle may lose the war. But if the object is pursuing truth together, as Kreeft suggests, then there can be no losers. And if that pursuit of truth leads to The Truth [John 14:6], whether immediately, in the course of discussion, or years later from a seed planted in loving debate, then  “winner” doesn’t even begin to describe the outcome for the one rescued out of the fog of unbelief. And that outcome makes even Mission Impossible odds worth taking on. After all, our God deals in making the impossible happen.[Matt 19:25-26]


[1] As quoted in Socratic Logic, by Peter Kreeft, (South Bend: Ignatius Press, 2010), p.346.
[2] ibid., p.350.

Old Books

freeimages.com/pcst, file#1560855I came across an article recently about the top ten new books to read in the coming year, and it reminded me of a statement by C.S. Lewis about the value of old books. With that in mind, I’d like to put Lewis’s statement out there for a new generation that may not be familiar with it, and give a few examples of how his assessment of new vs. old can help us today. I’ll refrain from any attempt at a top ten list, but hopefully, you’ll come away this week with a sense of what to include in your own “must read” list for the new year. Let’s start by rejecting what Lewis famously called “chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” He continues,

“You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”[1]

What solution did Lewis propose?

“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not of course that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”[2]

Let’s flesh that out a little. Reading old books helps us in the following ways:

  • It helps to protect us from repeating past mistakes. We may find our “new” problem was actually already soundly resolved centuries ago if we only do some research. As George Santayana remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[3] As I’ve read more old books lately, I’ve been surprised at how many “modern” attacks against Christianity were being addressed by early Christians like Justin Martyr & Irenaeus over 1800 years ago.
  • Reading old books helps us to recognize timeless truths as we see some principles successfully applied to various situations over the ages. It eliminates the variables of time, geography and culture as we see that some things were just as true for the ancient Greeks and the Jews and the Romans as they are for us today.
  • Reading old books keeps us humble as we realize that our small contributions to history are only possible because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Yet this should also inspire us to follow in their footsteps and pick up where they left off.
  • Reading old books keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. The long-term perspective that results from reading authors from a range of thousands of years helps us see just how silly some of our current seriously-held views are. Just as fashion trends come and go, ideological fads do too. And many of our current trendy views will seem just as ridiculous 100 years from now as parachute pants from the 80’s seem today.
  • Reading old books stretches us mentally. Yes, older books are often more difficult to read. The language tends to be more formal, and when it’s not, the slang used may be difficult to decipher without looking up some archaic words. But gold is rarely found without hard work, and there are some beautiful nuggets of wisdom hiding in some of those awkward (to us) passages. To draw a practical analogy, a lot of my professional growth as an engineer has come through trying to follow what a senior engineer had done to solve a problem that was beyond my skill set at the time. Don’t shy away from stretching yourself.

With that in mind, what will you read this year? The same faddish books that will be forgotten in a year? Or something that’s stood the test of time? Books you can read and safely let your mind atrophy without fear of any mental exercise being required? Or maybe something a little tougher to digest?  Books that will congratulate you just for showing up? Or books that will make you realize you’re in the presence of greatness, and inspire you to build on their foundation and pursue still greater heights? Books that will simply affirm your own views? Or ones that will challenge the errors you may be overlooking? Invest your reading time wisely this coming year.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1955), p. 207-208.
[2] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 202.
[3] George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume I, 1905.

 

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.

The Truth that Won’t Budge

the truth shall make you freeI heard some sobering statistics in church this past Sunday: 78% of Americans overall, 64% of American Christians, 94% of teenage Americans overall, and 91% of teenage American Christians don’t believe that objective truth exists.[1] This represents a staggering disconnect with reality. You might question why I would say the majority of the US population is disconnected from reality, but I would ask in return, “What is truth?” Truth is correspondence with reality, and reality is painfully objective. If you don’t believe that, go find a big rock and kick it barefoot, and see which gives way: your subjective idea that it won’t hurt, or the objective solidity of that rock. No matter how much you might want to believe something is true, it either is or it isn’t; and no amount of belief, desire, “positive mental attitude”, or temper tantrums on the part of you (the subject) can change that truth about the object (unless you go and change the object). That’s because truth is rooted not in the subject but the object. That’s what it means for truth to be objective.

We actually can’t live like there is no objective truth. It simply conflicts with reality too much for anyone to live like that consistently for any length of time.  In fact, this idea that something “is what it is”, is the Law of Identity, one of the fundamental laws of logic considered to be self-evident . The Law of Non-contradiction then builds on this to say that “it is impossible for something to both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.” For instance, I cannot be both sitting at my desk and not sitting at my desk at the same time. The Law of Excluded Middle then says that there is no middle state between existence and nonexistence. These logical truths build on ontological  truth, or existence. An object is ontologically true if it exists, and statements about it are logically true if they are not self-contradictory and accurately correspond to that existence – that is, to reality. But in all of this, the subjective interpretations of the person observing an object never come into play. These fundamental laws of logic in effect anchor us to an objective understanding of reality – even when reality interferes with our desires.

However, maybe the disconnect isn’t with physical reality. Perhaps the majority of Americans in this generation haven’t forsaken all objective truth, just the objective truth that they can’t see, touch, hear, and smell. Are moral truth claims simply subjective then? Saint Augustine once said, “All truth is God’s truth.”[2] If God exists and is the Creator of all, doesn’t it make sense that whatever corresponds to the reality He made would be consistent? He is, after all, “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”[3] That’s why I’m not surprised when scientists find that the universe couldn’t have existed eternally, but had to have a beginning. God, the One who began it, told us it had a beginning in the very first 3 words of the Bible, His direct revelation to us.[4] I’m just glad scientists are finally starting to catch up to what Christians (and Jews before) have known for thousands of years! Moral truths are no different. All commands, such as laws prescribing behavior, are grounded in the authority of the one issuing the command. As much as I might like to at some places, I can’t just put a traffic light where I want. I can’t reroute traffic at the intersections on my commute that always back up. I can’t because I don’t have the authority, but the city does. Likewise, there are laws the city can’t change, but the state can. There are laws that apply to all states in our union, and help define what it means to be an American versus a citizen of another nation. Yet there are also laws that apply to every nation. Lying, stealing, murder – these are things that are wrong regardless of nation, culture, or time. But is that really surprising if these moral laws are grounded in the unchanging nature of God?

I have to wonder what Christians mean when they are telling people  that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”[5], and “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”[6] if there is no objective truth. Does Jesus change to match each person’s interpretation of Him? What exactly is setting us free if truth is different for each of us?

The church in the book of Acts was accused of “turning the world upside down”.[7] Is it any wonder that the American church isn’t doing that today when there’s such a minimal difference between us and the rest of the world’s culture? With statistics like those above, we’d turn ourselves upside down right along with the world if we actually started living the faith we claim. Then again, with statistics like those, maybe we need to be turned upside down.


[1] Bill Parkinson, sermon titled “Believe because it’s true”, preached at Fellowship Bible Church, Little Rock, AR, July 12, 2015. See the video or download the mp3 here.
[2] The original quote from Augustine’s work “On Christian Doctrine” is “…but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”, although it is commonly condensed to the phrase I used above.
[3] “Hebrews 13:8, NASB.
[4] “In the beginning…” – Genesis 1:1, NASB.
[5] John 14:6, NASB.
[6] John 8:32, NASB.
[7] Acts 17:6, ESV.

Logic

Spock_at_consoleIn the coming weeks, I want to look at some different arguments for the existence of God. But first, how can you know my reasons for believing God exists are legitimate? Maybe you don’t believe God exists, or maybe you simply don’t know. Likewise, how do I know if your reasons are legitimate? How do we discuss our opposing reasons (for this or anything else imaginable) on a level playing field? With that goal in mind, today let’s start out with a refresher (or introduction) to basic logic. Like a lot of foundational material, it may seem a little dry, but it really is the necessary foundation for any type of critical thinking. Underlined words are key terms in logic.

Let’s start with some clarification. An argument in logic is not a fight or quarrel, but rather a rational though process using a series of statements (or propositions) called premises and conclusions. As such, there are some rules for making sure the conclusions you draw are legitimate. Just like in sports, these rules help ensure that the winner really did win fairly.

Propositions are simply statements that may be either the premises or the conclusion of an argument. While you may be trying to determine a reasonable answer to a question with an argument, you can’t have a question or a command for a premise, so these are always declarative sentences. Not to bring up bad memories of diagramming sentences in grade school grammar, but these statements need a subject and a predicate. The subject is just what you’re talking about, while the predicate is what you’re saying about it. The premises are  propositions that each propose a basis for the conclusion. They give your evidence. Premises can be either true or false.  “The city of Houston, Texas is located in the country of Australia.” is a false premise, while “Mars orbits around the sun.” would be a true premise. These premises use terms that can either be clear or unclear. A term is clear if it can be understood in only one sense. For instance, a person can use the word “hot” to describe: temperature (“It’s hot outside”), attractiveness (“She’s hot!”), or questionable legality (“He wrote a hot check”).  In this case, “hot” has equivocal meanings and wouldn’t be a good term to use in a premise unless we either defined it first, or the meaning was clear from the context. Some terms are not so obviously different  in their meanings, and many a misunderstanding has happened because of this issue of equivocation (using the same term in different ways).

The conclusion either necessarily follows from the premises and the argument is valid, or it doesn’t follow and is invalid. “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” is a classic example of a valid syllogism. A syllogism is your most basic argument: 2 premises and 1 conclusion showing a clear relationship between 3 terms. If it is true that all men are mortal, and Socrates is indeed a man, then Socrates simply must be mortal. This is an example of deductive reasoning, which generally moves from a universal principle to a specific application. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, typically moves from specific observations to a more general conclusion. Valid deduction provides certainty in its conclusion, while induction only provides a degree of probability. Just because you’ve observed many similar cases doesn’t mean all cases will be similar (the exception would if you’ve actually observed all cases). Science typically uses inductive reasoning based on specific observations, hence the tendency of scientists and engineers to always qualify what they say with disclaimers.

Understanding the principles of logic is advantageous regardless of your educational background, your culture, or your beliefs because it provides a framework for knowing that what you believe is true. If your terms are clear, your premises are true, and your deductive argument valid, then your position is necessarily true and there can be no argument against it. Likewise, if your opponent’s argument doesn’t have ambiguous terms, a false premise, or a logical fallacy, then, to be honest, you must admit he’s right. The same goes for me. And so we now have a level playing field, with the same rules applicable to and acknowledged by, both sides. Maybe you’ve listened to a talk show where two opposing guests simply stated their own views over and over again and ignored the other side. Or they simply talked past each other louder and louder? Did you walk away feeling like it was just pointless discussing some issues? There is hope, and this is where logic shines. I encourage you to not simply stop at this short  glossary of logic, but to dig deeper, learn it, and apply it in your own life.


Resources:

Socratic Logic, Edition 3.1, by Peter Kreeft, (St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), which served as a reference for much of this. This is an actual logic textbook.

Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, by D.Q. McInerny, (Random House, 2005), is also an excellent and very concise introduction to logic, and well-suited for a first exposure to logical principles.

“Hard Evidence”

Lab Experiment“I don’t think there’s anything he could say that would convince me – I need hard evidence,” said an atheist friend when I invited him to come with me to  a presentation on the reliability of the Bible. That got me thinking about evidence and our desire for more of it. After all, “seeing is believing,” right?

This November marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein publishing his theory of general relativity. Only 10 years earlier, in 1905, Einstein had published not one, but four, paradigm-shifting papers, including his special theory of relativity and his proposal of mass-energy equivalence, from which we get the famous equation E=mc². Since then, his theories have been repeatedly confirmed. Special and general relativity did not simply provide a competing theory compared to classical Newtonian physics; they encompassed Newtonian physics. In relatively weak gravitational fields, special relativity reduced to Newtonian formulas at speeds much slower than the speed of light (our typical earthbound experience). General relativity expanded on that to provide an explanatory framework that could account for objects travelling at all speeds and through any gravitational field. It explained what Newtonian physics could and couldn’t explain. That’s powerful.

How did Einstein develop this powerful theory? Can you tour the lab where he huddled over a workbench full of special scientific equipment, or see the telescope he tirelessly spent long nights peering through, looking for evidence of gravitational lensing, or examine his lab journals of dutifully recorded experimental results? Not really. Einstein worked as a simple patent clerk in his “miracle year” of 1905, and was still doing “thought experiments” when he developed general relativity. He was short on evidence, but long on problems to think through. He proposed 3 scenarios unexplained by Newtonian physics that relativity would need to correctly explain for it to be true: 1) the slight changes in Mercury’s orbit around the sun already observed by others, 2) the deflection of light by the sun that Newtonian physics predicted, but not accurately, and 3) the color change (redshift) of light passing through a gravitational field that was completely unverifiable at that time.[1] While he could compare his theory’s predictions to  Mercury’s orbital changes measured by others, he had no way to confirm the other 2 tests. In fact, the evidence to support his theory only trickled in over many years, the most conclusive confirmations  of it after his death in 1955. Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed the deflection of light by the sun’s gravity in 1919 when he measured the slight curvature of starlight bending in the gravitational field of the sun during a solar eclipse. But it was decades before sufficiently precise measurements could confirm gravity’s miniscule color-shifting effect on light here on earth. In the years since, though, several other effects have verified Einstein’s unproven theory.

In fact, Einstein’s general theory of relativity touches most of our everyday lives  in one very real, but surprising way. Our cars, planes, cellphones, and even wristwatches now have the ability to tell us where we are because a of wonderful cold-war invention called GPS. But engineers designing the GPS satellites originally didn’t think they would need to account for gravitational redshift in the signal timing. This change in color of visible light is actually an effect of time dilation; time actually runs faster in a weaker gravitational field. And so the clock on a GPS satellite will run 38 microseconds faster, per day, than the same clock on earth, which is enough to produce invalid location results. This would also handicap our cell phones that use this precise timing to handle transferring calls to new cell towers seamlessly.

So did the lack of hard evidence in any way detract from the truthfulness of his theory? No, that’s because we don’t create truth, we only discover it. If something is true, it’s true whether we know it or not, and whether we understand it yet or not. The GPS clocks ran faster whether the original engineers admitted it or not, and whether you and I fully understand it or not. Can Christianity be true without measurable, scientific evidence? Absolutely.[2] But there’s a deeper question here. Is experimental observation the only way we come to know truth? No. In fact, the “thought experiments” Einstein relied on were simply exercises in sound reasoning that scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have used for millennia. As Einstein understood, there are many times where it is impossible to obtain “hard evidence” for something. It may be a unique, non-repeatable event, or it may be something infeasible to test at the present time, but that doesn’t have to stop us from investigating. Albert Einstein didn’t limit himself to experimental evidence, but rather used his mind to go where science couldn’t yet, and he changed the world. Don’t let your desire for a certain type of evidence keep you from investigating the truth of Christianity and changing your world.


[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 87-88.
[2] Not that there isn’t a wealth of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but that’s a subject for another day.

 

“You Can’t Handle the Truth!”

cant-handle-the-truthIn the movie “A Few Good Men”, Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson famously go back and forth in court with Nicholson finally shouting back from the witness stand the classic line “You can’t handle the truth!” The truth can certainly be a powerful, devastating force at times. But what is truth? The Bible records Pilate asking Jesus that very question almost 2,000 years ago.[1] It’s a big question, but let’s look at one small aspect now.

Truth can be defined as the “ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience.”[2] This indicates that truth is not subjective since it “transcends perceived experience”. In other words, a statement is true when it corresponds to the object it describes rather than the perception of the observer. Hence, it may be described as objective truth. A color-blind person may incorrectly perceive some colors, but the actual color may be  independently verifiable by the wavelength of light being reflected from an object. That a particular apple’s appearance corresponds to what we call “red” is then objectively true regardless of how, or even if, we perceive it. Likewise, the statement that there is life on other planets may or may not be true; but if true, it will be because of such life existing and not because of our knowledge of it.

What then are we to make of claims today that “everything’s relative”, or that something may be “true for you, but not for me”? First, isn’t it a little ironic to use an absolute term like “everything” to deny absolutes? In fact, both of these statements are actually self-refuting. They “commit suicide” as Greg Koukl would say. What’s implicit in the relativist’s first statements is that everything is relative except their absolute statement. How convenient. But “everything” includes that statement, which puts it in the same category as saying “white is black”. Their 2nd  claim implies that statements may be simultaneously true and false for 2 different people, except for their statement that is assumed to apply equally for everyone. But I can simply apply the claim to itself and say that “true for you, but not for me” is exactly that – not true for me – and ignore it. Ideas have consequences, and because of this self-refuting nature, the concept of relative truth can lead to very real absurdities. Bob may sincerely believe that he can jump off a cliff and fly (without a hang glider or other aid), while his friend John sincerely believes he can’t and pleads with Bob not to jump. Is this a case of “true for Bob, but not for John”? Is John wrong to try to help his friend see his error?  Applying his knowledge of physics and its correspondence to reality to the situation tells John his belief that John will plunge to his death would actually be true for both of them, in spite of Bob’s sincerity to the contrary. That Bob cannot fly on his own is true for all people, for all time, and in all places. That is the nature of truth; we do not create it by our beliefs or statements, but rather discover it.

We can determine when statements about our material world are true (i.e. the law of gravity) by testing them. But what about immaterial truth claims? Are these actual truths or simply opinions? Can we test for truth? Yes. A true statement will always satisfy the 3 fundamental laws of logic[3]:
The law of identity – a statement is identical to itself and different from another statement. A thing is what it is. Saying “Hitler was evil” and saying “Hitler was good” are not equivalent!
The law of noncontradiction – a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time in the same way. For a very clear (if somewhat harsh) verification of this law, the medieval Muslim philosopher Avicenna proposed this demonstration: “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”[4]
The law of excluded middle – a statement is either true, or its negation is true. There is no middle state between existing and not existing.

There are other tests for truth, but these are foundational prerequisites, for no matter how coherent or comforting a claim is, if it fails these tests, it simply can’t be true. And this is how “relative truth” fails.


[1] John 18:38, NASB.
[2] “Truth”, Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language,  1996 ed.
[3] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 132. See also D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical, (Random House, 2005), p. 26-28.
[4] Avicenna, The Book of Healing, Part IV, Metaphysics I, commenting on Aristotle, Topics I.11.105a4–5, published 1027.

Lost Compasses

compass_smallMy latest bulletin from the Oklahoma Engineering Board had an article about engineering ethics and the following excerpt struck me.

It has taken generations for professional engineers and professional land surveyors to create the level of public trust that they have been afforded. Unfortunately, years of competent and ethical conduct can be destroyed very quickly by one unethical decision. One such serious breach of the public trust happened in Oklahoma just a few years ago.  A city’s Public Works department was racked with a bribery scandal involving one of its own professional engineers and other professional engineers in the private sector. After pleading guilty to the charges, the professional engineers were sentenced to jail time and assessed large fines.  Following disciplinary investigations and hearings, the Board revoked each of their PE licenses.  As a way of explanation for this unethical and illegal behavior, the attorney for one of the engineers told the court that his client had ‘lost his moral compass’. [emphasis mine]

I used compasses a lot in the Army. They’re nice tools. They’re also susceptible to error. I remember the Land Navigation course at Camp Williams, UT had one mountainside that was very iron-rich. Finding waypoints in that area was difficult because of the havoc magnetic materials wreak on compasses. You had to work off of known points and correct the heading your compass was telling you in those areas. Otherwise, you could truly go around in circles. You may get through most of the course trusting this handy little tool, but if you follow it when it clearly doesn’t match up with reality (i.e. I know that mountain is to my north, but my compass says it’s to my south…), then you are setting yourself up for failure, much like these unnamed engineers did. In fact, as I learned in the army, and as my cross-country flights for my pilot’s license later reminded me, compasses don’t match up exactly with reality to begin with. We say a compass points north, but a compass actually points to magnetic north, which generally does not line up with  true north. So as useful as a compass is for pointing you in roughly the right direction, precise navigation with one requires using a map that tells you the “declination angle”, or how much magnetic north and true north differ in your area. Where I lived, it was a 15.3° difference.

It really comes down to a matter of truth, whether that’s true north versus magnetic north when you’re physically lost, or truth versus error when morally lost. It can be said that something is true when it correlates with reality. If it is objectively true in this manner, then it is true regardless of our perceptions or rationalizations. Reality, then, is a known reference point that we can use to check  ourselves.  For instance, even if I’m red-green colorblind, there are tests one can do to verify that the color of light being reflected off of some grass is, in fact, green, thereby validating the statement that “the grass is green”.  But what of non-physical questions such as the ones that typically form ethical dilemmas? We need a known point of reference in those areas also to calibrate our “moral compasses” and correct them if needed.  What “known point”, – what benchmark – can straighten our meandering paths through ethical quagmires?

  • As our position changes, it should be unchanging for us to figure out how far off track we are (like a  “resection” in land nav).  If unchanging, this known point, or standard, would be applicable universally, i.e. multiple people could reference it to “fix”, or locate, their position on the map.  Likewise, a good ethical reference point should not be subjective. It should apply equally to all, from Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler.
  •   A known point is also applicable without respect to time. You could likely figure out your location each year on vacation in Yosemite by looking for Half-Dome or El Capitan as those huge cliffs aren’t moving year to year. Using the snowplow on the side of the road as a reference point because it’s been in the same spot your entire week of vacation likely won’t help next year. Another example of this is how a homeowner’s property lines may be determined off a monument marker a surveyor set as a known point over 100 years prior. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be just as valid whether it’s 2014, or 1914, or 2114.
  • A good known point is easily identifiable. Trying to shoot an accurate compass bearing to “the 15th tree down from the 3rd boulder over” when there’s a giant rock spire jutting from a barren mountainside a few hundred feet away is just silly. Use the obvious landmark. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be obvious. For instance, if your ethical standard requires lengthy research on your part to agree that something as horrible as say, torturing babies for fun, is wrong, then I strongly suggest you find a better ethical “landmark”.

Is there a system of ethics that can provide us the known point we seek? A comparison of the several different and highly nuanced ethical systems and variations of each will have to wait for another day (and probably take several posts to even scratch the surface) but consider this: the combination of deontological and classic virtue ethics found in the Christian Bible provides an unmoving reference point in the character of God that applies equally to all people in all places and at all times. It explains the notion that some things really are inherently wrong (like torturing babies for fun) and are not “wrong for you but OK for me”.  It provides a readily identifiable reference for us in God’s holy character. “Is this activity I’m considering (i.e. bribery) in line with God’s character?” No? Then don’t do it! Done, compass calibrated. Move on down the road.