Tag Archives: Truth

“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.