Sunday, May 7, 2017

What Is Truth? A Kinda-Sorta Ruminaton

     Sunday is a special day for any Catholic, as anyone conversant with Catholic practices will know. Yes, we’re supposed to attend Mass, but the significance of the day doesn’t end there...even if many Catholics follow their Mass observance with entirely secular pursuits.

     Sunday is a day well suited to reflecting on what the late Russell Kirk called “the permanent things:” that which stands apart from human manipulation, perception, and opinion. Henry Grady Weaver laid a delicate but definite emphasis on this role for the day in his 1953 book The Mainspring of Human Progress. It’s a concept long overdue for resuscitation, no matter what the panjandrums of the National Football League might have to say about it.

     I spend a fair fraction of each Sunday on “the permanent things.” Prominent among them are the great questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and heuristics. The title of this piece is one of them, perhaps the most important of all. That it should have been asked most memorably by the man who sentenced Jesus of Nazareth to death is singularly appropriate.


     During my years in academia, I came in contact with some remarkable minds. One of those was astrophysicist Steven Strom, a uniquely capable educator with a delightful sense of humor. One of the points he made in the course of his lectures on the properties of the Sun was that a useful mathematical analysis of its surface must treat it as flat. A student asked him, somewhat sarcastically, “But it’s not flat, is it?” To which Professor Strom replied “Oh, it is...except at the edges.”

     Yes, it got a good laugh, but there was an important point buried in it as well:

There’s a difference between fact and truth.

     That difference makes all the difference in any attempt by men to grapple with the cause of some observable phenomenon. A fact is an element of objective reality, indifferent to our preferences and opinions. Truth, by contrast, is a listener’s evaluation of some statement about reality: specifically, that the statement conforms to his perceptions and convictions about reality.

     Facts are the Holy Grail of all sincere quests for knowledge. However, we can never know them to an absolute degree of precision – i.e., with a zero margin for error. We must make do with measurements determined by instruments with a known degree of imprecision. Whether we accept those measurements is our verdict upon their “truth.”

     Truth, like meaning, is a matter subject to interpretation.


     One of the most pernicious developments of the past few decades is the oft-heard statement that “truth is relative.” This is actually a palmed card: he who maintains it usually seeks to invalidate the perceptions and inferences of an opponent. What he wants to say (but can’t quite) is that the facts of some subject are a matter of opinion: a statement any five year old could refute without ever having heard of Dr. Samuel Johnson.

     In the determination to know the facts as precisely as possible lies the critical distinction between destructive and constructive varieties of skepticism. The destructive skeptic, calloused against all representations of this or that as “truth,” descends toward nihilism: the position that nothing can “really” be known. The constructive skeptic, wary of the limits on his own perceptions and intelligence, pokes mercilessly at every generalization, seeking qualifications, exceptions, and most important of all its domain of proper application. While dubious about the notion of absolute truth, he remains faithful to the concept of sufficient truths, which possess useful properties applicable to particular circumstances.

     Thomas Sowell, in The Vision of the Anointed, presents a striking and important illustration:

     Despite attempts to dismiss unpalatable conclusions on the grounds that they are “oversimplified,” nothing is oversimplified unless it is wrong—and wrong specifically for the purpose at hand. The ancient Ptolemaic conception of the universe has long since been rejected in favor of the more sophisticated Copernican system, but the Ptolemaic system continues to be used by modern astronomers to compute the times and durations of eclipses—and it does so with accuracy down to fractions of a second. the points on which the Ptolemaic system is wrong simply do not affect these kinds of calculations. Since its assumptions are simpler than those of the Copernican system, it is easier to use for calculation, without sacrificing accuracy. For other purposes, such as sending a spacecraft to Mars or Venus, the Ptolemaic conception of the universe must give way to the Copernican conception—because the latter gives more accurate information for that purpose.

     In Sowell’s observation lies the seed from which all sincere quests for truth, for whatever purpose, must sprout: All assertions of knowledge must be confirmed by repeated successful predictions, within a previously established margin of error. Only such assertions can lay a just claim to the title of “sufficiently true.”


     In the light of the above, let’s examine one of the most contentious of all issues in social policy: that of the necessity, size, and scope of the welfare state.

     A liberal would say that:

  • The welfare state is necessary, because otherwise people would starve in the streets.
  • There is no upper bound on its size, for there is no limit to how many persons might be in need.
  • Rather than have it ignore one truly needy person, we must be willing to accept that the not-truly-needy will sometimes be served by it.

     A conservative will normally dismiss those claims as the “simplistic” emissions of a “bleeding heart.” In contrast, he would say that:

  • Human need can and should be addressed by private action.
  • If there is to be a welfare system, it must be restricted to providing the necessities of life to the truly needy.
  • Therefore, a welfare system must incorporate a test for true need: if he is not physically or mentally incapable, or otherwise helpless before events, the mendicant must be required to work for his benefits.

     These propositions, the liberal will dismiss as “uncompassionate,” or perhaps “heartless.”

     Full disclosure: I lean heavily toward the conservative position. Yet I must allow that with certain provisos, both sets of propositions are sufficiently true:

  • Both private and governmental action, however well intentioned and thorough, will irrationally include some unworthy and exclude some worthy persons. Of these, the latter will get more attention, for no civilized society will tolerate a significant number of deaths by starvation or exposure.
  • There will always be a gray zone around the concepts of “necessities” and “the truly needy.”
  • Work imposed as a requirement for the receipt of welfare benefits tends either to be pointless “makework,” or to have undesirable effects upon those who practice that occupation for their daily bread.

     Moreover, the focus of charitably inclined citizen Smith, whether he inclines toward private or public action, should not be limited to the relief of “need,” however defined. He must be aware of “moral hazards” and the great desirability of preventing need before it arises – the conservative argument against government interference in the economy, particularly the labor market. While it’s admirable to jump into the river to rescue those being helplessly propelled toward the falls, if it should be determined that someone upstream is throwing people in, Smith should give some thought (at least) to stopping him.


     There are several tests of a claim of truth by an advocate for some cause:

  • “Have you confirmed this by experiment?”
  • “What are the required initial conditions?”
  • “How long must you wait for the results?”
  • “Have others replicated those results?”
  • “What’s the margin for error?”

     These are questions the dogmatist refuses to face. He has “the truth,” and he won’t brook any quibbling from you. We see here also the reason that religious propositions – i.e., propositions that can neither be verified nor falsified – must always be matters of individual conscience. There’s no experiment that could possibly apply to them. In the absence of experiment, all that remains is faith: a personal decision to believe or disbelieve, either of which is intellectually defensible, neither of which can be justly imposed on another.

     The relativist, though his focus differs from that of the dogmatist, is just as pernicious. He’ll dismiss claims that have been adequately confirmed as “your truth.” Often he’ll do that tactically, as a way of maintaining his convictions in the face of adverse evidence. Consider in this light the absolute predictability of declines in employment when a legally mandated minimum wage is introduced or increased. Liberals have denied that multiply confirmed, never contradicted observation for decades. On the other side of the ledger, many conservatives remain intransigent about the War on Drugs despite the observed fact that supply will always rise to meet demand, so contrary legislation can only create outlaws and enrich organized crime.


     All the above having been said, it is inherent in human psychology that we should wish to know absolutely about those matters of greatest importance to us. We seek “truth” almost as ardently as food and water. Those “truths” we embrace become foundation stones for our lives. Many have maintained such convictions at the price of their lives, as the roster of men martyred for their faiths will attest.

     Nevertheless, the possession of absolute truth, absolutely reliable in all circumstances and beyond the possibility of contradiction, is denied to us. This is one of the drivers of Man’s search for a standard above human frailty and imprecision. However, if such a standard exists, it must necessarily lie beyond the limits imposed by human nature.

     In this we glimpse the desirability of faith. More, we confront the immense importance of finding the discriminants that distinguish acceptable faiths, which provide hope and comfort to the adherent without inflicting injury on the non-adherent, from unacceptable faiths, which seek the subjugation or extinction of those who disagree.

     God sees the truth, but waits. – Leo Tolstoy
     Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.
     As he spake these words, many believed on him. Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. [John 8:28-32]

     May God bless and keep you all.

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