by Dennis McInerny
The irony of certain situations is sometimes so overpowering that it fairly takes one’s breath away. Such was the situation when Pontius Pilate uttered his famous question, What is truth? The reality which he was having doubts about he could have literally reached out and touched. And that is often how it is with all of us: the truth is right before our eyes, but we do not see it, and we do not see it because we do not want to see it. A corrupted will has succeeded in blinding the intellect.
What is truth? If the question is to be taken seriously—and there are few questions more worthy of being taken seriously than this one—then it deserves a considered philosophical response. In answering the question, philosophy begins by making a distinction between ontological truth and logical truth. Ontological truth is the truth of the actual existence of things. (“Ontological” comes from a Greek word meaning “existing things.”) To say that something is ontologically true, then, is to do no more than acknowledge that it really exists. To be true in this sense means simply to be an indisputable matter of fact. It is clear that this is the most foundational meaning of truth, where we must necessarily start—with actual existence.
But something can be ontologically true, an indisputable matter of fact, without anyone being the least bit aware of its existence. Enter logical truth. When a human mind becomes aware of the existence of something, call it X, and when it knows X as it really is (as opposed to having a distorted idea of the reality of X), then it can be said that the mind is in possession of the truth with regard to X. Thus the essence of logical truth is the correspondence between ideas in the mind and things in the world. The truth which is in the mind is made public through language, specifically through that linguistic unit which grammarians call a declarative sentence and which philosophers call a proposition. If any proposition corresponds with the facts, if it faithfully reflects what is actually the case in the real world, it is a true proposition. And of course if it fails in that respect it is a false proposition. “The moon is a satellite of earth” is a true proposition because that happens to be the way things really are, whereas “The moon is made of crushed popcorn” would qualify, most astronomers would agree, as a false proposition.
Given how ontological truth is related to logical truth, we can see that the latter is dependent upon the former. In order that there be a correspondence between an idea in the mind and a thing in the world, there must first be that thing in the world to which the idea in the mind can correspond.
Pontius Pilate’s scepticism toward the truth did not represent a novel phenomenon. Throughout the entire course of their history, men have never been free, burdened as they are by a darkened intellect, from the baneful influence of scepticism. It is more prominent in some eras than in others, and it has to be said that our own era is suffering from a veritable plague of scepticism. The truth is under siege. Expediency has become the governing consideration. There are too many people today who are concerned not so much with what is true as with what will work. A statement need not be true; what is important is that it have the capacity to move people to follow a certain course of action, and often irrespective of the moral quality of that action.
Relativism is the spawn of scepticism, and is, in a sense, more dangerous than scepticism, at least that extreme scepticism which attempts to deny the very reality of truth. Extreme scepticism is, after all, intrinsically self-contradictory, and this is because it must rely on the very thing, truth, which it claims does not exist. The extreme sceptic boldly proclaims, “There is no truth,” but how does he expect us to take that statement? As true, of course. He wants to have his cake and eat it too.
The peculiar danger of relativism lies in the fact that it robs truth of its proper meaning, and cynically redefines it for purely practical purposes. In a gesture of profligate magnanimity, relativism proclaims that there are many truths, as many, indeed, as there are individuals who want to invent it. In other words, truth, for the relativist, loses its critical objective status and becomes entirely subjective. I may think it true that abortion is wrong, and my neighbor may think it true that abortion is right, but not to worry, the relativist sweetly assures us. That is called pluralism, and pluralism is a good thing. In a pluralistic society everyone can be right and nobody has to be wrong, for it is up to each individual to decide what is true what is false. Needless to say, thinking along these lines provides a surefire blueprint for disaster. A purely “subjective truth” is not truth at all, for the foundation of truth is what actually is so, not what you or I might like to be so.
It is sometimes no easy matter to see the truth, even when it is right in front of our faces, nor is it easy steadfastly to adhere to the truth once we have grasped it. The ultimate explanation for this is to be found within ourselves. When it comes to attaining the truth, we must always begin with ourselves. We would be totally incapable of seeing the truth “out there” if we did not first have a truthful conception of who and what each of us, as individuals, really are. Saint Teresa of Avila rightly makes humility the very first step for advancement in the spiritual life (which could be called the quintessential life of truth), and humility follows naturally upon our gaining a thoroughgoing and completely honest knowledge of ourselves.
If I am blind to the truth about myself, there is no way I will ever be able to discern truth from falsity in the world outside myself. There is a close association here between love and truth. We all know that we are under solemn mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves. But if I am debilitated by self-hatred, I am therefore insuperably prevented from fulfilling that mandate. A healthy self-love, then, is a necessary condition for a genuine love of others. The situation is comparable with respect to the truth. The man who is wilfully blind to the truth about himself is for that reason going to be blind to all other presentations of the truth round about him. In fact, what he will end up doing is falsifying everything he sees, imposing his interior darkness on the world at large, turning that world upside down, seeing black as white and white as black. And if while in that condition he has the presumption to suppose that he is qualified to be a leader of others, then both he and those whom he leads will end up floundering about in the ditch.
This article originally appeared in the February 2009 North American District Fraternity Newsletter. To receive our monthly newsletter free by mail, please visit our subscription page.
June 15, 2010