What is Truth?
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Aristotle said that truth is saying of what is, that it is. In other words, a statement is true if it corresponds to the way things actually are. Thus, if there is a bird eating from the bird feeder, and you say, “There is a bird eating from the bird feeder,” then you have uttered a true statement. If you say that there is no bird eating from the bird feeder, then you have uttered a false statement. Thus, truth is a relationship of correspondence between what we say or think with the way things really are. Truth is correspondence with reality.
On the new theory of truth, truth is based on how the thinker feels, on what the thinker wishes were real. On the old theory of truth, truth was based on correspondence with an object on the outside.
This is not the way we hear truth talked about nowadays, however. Instead, we routinely hear people talking about their truth. Thus, I might say that it is my truth that the bird is eating from the bird feeder, while you might retort that it is your truth that there is no bird. Similarly, you might hear someone say that something is “true to me.” This is quite a departure from the understanding of truth that Aristotle advanced and which has guided Western civilization for 2,300 years. On this new theory of truth, truth is based on how the thinker feels, on what the thinker wishes were real. On the old theory of truth, truth was based on correspondence with an object on the outside, such as our feeding bird. This old theory of truth is accordingly called objective. On the new theory of truth, truth is based on what I want to believe, on me, the subject of the belief. This theory of truth is accordingly called subjective.
Curiously, the subjective theory of truth can be found in the Bible, when Pontius Pilate famously sneers at Jesus with the challenge: “What is truth?” Pilate wasn’t offering a serious question, we know, because Jesus didn’t answer him. With objective truth off the table, there simply wasn’t anything further for Jesus to do by way of offering salvation to Pilate. Pilate was going to do what he wanted to do, because he was going to believe what he wanted to believe.
If truth is subjective, if it is nothing but a description of what people believe, why should it matter?
The new subjective theory of truth is so pervasive now in popular culture that even our music boldly asserts that “truth is what you believe in” (a line from a song by Rachel Patten), as if this isn’t even in question. On matters of morality, politics, religion, social institutions, familial traditions, art, and entertainment, one finds subjective remarks about truth commonplace. Interlocutors in online forums will “debate” one another with competing assertions about “what my truth is,” apparently thinking that their assertions should find traction with their opponents. But if truth is subjective, if it is nothing but a description of what people believe, why should it matter?
In medicine, if a new drug creator claimed it was “true to him” that his concoction would cure cancer, the FDA would not be impressed. On the contrary, his work would be considered quackery. Presumably, this would make our drug creator feel very badly about himself. But in the case of medicine, no one would care how he felt.
But when we come to the physical sciences—biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry—or when we come to the various fields of pure mathematics and those applying maths (such as architecture, engineering, and the like) it is interesting that people don’t talk this way. Similarly, in medicine, if a new drug creator claimed it was “true to him” that his concoction would cure cancer, the FDA would not be impressed. On the contrary, his work would be considered quackery. Presumably, this would make our drug creator feel very badly about himself. But in the case of medicine, no one would care how he felt.
So, we have ourselves quite the conundrum. What is truth? Why in our culture do we find such a clear contradiction in what it means? Why do science and math appear to enjoy immunity from the new theory? And specifically, for our purposes here, is there objective religious truth or not? Because if there isn’t, if Pilate is right, then Jesus just doesn’t matter, because his truth needn’t be my truth. Who does this Jesus think he is, anyway? How dare he impose his feelings and beliefs on the rest of us! I’ll bet that doesn’t sound right, does it? Like you are worried that maybe a lightning bolt is about to come down from the heavens . . .
If Pilate is right, then Jesus just doesn’t matter, because his truth needn’t be my truth.
Let’s start answering these questions about truth by asking whether there is any objective truth at all. Is it ever the case that when I assert something that it might correspond with the way things actually are? If I say that the sun is shining today, and the sun is shining, then my assertion corresponds with reality. If I say that plutonium in the runoff water is making people sick in a nearby town, and it is the case that plutonium in the runoff water is making people sick in a nearby town, then my assertion corresponds with reality. If I say that killing innocent people in cold blood is horribly immoral, and if killing innocent people in cold blood is indeed horribly immoral, then my moral statement is truth. If I say that God exists, and if God does in fact exist, then my religious statement is true.
Notice in the preceding paragraph that we can make true claims about every context, whether those contexts be everyday experience like the shining sun, scientific causation like the plutonium contaminated water, moral situations like the murder principle, or even religious assertions. In every one of these cases, my assertion is meant to propose that I’m saying something real about the world. And since truth is correspondence with the real world, I’m making objective truth assertions.
Perhaps a subjectivist will retort that there isn’t any real world at all, only the worlds we make up in our imaginations. But even here, our assertions are still assertions about the real world. If I say that the sun is shining but there is no sun, then my assertion is objectively false. If I assert that God exists, but there is no God, then my assertion is objectively false. If I assert that killing innocent people in cold blood is immoral, but there is no morality, then, again, I’m making a false claim. In none of these cases would it be meaningful to say that my statements were “true to me.” In fact, all the phrase “true to me” really means is that I believe it. But to say that I believe something is to say that I believe it to be true. Just imagine if I said that I believe that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris, but I meant that I think that it is not in Paris. You’d rightly say that I was misusing language, that I didn’t understand what “believe” meant. All belief claims are claims of objective truth assertion. If I state that Venus is the second planet closest to our sun, I’m stating that I believe that it is true that Venus is the second planet closest to our sun. So, we don’t avoid truth by reducing what we say to mere belief.
What starts to become clear from these examples is that the phrase “true to me” is really meaningless. If I say, “I believe that the bird is eating from the bird feeder,” and I also say, “It is true to me that the bird is eating from the bird feeder,” what is the difference in fact between these two statements? In both cases I am asserting what I think to be true. But in the second case I am doing something else, for I seem to be immunizing what I am asserting from criticism.
People who go around couching what they believe or think in the terms of feelings and “true to me” assertions are really trying to avoid having to defend what they think.
Let’s consider that carefully. People who go around couching what they believe or think in the terms of feelings and “true to me” assertions are really trying to avoid having to defend what they think. Yet the emotion that often attends these assertions suggests that they actually expect people to take them seriously. Let’s use an example. Suppose I were to say that I believe elves exist. You’d presumably wonder why I think that. But if I were to say that it’s my truth that elves exist . . . I’ve confused you, haven’t I? Because I’ve built truth right into my belief, it doesn’t seem that you can criticize me. You appear forced to have to accept what I’m saying.
So, in matters of individual moral behavior, you hear people constantly making subjective truth claims: “It’s my truth that people don’t need to be married to live together.” “To me, if someone wants love her own gender, that’s just fine as long as they are ok with it.” “Abortion is a matter of choice, so if to you, the fetus is not a baby, then it’s important that we understand how you feel and accept your choice.” What’s bizarre is that the same people making matters of individual moral behavior subjective then turn around and make matters of social moral behavior objective: “Racism is wrong in all cases. You can’t say that it’s true to you that Jews are subhuman.” “Transgender people ought to have the same rights as hetero couples, so how dare you religious people oppose transgender marriage!” “The environment is under assault by big oil companies and we have to do something!”
This is weird. In individual moral contexts, truth is somehow all subjective, and we religious moral people are apparently supposed to keep our mouths shut, because truth is up to the individual. But in social moral contexts, truth is suddenly all objective and, curiously, again, we religious people are apparently supposed to keep our mouths shut. In the first case, there is no truth, so we ought not judge. In the latter case, the truth is so obvious, that we can be judged. But in neither case are any reasons being offered to enable anyone to understand why what is being asserted is actually true or false. Instead, emotional rage is substituted for reason, and the question, “but what is true about all these matters?” is being suppressed.
For that is what the “true to me” movement is really saying, that we can by our mere wish change reality. But can you do that? Do you think that by merely believing things that they become real?
There are truths about all of the individual and all of the social moral matters I used as examples above, as well as many others that you can think of, just as there are truths about God. God either exists or he doesn’t. It’s that simple. Imagine if the subjective theory of truth were true. Then, if you believed (if it were “true to you”) that God exists, then he exists. But if I then believe that it is true to me that God does not exist, then he does not exist. Of course, at that point you will believe harder that it is true to you that God exists, bringing him back into existence. At which point I will focus more and believe even more intensely that God does not exist, blasting him back out of existence. For that is what the “true to me” movement is really saying, that we can by our mere wish change reality. But can you do that? Do you think that by merely believing things that they become real? If you decide the sun doesn’t exist, does it disappear? If you decide that killing Jews is morally just “for you,” does that make it morally just?
Only God possesses the power of existence within himself. Only God can speak or think things into existence. The “true to me” theory of truth is a false claim to divinity.
Let me suggest something really deep at this point. Think back into your understanding of the Faith and ask yourself who alone can speak or think things into existence. If your mind harkens back to Genesis when the Lord God says, “Let there be light,” and there was light, you’re on the right track. Only God possesses the power of existence within himself. Only God can speak or think things into existence. The “true to me” theory of truth is a false claim to divinity. We don’t make reality. We conform to it or else we die.
Imagine someone standing on railroad tracks. A train approaches, its whistle piercing the darkness. The sound of the wheels running over the tracks vibrates through his legs. But our man is unconcerned, as we hear him utter these fateful words: “It’s true to me that that train is nothing but a mass of Jello. When it hits me, it will ooze around my body in a wonderfully luscious feeling of cool refreshment! Who are you to judge me? Who are you to impose your hard iron train values on me? How dare you think that you are better than me!”
Well, we know what is going to happen. It doesn’t matter what this man thinks about the train, because there is a reality about the train, a reality of cold hard steel and what happens when it impacts fragile flesh. God could change a train into Jello, yes, but this man is no god. In the same way, reality doesn’t change just because we want it to, just because we are upset that it doesn’t seem to go our way. Truth isn’t our slave. On the contrary, truth is the king and we are the subjects. Why? Because reality is greater than we are. The world is real and it is out there, and we are a part of it. We either accept that and conform ourselves and correspond our beliefs to that, or else we die.
That might not make you feel very good. But all that tells us is that your psychological state is impaired, because a properly ordered mind longs for true beliefs. It’s far more important for me to believe true things than it is for me to feel good about believing false things. And why should I feel good about believing false things anyway? What a strange world we live in when people celebrate error and lies!
Your feelings are irrelevant when it comes to matters of truth and falsity. God either exists or he doesn’t.
Bottom line: your feelings are irrelevant when it comes to matters of truth and falsity. God either exists or he doesn’t. If he does, then it behooves us to accept it. If he doesn’t, then similarly, it behooves us to deny it. What makes no sense it all is ignoring the question because we don’t like how it makes us feel. We can try to minimize people’s beliefs in God by saying that those beliefs “are only true to them,” but doing so merely minimizes our own intellects; it puts our heads into the sand about the greatest question of all.