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What is Truth

Joseph Pearce

 Quid est veritas? What is truth?

Pontius Pilate’s question is one of the most famous ever asked. It is also one that has proved very difficult for many people to answer. It has baffled and confused some of the world’s most celebrated philosophers. It remains the most important of all questions, the one we must ask in order to make sense of anything else. It is, however, not a question that should only be asked. It must also be answered. It is not merely a rhetorical question to which there is no answer and it must not be asked in the tired and dismissive way in which relativists ask it, as something intrinsically unanswerable and therefore meaningless. Nor is truth synonymous with opinion. They are not the same thing. An opinion may or may not be true. Truth, on the other hand, is always true and can be nothing else. Truth is synonymous with reality; it is the touchstone by which opinion is tested. If opinion fails the test of truth, the opinion should be abandoned.

If truth cannot be dismissed as unknowable, nor can it be affirmed on the basis of blind faith. Something is not true simply because we believe it; nor is it untrue because we don’t believe it. Truth simply is, whether we like it or not, believe it or not, or know it or not. This being so, and since we live within the realm of reality and are subject to its laws, it would be well to understand the laws by which we live.

If the knowledge of truth is the beginning of wisdom and the necessary prerequisite for the living of a life that conforms to reality, the importance of the original question is reaffirmed.

The first step in answering the question, “what is truth?”, is to ask the preparatory question: How do we know what is truth? What are the means necessary to achieve the end?

We discover truth through the use of reason and only through the use of reason. There is no irrational path to truth. The so-called mystical paths to truth, such as the experience of the kiss of beauty or the goodness of love, are merely rational paths by another name, and by any other name reason smells as sweet. The good, the true and the beautiful are nothing other than the triune splendour of truth itself, each of which conforms to, and is an expression of, the rational foundations of reality.

The great pagan philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, arrived at the conviction of the existence of the Divine through the use of reason. The great pagan writers, Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Virgil, arrived at the same conclusion through the rational observation of the follies, foibles, virtues and vices of humanity and their respective consequences. These great pagans came to an understanding of the natural law through the rational observation of humanity’s place within nature and saw it as a logical and ultimately theological expression of the Divine law.

Although reason leads us to an acceptance of the existence of the Divine, and also to a rudimentary understanding of the Divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, justice, goodness, beauty, truth and love, it cannot tell us much more. In order for our reason to grasp the reality of the Divine on any deeper level, it needs the Divine to reveal itself.

God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture is the means by which our reason comes to understand Him more fully. Ultimately, it is God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ which opens our minds to the fullness of truth and ensures that our faith is rooted in reason.

Pilate’s question is answered by Christ in the latter’s assertion (to His disciples) that He is the way, the truth and the life. In this revelation of Himself, God shows us that He is not only the Truth but the Reason. He is, furthermore, not only reason as a noun but reason as a verb. He is the reason who is the end of our quest for truth and also the rational means, the Way, by which the reason is discovered. In this sense, He is not only the Word but both senses of the word! In an apparent tautology that contains the totality of truth, He shows us that we have to reason to believe the reason to believe.

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5 replies to this post
  1. I always got a sense of dramatic irony from Pilate’s question, since he asked it while looking upon the Truth – and maybe that’s one function of Christ: He makes the question of truth important.

    That the question of truth is important is, regretably, not obvious. At least Pilate seems to think it important enough to raise the question, even if there is a hint of relativism in it.

    Nietzsche, foreshadowing cotemporary tendencies, asks a far more difficult question in Beyond Good & Evil: “what is the value of truth?”

    Many of our contemporaries reject truth not on account of a disagreement regarding its’ content, but for the frightful reason that they value other things higher. This is a greater danger than Pilate’s doubt .

  2. Dr. Pearce: So “We discover truth through the use of reason and only through the use of reason,” but at the same time, “In order for our reason to grasp the reality of the Divine on any deeper level, it needs the Divine to reveal itself.” So the ultimate Truth upon which all other Truth depends is not knowable by reason after all?

    I don’t quite follow your claim that other forms of knowing “are merely rational paths by another name, and by any other name reason smells as sweet.” It may be that I’m not subtle enough to understand your point, but my experiences of listening to music, reading poetry, or gazing out at the extraordinary beauty of the landscape as seen from the top of a mountain seem non-rational (not “irrational”) to me; though I concede that my reason intrudes quickly enough to reduce those experiences to something it can (claim to) comprehend.

    Coincidentally, I’m currently about halfway through Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s “TRUTH”. While he shares your belief in the importance of Truth, he seems to think that reason is insufficient, and in fact he seems to believe that the modern prioritizing of reason, and the rejection of other ways of knowing, has led us to skepticism and relativism. Perhaps the two of you could get together and talk this out?

    • Mr. Shifflett,
      Perhaps the answer to your question lies in what Dr. Pearce calls the preparatory question: “How do we know what is truth?” If I wander around a dark, unfamiliar room and bump into something, my senses tell me that something is there even though I do not know what it is. Only when I switch on the “light of reason” can I identify what my senses had already detected. Similarly, when I read a poem, my “non-rational” self responds to its beauty, but my reason tells me that it is beauty to which I am responding. I’m probably wrong, but it was worth a shot.

      • Mr. Cote: It’s a complicated subject, to say the least, but I’ll gladly take any light that you or anyone else can shed on it–through a glass darkly and all that. Thanks…

        • If every sense that leads us toward truth is “Reason”, then “Reason” in Prof. Pearce’s sense ought to be defined as the faculty of valuation. (I don’t mean to put words into the Professor’s mouth, this is only what I make of the article.) In that case, this is a psychological question, not really a philosophical one. Jung called this faculty “Feeling”, but said it was just as well if someone were to decide on a better term.

          A terminological question seems rather unimportant, maybe even detrimental to the real underlying discussion. There’s no real reason to say that mysticism is equated to Reason. It would only serve to muddy the purpose of having two different terms. Mysticism isn’t necessarily logical, where reason and logic are traditionally held to be more synonymous than, say, logic and mysticism. They involve different faculties. Jung called it “Intuition”, but accepted that it was a faculty rather like mysticism.

          The important thing is that these separate cognitive faculties exist, and we need to differentiate between them. Does deciding that Mysticism, Beauty, and Logic all fall under the umbrella of Reason assist in our discussion? Or to put it in other words, should we accept that all cognitive faculties that involve valuation or judgement are equitable to Reason? That does seem to be much more a psychological than a philosophical question.

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