IS THERE TRUTH?
A Study Guide
“...people around the world have sought for truth; they want a true explanation of reality, both of nature and humanity.” - Lauren Ames
Back in the 6th century B.C., philosophers emerged and accelerated the quest for truth. Later on, skeptics questioned the philosophers' truth claims and whether any truth existed. Today, postmodernists continue this debunking of truth. They doubt the existence of truth - if you doubt the existence of truth you walk in the skeptical tradition. If you believe anyone can know truth, you walk in that tradition.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, modern science developed by doubting any truth claims that cannot be verified by observation. Take for example the claim that the sun revolved around the earth. This scientific approach to truth uses our five senses to gather knowledge; a kind of seeing-is-believing approach.
This whole method is called empiricism. Ironically, this empirical approach to truth also led to skepticism. In 1781, the philosopher Immanuel Kant famously argued that there is no way to know that our perception of the world corresponds to the way things actually are. We can only know what we perceive. He also argued that there is no way to scientifically investigate the deepest issues that concern ordinary people.
Deep Issues like:
- whether we have a soul
- whether we have free will
- whether there is life after death
- whether or not God exists
- or what He is like
Since Kant, an uneasy skepticism has plagued the West. Many today embrace the view that all truth claims are relative to one’s culture, prejudices, or assumptions, thus relativists do not hold truth or knowing truth with certainty in high regard, yet they themselves tend to hold the findings of science in high regard. Science affirms truth claims about the natural world that are not relative to one’s culture, so people are confused about the existence of truth. On the one hand, scientific explanations seen to give absolute answers to all questions, then on the other hand, people tend to reject all truth claims, holding tenaciously to their skepticism.
III. POINT OF FACT
To say "I don’t know" is at best a temporary answer that cannot stand for long. To say "I can’t know" is more serious, but it fails its own assertion. If we cannot know truth, then that is a truth claim about everything. This leaves one with two options, "yes" or "no." If you say "no, there is no truth,” you make an enormous truth claim and face the same problems as “we can’t know.”
Each of these answers suffers further because nobody can practically live out these views. Survival alone demands that one must know enough truth about a reality to live. If one thinks there is truth, how can we go about searching for it - is it reasonable to hold that there is truth?
IV. THE TRUTH TEST
The only reasonable answer is "yes, there is truth," yet how can we know truth? Well there are three basic tests for any kind of claim about truth.
The three truth test
- Correspondence test
- Coherence test
- Practicality test
The correspondence test means that a claim is the truth if it lines up with reality. In other words, it lines up or matches to the facts that exist. If you claim the Empire State building is 1472 feet tall, your claim is true if it corresponds to the facts or fails if it does not. That means that the standard for truth is not you or your culture, but the real world that exists.
Likewise, if someone claimed an alien spaceship just landed in Atlanta, well, the truth of that claim could be investigated. Whether it is a hoax or not depends on the evidence. We grasp many truths about ourselves that cannot be proven or disproven.
I cannot marshal evidence to prove that I chose to eat fajitas last Friday, but I know I did. Nothing, not nobody, not no how can convince me otherwise. Some truth claims cannot be tested by correspondence.
The coherence test helps us by eliminating any claims or assumptions that contradict known facts. This test applies logic to a dizzying array of truth claims, but is necessary because our senses can deceive us but factual claims about reality should not contradict - they should be coherent. One time, I tested my five year old daughter on this.
I put a straight rod into an aquarium and she saw that it looked bent in the water. I took the rod out and she saw that it was straight. I did this numerous times. Confused but determined to know the truth, she put the rod in the water and ran her hand up and down the rod and felt that it was straight both in and out of the water. Then she pronounced, “It is straight but it looks bent in the water.”
Now, she didn’t know the coherence test, but she understood that the rod could not be both bent and not bent at the same time. Reality doesn’t contradict reason. Consider this aspect of the coherence test as well: if I claim that humans are biological robots, but also claim that everybody is fully responsible for their free actions, I am contradicting myself. Both claims cannot be true.
The last test, is the common sense test of practicality, which examines claims that we cannot examine with correspondence and coherence. With the practicality test, you ask if anyone could actually live out and practice that truth claim. Can you live practically as if there is no truth whatsoever or live as if nobody knows truth? We cannot actually practice these views because we will have to act to survive in a real world that does not permit one to practice extreme skepticism.
A skeptical life, desirable or not, passionately believed or not, cannot be consistently put into practice. Can anyone truly practice the claim that there are no moral truths? If there were no moral truths, then practically speaking, nobody would ever be wrong or unjust no matter what they did. Nobody anywhere has been able to practice this anarchy without falling into destruction.
We cannot live out the impractical claim that there is no moral truth. We must also remember that there are truths we do not know and may never know, but truth does not depend on our knowing it in order for it being the truth. Truth is independent of us in a sense, for example, now we know the circumference of the earth - but for a long time no one did. Still, what was true about that has always been the truth. The truth exists even if we do not know it.
So what can we conclude from the question "Is there truth?" We can conclude there is a real world that is knowable and that we can test its truth claims about that reality. We can test truth claims by finding evidence to see if those claims correspond to reality. We can test claims to see if they contradict each other or with known facts. We can test truth claims to see if they are practical and livable. By testing these claims, we find that truth does exist. Therefore it is our responsibility to find it.
1. Why must there be absolute and not subjective truth? (Hint: The book of Judges describes what happens when people do what is right in their own eyes.)
2. For the Christian where is this absolute truth found? (Hint: John 1:14-17)
3. If God’s word is the ultimate standard of truth how should we respond to Him? (Hint: Deuteronomy 8:3)
True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World, by Art Lindsley.
Making Sense of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation, by Geisler & Howe.
Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland.
Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Third Edition, by William Lane Craig.