Friday, September 7, 2012

What Is Truth?

Two thousand years ago a skeptic, faced with a man who said to him, “I am come to bear witness to the truth,” asked, as he turned on his heel to order the man’s crucifixion, “What is truth?”

In the last two weeks, during the political conventions of our two major political parties, we’ve been promised, by candidates and their surrogates, that they had come to bear witness to the truth. But the poor listener must be feeling the same sense of frustration as Pilate felt when told by yet another “messiah”, “I am come to bear witness to the truth.” (Sadly, Pilate did not know that on that one occasion he was faced with a true truth-teller.) It is a good thing, for the sake of the speakers at the conventions, that we who are saying, “What is truth?” don’t have the power of life and death over them. But we would sometimes like to turn on our heels, when in the voting booth, and say, “None of the above.”

Voters in this election have a plethora of sources for getting opinions about the truth of various statements made in the conventions and elsewhere. The fact checkers don’t always agree on the facts or the interpretation of the facts. They vary in their tolerance for truth-stretching, and their categories of truth telling are unique to their particular system of rating. But, they are, in my opinion, all attempting to help the honest observer clarify the claims being made by politicians, and by surveying a number of these sources one can come to their own decision based on a clearer understanding of the underlying facts. Here are a few of fact-checking organizations I’d recommend to anyone interested in basing their opinions on more than emotion or blind loyalty to a party line:
Washington Post Factchecker

Most news outlets also run articles that examine the truthfulness of the politician’s claims. It is inexcusable for anyone who has access to a computer, or even a smart phone, to pass on “truth” they have not attempted to verify in some way other than taking the word of the politician.

Many – too many – of the truth claims that come to us arrive, via Internet or E-mail feeds. The vast majority of those are distortions or outright lies. But it is possible in many cases to check on their veracity too. is perhaps the best source of information about myths and outlandish claims circulating on the Internet and in E-mails.

One way of determining the honesty of a fact-checking organization is to observe the manner in which they document the sources of their information. Do they reference sources you can go to in search of verification or additional information? Do they provide interactive links such as those above which allow the reader to easily go to the source of their information? Do they always seem to come down on the same side of the political divide? (If you find yourself going to a particular site because you know that you’ll find a position supported that favors your political predilections, it is probably also an indication that the site is biased in that direction.)

It is a fact that our fallen human nature (I realize that is a theological statement but it reflects my understanding of the truth about mankind) causes all of us to avoid what Al Gore termed, “Inconvenient Truth.” It is our natural bent to seek out those who reinforce beliefs that the world is truly what we want it to be. But those who build their world on imagined truth, or emotionally generated truth, or wished-for truth, or self-serving truth, do nothing to improve their situation or our world in general.

The world is transformed by men and women who love truth more than anything else. They are the ones who face the “inconvenient truths” that hold back progress in law, or governance, or politics, or industry, or education, or theology, or medicine, or ecology, or science, or any of a thousand other areas of human endeavor. They find it more onerous to live with a lie than with an uncomfortable truth and so, they embrace the truth.

We will never know if the “truth” we embrace is truly true. Ultimately we live by faith – there is no other alternative. I’ve been fascinated for years by a statement made by the Apostle Paul, the great original theologian of the Christian faith. Some might take his words to be a dogmatic statement of truth, but in fact they constitute, whether he thought of it in that way or not, a great statement of faith. He said, “I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day.” (Emphasis is mine.)

In our search for truth, using all the tools at our disposal, the most we can ultimately say is, “I know whom I have believed and I have good reason to believe that those sources are reliable and will, in most cases, not let me down.”

So, what is truth? First and foremost it is beyond our earthly powers to determine, precisely, and for all human time. But a reasonable approximation of the truth (2+2=4 for example) can usually be obtained by honest observation of reliable data. Any who deny themselves the chance to know that much of the truth deserves to live in the fantasy world of delusion and disappointment to which such a choice ultimately leads them.

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