Over the years, I am, I think, experiencing a transformation from an unquestioning belief about the nature of reality, acquired through systematic process of conditioning and informing by culture and religion, to a stage of rationalist delving into the underlying essence that appears to be too dynamic, like a shifting target receding into the distance, eluding all attempts at grasping it. It is no more believing but seeking, a persistent search for truth, to un-conceal that which is buried below several layers of gross edicts, ritual and dogma. The question, “What is truth?” has reverberated down through history. Probably, India is the only country that carries the dictum, satyam-eva jayate, in Sanskrit, meaning “Truth alone triumphs.”, a mantra from the Mundaka Upanishad. Following the country’s independence, it was adopted as the national motto of India in 1949 and inscribed in script at the base of the national emblem
The pursuit of truth is interestingly captured in an ancient Indian parable that has since been put to rhyme by an American poet, John Godfrey Saxe: “It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined, / Who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind) / That each by observation might satisfy his mind”. In the story, each of the six visually challenged travelers takes hold of different parts of the elephant and then describes to the others what he has discovered. The poem concludes: “…And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long, / Each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong, / Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong”. Though each one was describing the truth, the description fell short of the whole truth.
We look at the story from a perspective distance and smile with a degree of condescension, equipped with the knowledge of what an elephant looks like. That someone could make a judgment based on one aspect of truth and apply it to the whole seems absurd or even unbelievable. On deeper thought, can we not, however, recognize ourselves in these six blind men, pleading guilty of the same pattern of thought at many stages in our lives? The world is often seen “through a glass, darkly” and, yet, it appears to be part of human nature to make assumptions and frame observations on incomplete and misleading inputs. Inadequate sensory perceptions and life experiences can lead to limited access and overreaching misinterpretations. Can a person with a limited touch of truth turn that into the one and only version of all reality?
Here I am reminded of a story about a couple who had been married for sixty years. With not many tiffs during their time, their days together apparently fleeted by in happiness and contentment. They shared everything and had no secrets between them, except one. The wife had a box that she kept atop a sideboard, and she told her husband when they were married, that he should never look into the box for the contents. After long years elapsed, the moment came when the husband took the box down and asked if he could finally know what it contained. With wife’s consent, he opened it to discover two doilies and dollars 25000/-. Upon asking his wife as to what it meant, she responded, “When we were married, my mother told me that whenever I was angry with you or whenever you said or acted in a manner I did not like, I should knit a small doily and then talk things through with you”. The husband was moved to tears, marvelling that during sixty years of marriage he had only upset his wife enough for her to knit only two doilies. Feeling highly elated, he took his wife’s hand and said, “That explains the doilies, but what about the $ 25000/-?” His wife smiled sweetly and added, “That is the money I got from selling all the doilies I’ve knitted over the years”.
Not only does the story point to an amicable way of dealing with marital discord but it is also illustrative of the folly of jumping to conclusions aided by insufficient information. So often the truths we tell ourselves are merely fragments of truth and sometimes they are not really the truth at all.
What then is truth?. Is it something that appears in tiny and tantalizing nuggets to the persevering mind to merely relegate it to an unending quest likely to be riddled with frustration? Is it really possible to know the truth? And how should we react to things that contradict truths learnt previously? Some of the greatest thinkers have attempted to answer these questions. The elusive nature of truth has been a favourite theme of renowned poets and storytellers. The intriguing aspect of truth is brought forth in Shakespearean tragedies where the plot often turns on a misunderstanding of an important truth.
Part of the problem in the search for truth is the failure of human wisdom going by the many examples of things that mankind once inferred to be true but were since proven false, ranging from the flatness of the earth, to cerulean blueness of the sky, to numerous planets in their designated orbits, and to most elements constituting the universe still shrouded in mystery. The problem of the origin of man was almost exclusively a theological one until the end of the nineteenth century. Since then, surprisingly, the problem has entered a new phase, the phase of positive science. Human paleontology and prehistory have discovered a series of impressive facts whose volume and quality must be considered transcendental, since these scientific facts lead to the idea that the origin of man is evolutional: the human phylum has its evolutionary origin in other animal phyla; and within the human phylum, humanity has adopted genetically and evolutionally distinct forms until it has arrived at present-day man, the only one until now with which philosophy and theology have concerned themselves.
The undeniable somatic evolution, however, leaves untouched another fact that must be kept in mind and integrated with evolution if we are to explain the phenomenon of humanity completely: the essential irreducibility of the intellective dimension of man to all his sensory animal dimensions. An animal, being merely sentient, always and only reacts to stimuli. There can be, and there are, complexes of stimuli structured as units, often endowed with the character of a sign, and an animal selects from them according to their attunement with the tonic states it feels. Still, it is always a case of mere stimuli. In contrast to this, man with his intelligence, responds to realities. Intelligence is, not the capacity for abstract thought, but the capacity that man has to perceive things and deal with them as realities. Between mere stimulus and reality there is not a difference in degree but in essence. What we are accustomed to call, improperly, “animal intelligence” is the refinement of the animal’s capacity to move among stimuli in a very diversified and fruitful way, but always on the level of giving an adequate response to the situation with which the stimuli present it; and this is why it is not, properly speaking, intelligence. In contrast, man does not always respond to things as stimuli, he also responds to them as realities. The richness of man’s response is of an order essentially distinct from that of an animal’s. This is why his life transcends animal life, and the evolutional lines of man and animal are radically distinct ones which follow divergent directions. An animal, for example, may be completely classified; man cannot. For psycho-biological reasons, man is the only animal that is adaptable to all climates of the universe, that tolerates the most diverse diets. But this is not all. Man is the only animal that is not imprisoned in a specifically determined medium but is constitutively open to the undefined horizon of the real world. Thus, he constructs artifacts he has no need of in the present situation against the time when he might have need of them. He handles things as realities. In a word, while the animal only “settles” his life, man “projects” his life. This is why man’s industry is not found to be fixed or to be mere repetition; rather it denotes an innovation, the product of an invention, of a forward-moving, progressive creation.
The truths people cling to, define the quality of societies as well as individual characters. Where such truths are based on incomplete and inaccurate data, they mostly end up serving selfish ends. Part of the reason for poor judgment arises from human tendency to blur the line between belief and truth, as, too often, belief is confused with truth, thinking that just because something makes sense or is expedient, it must be true. There is also the other extreme of truth not being accepted or rejected because it would require one to change or admit that one was in the wrong. Truth is mostly rejected when it is not in consonance with previous experiences. Another dimension of truth is that it exists beyond belief. What is true is truth, even if no one believes it, and there is such a thing as absolute truth, unassailable, unchangeable truth. It is different from belief and hope. It is not dependent upon public opinion or popularity. Polls cannot sway it; not even the authority of celebrity endorsement can change it. Over the centuries, many wise men and women—through logic, reason, scientific inquiry, and, yes, through inspiration and intuition—have discovered truth. These discoveries have enriched mankind, improved lives, and inspired joy, wonder, and awe. Even so, the things we once thought we knew are continually being enhanced, modified, or even contradicted by enterprising scholars who seek to understand truth. Such studies can be summarized under different, clarifying heads:
Absolute Truth or Inflexible Reality:
“Absolute truth” is defined as inflexible reality: fixed, invariable, unalterable facts. For example, it is a fixed, invariable, unalterable fact that there are absolutely no square circles and there are absolutely no round squares. In the Vedas, Truth is defined as “unchangeable”, “that which has no distortion”, “that which is beyond distinctions of time, space, and person”, “that which pervades the universe in all its constancy”.
Absolute Truth versus Relativism:
While absolute truth is a logical necessity, there are some religious orientations (atheistic humanists, for example) who argue against the existence of absolute truth. Humanism’s exclusion of God necessitates moral relativism. Humanist John Dewey, co-author and signer of the Humanist Manifesto1, declared, “There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there are no needs for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.” Humanists believe one should do, as one feels is right.
Absolute Truth – A Logical Necessity:
It is not possible to logically argue against the existence of absolute truth. To argue against something is to establish that a truth exists. Absolute truth cannot be argued against unless an absolute truth is the basis of one’s argument. Consider a few of the classic arguments and declarations made by those who seek to argue against the existence of absolute truth…
“There are no absolutes.” First of all, the relativist is declaring there are absolutely no absolutes. That itself is an absolute statement which is logically contradictory. If the statement is true, there is, in fact, an absolute – in saying that ‘there are absolutely no absolutes’..
“Truth is relative.” Again, this is an absolute statement implying truth is absolutely relative. Besides positing an absolute, it supposes the statement to be true and “truth is relative.” Everything including that statement would be relative. If a statement is relative, it is not always true. If “truth is relative” is not always true, sometimes truth is not relative. This means there are absolutes, which means the above statement is false. When you follow the logic, relativist arguments will always contradict themselves.
“Who knows what the truth is, right?” In the same sentence the speaker declares that no one knows what the truth is, then he turns around and asks those who are listening to affirm the truth of his statement.
“No one knows what the truth is.” The speaker obviously believes his statement is true.
There are philosophers who actually spend countless hours toiling over voluminous writings on the “meaninglessness” of everything. We can assume they think the text is meaningful! Then there are those philosophy teachers who state, “No one’s opinion is superior to anyone else’s. There is no hierarchy of truth or values. Anyone’s viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else’s viewpoint. We all have our own truth.” Then they turn around and grade the papers!
Absolute Truth – Morality:
Morality is a facet of absolute truth. Thus, relativists often declare, “It’s wrong for you to impose your morals on me.” Or, as, in a particular context, my managing director’s advice (during my career years) “not to categorize people and events in black and white terms, but in relative shades of grey”. By declaring something is wrong, however, the relativist is contradicting himself by imposing his morals upon the other.
One might hear, “There is no right, there is no wrong!” If so, it encourages the query whether that statement is right or wrong?
If a relativist is caught in the act of doing something he knows is absolutely wrong, and someone tries to point it out to them, he may respond in anger, “Truth is relative! There’s no right and there’s no wrong! We should be able to do whatever we want!” If that is a true statement and there is no right and there is no wrong, and everyone should be able to do whatever they want, then why are people becoming angry? What basis do they have for their anger? No one can be appalled by an injustice, or anything else for that matter, unless an absolute has somehow been violated.
Relativists often argue, “Everybody can believe whatever they want!” It makes us wonder, why are they arguing? We find it amusing that relativists are the ones who want to argue about relativism.
If one attempts to tell a relativist the difference between right and wrong, one will no doubt hear, “None of that is true! We make our own reality!” If that’s true, and we all create our own reality, then our statement of moral accountability is merely a figment of the relativist’s imagination. If a relativist has a problem with a statement of absolute morality, the relativist should take the issue up with himself. In defining truth, it is first helpful to note what truth is not:
• Truth is not simply whatever works. This is the philosophy of pragmatism – an ends-vs.-means-type approach. In reality, lies can appear to “work,” but they are still lies and not the truth.
• Truth is not simply what is coherent or understandable. A group of people can get together and form a conspiracy based on a set of falsehoods where they all agree to tell the same false story, but it does not make their presentation true.
• Truth is not what makes people feel good. Unfortunately, bad news can be true.
• Truth is not what the majority says is true. Fifty-one percent of a group can reach a wrong conclusion.
• Truth is not what is comprehensive. A lengthy, detailed presentation can still result in a false conclusion.
• Truth is not defined by what is intended. Good intentions can still be wrong.
• Truth is not how we know; truth is what we know.
• Truth is not simply what is believed. A lie believed is still a lie.
• Truth is not what is publicly proved. A truth can be privately known (for example, the location of a buried treasure).
The Greek word for “truth” is aletheia, which literally means to “un-conceal”, “disclose” or “hiding nothing.” It conveys the thought that truth is always there, always open and available for all to see, with nothing being hidden or obscured. The Hebrew word for “truth” is emeth, which means “firmness,” “constancy”, “veracity”. Truth is presented as “Satya” in Sanskrit. It also refers, in Indian tradition, to virtue, of being truthful in one’s thought, speech and action. In Yoga, satya is the virtuous restraint from falsehood and distortion of reality in one’s expressions and actions, being true and consistent with reality in one’s thought, speech and action. Such definitions imply an everlasting substance and entity that can be relied upon.
From a philosophical perspective, there are three simple ways to define truth:
1. Truth is that which corresponds to reality.
2. Truth is that which matches its object.
3. Truth is simply telling it like it is.
First, truth corresponds to reality or “what is.” It is real. Truth is also correspondent in nature. In other words, it matches its object and is known by its referent. For example, a professor facing a class may say, “Now the only exit to this room is on the right.” For the class that may be facing the teacher, the exit door may be on their left, but it’s absolutely true that the door, for the professor, is on the right.
Truth also matches its object. It may be absolutely true that a certain person may need so many milligrams of a certain medication, but another person may need more or less of the same medication to produce the desired effect. This is not relative truth, but just an example of how truth must match its object. It would be wrong (and potentially dangerous) for a patient to request that their doctor give them an inappropriate amount of a particular medication, or to say that any medicine for their specific ailment will do.
In short, truth is simply telling it like it is; it is the way things really are, and any other viewpoint is wrong. A foundational principle of philosophy is being able to discern between truth and error, or as Thomas Aquinas observed, “It is the task of the philosopher to make distinctions.”
Aquinas’ words are not very popular today. Making distinctions seems to be out of fashion in a postmodern era of relativism. It is acceptable today to say, “This is true,” as long as it is not followed by, “and therefore that is false.” This is especially observable in matters of faith and religion where every belief system is supposed to be on equal footing where truth is concerned.
There are a number of philosophies and worldviews that challenge the concept of truth, yet, when each is critically examined it turns out to be self-defeating in nature.
The disciples of postmodernism simply affirm no particular truth. The patron saint of postmodernism—Frederick Nietzsche—described truth like: “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms … truths are illusions … coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” Ironically, although the postmodernist holds coins in his hand that are now “mere metal,” he affirms at least one absolute truth: the truth that no truth should be affirmed. Like the other worldviews, postmodernism is self-defeating and cannot stand up under its own claim.
A popular worldview is pluralism, which says that all truth claims are equally valid. Of course, this is impossible. Can two claims – one that says a woman is now pregnant and another that says she is not now pregnant – both be true at the same time? Pluralism unravels at the feet of the law of non-contradiction, which says that something cannot be both “A” and “Non-A” at the same time and in the same sense. As one philosopher opined, anyone who believes that the law of non-contradiction is not true (and, by default, pluralism is true) should be beaten and burned until they admit that to be beaten and burned is not the same thing as to not be beaten and burned. Also, note that pluralism says that it is true and anything opposed to it is false, which is a claim that denies its own foundational tenet.
The spirit behind pluralism is an open-armed attitude of tolerance. However, pluralism confuses the idea of everyone having equal value with every truth claim being equally valid. More simply, all people may be equal, but not all truth claims are. Pluralism fails to understand the difference between opinion and truth, a distinction Mortimer Adler notes: “Pluralism is desirable and tolerable only in those areas that are matters of taste rather than matters of truth.” In order to understand absolute or universal truth, we must begin by defining truth. Truth, according to the dictionary, is “conformity to fact or actuality; a statement proven to be or accepted as true.” Some people would say that there is no true reality, only perceptions and opinions. Others would argue that there must be some absolute reality or truth.
One view says that there are no absolutes that define reality. Those who hold this view believe everything is relative to something else, and thus there can be no actual reality. Because of that, there are ultimately no moral absolutes, no authority for deciding if an action is positive or negative, right or wrong. This view leads to “situational ethics,” the belief that what is right or wrong is relative to the situation. There is no right or wrong; therefore, whatever feels or seems right at the time and in that situation is right. Of course, situational ethics leads to a subjective, “whatever feels good” mentality and lifestyle, which has a devastating effect on society and individuals. This is postmodernism, creating, if it can be so described, a post-truth society that regards all values, beliefs, lifestyles, and truth claims as equally valid.
The other view holds that there are indeed absolute realities and standards that define what is true and what is not. Therefore, actions can be determined to be either right or wrong by how they measure up to those absolute standards. If there are no absolutes, no reality, chaos ensues. Take the law of gravity, for instance. If it were not an absolute, we could not be certain we could stand or sit in one place until we decided to move. Or if two plus two did not always equal four, the effects on civilization would be disastrous. Laws of science and physics would be irrelevant, and commerce would be impossible. What a mess that would be! Thankfully, two plus two does equal four. There is absolute truth, and it can be found and understood.
To make the statement that there is no absolute truth is illogical. Yet, today, many people are embracing a cultural relativism that denies any type of absolute truth. A good question to ask people who say, “There is no absolute truth” is this: “Are you absolutely sure of that?” If they say “yes,” they have made an absolute statement—which itself implies the existence of absolutes..
We all know there is absolute truth. It seems the more we argue against it, the more we prove its existence. Reality is absolute whether one feels like being cogent or not. Philosophically, relativism is contradictory. Practically, relativism is anarchy. The world is filled with absolute truth.
A relativist maintains that everyone should be able to believe and do whatever he wants. Of course, this view is emotionally satisfying, until that person comes home to find his house has been robbed, or someone seeks to hurt him, or someone cuts the line in front of him. No relativist will come home to find his house robbed and say, “Oh, how wonderful that the burglar was able to fulfill his view of reality by robbing my house. Who am I to impose my view of right and wrong on this wonderful burglar?” Quite the contrary, the relativist will feel violated just like anyone else. And then, of course, it’s okay for him to be a relativist, as long as the “system” acts in an absolutist way by protecting his “inalienable rights.”
Meaning of Life? – This has been the ultimate question since the beginning of mankind. It seems inherent in our nature to ask questions such as “Where did we come from? How did I get here? What is my purpose on earth? Where do I go when I die? What’s the meaning of all this? The answer to this question cannot come from human intelligence or reason, but only from an unrelenting pursuit of the Absolute Truth that pervades and transcends the material world. As we see in today’s naturalistic society, once we remove such pursuit from the equation, we only have materialism to engage our thinking. Or else, we really do have a transcendent purpose, and really do have meaning for our lives. Not only do we find day-to-day significance in our lives, but an ultimate significance in the form of a cherished hope to ascend to progressively higher states of awareness. Based on the Absolute Truth, we remove the moral relativism that pervades today’s society, and we replace it with a standard of absolute right and wrong, which also lends significance to our day-to-day choices. We can choose to live a meaningless life or a life with absolute and eternal purpose. Some people would say there is no true reality, only perceptions and opinions. Others would argue there must be some absolute reality or truth. What matters is to stop taking sides as believer of one or the other, and transform into a seeker. As yet another year recedes into history, it may yet be that ultimate truth resides in the Absolute, Relative, or Plurality or even way above known fields in finer material nature or subtler realms of the spiritual. It is, nonetheless, important to journey on in questing continuity. As Mark Twain quipped, “truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t”.