On Truth: An Introduction

On Truth: An Introduction

by Rev. Aaron Payson

This month’s Touchstone Journal on “Truth” begins with an introductory article by Rev. Kirk Loadman-Copeland.  It is reprinted in its entirety below for your consideration as we begin our own exploration of the topic here @ UUCW.


Blessings, Aaron


Our fourth principle affirms: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Truth is the philosopher’s passion, the scientist’s North Star, and the poet’s muse. Rev. Kenneth Patton wrote of a UU meeting house as, “…a house of truth-seeking, where scientists can encourage devotion to their quest, where mystics can abide in a community of seekers.” Science and religion are valuable tools for truth-seeking; complimentary, not contradictory.

Yet truth is now under attack in unprecedented ways: Alternate facts. Fake news. If truth is rendered valueless, how can we have a society that coheres?

Truth is a complex subject that has given rise to a number of different theories. The best known is the correspondence theory. It proposes that truth (i.e., true beliefs and true statements) corresponds to reality, to the actual state of affairs. This theory raises, in turn, questions about the nature of reality. As contemporary author and astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, proposes, Newton was “the smartest person ever to walk the face of this earth. The man was connected to the universe in spooky ways. He discovered the laws of motion, the laws of gravity, the laws of optics. Then he turned 26.” (Old age came earlier then.)

Coherence theories of truth require that elements fit together within a whole system. Yet consider this observation by Danish physicist Niels Bohr who said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Ambiguity and paradox abound and make truth more malleable than we would perhaps like.

The constructivist theory asserts that truth is always a human and social construction. Closely related to this is the consensus theory in which truth is whatever is agreed upon by a group of people. Both of these influence history’s attempt to describe “What really happened?” and “What is true?” In this regard, the persistence of the belief that people in the Middle Ages and later believed that the earth was flat is illuminating. This Myth of the Flat Earth became prevalent from 1870 to 1920 as part of ideological struggles over evolution. In 1945 the Historical Association of Britain stated, “The idea that educated men at the time of Columbus believed that the earth was flat, and that this belief was one of the obstacles to be overcome by Columbus before he could get his project sanctioned, remains one of the hardiest errors in teaching.” The idea that the Earth was spherical was developed by Greek astronomers beginning with Pythagoras in the 6th century BCE. Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “There never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.” The truth of this scientific fact, however, is not true metaphorically for the character Juliette in Tahereh Mafi’s first novel, Shatter Me. Juliette laments, “I only know now that the scientists are wrong. The world is flat. I know because I was tossed right off the edge and I’ve been trying to hold on for 17 years. I’ve been trying to climb back up for 17 years but it’s nearly impossible to beat gravity when no one is willing to give you a hand.”

Following are four imperatives about truth. The First Imperative is to know what is true about the nature of reality. This is easier said than done as scientists have endlessly discovered. Carl Sagan reminded us, “In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds…. They really do it. …I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” Though we humans may in fact “construct” truth or allow it to arise by “consensus” as two theories about truth assert, there is a level of subjectivity in this process that is inherently problematic. Absent “objective” truth, we would do well to regard what is true for us with great humility as well as an open mind and an open heart as we engage what is true for others. Anthony de Mello wrote, “To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth, the Master said, ‘If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.’ ‘I know,’ answered the student, ‘an overwhelming passion for it.’ ‘No,’ said the teacher, ‘an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.'”

The Second Imperative is to know what is true for us in terms of our values and our beliefs. The fact of gravity holds us fast to the earth, but it doesn’t keep us grounded in the way that the truth of our experience, the truth of our desire, or the truth of our passion does. What are the truths of your life that give meaning, that keep you rooted, that allow you to grow, and that enable you to fly? And how do your truths help you understand those whose truths differ from yours?

The Third Imperative is the never-ending quest, as our fourth principle affirms, for truth and meaning. Carl Jung wrote, “The serious problems in life…are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem seems to lie not in its solution but in our working at it incessantly.” The truths of our childhood are not adequate to negotiate the challenges of being an adult. Because of change, what is true, especially subjectively, will evolve. Some of what was “true” for us when we were 20 will not be true when we are 70 as we continue to engage the blessings and challenges of living. Even gravity changes across the surface of the Earth and throughout its atmosphere, due to a variety of effects. (Sorry Isaac!)

The Fourth Imperative is to tell the truth to others and to ourselves. Truth is a challenge, in part, suggests Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: proven techniques to detect deception, because, she writes, “Lying has evolutionary value to us as a species. Researchers have long known that the more intelligent the species, the larger the neocortex, the more likely it is to be deceptive. …It starts really, really early. How early? Well babies will fake a cry, pause, wait to see who’s coming and then go right back to crying. One-year-olds learn concealment. Two-year-olds bluff. Five-year-olds lie outright. They manipulate via flattery. Nine-year-olds, masters of the cover up. By the time you enter college, you’re going to lie to your mom in one out of every five interactions. By the time we enter this work world and we’re breadwinners, we enter a world that is just cluttered with spam, fake digital friends, partisan media, ingenious identity thieves, world-class Ponzi schemers, a deception epidemic-in short, what one author calls a post-truth society.” Beyond this is the pervasive reality of self-deception that Daniel Goleman thoughtfully explores in his book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the psychology of self-deception. And sometimes we realize that the emperor (i.e., us) has no clothes. Because of this, truth-telling is a spiritual practice and a “revolutionary act in times of universal deceit” like now.