Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Problem of "Capital T" Truth

I'm not good at making complicated things simple to explain. Rather, I'm much better at making simple things complicated to explain. Perhaps this is why I'm arguably a better poet than a philosopher, or a better philosopher than a poet. As I have so far failed to explain, this post may be somewhat confusing -- but if you could bear with me for a few moments, I promise that it will make sense!

In the Gospels of the Bible, Pontius Pilate asked an eternal question to Jesus: "What is truth?" This is the very question I am confronting today.

A professor of mine once asserted that all philosophical and religious discussions are like the artwork of the sculptor Alexander Calder. I realize you may not be familiar with this artist, so here's an example or two of his work -- which I hope you will examine closely, for within the nature of his art lies a key point about the nature of truth.

To claim that something is true is an action of the human observer, requiring the use of the human mind and the use of communication. In this way, the act of defining truth depends on the person who gives you their own definition of truth. Every truth claim depends on a variety of assumptions and preexisting beliefs. In an Alexander Calder sculpture, each piece in the sculpture is connected to the piece before it - each piece of the artwork is dependent on the other pieces which it rests upon. So, truth is like a sculpture which contains an entire chain of pieces -- with all of the pieces depending on the piece attached to them to maintain their form.

Because the human interpretation of truth depends upon other conditions, it is difficult to state with certainty what is true. This problem may seem obvious, but the problem has quite a few ramifications for ideas in philosophy and religion which may not be so obvious at first.

In the past, when I attended a discussion group with a friend of mine and his pastor, I gained the opportunity to hear their perspectives on Christianity. Both of them are evangelical Christians, and while they don't speak for all evangelical Christians, they do seem to represent some widespread views. When we were discussing the resurrection of Jesus, the pastor kept pressing me as to why I did not accept the truth of Jesus's resurrection.

The truth? I do accept the truth of Jesus's resurrection...in one sense. I accept that the story is relevant, that the story has positive and inspiring qualities, that the story helps people live a better life. I do not believe the account of the resurrection of Jesus is literally true. That I do not literally accept the resurrection story of Jesus bothered my friend's pastor to no small end. The pastor kept trying and trying to goad me to accept the absolute, literal truth of this event, for which I believe there is no definitive evidence.

And then...I start to wonder why I want evidence for the story of the resurrection of Jesus. When I was talking to my girlfriend (who is a more liberal Christian) about my conversations with my evangelical friend, she asked me why I wanted evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. She stumped me.

After talking for far too long (to avoid my consternation), I realized that I didn't really need any evidence for the resurrection of Jesus...in a sense. I told my girlfriend that I asked for evidence of Jesus's resurrection because my friend and his pastor sought to convince me of the "Capital T" Truth of the resurrection. What's the difference between "Capital T" Truth and other truth? "Capital T" Truth is empirical, requires evidence, and is absolute and rational. There are other truths which are symbolic, mystical, and full of mystery...full of, faith.

I'm not against mystery. As Carl Sagan said, when I contemplate that I am a conscious being, living in a Universe so vast and so sparsely populated (as far as we can tell) with beings like us, beings that are self-aware, I feel an ecstasy and a sense of wonder akin to religious feelings. I do not deny these feelings, as so many religious people I know may assume - as I am asked how I can witness the beauty of our world and not believe there is something more there. On the contrary, I do feel that there is something more there, but I don't call that something "God". What tickles me, though, is whether these feelings are really truth? And why should I believe certain feelings and not others?

Why should I follow one religious path or another? Why should I put one label on my feelings of awe and mystery and not another label? On the basis of feeling, most of the world's religions appear roughly indistinguishable to me - not equivalent, but indistinguishable. I'm not naive enough to paper over the vast differences between religious traditions. What bothers me is how I am supposed to know which one is for me, if any of them are for me - and do I trust my feelings enough to leave them in charge of my choice?

My evangelical friends try to tell me that their god is the author of "Capital T" Truth, that his son Jesus died for my sins - and that there is "Capital T" Truth-friendly evidence which can demonstrate this to my satisfaction - or so they claim. Really, to believe their claim I have to first accept the validity of the Gospel writings, and the letters of Paul, and the Old Testament, and...eventually, it just turns out to be another Alexander Calder special. There are so many claims I have to accept before I can accept the last claim I've heard that I can never sufficiently unravel the truth.

Where does all of this speculation leave me? It leaves me where I started, asking "what is truth?", just as Pilate must have asked all those years ago. I still do not accept any one religion as my own, because I am fine with my secular morality and secular mystery. If someone wants to convince me to join another religion, they'll have to wait. I have my own feelings and my own mind to sort through first. I'm going to try to discern the truth as well as I can, and if religion seems to hinder that search for truth, then I will proceed without it. I'm not convinced that any religion has the "Capital T" Truth, and if I don't need that kind of truth, then I'm not convinced that I need religion, either. Why put a label on something that belongs to all of us?

I've stuck with one kind of faith or another plenty of times, but I can't say that it's the world's only truth, and I'm not even sure that it's true at all. It's just what I have...or don't have. Faith is like life: it will find a way to thrive even in the darkest, harshest, or most obscure places. You can call it all sorts of things depending on where you find it, but it's really the same thing. Despite all the superficial differences and confusing trappings, truth (based on faith) is the same everywhere - it just appears in a surprising number of ways. It's not relative, either - it's just really complicated and hopelessly messy. There may be greater and lesser truths, more closely or loosely matching your assumptions, even if there's no one "Capital T" Truth - and some assumptions are so monumental and so broad that, in practice, they are almost the same thing as what we would call "objectivity".

As I said at the beginning, I have a knack for making the simple to be hard, and the hard to be simple. For those who are wondering what the most direct point of this may be, I say this: because truth can only be assessed according to your own perspective, it is the duty of every person to investigate what is true. If each individual pursues truth as well as he or she can, we may never have the "Capital T" Truth many of us seek, but we will have more truth than we have ever had before, and that truth will set us free -- as Jesus could have said to Pilate.


Matt Rodgers said...

"What's the difference between "Capital T" Truth and other truth? "Capital T" Truth is empirical, requires evidence, and is absolute and rational."

I frequently use the "Capital T" Truth in the context of my Christian Faith ("Capital F" Faith, that is). I've never before intended for it to emphasize truth in the empirical, evidence-backed sense.

When we accept the Truth of Christ's resurrection, all other forms of truth (ie, truth that is empirical) seem laughably mundane in comparison.

When I speak of the Truth of Christ's resurrection, I don't capitalize the word because I believe the event is *more true* in a factual sense. I capitalize the word because I believe the event is *more important* in a spiritual, existence-defining sense.

In light of this kind of mind-blowing, life-changing Truth, nothing else really matters.

My finger reflexively slides toward the "Shift" key, just as it would with any similar (albeit infinitely lower) source of enthusiasm...like the Colts winning the Super Bowl. For me, the "Capital T" simply denotes reverence and enthusiasm.

Alex said...

Haha, I hope you can pardon me for instigating all of this rampant capitalization - I hope it's not too obnoxious.

You raise a very good point about the difference between truth held through reverence and enthusiasm, and truth held through empirical evidence and attempted rationality (I say attempted because we fail so much at it).

However, that brings me again to the crux of the question I asked in this post: how could I be brought to believe something, something existence-defining, mind-blowing, and life-changing (which is spiritual in nature) - through facts or through evidence, if spiritual things by definition do not admit this approach?

I'm not sure how this "spiritual experience" can be reconciled with a need for empiricism...for example, I would say there is no lock-down, water-tight empirical case for the resurrection of Jesus -- yet plenty of people believe it anyway who admit that the empirical evidence for the resurrection is irrelevant to them. It's not that they could be wrong somehow and don't know it, but that they've thought about the possibility, and have decided that it's irrelevant to their beliefs.

And yet, that leads me to another, more pressing question: why should I change my beliefs if all I have is this subjective feeling that I may or may not ever feel? And isn't my experience of that feeling shaped by the religious environment in which I live? Could I not have a similar feeling in Japan or India, and interpret it to support a belief in a different religion than the one I believed when I grew up, which happened to be Christianity? Without a need for empiricism, how can I suddenly believe something or not believe something - what else could I use besides evidence to sort out all of these feelings and find something to help steer me between the conflicting interpretations of them? It's easy to feel lost.

James said...

Really thoughtful post, as usual Alex.

I think that the need for empiricism before acceptance of the truth is actually something rather new in the history of the world. And, while I'm sure that it's a good thing in many ways, I'm not sure that it's necessarily healthy that we define truth in such a limited manner. If something leads you to have a better, more fulfilling life, then isn't that a better truth, even if it's wrong, than only relying on what can be proven with facts? I would say so. If you've read "Life of Pi," I agree with a lot of what it has to say, and, if you haven't, well, pick it up!

Also, this whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite moments in our Contemporary Political Thought class. "If you can't prove it, why do you believe it?" Me: "Because it's true!" **laughter** Oh well, you just can't get some people out of the ways that they've always been taught to think!