Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Nature of Truth

If you want to understand how something works, ask an Engineer:
He designs a thing and tests out his theories until he produces a prototype that
works the same way nearly all the time...

I say "nearly" because we know of very few things that work the same way every time,
without fail and without even the possibility of some degree of failure...

Ask a satellite Engineer if it's possible that his design will fail and (if he's honest, and
humble enough) he will say, "Sure, I suppose it's possible that my design may
fail -- there are, in fact, a number of variables inherent in the design --
but I've put the prototype through just about every testing scenario anyone can
think of, and my colleagues have done the same, and the result is a product that is
reliable enough to 'prove' my theories and to establish it as Fact"...

A great deal of what we would say we "KNOW" falls into this category, a category
whose methods are sometimes called "the Scientific Method": develop a theory, test
its many variations, make modifications, and test again, repeating the process over
and over... The end result is to (hopefully) arrive at validation...

Some truth is "demonstrable": Test "2 plus 2" and, unless you are a fool, you will
ALWAYS and every time arrive at 4; but most of the Truths that guide our minds and
our lives don't meet this criterion. When we speak of "Truth", we most often mean
philosophical Truth: You would probably smirk a bit if someone said
they "believe" that 2 plus 2 is 4 (because it is so easily demonstrable); but if
someone said they "believe" that their spouse was having an affair, they would not
seek "demonstrable" Truth, in the same sense, but EVIDENCE. And with that evidence
they would hope to prove one "theory" or its opposite, namely, that an affair has
or has not taken place...

The courts have a phrase that guides most legal proceedings where a jury is
involved: "Beyond a reasonable doubt". And the lawyers use (among other things)
two of the primary tools for arriving at truth -- Logic and Reason -- to establish
Reasonable Doubt in one direction or the other...

Logic has to do with the structure of an argument, and Reason has to do with the
content and arrangement of arguments so as to reach a conclusion. If I say
"All A's are equal to all B's, and all B's are equal to all C's", the logical
conclusion of that syllogism is that all A's are equal to all C's; but when I use
Reason to assign values to those variables (A, B, and c), I may get Truth and I may
get nonsense: "All white people are rich; all rich people play golf; therefore,
all white people play golf."

The structure of the argument is sound but of course the conclusion is
false because the values assigned to each of the two premises are clearly False:
Not all white people are rich, and so on... So the "theory" breaks down immediately,
and would convince no honest thinker (or jury) because there is reasonable doubt...

There are two more elements we most always include when discussing matters of Truth
that we (most of us) care about: Authority and Experience. If the authorities tell
me that the electrical wire connected to my house carries 120 volts and "X" number
of Amps, I don't question it because I accept their Authority on the subject; and if
I am careless when I do renovations on my house, I may arrive at Truth about
electricity based on a very unpleasant Experience...

So it would seem that certain criteria for arriving at Truth are a part of nearly
every important topic we might assign that word to: Reason (and Logic), Authority,
and Experience.

Christians add one more category to the search for Truth: Divine Revelation.
Either (what we mean when we say) "GOD" is a) completely incomprehensible to
man, or b) completely comprehensible to man, or c) partially (perhaps mostly)
incomprehensible to man and yet partially comprehensible to man. If (A), then
all our talk about "God" is mere babble; if (B), then "god" is merely the highest
of human intellects and qualities; but (C) must be true (if you believe in any kind
of "god" as we normally use the term), since, in contradiction to (A), we don't
usually believe we're "babbling" to talk about God, and since, in contradiction to
(B), no human person that any of us have ever met has claimed to actually BE the
transcendant "god" we typically have in mind when we use the term...

And because He is, by definition, Transcendant, and could therefore completely
conceal Himself if He chose, we can only know Him if He chooses to REVEAL Himself to
us, in however finite a fashion might be required in order to keep from completely
overwhelming us. This is not hard to imagine: If an Ant farmer wanted to reveal
himself to the ants in the colony, he would have to "dumb himself down" to a degree
that the Ants would know that he is A) enough like us for us to even comprehend him
at all, and yet B) so vastly UN-like us that we can be very sure that even our "best
and brightest" ants are not HIM...

I moved immediately to the "God" question in this post about Truth because I can
think of no greater subject for the feeble mind of Man to ponder than God's existence
and what that existence might mean for us...

So the search for Truth is, many of us believe, the search for God, and everything
else PALES by comparison. In future posts, I'll talk a bit about applying these
"tools" to the question of God's existence, and why Relative Truth is the position
of Fools.

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