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Editor's 1-Minute Essay:
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Since Pilate, and before, mankind has asked, "What is truth?"
Surprisingly, the great thinkers of history are in general agreement regarding the answer to this classic question.
A general definition of truth might be reality. The great thinkers share more agreement on the question What is truth? than on What is true? -- that is, determining what is true in particular cases.
A survey of the word:
If we say, The arrow, finding its mark, flew straight and "true," we mean that the trajectory of the arrow was exactly as we wanted it to be, an excellent correspondence between our intended target and the flight-path of the arrow.
The expression, The painting is a "true" expression of the apples, means that the artist's depiction of the fruit corresponds very well with the actual 3-dimensional objects sitting on the kitchen table.
If we say that something is when, in fact, it is not, we have not spoken the "truth," our words are not "true"; in other words, there is no correspondence between our speech and the realities of the external world.
"The truth" -- reality in all its forms -- is quite independent of us, gets along nicely whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we love or hate it. "Truth," the Great-Stone-Face, remains unconcerned and loses little sleep over this.
The wise learn to surrender to "the truth" -- which is simply acknowledging, coming into harmony with, that which is. Call it a "reality check." We come to possess "the truth" and make it our own when there is direct relationship between our thoughts and the real world.
How can we have reasonable certainty that our thoughts are, in fact, conforming to reality?
Though most of us seem to be unaware of it, we all live terribly cloistered lives, shut-up in the high tower of our own minds, able to apprehend the outside world only by those imperfect witnesses, even great deceivers, our five senses. Everything we know of the external world is mediated for us by these untrustworthy agents; the information they send to the brain is much like a letter from a pen pal in a far-away country, a place we've never visited. How can we test a world that we cannot experience directly? How can we be sure we're getting an accurate picture of the real world and life as it actually is?
The adage, "trust, but verify," can help us here. Many who have worked on this problem suggest a program of testing to determine the veracity of the information we receive from the outside.
Some philosophers, known as skeptics, assert that there is no such thing as "truth"; that even if there is, we can never hope to know it. Most thinkers, however, are not of this camp and maintain that we can, at least in part, know the "truth."
Here are three tests, three standards, by which we may begin to measure the accuracy and truthfulness of our own thoughts:
(1) Begin with what we know -- but only with what we really know. Use axioms, self-evident propositions (you'll find some in your old geometry book) as bedrock for thinking. Examples: "The whole is greater than any of its parts"; or Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" (by which he meant, "The fact that I'm thinking, at very least, means that I must exist in order to be thinking anything at all!").
(2) Slightly less reliable but still very valuable, information about the world that "actually works"; facts generally accepted as accurate, based on testimony, received over a long period of time from a large number of people, offer high presumptive probability of truthfulness. For example, if I say that I've counted 329 panes of glass in a cathedral, the skeptic may respond with, "You may be mistaken!" -- and he's right; but if 10 people count 329 panes, the odds measurably tilt in my favor; if 100 counters, each doing independent, competent work, come back with a tally of 329 panes, the chance for error falls to an incredibly small number. While it's theoretically possible for all 100 to be mistaken, this becomes such a statistical unlikelihood that playing the skeptic now requires more faith than to believe.
(3) Thoughts and actions must conform to our essential nature as human beings, what Aristotle referred to as "agreement with right desire"; or what Aquinas would have termed, "made in the image of God." It is a principle that guided the Founding Fathers; for example, Jefferson, when he asserted that man, endowed with intrinsic dignity by the Creator, has inherited "inalienable rights," rights accruing to man by virtue of what he is -- his essential nature.
As stated above, truth exists independently of our approval; truth will do what truth does no matter what we think or say. This being the case, why, I questioned, do virtually all of the thinkers on this subject refer to truth in terms of some sort of one-to-one correspondence to something else? Then I remembered the focus of the debate: not, primarily, on what truth is but what is true. The various references to "correspondence" speak to the problem of determining what is true, that is, the challenge of verifying our ideas as accurate representations of the external world.