Truth: Can We Do Without It?
The material presented here is a slightly edited version of remarks Dr. Willard made at Southern Methodist University in the 1998-1999 Luncheon Series of addresses sponsored by Dallas Christian Leadership. The session was recorded, transcribed, submitted to Dr. Willard for such changes as he deemed appropriate, and included in the April 1999 issue of Christian Ethics Today. Christian Ethics Today is a publication of The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University in Dallas, Texas.
“Truth in the Academy: Can We Really Do Without It?” You might be surprised at the suggestion that we might do without it. But while the word “truth” is featured on various buildings, public and private, it is little honored in the academy. On my philosophy building at USC is written, “The truth shall make you free.” It is perhaps the single most commonly inscribed saying on university buildings (except, of course, for those things that are written with spray paint cans) and it testifies to the origins of the university enterprise.
Truth is in trouble. It is in trouble for various reasons. This comes out when I open my courses. Usually I will open my courses by asking the students, “Why are we taking this course?” And after we’ve gone through the trivialities like “to get credits,”“to graduate,”“to get a job,” and so on, then I finally come around and say, “Now really is that it? I thought this study was about knowledge. I thought it was about coming to know something. I thought it was about getting a grasp on truth about things, and, on the basis of that truth, being able to deal effectively with reality.” It’s strange language to them, friends. It is a part of our public discourse that has changed and that change permeates everything we do.
Sometimes I will half jokingly say to them as they hand me their tests after an exam, “Did you believe what you wrote?” And they all smile. Because they know that the important thing is not to believe what you write but to write the “right answers.” And unfortunately that is a very encapsulated way of indicating what happens when we lose truth. When we lose truth, there’s nothing left but conformity. And that is a sober thought which I hope you will dwell on for just a moment. What my students are actually giving to me is the power to enforce what the right answer is, whether that answer is true or not. But of course the “right” answer might be false, might it not? You’ve probably had some experience with right answers which turned out to be false. And we can think of reality as what you run into when you are wrong. And if you do, you’ll recognize that most of us have some first hand acquaintance with reality and truth, which are so vital and so important for human life that we can’t really survive in the academy or elsewhere without them.
I just want to say a few simple but clear things about truth. I wish that all of us might, if we haven’t already, become very clear in our minds about what truth is. Sometimes certain truths are very hard to be clear about, but just understand now that for the moment I’m not talking about truths in the plural. Of course they are important and we want to come to those at the end of this presentation. But I want to talk to you first about truth in the singular.
What is “truth”? Now if you are very highly paid, or if you’re a political leader, you might think kindly of Francis Bacon when he opens his essay on truth with the words, “ ‘What is truth?’, said jesting Pilate who would not stay for an answer.” But you have to be in an unusual position to say that. You would not accept that question from a child who had just absconded with the cookies. If they said to you, “What is truth?” when you had asked them for the truth about what happened to the cookies, you’d know something was badly out of shape. They couldn’t even get away with saying, “It all depends on what the meaning of truth is.” But if you’re a highly paid professor or a political leader you can say that sort of thing.
The first thing I want to say to you, then, is that what truth is is very simple and very obvious. One of our leading contemporary philosophers, Michael Dummitt, has a book, an interesting and important book called Truth and Other Enigmas. A part of our problem, to start out with, is the idea that there is something deeply mysterious about truth, and I hope to dispel that idea, if at all possible, before we go on to talk about why truth is so important. A representation or statement or belief is true if what it is about is as it is presented in the representation or belief or statement. I’m going to say that again. An idea or statement or belief is true if what it is about is as it is presented. That’s simple isn’t it? You know how to work with it. Someone says, “The broom is in the closet.” You know how to find out whether or not that statement is true, don’t you? You go look at the broom in the closet. There are various ways truth shows up, sometimes not as directly as with the broom. If someone says, “There’s gas in your tank,” and then your car sputters to a halt and your gauge goes down, you don’t have to climb into the tank; you know you’re out of gas. Truth is the same everywhere it shows up. It’s not always directly verifiable, but truth is always that matching up of an idea to reality. And we learn it from a very young age. We know what truth is. You ask a little child. If you make him a promise and don’t keep it, they will instruct you on truth. They know what it is. They learn to manipulate it by lying. No one ever had to teach their children to lie. It’s such an obvious thing. And the nature of truth is extremely clear and obvious. If it weren’t for that fact, we wouldn’t be able to deal with the simplest situations around us that we think about and talk about.
The next thing I want to say is this: That “matching up” that occurs with truth is totally indifferent to what you may believe or I may believe. No one has ever yet made a belief true by believing it. Try it. Try making a belief true just by believing it or by having an attitude of some sort towards it. Believe there’s gas in your tank. It won’t help. Get two other people to believe it with you. Start a political movement, the “gas in the tank movement.” It won’t help. Of course you can put gas in your tank but you can’t do that by believing it, by being favorably disposed to it. Or doing anything else in the way of mere belief. That structure of matching up, or not matching, up is not affected by what we believe. That’s why the statement, “True for me” is so destructive. What it does is actually substitute belief for truth. Belief, of course, is relative. A proposition is believed only if someone believes it. But you can’t “truth” a belief by believing it. You can’t make a fact exist just by believing it. It’s important for us to understand these things. Truth is so important that we must not fail to understand that it is unyielding in the face of beliefs. A mass movement will not change truths, though sometimes it helps to have lots of company if you have to get the government to pay for the consequences of believing something that is false. It may help, then, to have a lot of people on the same side.
Truth is a part of what God has put in creation to help us deal with reality. Truth is like the aim of a rifle or a gun or some kind of mechanism. If it is right, it enables you to hit the target. If our beliefs are true we are enabled to deal with reality effectively. I hope that’s so obvious that I don’t need to take time to illustrate it further. But it is not generally understood. And the idea that truth is somehow enigmatic and unrecognizable, along with the idea that somehow it’s relative, is what pervades our culture today. This is a tragedy. Precisely because it encourages us not to try to find out the truth and especially the truth about the most important things in our lives.
Politics and truth come together in an important way precisely because truth is so important to human life. And political issues are issues where we have to get a group to act in a certain way together. And in order to get that group to act in a certain way together, we have to make truth claims. And the truth claims, which, unfortunately, are not always true, provide the basis for group action. Insofar as we can convince people of truth we are able to move them to action. That’s really just a part of action theory if you wish. It’s what an action is. We’re built to act from our beliefs; and our beliefs, when they are true, enable us to deal with reality.
Truth is also the only basis of tolerance. And now we come to a really difficult area in contemporary discussions. I say truth is the only basis for tolerance. Some months ago at the outset of a course I explained what truth is. I had a young man then walked up to me and say, “It was all quite convincing; but of course I couldn’t accept it because I’m a liberal.” I thought about that. This was a perfectly spontaneous comment. He was completely sincere, but he had accepted the idea that only if truth is relative, can you not be oppressive. And of course, he didn’t want to be oppressive. Who does? He certainly didn’t want to be. So he thought that the consequences of accepting truth as I am very simply presenting it here, was that he could no longer be a nice person. So he wasn’t going to do it. No matter how convincing I was.
That’s a very strange conception when you stop to think about it. We have a long tradition of political and religious tolerance in our country. It’s true that perhaps it has not always been lived up to, but we have that tradition. But that idea of tolerance was based upon the idea that tolerance is good. It was based upon the idea that there is moral truth, that there is a right and wrong way to treat other people; and in the absence of that, tolerance itself is without foundation. The only basis of tolerance is truth. Tolerance has suffered a great deal recently in our religious and political and educational areas. And tolerance, because truth has been pulled away from it, has slipped over into the idea that everything is equally right. No longer is tolerance a matter of saying, “I disagree with you and I believe you’re wrong, but I accept you and I extend to you the right to be wrong.” That’s not enough. We’re now in a situation where everyone must be equally right, where you cannot say that people are wrong and still claim to love them. We used to say humorously, “Love me, love my dog.” Now we in effect say, and entirely without humor, “Love me, love my opinions—love my views.” And this is humanly disastrous.
A story, an image, might be useful to illustrate that. Imagine a group of people out in a forest, lost, and all of them have compasses but their compasses all point in different directions. Now can you imagine one saying to the other, “Well, I’ll respect your compass if you’ll respect mine.” That’s not exactly going to get you out of the woods. It is so important to realize that what we accept as the truth is going to determine our action and that the finding of the truth is not just sort of a “nice” thing. It is essential to our lives. It is necessary for us to be able to become the kinds of persons we ought to be as well as for us to deal with our choices about family arrangements, political arrangements, technical issues. I’ve noticed in my own circles that among the few people who very rarely speak well of relative truth are engineers, and I’ve come to suspect it is because they know the bridge is going to fall down or the rocket’s going to blow up if you don’t do it right. There’s a right and wrong way in reality, and there’s no pluralism with reference to it. Pluralism is a moral approach which we take to people that does not say everyone is equally right, but rather that says, “We respect you and we love you, based on the truth that you also are God’s creation. You are an eternal being whom God has put in this world; and I will respect you and love you for that. Even if you are wrong.” When it really matters, for great issues at stake, and it’s clear it matters, we don’t accept pluralism. You don’t want pluralism in a brain surgeon. You want someone who knows how it is. You want someone who has learned the truth and is able to communicate it. And we know very well that in order to do that you don’t have to be a brutal, mean, bigoted person. In fact it’s only if you really understand the moral life and the truth of the moral life that you can find the resources to be a good, open, loving, caring person—pluralist where it makes sense and is objectively right to be so.
We’ve come to the point in our culture today where it is the concept of reason and truth itself that requires redemption. Reason and truth itself, especially in the arena of human affairs, has lost its foundation because of misunderstandings about truth, misunderstandings about relativity, about how we are conscious of objects. A lot of this leads into rather arcane, philosophical issues that I’m sure you don’t want to hear about. I don’t think I’m short-cutting the substance of the case just to say that, in fact, reason and truth are in desperate trouble within the academy itself. I often ask my students to ask their other teachers in the various subjects, “Do you teach the truth?” You can guess what the response is. Most are embarrassed by the truth. Reason itself has disappeared to the point that, in education generally today, I don’t know of a single reputable college that requires a course in logic as a part of its degree program. And if some of you know one, please let me know. But I’ve done some research on this and had some assistants doing research on it. That is a new “educational fact.” That didn’t used to be the case. Logic used to be a standard requirement. But logic is now often treated as a power conspiracy, as a part of an oppressive practice; and of course it can be misused; but logic goes with truth and with reason, and without these the institutions of learning and law have no basis except the desire and movements of politics in the population. That is a long and important story we cannot tell here.
Now I just want to say as I come to the end of my remarks that the return to Christ as moral teacher, as one who brought the light of life into the darkened world, acceptance of the truth about Him and the truth that comes by Him, is the only way we can redeem reason and truth itself. I’ll turn it just another way. Reason and truth cannot support themselves. They will fall victim to the drive of the human heart to do what is wrong and the truth will then be twisted. And reasoning will be turned into rationalization unless there is a moral foundation to guide life and support the dedication to truth.
I’ll illustrate briefly. We have a real problem in our universities and colleges now with just such things as grading and grade level and grade inflation. We didn’t used to have that problem so much. But now there is a doubt, that is present in the minds of many people who even teach the courses, as to whether or not it is fair and right to do things like grade papers. In fact one of the cases that I use to challenge my own students when they adopt a relativistic view of truth is grading. “Suppose I were to grade papers on your theory?” I ask them. It doesn’t take them long to figure out what the point of that is. You see when I grade a paper and put an A on it, it should mean something. In fact I do tell my students how I grade and what I look for so that they will have some idea of what the letter grades mean. I even tell them that one of the most important things I do is to teach them how I grade papers. Grading is making a judgment about the quality of something, and I need to be able to tell them exactly what it is about a paper that makes it an A paper, a B paper, or a C paper. They would never accept from me the idea, “Well, I liked it.” But if we don’t have the moral courage and the love to carry all this through in the academic context with our students, we will never be able to teach them effectively what good work is. You have to have the courage and the patience and the love to stay with people and enforce standards which they don’t like in order to teach standards of reason and truth. And you must have moral standards to do that. This is nothing unique to the Academy. You have to do that with your children, don’t you? You have to do that with your employees, with everyone around you. That is part of the human condition. It’s crucial to have the moral character to support reason and truth. And if you can’t found those moral standards in reality, you can’t sustain them. You have to take moral standards as a reflection of reality in order to sustain them. And if you don’t sustain them, you’ll not be able to hold the standards of reason and truth in public and private life. It all hangs together.
For now, we come back to the issue of, “Where do we get our moral truths?” And the answer is that as far as our culture is concerned, the only effectively moral tools we have are those that derive from Jesus Christ. And to pull the foundation out from under them, is to leave them swinging in the wind of politics and unreality. And that’s why it’s so important for those of us who are committed to the way of Christ that we should stand as clearly and as firmly and as strongly and as intelligently as we can and simply say, “Want to know what a good person is? Want to know what a right action is? Want to know what a good life is? There’s one person who can show you.” Respect and admiration for Jesus Christ is the only basis for a viable academic culture. I know that if we had time we would want to discuss other cultures and traditions and see how they work, but as it is, I’m just going to have to let that stand. And if we want to be responsible to the truth and for the truth, and lead others in that path, that can be only effectively done by being steadfast disciples of Jesus Christ in our whole life. It can’t be done any other way.
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Question: Can there not be academic culture without Christ?
Answer: I say one successful way of sustaining a viable academic culture. There are of course many ways of having an academic culture. But that’s the qualification I insist on.
Question: Are there not outstanding universities in other cultures?
Answer: Well, I just ask you to consider where the great universities of the world are. Obviously you have universities in Islamic culture, in some other cultures, etc. But ask yourself who is going to those universities to study; and who comes to the universities in the Western world to study. What is written on the walls of those universities; what is written on our walls? This is an empirical claim. And thus it opens itself up to counter examples. What I’m concerned about is that we have come through a period in our recent past when a lot of people had what looked like great ideas about education to them, but they don’t work. On the other hand, we have a two millennia long track record to look at to see what does work. That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong in that record. There’s been much wrong with it. That needs to be corrected, and we can then go on from there rather than supposing, especially, that there is a realistic secular basis upon which to do human education. You see, we have had let’s say 300 years to try to work out a secular basis for morality and education in the Western world. We’ve now come to the point where in the Western world there is nothing that stands as moral knowledge in our culture. There’s not a single moral truth that you could teach in a course in this university and grade students on. Again, show me I’m wrong. I would be happy to be wrong about this. Try it. I’m not saying there aren’t any other very fine cultures, I’m just saying with reference to this pursuit of truth in an organized social context, I don’t think there is another basis comparable to the Christian one.
Question: Do you see any decrease in the popularity of relativism with regard to truth?
Answer: I think it’s accelerating at the popular level. It’s very interesting. You won’t find many people in the profession of philosophy itself who will defend relativism. But, for example, nearly everyone in literary studies will defend relativism. In religious studies, same thing. Nearly everyone. Again, if I’m offending someone here who is in those fields, I’m willing to learn so please instruct me. At a popular level I think the force of the theory is definitely not on the wane. It is increasing in all areas of culture—the failure to understand what truth is. That’s why I’ve taken the course of painfully dragging you through this little discussion of “what is truth?” It’s because we need to understand this clearly. We all know what truth is, but when we get caught up in the jargon of the discussion, often we are thrown off course. Normally after talking like this, I’ll have someone come up and say “Well you know there are a lot of different truths. There’s what’s true for me and there’s what’s true for you and so forth.” Unfortunately that just misses the whole point because they are confusing belief with truth. I don’t deny that people believe different things, but the “true for me” talk is just changing the topic; and if we had time and interest I could go into the various theories of truth including some that try to define it in terms of belief.
Truth still remains just what I said it was—the matching up of the idea or belief with what it’s about. We all know what that is. We have to come out and say that, and we have to say that’s still what truth is when we’re dealing with religion or dealing with law, politics, and history. Even though in those areas you obviously can’t check truth out so immediately as you can in some of the other cases like those where we first learn what truth is. So I’m afraid things aren’t getting better; and I believe that ministers and teachers have the primary responsibility to deal with this matter, because they have the ear of the public and we really need to take that responsibility very seriously.
Question: What can we do to help those who are advocating a relativist understanding of truth?
Answer: Well, there are various things that you can do. Many of them are helped just by pointing out that they are making an absolute claim about the nature of truth itself. They are not telling you how they think truth is—they are telling you how it really is. And they expect you to agree with their claim and not just say, “Well, that’s nice. You believe that. I don’t believe that.” They are not willing to leave you with your belief about what truth is, and that’s a dead giveaway that they are not just telling you what they think truth is. They are telling you what it really is. And some people are helped by having this pointed out to them. Now a consistent person will at that point back off and tell you, “No, I’m just telling you what I think.” But that’s what you would call a Pyrrhic victory, because if he’s only telling me what he thinks, that carries no weight with others. Obviously he is not. He wants to tell me what I should think. But why should I think what he thinks I should think? No reason, unless there is something called truth beyond opinion, the truth about truth.