Tuesday, October 11, 2005

PoMo Posts: What is Truth?

In my quest to posit a response to "How can we be Christians in a Postmodern world" I want to begin with answering, "What is truth."

Truth must exist. We cannot go off the Postmodern deep end by saying that there is no truth. That is not Postmodernity, that is skepticism, and while interesting and possibly quite valid, skepticism does not do anything for us. I am not going to address skepticism. So, before you read any further, remember that it might be the case that you are really just a brain in a petri dish on an alien ship and when they turn the correct tooth picks, you think you are reading my blog.

Now, assuming then that we are actually in our bodies, and that we can (roughly) trust our senses, where do we go from here. Naturally it must be that the basic truths exist. Everyone's experience allows for "cold" and "hot" and "hard" and "soft". These truths exist, and we can all attest to them. However, when I say hot, you might not hear the same objective truth that I hear.

Our experience of truth alters its exact definition. For example: In fall, when the temperature dips to 65 degrees, we see a lot of people throwing on their parkas. And yet, in the spring, when the temperature hits 65 degrees, people are wearing tee shirts and shorts. The reason is because we define "cold" based on our experience. If we have experienced a particularly hot summer for several months in a row, sixty-five is "cold." And yet, if we have just held out through a bitterly cold winter, sixty-five is "warm." The temperature outside is defined by our experience. Now, this doesn't mean that the objective truth of sixty-five degrees is relative. The objective truth of sixty-five exists, however if we don't interpret that sixty-five to mean cold or warm, it has no bearing for us. The objective truth is useless to us until we have ascribed a subjective meaning to it.

All that to say that while truth is not relative, our interpretation of truth is relative to our experience with it. This means that we each have a relationship with truth. So, the question was, "What is truth?" My answer to this question is, Truth is a reality.

The problem with certain truths is that they are immeasurable through the scientific method. Because the scientific method is pretty much the only agreed upon mode for truth gathering, this means that there are certain truths that remain merely theories. There is an objective truth behind these theories, but that objective truth lies either in the immeasurable, the purely theoretical, or the past.

If the objective truth upon which a theory is founded lies in the immeasurable, then we are left with theories based on incomplete data. I am thinkiung of the current theories around gravity. The nature of gravity is immeasurable, and we do not know what it really is. We do know that it exists, but we do not fully understand it, so the nature of gravity remains an unmeasurable theory.

If an objective truth is based in the purely theoretical, then the truth is in fact relative to the culture in which the truth is found. These would be truths that center around cultural norms such as piercings, or tatoos. In one culture it is true that slicing open your lip and using a plate to extend the tissue over a period of years is a beautiful thing. That is not true in our culture. Such truths are merely theoretical.

Truths that are based in the past are unverifiable because they happened in the past. We can know a lot about the past, but it is impossible to scientifically verify the events of the past. Try proving that Ghengis Khan existed. It is impossible. We can prove that there are texts that attest to his existence, and that someone in written history is said to have taken over most of Asia, the middle east, and Western Europe in under thirty years, but we cannot scientifically verify that it was Ghengis Khan that was responsible for those things. This idea gets trickier when we talk about supernatural events from the past. We cannot scientifically verify that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, nor can we scientifically verify that Muhammed ascended into Heaven.

The trouble comes when we start lumping all of these theories into the same category of truth. We tend to look at unverifiable truths and claim that they are all social constructs. We say that truth in these things is relative to our experience. But this position is really just an extension of modernity. We become frustrated with our inability to verify or logically prove the truths we hold, so we claim that they are not truths at all. Modernity told us that we could verify everything through science. In this postmodern world, we see that science cannot prove everything, and so we take everything that is unprovable, and we claim that it must not be truth. Our current position is really just the logical conclusion of modernity. In this manner, Postmodernity is really just Ultramodernity.

If, instead, we are truly postmodern, we can understand that there is an objective truth behind some of these that we will never be able to verify. It is either true or false that Jesus rose from the dead. If it is true, then Christianity is true. If it is false, then Christianity is false. We will never be able to verify this claim with certainty, so we must accept our beliefs on faith. We must have faith that Jesus was the Christ, or we must deny that Jesus was the Christ. There is no other option. The problem with Postmodernity arises when we equate the truth about the resurrection of Christ to a truth such as the beauty of tatoos. One culture thinks it is true, another culture disagrees, so we claim that whatever one culture believes is true for that culture. This is fine for truths based on theoretical concepts such as beauty or courage, but it is unacceptalbe for truths based on history. It is not acceptable for Americans to disbelieve in Ghengis Khan merely because we don't want to. It is acceptable for Americans however to disbelieve in the sex-appeal of penile gourds.

So, if we answer "What is truth?" by saying "Truth is a reality." we are then left struggling to answer "What then is True?" More on that later.

1 comment:

Christian said...

I feel educated and enlightened. Most of the time I float around not caring about modernity, post modernity and stuff like that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this and helping me to think about it a bit.

Christian