Today’s guest post is part two of my good friend Matthew’s treatment of the question of truth. If you haven’t yet had the chance, I encourage you to check out the first installment before reading this one. And especially be sure to check out his blog, Sermons from a Postulant.
Without further ado.
“We are living in an age when every social group is struggling frantically to destroy itself—and doing it faster than any of its rivals or enemies could hope for—when every man is his own most dangerous enemy, and the whole of mankind is rolling, at supersonic speed, back to the Dark Ages, with a nuclear bomb in one hand and a rabbit’s foot [or Bible] in the other.”1
“Observe the intellectual disintegration of today’s political discussions, the shrinking of issues and debates to the level of single, isolated, superficial concretes, with no context, with no reference to any fundamental principles, no mention of basic issues, no proofs, no arguments, nothing but arbitrary assertions of ‘for’ or ‘against.’…When intellectual disintegration reaches such absurd extremes…it is time to stop and realize that there are no intellectual sides any longer, no philosophical camps and no political theories, nothing but an undifferentiated mob of trembling statists who haggle only over how fast or how slowly we are to collapse into a totalitarian dictatorship, [and] whose gang will do the dictating, and who will be sacrifices to whom.2
Synopsis of the Second Edition
Because of its length, I will offer my main arguments in brief, and of course encourage you to read them in more detail:
In Part II, I explore two traditional approaches to truth: through the Objective, and through the Subjective. For the Objective, I discuss Objectivism’s approach based on Ayn Rand’s philosophy which believes in three main axioms: 1) Existence exists; 2) The Law of Identity, A is A; and 3) Consciousness is the vehicle in which to experience reality. Fundamental to her philosophy is the primacy of reality over consciousness.
The other philosophy I explore in regards to truth is Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian and philosopher, widely seen as the Father of Existentialism. For Kierkegaard, all truth is subjective; only that which we perceive is real. He argues if one cannot perceive something, it does not exist, and even if it did exist, it does not matter: perception determines truth, and all knowledge is human knowledge.
In Part III I discuss the commonality of both: their severe obsession with the self, and with the individual having the responsibility to take on the endeavor of seeking truth alone. Both philosophies place a severe responsibility on the individual. Ultimately, I side with Objectivism’s view of acquiring data and truth, while not wholly neglecting the subjective. I believe in a careful syncretism of both.
Limitation: I do not cover other philosophies that attempt to diminish personal responsibility through socialization or culture; in other words, secular Calvinism. I do not like such philosophies, but I am hopeful someone will want to challenge me on their merit. I would consider such a discussion more one of economics than of philosophy.
In Part IV, I discuss the consequences of not seeking truth in an objective manner using the example of the “anit-vaxxer” phenomenon. I mention themes in the Hebrew Bible that encourage self-reflection and avoiding hubris. I then discuss a theistic justification for seeking more scientifically-sound data and sources; ultimately correlating the discovery of the natural world as a spiritual endeavor. I end this portion from my own tradition, the Anglicans, and how leaders in our tradition have approached and sought to adapt (rightly or wrongly) new knowledge into our theology and ancient tradition.
Part V is a Conclusion, and final thoughts on the importance of being self-reflective, critical-thinkers, as well as some tips to encourage one to think critically. Independent thinkers are the ones who save us all from destruction, and are rarely, if ever thanked for it.
Of prime importance to this blog is the idea that: No human being is omniscient; no human being or human institution has a monopoly on truth, therefore we are morally required to be teachable, and must seek out our own error, while seeking out truth wherever we may find her.
Part II: Thinking in the Problem
I ended the last blog with the statement: Truth is something that is outside the self; it is discoverable, it is knowable (but only in part), and its nature is completely independent of any human wish, feeling, or desire. We do not create Truth!
In this blog I would like to expand upon that idea, and to discuss a responsible response to Truth. In essence, I will be discussing on how to have a responsible and healthy relationship with truth. But first, let us discuss different approaches to Truth.
I think the best approach is to change the question to, “What is the nature of truth?” and “What are attributes of truth?” To begin the discussion, I will turn to Objectivist Thought:
“The concept ‘truth’ identifies a type of relationship between a proposition and the facts of reality…In essence this is the traditional correspondence of truth: there is a reality independent of man and there are certain conceptual products, propositions, formulated by human consciousness. When one of these products corresponds to reality, when it constitutes a recognition of fact, then it is true. (emphasis mine).”3
Objectivism, or the philosophy of Ayn Rand, presents the most condensed and crystal-clear presentation of the relationship between human consciousness and truth. Truth is something that is separate from consciousness. In other words, the universe exists whether or not I do. In this philosophy, existence or the universe has primacy over man’s consciousness. What does that mean? It means that we do not come to truth primarily through our feelings or even our perceptions or beliefs. We come to knowledge and truth using reason. This does not mean that feelings are to be discarded, quite the opposite actually. The choice isn’t: either emotions or reason. But, it is an understanding of the proper relationships between reason and emotions:
“If an individual experiences a clash between feeling and thought, he should not ignore his feelings. He should identify the ideas at their base (which may be a time-consuming process); then compare these ideas to his conscious conclusions, weighing in conflicts objectively; then amend his viewpoint accordingly, disavowing the ideas he judges to be false. What he should seek is not escape through repression, but full identification and then rational analysis of his ideas, culminating in a new, non-contradictory integration. The result will be the reestablishment in his consciousness of emotional harmony.”4
In this understanding, it is our faculty of reason that must come before feelings in determining truth. And when we talk of reason we must be clear we are talking about our “reality-oriented faculty.” The opposite is irrationality, which “consists in taking one’s own feelings, however formed, as an absolute, then expecting reality to adjust to them. Reality, however, will not adjust.”5
But what about subjectivism? What about the subjective experience? Surely, one can rationally tell a parent why their baby is dying of leukemia; they can explain the proliferation of cancer cells, the eventual shutting down of organs, and eventual death of the child. On the outside we can observe and feel sad for the child and the family. And the parents, can rationally understand why their child is going to die. But, does that knowledge embody the truth of the situation?
Søren Kierkegaard addresses this issue in complete contradiction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy in stating, “Subjectivity is truth, subjectivity is reality.”6 Kierkegaard, often called the Father of Existentialism (a label he would not have liked), held that the only reality that really matters; the only reality of consequence is the reality that is perceived. To Kierkegaard, the parents of the dying child have a truth and reality completely different from the doctor, the chaplain, or of a young college kid driving past the hospital on the way to a party. In each case, since the perceptions are different, so are their realities, and therefore their truth. So when we talk about Truth, we can only talk about our Truth, or our reality; since perception dictates our reality and Truth. For Kierkegaard, pure Truth exists only in the infinite, that is God. And while Truth does “exist,”7 our varying relationships to it can only be experienced as solitary individuals, alone. All are in error, or not in the Truth, but that discovery of error cannot be revealed by another human being, only discovered by the self:
“For my own Error is something I can discover only by myself, since it is only when I have discovered it that it is discovered, even if the whole world knew of it before.”8
Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophy and that of the existentialists in the end did more harm than good. But, what it did provide was an understanding that perception alters one’s view of the world around them; that there is a context in which we all approach the universe.
Part III: Integration of the Subjective and Objective
So from Ayn Rand and Søren Kierkegaard what can say about Truth and our relationship to it? Objectivism offers a concrete and scientific method to the approach of Truth. Objectivism claims that reality and existence exist outside of human consciousness. Regardless of my feelings or wishes or faith, existence exists, and the facts of reality are what they are: Truth is something that is entirely outside of my control. However, what Objectivism fails in providing is any coherent teleology; it does not provide a meaning or purpose to the human condition. To have a discussion about Truth with no concern for meaning or purpose would be an abomination to Kierkegaard.
Søren Kierkegaard is a disaster when it comes to the topic of the rational acquisition of facts, but does provide a philosophical perspective that honors the experience of the individual. Kierkegaard offers a teleology, however not specific. Meaning and purpose are the fundamental attributes to our humanity; however, the ultimate determination of purpose is an act of will and choice. Ultimately, Kierkegaard argues, we have to admit there is no rational basis for our existence, and so we ultimately must take a “leap of faith.” And this brings us to what both philosophies have in common: the obsession with the sovereignty of the individual.
Both Ayn Rand and Soren Kierkegaard have an obsession with the individual and its relation to the universe. Both place the ultimate responsibility of choices and consequences on the individual. How does one use their mind? How does one seek to improve themselves? How much does one self-reflect? How much does one seek to integrate experience and knowledge? All these questions are of paramount importance to these two opposing philosophers, and I propose this commonality is where we launch our own inquiry into “what is truth?”
Part IV The Spirituality of Seeking
By now, it is probably clear that I will not be answering specifically, “what is truth?” But rather, I find it much more responsible and healthy to talk of approaches to truth, especially in our world today. We see our current culture being torn apart by conflicting news stories. Media companies almost seem in conflict with each other to provide the most popular news, with decreasing regard for context or presenting opposing sides. A common and dangerous habit of individuals is to enshrine their own viewpoint as “truth,” and then consume or discard data based on their own viewpoints. The consequences are dire and are becoming deadly.
One example is the “Anti-Vaxxer” Movement based on information that has repeatedly been disproved by both scientists and clinicians who work in the field (doctors and nurses). Because of fear of autism, many people are no longer getting their vaccinations, including measles vaccinations, which of course is leading to an increase in the amount of occurrences of measles. In 2000, there were virtually no cases of measles, by 2010 there were 1,521 cases in the New York and New Jersey areas alone.9 Ironically, one of the symptoms of measles in a pregnant woman is miscarriage. So much for protecting children. So how do we find out the truth and what does it have to do with spirituality?
Coming from a Christian Background, there are certain themes that we can gather from our sacred texts that address this very issue. One theme in the Hebrew Bible I think is clear is “You are wrong,” or to put it in a nicer way, “you are not as right as you think you are.” The prophets were sent the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah to point out their errors, and their breach of the law, Torah. However, the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel in their hubris thought they were immune to judgement because of they were God’s chosen people. They chose to rely on their own self-conviction rather than assume any responsibility for their thought and actions. They chose to trust in their own self-righteousness rather than enact any self-reflection. Two words of course shattered their delusion: Assyria and Babylon. In the Hebrew Bible, fidelity and faith are of course rewarded, but I can think of no example where any hero of faith condemned inquiry into knowledge or wisdom. In the New Testament, we are given a dialectic regarding wisdom and knowledge, which of course are common to the New Testament. We are told to grow in spiritual strength and in wisdom, but we are also told that God choose the foolish to shame the wise. Sadly, fools took that as sanction to shame themselves. I hope there is a continual debate among Christian circles about the ultimate meaning (the Truth) of these passages. Because Christianity needs to shake off the Dark Ages, and the Medieval Period for good, and see this Universe as God’s…as an uncontrollable benevolent force awaiting discovery.
Coming from an Anglican Christian Background, the idea that Truth is something outside ourselves is something we affirm in our Scripture, Tradition, and Experience. All persons who believe in a Sovereign and Holy God should be able to relate. We share with others the belief that God is wholly other, independent of all our wishes. God cannot be controlled, cannot be manipulated. God is free, and God is what and who God is. It should be clear and obvious the implications. For anyone who believes in such a God; that such a God is the Creator of the Universe, there should be no fear of new discovery or knowledge. In fact, we should long for it. Scientific discovery is the revealing and unveiling of the mysteries of Creation, and it all points to God. There can be no contradiction between discovery and fidelity to God. For those who are secularists, the implication should be clear: Whether one believes in God or not is inconsequential in an honest pursuit of Truth; simply replace God with Universe. One need not believe in a personal God to discover the wonders of the universe around us. It is imperative that if given the choice between data that is scientific-based, or data that is given from mere opinion, one MUST morally choose that which is scientific-based. When looking at news stories, one must begin to discern: what material is seeking to inform? And what material is seeking to provoke a visceral, emotional response?
But what does it mean for our faith? What about concerns of theology and science? Here I defer to Bishop Federick Borsch:
“There are… enormous opportunities for those who believe that their faith in God and the forms of truth which science can discover should not be in conflict. What may be most important for this integration is a profound awareness that God is so present and intimate to all that is that we might even speak of the world as God’s body.”10
And from Charles Gore on the topic of the continual development of theology in our age:
“The real development of theology is… the process in which the church, standing firm in her old truths, enters into the apprehension of the new social and intellectual movements of each age: and because ‘the truth makes her free,’ is able to assimilate all new material, to welcome and give its place to all new knowledge, to throw herself into the sanctification of each new social order, bringing forth out of her treasures things new and old, and showing again and again her power for witnessing under changed conditions to the catholic capacity of her faith and life.”11
How we accomplish the above task is, of course, up for debate. The Episcopal Church and its family, the Anglican Communion continue that lively debate and discussion, and rightly so. The worst thing we can do is walk away from each other, to stop learning from each other. The egregious crime is when any person or any group is so self-convicted of its own righteousness, that it deludes themselves into thinking they have nothing to learn, they know it all, in other words: that they are God. Many who claim to be persons of faith in God, are in fact blasphemers, as they are convinced that they alone are the prime arbitrators of judgement and what is true or not. Without humility and a spirit of discovery, I am not sure how one can be faithful to any God.
Part V Conclusions and Critical Thinking
The purpose of writing this blog was certainly not to win over the masses, or to be popular. It is my hope that even reading parts of this blog, one will begin the process of thinking. And not thinking to confirm one’s own thoughts or convictions, but to question them. Most people are quite content where they are intellectually (though to use that word is a stretch). Most rely on their chosen political and religious factions for their identity. They rely solely on others for their worldview, to teach them what is right or wrong, what is true or not, who is “in” and who are the enemies. We will never convince such people, let them go. My writing is to the independent thinker, the one who finds it difficult to feel completely safe or comfortable in any tribe. It is on your shoulders that human society has always rested and relied.
To be an independent thinker is to be alone in many respects. It requires a conviction that the world around us is knowable (at least in part), that the universe is ultimately benevolent, that the human mind is capable to acquire and discern truth. Independent thinkers are frustrating to any group. Always being respected, rarely being loved, these brave men and women are the ones who ask, “why?” while others are willing to set the world on fire with their own convictions. They are the ones who give pause to rage, and pause to the finger on the nuclear bombs. Indeed, they save us all, and we need more of them.
So, I began this entire project as a response to all the false news that is being spread, and all the cynicism surrounding media sources. How can we determine truth in the midst of all this chaos? The more I thought about it the more I realized the majority of people are not really asking, “what is the truth?” But, “what news supports my worldview?” I challenge all independent thinkers to ask, “what is truth?” or “what is the truth in this situation?” And there are a variety of ways to do that. One is something I learned in college: if you cannot argue to the death both sides of an argument, you don’t know enough to have a responsible opinion on it. Seek information that is scientific or fact-based that contradicts your worldview. Also, learn the peaceful perspective of opposing views, while being aware of the violent irrational views on your side. I have found that over time, I really don’t have a side anymore, and when I do, I find myself defending the other side a lot. Another sacred phrase the independent thinker says is, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t have enough information to have an informed opinion on this topic.” Such a vivid expression of humility is both honest, and usually earns one respect, as it is so different from the arrogant ignorance that is so common place.
I do like this five-minute video on critical thinking:
In closing I would like to say thank you for reading, and never forget our world depends on critical-thinkers and self-reflective souls… please join the struggle. Humanity is worth it.
1: Ayn Rand, “To Young Scientist,” The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, ed. Leonard Peikoff (Meridian Publishing, 1989), 13.
2: Ayn Rand, “The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age,” The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, ed. Leonard Peikoff (Meridian Publishing, 1989), 88-89.
3: Leonard Piekoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Meridian Publishing; New York, 1991), 165.
4: Ibid., 162.
5: Ibid., 162-163.
6: Søren Kierkegaard, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript To the ‘Philosophical Fragments:; An Existential Contribution by Johannes Climacus,” A Kierkegaard Anthology, trans. David F. Swenson, Lillian Marvin Swenson, and Walter Lowrie, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton University Press, 1946), 231.
7: Kierkegaard actually does not use “exist” when talking of God: “God does not think, He creates; God does not exist, He is eternal.” Ibid., 231.
8: Søren Kierkegaard, “Philosophical Fragments, or a Fragment of Philosophy by Johannes Climacus,” A Kierkegaard Anthology, trans. David F. Swenson, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton University Press, 1946), 158.
9: Michelle A. Recame, “The Immunization-Autism Myth Debunked,” International Journal of Childbirth Education, vol. 27, num. 4. October 2012.
10: Federick Houck Borsch, Outrage and Hope: A Bishop’s Reflection in Times of Change and Challenge, (Trinity Press International; Valley Forge, PA, 1996), 82-86.
11: Charles Gore, “Lux Mundi,” The Reconstruction of Belief: Belief in God, Belief in Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Church, ed. Charles Gore (Charles Scribner’s Sons Publishing; New York, 1926), 188.