The Nature of Truth - James May

John 18:37-38


What is Truth?


The plan over the next two weeks is to explore the way our world understands what Truth is, and what impact that has on what we believe and how we live. I have personally been interested in the subject of Truth and what is called Relativism since about the age of 17 as a result of reading a book by a theologian called Francis Schaeffer. Partly because of this I am now involved in a charity called HealthWatch which promotes evidence based medicine, and combats false health claims. But the question of Truth has far wider implications than purely scientific claims as I hope we will see. 


As a sermon this is probably best seen as an extended reflection on Pilates question, ‘what is truth?’. This week we will focus on what we think Truth is, and next week on the impact of our view on our beliefs and our lives. It is a fundamental question in our culture: this weeks economist front page leads, Post-Truth Politics, and the Art of the Lie, arguing that the lies of today’s politics are worse than the past, because they don’t even try to appear true, and they point to social media as a major cause of this, because people reinforce their own misconceptions by being fed ideas by like minded people. The question of Truth also profoundly affects how we view religious faith, and Christian faith in particular. It is therefore worth spending time analysing the nature of Truth in some depth.


If we think some things are really true, then what we generally mean is that they exist independently from our ideas and our beliefs, and are as they are irrespective of what we think or feel. In other words, we believe that there is a reality which exists outside of our own minds, which is not my subjective impression, but is objectively real. 


If we believe that there is such a reality outside of our minds, then there is the question of whether we are capable of knowing anything about this external reality. A true statement, would then be true if it truly describes this reality. The statement ‘snow is white’ is true if in reality there is such a thing as snow, and, if snow is white. When what we believe is the same as reality, we call this ‘knowledge’.


This may sound obviousand straightforward. But we hit problems fairly quickly. In our society we are very wary about people who claim to ‘know the truth’ about anything. Immediately a number of very negative words and associations pop into our minds. Authority, tradition, intolerance, arrogance, power, paternalism and imperialism, all capture the idea that the person making the truth claim is unjustifiably imposing their opinion on the other person. 


Instead we often use the word, ‘perspective’ which can suggest that there is no correct understanding of reality, but just a variety of different views which are equally justified, as if there is no reality ‘out there’, but only subjective ideas and perspectives. We carelessly say, ‘it just depends on your point of view’ as if that explains why people say two contradictory things, and therefore ends the argument. But actually different perspectives can increase knowledge of reality, as we increase the vantage points we have to look at it. The word perspective is helpful if it gets us to realise that as finite human beings we do not have a sort of gods eye view of reality, which is singular and correct. We are finite subjects, and we see from our perspective, but by adding the perspectives of others we can actually increase our understanding of reality. 


In multicultural London we are very familiar with talking to people who see the world quite differently from us. My world is General Practice, so I will use some illustrations from my experience, but there will be parallel experiences in many places of work, so please translate what I say into experiences familiar to you. 


As a GP we are taught that rather than being doctor centred and paternalistic we should be patient centred and explore the patient’s ideas, concerns and expectations. What do patients understand about their illness, what worries them about it, and what did they hope I would do about it? When we talk with anyone else we find that they see things differently from us, and any sensible communication requires constant clarification, and checking of understanding to ensure that we are being understood, and that we understand what is being said. This is even when you know someone very well, with your own spouse or children. It is a core human ability to be empathetic, to put yourself in someone else’s position and to try to make the see the world as they see it. Many problems in relationships between individuals and between countries happen because of a failure to see the other person’s perspective. 


In General Practice this ‘patient centred’ approach does not mean that we leave ourmedical knowledge at the door. Patient’s don’t make the effort to sit in a doctor’s waiting room just to bounce a few perspectives around. They have expectations of professional help and assistance for a problem that they feel unable to solve themselves. 


We all depend on the knowledge of other people. If we are crossing the road, and someone grabs us and shouts, ‘look out! Bus!’ and as we step back we see and feel the bus brushing past our nose, we wouldn’t react by saying, ‘that’s just your perspective, you arrogant, authoritarian, imperialistic, paternalistic, traditionalist!’ We would hopefully say, ‘thank you very much for saving my life.’ 


So it seems that in normal life we do act and speak and behave as if there is a knowable reality out there which is independent from our subjective perspective. But that isn’t to say it is all plain sailing. Sometimes doctors are wrong, and patients know this. Patients sometimes quite rightly ask, ‘how do you know it isn’t cancer’? The question of how we know something is entirely appropriate, and it is helpful if the doctor gives reasons for their conclusions, just like when maths teachers say, ‘show your working’.


It is far more reassuring for the patient if the doctor doesn’t simply assert that their cough isn’t cancer, but also explains why they think this. Our reasons and justifications are not watertight, and they never can be. We aim to make them good enough, good enough to reflect the training of a professional doctor, good enough to convince and reassure the patient that they are in safe hands, and good enough if a judge in a court of law asks us to defend out actions. We are not claiming certainty, but we are claiming that our behaviour makes sense with what we know about the reality at the time.


However, the person who saves our life from the big red bus, wouldn’t have to explain how they knew, and we wouldn’t ask them. In this case, the ‘perspective’ of the other person, is what will save our life – they just happen to be looking in the right direction, whilst we are not. 


Nevertheless you may already be feeling irritated that I am standing in front of you, explaining my views on the subject of Truth. I recently attended a course on medical education which was heavily influenced by post-modern educational theory, much of which I believe contains truth (paradoxically). The course started by describing the difference between traditional education where the lecturer would stand 6 foot above contradiction dealing out facts, whereas in the latter so called adult education would be lead by the learner so that they figure out what things they need to know and what learning methods they preferred. Clearly a sermon such as this talk, falls heavily into the traditional model that they rather decried. I do not have the opportunity to ask you what your ideas, concerns and expectations might be on this subject, and I have to kind of hedge my bets and speak to what I perceive to be the average man or woman on the street in Dalston. The best I can offer is that next week after the service we will be having a question and answer time in which you can tell me I am wrong, or at least we can turn this into a discussion. It seems to me that sermons and lectures main advantage is efficiency, which is why universities stick to the model much of the time, since having this conversation with every individual would take a very long time, even if it would have the advantage of more closely addressing personal concerns. 


For now though, if you will allow me to keep going, we will explore the big cultural picture behind our view of the question, ‘what is Truth?’


Historically there are a number of trends that have fed into each other to create what seems to me to be a well established standard model of what is often called ‘cultural relativism’. I will very quickly touch on a few key moments. 


The first steps were a series of explorations and discoveries which enabled to to form maps in our minds of the world we live in. 


This summer I visited Lisbon with my family which was the place where Vasco Da Gama sailed from in his journeys around the cape of Africa to the Far East in 1498. Even in ancient times there was trade with the Far East along the silk roads, but the opening of the Sea routes around the world, far more than ever before, brought Christian Europe into contact with the rest of the world. Merchants and missionaries would have to learn the language and ways of living of the countries they visited and were exposed to very different ways of looking at the world. 


Forty- five years later Nicolas Copernicus transformed our understanding of the universe by placing the Sun, rather than the Earth at the centre of the Solar system. Two hundred years after Da Gama Isaac Newton created a different kind of map of not just the world or the solar system, but of the whole universe, out of mathematics. 


These developments inevitably changed how we view our place in the world. The physicist Arthur Eddington was once asked, ‘Sir, is it not a fact, that Astronomically speaking man is but an insignificant speck in the universe?’ To which Eddington replied, ‘Astronomically speaking man is the Astronomer.’ We are the explorers and discoverers of an impossibly vast and complex universe. Are we then humbled, or made arrogant? Or as we will see, could it be both at the same time?


Philosophy quickly caught up with events and began to think that human reason was capable of grasping and knowing the truth about the world. But this confidence increasingly became man centred, and displaced God from our picture of reality. The poet Alexander Pope wrote in the years shortly after Newton, ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, ‘let Newton be!’ And all was light’. 


He shifted our perspective from thoughts about God, to thoughts about man. He wrote, ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan. The proper study of mankind is man.’


Pope captured what was to become the spirit of the Enlightenment in Britain and France at the time, that human beings were capable of explaining the world and themselves without reference to God, even though Copernicus and Newton themselves were devout theists.


In the mid 19th century Darwin showed that human beings were part of a tree of life, which some took to mean that human’s no longer had a special status in the story of the universe. In the book of Genesis, it seems to me that the main distinction is between the creator and the creation, and mankind is made from the dust of the earth. Humanity definitely belongs on the side of creation, which fits Darwin’s theory better than the impression that is often given. 


In the nineteenth century, and particularly in Germany, Romanticism reacted against what was seen as the Rationalism of the French Enlightenment and quickly abandoned what was seen as the arrogant spirit of the age, in favour of a darker, less rational, and more intuitive sense of the world. Cutting a long story short, this German reaction eventually brought us Nietzsche, and as I will explain, I think we have been playing catch up ever since. 


Many people think that Nietzsche was the first person to truly anticipate what we now call Post-modernism. Perhaps the passage of Nietzsche that most clearly captures this is what is known as ‘the madman’. For Nietzsche the madman is actually the one who sees most clearly, and who is seen as mad because he has come before his time, and no one really understands him. I will quote the madman at length because it not only captures the concept, but also the drama and awesome significance of what has happened.


“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances. ‘Where is God’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun?  Where is it moving now? Where are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning?... Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? … My time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way…’”


The idea was that in getting rid of God, we have abandoned any foundation for Truth, and as a result we are left not knowing anything for sure anymore. Nietzsche didn't think this was a bad thing. Instead of what he called a slave morality where we do what we have been told by traditional authorities, he thought we should create our own realities and lives, and become what he called, the ‘super man’. It seems to me that for all that has happened subsequently in western thought, and culturally in society, this analysis remains remarkably insightful and accurate.


Whilst Nietzsche advocated the madman, it was explicitly in the face of the infinite nothingness of empty space, where the night has become more night, and reality has become cold. Nietzsche was in this sense a nihilist, which is why he acknowledged that people would not understand the madman, and I am not sure we have yet understood him, even if we have believed many of his teachings. The vacuum of nothingness is to be fulfilled by our own ambitions to become gods ourselves. Nietzsche combines both the humbling and despair of humanity and arrogance in one very unsettling combination.


In the early years of the twentieth century the wheels started coming off the modernist enlightenment project. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 represented the dark forces beneath the waves that could destroy our greatest achievements and the First World War had the most advanced and supposedly civilised countries in the world using their very finest and most up to date technology to destroy themselves. In his book ‘Modern Times’, the historian Paul Johnson says that ‘The modern world began on the 29th May 1919’. He says Newtonian cosmology was ‘the framework for the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the vast expansion of human knowledge freedom and prosperity which characterised the nineteenth century’ but on this date it was destroyed with confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. In addition to the enormity of overthrowing Newtonian physics, it suggested that truth depended on where you stood when you made the observation, in other words, on your perspective. In reality this is a carefully worked out theory of physics and doesn’t have the social applications that were thought, but it did shake a world which thought it knew how we should look at reality. 


The Second World War, Nuclear Weapons, and now Climate Change have each provided huge challenges to our sense of who we are and our place in the world.  In the twentieth century Nietzsche’s nihilism transformed into Existentialism, which is sometimes referred to as Nihilism with a smile. A very brief summary is that in the face of meaninglessness we need to make our own choices, to create morality, and to create meaning. Again our humiliation becomes the background for pride in ourselves.


Alongside the discoveries and events of the last few centuries, there has been a development in how we believe we know truth about reality based on science which has been called scientism. It springs from David Hume in the eighteenth century who believed that you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This became what is often called the fact:value split. Science describes the way the world is -the facts, but it cannot prescribe the way it should be - the values. Science deals in objective facts, and values become mere subjective preferences. Morality is therefore relativised, meaning that it is not absolutely true, but only true in our own opinion, or ‘true for me’. 

Hume has a point depending on your background assumptions. If you assume that there is no God, and that ultimate reality is purely material or physical then consciousness is a secondary phenomenon which means that it it is not really a fundamental part of reality.  The atoms that build the universe don't care what we do with our lives, and the feeling that we are important is merely an illusion built on our desires and feelings. These values are purely human constructions or inventions. Human life therefore has no intrinsic value – it is not inherent in our being or in our nature. It is something we decide to be the case, or decide not to be the case. This is what the existentialist Albert Camus concludes in his book, the outsider – that the universe does not care, and that this realisation creates the opportunity to decide meaning for yourself.  


This view of the dominance of scientific knowledge is surprisingly strong today, even in a post-modern world which has supposedly rejected all knowledge claims. Academic departments in universities have the strange habit of adding sciences to their name in order to increase the sense that they are a proper subject that studies facts. So you get the department of biological sciences, or earth sciences, or social sciences. Some scientists I know feel that government policy should be exclusively determined by scientific research rather than the alternative which seems to be ‘opinion’.


The problems with this view are simply huge. Science is based on observations on what seem to be arbitrary and trivial facts. They are not in themselves important, it just is the way things are. It is a wonderful thing that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in a mouldy Petri dish. It is amazing to be able to preserve human life by killing bacteria, but it really is not that important how we do it. If he had discovered another way of killing bacteria then we would be just as happy. 


It is intrinsic to the fact value split that facts themselves have no value! Why should we be a scientist? Why should we try to understand the universe? According to this view there is no reason at all. The word ‘should’ is a foreign concept and an invention. If science is the only place we find truth, then we find that truth is not important and not worth finding. 


Climate change is interesting, because of climate change denial. Even climate change deniers don’t seem to deny that if climate change is happening because of human activity then we need to do something about it as a matter of urgency. The moral case is clear and agreed by everyone. What climate change deniers say is that the science is wrong. So there is agreement on the values, but apparently not on the facts, which is surprising if we think that science is the only means of finding knowledge.


When we reflect we find that morality is such a compelling reality, that it is sometimes used as an argument for the existence of God. One way of arguing is to say, firstly, Objective Morality can only exist if God exists – and agree with David Hume and Post-modernists, that values are relativised if there is no God. The second statement is that objective morality does exist – and then give examples of morality which most people agree are true whether or not eveeryone agrees with them. So for example, Hitler was wrong to kill Jews, even though he believed he was right, and torturing children for fun is always objectively wrong and not a matter of opinion. You don’t need to list many examples for people to feel very uncomfortable with moral relativism. The conclusion then logically flows – that since objective morality does exist, then God exists. 


Really this argument is simply turning Nietzsche’s statement of the madman on its head. Nietzsche concludes that the death of God, means that we cut ourselves off from objective truth, and we become gods ourselves, inventing reality. His logic is very good, but the argument flows both ways. If we look at the world, and find that there is such a thing as truth, then we can trace the argument back and find that God is not dead after all. 


Whilst the impact of post modern thinking seems to grow, there are important areas of resistance. In many academic disciplines the challenges of post modernism have been fought through and thought through. In science for example philosophers have acknowledged the validity of many critiques of old modernist certainties. Science does have its revolutions as new ideas replace old ones. 


The modernist view of science might have been that science progressively discovers facts about the universe and will eventually know all the facts. Einstein put an end to this thinking. 


The post modernist view might be that Einstein too will be overthrown one day, and that actually these theories are actually social constructs which do not actually describe reality and are not true in any meaningful sense. 


But philosophers of science don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Neither of these views hold sway either in philosophy of science or in science itself. Scientists both seem confident in the reality of their fields of research, whilst frequently seeking to find out some aberration which will lead to a new understanding. This view of knowledge is more like a asymptotic curve which keeps getting closer to the goal of truth, with some ups and downs on the way, but which never finally obtains truth. 


One alternative model has been called ‘critical realism’, which acknowledges that there is a real reality which can be known to some extent, but is critical of our subjective and finite attempts to comprehend the reality. It has been called a humble epistemology since it assumes that we might be wrong, but also believes in the possibility of being right. We may never be certain of anything, but we can be confident.


The English language uses the word ‘understand’ when it speaks of grasping some truth or other. The word literally means to ‘stand under’ – it is a humble way of acknowledging how reality is above us, and beyond us, but remarkably is something that gives away some of its secrets to us. Einstein said, ‘the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.’ Einstein may have turned the world upside down, but he did it by understanding it better, not by denying that comprehension is possible. 


Comprehension takes us out of ourselves. We remain tiny subjective observers in a huge and vastly complicated universe (and this universe includes the universe of our lives and experiences in all their complexity). Nietzsche may think we have become gods, and post modernism may insist that we are the centre of our own personally constructed realities. But this does not make sense of the world of our experience. There is such a thing as Truth, and it can be known by us. We are not the Truth, and Truth provides no basis for human arrogance, rather it is humbling. Our capacity to comprehend the universe is an incomprehensible marvel, but it to is a reason to be humbled by since we did not give ourselves this capacity. In the New Testament book of one Corinthians, chapter 4 verse 7, the apostle Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”  We understand ourselves even less than we understand the universe. 


For GPs and patients this can both be anxiety provoking and reassuring. Truth needs to be handled carefully and with humility when it comes to diagnosing and treating illness. There is plenty of room for error, but with care and concern it is possible to narrow down the options, and remarkably it seems possible to provide treatments which often work. I know as a GP that some things I thought were effective are actually ineffective. There are constant adjustments and improvements in medical knowledge. There are blind alleys, and there are fruitful avenues, but both GPs and patients seem to value medical knowledge, not for its own sake as science, but because of the human purposes it can serve. 


Jesus makes a very remarkable statement, ‘the reason I was born and came into the world was to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ Jesus seems to have both a very high view of truth, and a very high view of himself. Pilate asks, ‘What is truth?’ and the question is left hanging as Jesus is condemned to death and crucified on the basis of false charges. 


Nietzsche rejects what he calls the ‘slave morality’ of Christianity, that is willing to die for some greater external cause which is above us, and has authority over us. He seems to agree that everyone on the side of truth listens to Jesus. But he rejects Jesus and Christianity, and then he also rejects truth. 


For Nietzsche and existentialism the universe does not care, and we are in the dark, unable to find truth. But Jesus cared so much he was prepared to deny himself, and die in service of others, under false charges. 


Blaise Pascal wrote prophetically in the seventeenth century, “The man who knows God, but does not know his own misery becomes proud. The man who knows misery, but does not know God, ends in despair… the knowledge of Jesus Christ constitutes the middle course because in him we find both God and our own misery. Jesus Christ is therefore a God who we approach without pride, and before whom we humble ourselves without despair.”


If I can tentatively draw some conclusions. As we go through life we gradually form maps which make sense of our experience of the world. We are tempted to despair, and to put ourselves at the centre of our maps, and the maps become our own inventions, and we become their gods. Nietzsche anticipated this, but we have still not fully grasped the significance of this. Post truth politics seems to be one of the latest out workings of this view of the world. 


Jesus, however, shows us another way. In humbling us, he helps us to understand the Truth. The capacities we have for comprehending the world are truly remarkable, but we have not given them to ourselves, they are gifts from God for the service of others. As subjects our knowledge is increased by being in community with others and listening to the perspectives of others. 

We can therefore give up our pride, and realise that we are astronomically insignificant specks, but that the vast universe is created by God to be our home. We are not the centre of reality, which is a relief, but there is a ‘God’s eye view’, a creator who holds reality together and gives it coherence. Therefore we have a firm foundation for knowledge of the Truth in Jesus who variously claims to be the light of the world, the foundation stone, and the Truth. 


Next week we will look at some of the values that accompany postmodernism and relativism, such as autonomy, freedom, tolerance and personal choice, and explore what they mean.  We will also hopefully discuss how the arts and humanities explore truth. 


Obviously I am aware that people will not necessarily agree with what I have said, and that I have grossly simplified some very complicated areas, but I hope that in raising the subject that it provokes further discussion, and as I said, we will have time for questions after the service next week, and I would be happy to discuss after the service today over coffee .