“What is truth?” (John 18:38). With those three simple words Pontius Pilate asked perhaps the most profound and fundamental question in human history. Whether you are a Christian, an atheist, or somewhere in between, the answer to this seemingly simple question impacts every aspect of our lives. It affects how we view the world and even our day-to-day actions.
In order to answer this question, we must answer three preliminary questions: “Does truth even exist?”, if so, “Is it subjective or objective?” and “What is the source of this truth?”
“Does truth exist?”
The existence or non-existence of truth is the first essential question in our discussion of truth. Postmodernism tells us there is no truth or that truth is individual to each person and their experiences. We’re told that if truth does exist, there is no way we could know it (ironic, since the statement “there is no way to know the truth” is, in reality, a truth claim). Philosopher Daniel Dennett even claims that consciousness, and any truth found in it, is simply an illusion.
If there is no such thing as truth this whole discussion becomes moot. In fact, any discussion becomes pointless, if not incomprehensible. For example, the words of this post would be incoherent if there were not a true meaning behind each of them; a tenant of postmodernism. If there were no determinable truth behind the words, we would never be able to interpret them into the ideas they represent. In reality, speech and the expression of ideas (including postmodernism) would become gibberish without truth.
So, if we take the time to examine the statements made from postmodernism, we quickly see they are self-refuting. Without an objective standard of truth, we can neither confirm nor deny Christianity, or any other worldview, including atheism. Life would be unlivable if there were no truth. How could we trust the bridges we cross, or the airplanes we fly in, or our loved ones unless there is truth? Even Dennett’s illusion of consciousness is a claim that relies on truth to be a truthful statement. You get the point.
“Is truth subjective or objective?”
At this point your postmodern friend may acquiesce to the truth of truth, but they aren’t likely to give in completely that easily. They may agree there is indeed truth, but it is subjective truth.
Subjective truth is centered in the subject (i.e. the person) making the observation. This subjective truth can be different based on the person experiencing it, their past experiences, their ideology, etc. Subjective truth can even change as the person has more experiences. If someone says that it is true that caramel praline ice cream is the best ice cream ever, they are making a subjective truth claim. Here’s the problem, someone else may be allergic to nuts so caramel praline ice cream would certainly not be the best ice cream for them; they may like mint chocolate chip.
This kind of truth comes down to personal opinions. If truth changes based on personal likes or desires, is it really truth; or is it just personal preferences? In this case, does “subjective truth” really exist?
Objective truth, on the other hand, is a statement that is true for all people, in all places, at all times when referring to a specific object. If I say it is 75o in Albuquerque at a specific time, it is true that it is 75o for all people, in all places, and at all times when referring to that moment in Albuquerque. The truth of the statement is based on the object (the temperature in Albuquerque), not someone’s personal opinion of the object.
“What is the source of truth?”
Allowing for subjective truth presents a few problems. For example, we can’t say that what the peeping tom does is truly wrong. His “truth” is that it’s ok for him to participate in this action. Who are we to say our “truth” trumps his version of the truth?
The atheist may argue that it is wrong because he harms others. However, if the other person never finds out, no one is harmed and he can justify his actions. Under subjective truth we can’t say that our truth that it is wrong is any more valid than his truth that it isn’t. This is the “individual says” form of subjective truth. We now begin to see the problem with the often heard statement “that’s your truth, but it’s not my truth.”
The same goes for the ideas that subjective truth is determined by what “society says” or “society does”. In the first case, society passes rules to say what is truth (or moral). However, if this were actually the case, we wouldn’t have had the right to put Nazis on trial after World War II; their society passed laws that said it was ok to exterminate Jews. This idea is automatically abhorrent to most people.
“Society does” subjective truth is only slightly different in that it is based on the culture. This argument could be used to justify racism, for example; “because that’s just the way society does things”. Again, this idea is abhorrent to most people, so that can’t be the source of truth and morality.
Real truth and morality must be based on something more than personal or societal whims. It has to find it’s grounding in something more permanent; the object itself. This is objective truth
If there is indeed truth, as we have seen, and it is objective, as we have seen, what is its source? Some postmodernist will say truth is what the person or society says it is. We have shown that is subjective truth and not really truth, but merely opinion.
When we talk about truth and its role in morality, subjectivism (or relativism) can’t be the source. Truth and morality must be grounded in something outside of the individual or society.
Truth also can’t be something that has just evolved or else it could eventually evolve that rape or torturing babies for fun wouldn’t be morally wrong. Yet, we know at a fundamental level that both these are wrong and will always be wrong based on the object, regardless of the subject. The source of objective truth must also be something unchanging.
So, what is this source of unchanging truth that is outside society and outside the individual? As Christians we know that the source is God.
We’ll look more in-depth at these ideas and how they apply to Christianity and other worldviews in later posts.