Approximately 20 years ago, I read what I consider to be the most important question in the King James Bible.
No, it was not asked by the main protagonist, Jesus Christ, but by his executioner, the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.
When Jesus went before Pilate and claimed to be a witness to the truth, Pilate jeered back, “What is truth?” For me, that is the most profound question a person can ask themselves in a human lifetime.
Not what is the truth…but what is truth itself? It’s something few ever ponder, although many speak of truth as if they are sure they know what it means.
This question is especially important in the age we live in now, where everyone appears to be offended by any notion of objective truth, and where relativity reigns supreme.
So, what is truth? I don’t claim to know, but I have encountered a few theories that attempt to answer the question.
Enter René Descartes
René Descartes was a French philosopher who lived in the 17th century. He undertook one of the most Herculean feats a human can possibly undertake: discarding everything he had ever learned, considering it false until he had proven it beyond a reasonable doubt, and rebuilding his entire belief system from the ground up.
Descartes recorded his endeavor in his Meditations on First Philosophy — a book which kept me awake for several weeks after I read it back in my early twenties. Descartes approached this task with absolute intellectual honesty — refusing to accept anything as true until he had subjected it to the most rigorous skepticism and it had stood up to scrutiny.
Eventually, Descartes arrived at a single belief upon which he could begin to rebuild — I think, therefore I am — Cogito, ergo sum.
This does not mean what it is taken to mean in today’s world such as “I think I am rich, therefore I am.” No, Descartes meant it much more literally as ‘if I can think, I must exist.’ His logic was that if he did not exist, he would not be able to think rational, coherent thoughts, and so he could take this as absolute truth that he did indeed exist and could begin to deduce other things from it.
While some have questioned whether Descartes was right with his Cogito, I accept it as true. It would indeed be impossible to think in coherent, rational thoughts if one did not exist. To go beyond this is to lose oneself to skepticism for skepticism’s sake — reasonable doubt must always be the standard.
Descartes used this belief as the foundation upon which he could build other beliefs. This gave rise to the school of epistemology called foundationalism — the idea that the truth is structured like a pyramid with certain foundational beliefs acting as a basis for those we build on top of it.
Coherentism — An alternative view of truth
While I don’t exactly remember the philosophers who believe in this school of thought, I do remember the theory behind it.
The idea behind coherentism is that truth is like a spider’s web. If everything you believe supports everything else you believe and does not contradict it, then you can be said to have arrived at a true belief system.
Personally, I never bought this theory. It’s possible to construct an entire story, such as the Star Wars series, which is complete fiction, with no contradictions whatsoever between the various plots, subplots, and beliefs within the system. Without testing that any of it is true and simply believing it because it does not contradict other beliefs one has, I think it is impossible to say whether or not it is indeed true.
Very few people believe in coherentism these days, and for good reason. It’s clearly nonsense.
Process reliabilism was popularized by the Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick. It is the idea that if a process by which one arrives at a conclusion produces reliable results, it can be said to be a valid way of arriving at truth.
For example, the scientific method could be said to be a reliable process. After all, it has led to vaccinations which eradicated smallpox, polio, measles, and other horrible diseases. It has helped us discover other galaxies and vastly expand our understanding of the universe. Most importantly, it has a self-correcting mechanism in it whereby beliefs can be updated when new evidence comes to light.
To me, process reliabilism feels intuitively right, although it can’t be said with any certainty that we can arrive at the whole truth through it. We can discover true things…but is that the same thing as truth itself? That remains debatable.
So, what is truth?
In today’s world, truth is under assault like never before. People claim there are hundreds or even thousands of genders, morality itself has become relative, and people are confused as to what is true given globalization, the mixing of cultures and ideas that challenge what they always believed was true, and the vast quantities of information and misinformation available online.
Despite all this, for me, there is, always has been, and always will be, an objective reality. We may lose sight of it, but it exists nonetheless. You could say beliefs are like keys, and reality is a lock — the key either fits or it does not. Or, to use a courtroom analogy, someone either did commit the murder or they did not. There’s no ‘my truth’ when it comes to facts.
The truth deserves respect, and it is worth considering various beliefs to see if they fit the lock, but when one does not, it should be discarded upon the bonfire of failure, and we should move on in pursuit of objective reality.
In today’s world, it is offensive to say such a thing — but although I can’t answer Pilate’s question with human words, I still believe there is such a thing as truth. We may never be able to know the whole truth, or perhaps we will after we die, but we can definitely know what is not true, and that gets us closer to truth.
“What is truth?” Pilate sneered, appealing to relativity to wiggle out of giving an innocent man a fair verdict. I don’t know — but I do know that truth exists and that it is important to try to align ourselves with it.