November 29, 2008

Oh Say, What Is Truth?

Remember that scene in the movie A Few Good Men, where Jack Nicholson screams: “You can’t handle the truth!”? I love that line, because I suspect no truer phrase has ever been spoken.

There's a wonderful passage about truth in John Steinbeck’s book, Cannery Row, that I reflect upon from time to time. The passage is about Doc, a character modeled after Steinbeck’s real life best friend, Ed Ricketts. It goes like this:

Once when Doc was at the University of Chicago he had love trouble and he had worked too hard. He thought it would be nice to take a very long walk. He put on a little knapsack and he walked through Indiana and Kentucky and North Carolina and Georgia clear to Florida. He walked among farmers and mountain people, among the swamp people and fishermen. And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country.

Because he loved true things he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn’t like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some,
afraid for their daughters or their pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him.

And so he stopped trying to tell the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet—that he stood to win a hundred dollars. Everyone liked him then and believed him. They asked him in to dinner and gave him a bed and they put lunches up for him and wished him good luck and thought he was a hell of a fine fellow. Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress.
A dangerous mistress, indeed. Consider the varied meanings of truth. As far as I can tell, Plato was first to venture a definition for the word, which is essentially this: If what you say is what you think, you speak the truth. Notice that it includes intent as a necessary condition, which is how a court of law views the subject. A witness in a court case, for example, can offer truthful testimony that is incorrect. Therefore, truth may not be factual, according to this definition.

Science and logic, however, have attempted to take intent out of truth’s characterization and render it equal to fact. This can lead to confusion. Politicians, in particular, are remarkable for blurring the line between the two definitions in order to make a point. Saying, “Senator X didn’t tell the truth,” implies that a lie was told and that intentional deception was practiced. It bites deeper than saying, “Senator X was wrong,” even though the latter may be correct.

Another definition of truth—one of which I’m very fond—was proposed by William James. It’s the basis of his philosophy of pragmatism and is essentially this: If it works for you, it’s true. As you can see, this definition can allow truth to differ from individual to individual. Just because something works for you, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for me.

This leads to the question of whether truth is absolute or relative to its context. This issue has been debated for hundreds of years as a topic related to the philosophy of ethics. The debate has focused on two main ethical systems (or standards of correct action). One of them—proposed by Emmanuel Kant—is referred to as Kantian Ethics. It stands firmly on the side of absolute truth, asserting the existence of categorical imperatives that should be followed at all times and in all places.

The other ethical system, Utilitarianism, was proposed by Jeremy Bentham and others, who went on to contribute much to the study of economics. This standard deems the correct course of action as that which provides the greatest good for the greatest number—a resulting calculus Bentham called utility.

The two systems can result in far different truths, not to mention alternative concepts of good and evil. For example, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Miserable, is at its core a critique of ethical ideals. Was Jean Valjean’s theft of a loaf of bread evil? It depends on whether you believe in categorical imperatives (e.g. God’s commandment against stealing) or if you feel it’s proper to weigh the value of feeding a starving family against a small loss to a shopkeeper. Most people of faith deem God’s commandments as absolute and say Kant’s ethical system is the appropriate measure of what is true, but if that’s what you think, allow me to muddy the waters.

Not long after God gave the Children of Israel the Ten Commandments, He led them into a Promised Land already inhabited by other tribes of people. There He commanded the Israelites to violate His earlier directives against killing and stealing. In other words, God ordered them to displace the inhabitants already living there, which often necessitated bloodshed. How do we reconcile that?

One view is that truth doesn’t change, but our ability to understand and follow it does. Here’s a case in point. In 1958 when my in-laws, Esther and Evan, decided to get married, they couldn’t—not where they lived in Utah. Though they had both served as missionaries for the church and were therefore deemed worthy to act as God’s ambassadors, they were prohibited from marrying each other in the temple they loved. Neither could they get married civilly by state authorities. Utah, at the time, enforced anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited Evan, a white man, from marrying Esther, an Asian-American woman. So contrary to the admonition of church leaders, they crossed into Colorado to exchange vows. Despite that inauspicious start, their marriage has been an example of tireless devotion to God and church. As husband and wife, they completed two more missions together and Evan, for his part, has fulfilled numerous church responsibilities that gave him responsibility over congregations that numbered in the thousands.

Were they wrong to get married?

Once, I asked a church leader that question and he replied, “Of course not.” He then spoke of the historical context behind Utah’s ban on race-mixing—a stance that was part of church policy even as the first pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley and began to establish a secular government. They were a people, he said, who were influenced by the bitterness of the civil war and shouldn’t be judged harshly for what may seem like bigoted notions today. Though he didn’t say as much, the implication was clear: Church members, at the time, were incapable of rising above personal prejudices to live as Jesus would have them.

Did truth change? Personally, I don’t think so, but what appears to have changed is the ability of people to follow it. This raises an interesting and important question: Are we living the highest law Christ intends for us?

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