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David Hegg: ‘What is truth?’ analyzed

Posted: July 29, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 28, 2012 5:51 p.m.

In one of the accounts of Jesus’ execution, a high-level government official named Pilate exclaims, “What is truth?” Of course, he wasn’t really asking for an answer but instead was demonstrating his own ambivalence as to whether one could actually know anything with certainty. In his case he was being confronted with contradictory truth claims regarding the guilt of a man called Jesus. Ultimately, his ambivalence made it easier for him to give in to the loudest voices even though he personally did not find Jesus guilty of crimes punishable by death.

The whole concept of truth is still up for grabs in our day. To understand this, it will be helpful to briefly summarize the three primary theories of truth.

First is the Correspondence Theory. In this way of understanding truth, a statement is true to the extent that it corresponds to the facts of reality. For example, the statement “You are reading The Signal” is true only if, in fact, you are reading this column. It would not be true if someone were reading it to you, or if you were in any other circumstance where the facts would not “correspond” to the statement.

In the study of ethics the only argument opposing this theory is the question of whether or not this theory is true given that, to be true, it must correspond to something in reality. The question then is, to what does it correspond? A possible answer is that it consistently corresponds to the natural ways in which rational beings recognize truth.

Second is the Pragmatic Theory. In this view, a statement is true if it allows for a good or best engagement with the world around you. An example might be, “In my world, I believe that violence against another person is never acceptable because this allows me to face a broken world every day with some hope.”

This theory is widely popular today but must face the searing criticism that some beliefs may “work well” in life yet ultimately not be true in terms of corresponding to the facts of reality. The study of despotic tyrants demonstrates that their views of power and racial superiority often “worked” in terms of their ascendancy to power while later being understood as diabolical.

The third primary theory is the Coherence Theory. This view holds that something is true if it aligns, or “coheres” with other beliefs understood to be true. An example would be, “Since God is love, it can’t be true that he would ever send someone to Hell.” In this case, the second part of the statement is considered to be true based on its “coherence” or derivation from the first.

This theory is on the rise today. It is widely believed and promoted, especially in the world of ethics and morality. But it suffers from a fatal flaw. If we look back at the sample sentence, we find that the truth of the second assertion rests on the truth of the first one. But if we ask, “On what basis do you assert the truth that God is love?” we will usually be directed back to some basis of authority that makes use of the Correspondence Theory of Truth.

In this case it might be a religious book such as the Bible or Quran. But if this authoritative source becomes the basis, then we would be ethically bound to accept what that source actually said about God. What we would find is that the whole panoply of attributes attributed to God includes justice and holiness that must be considered when assessing what God would or would not do.

In the end we might end up asking, “What is truth?” But if we really want the answer we will stick closely to the Correspondence Theory, and be vigilant not to be taken in by those in our post-modern society who are trying desperately to unhinge what is true from the yardstick of reality.

David W. Hegg is senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita.


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