What is driving today’s culture wars? Religion? Political manipulations? Sincere disagreements over important issues?
Yes, all of these factors are important. But there is another one as well, and it’s the underlying differences in our concepts of truth.
What are truth’s qualities? Can we know what is true? If so, how? In this post, hoping for your feedback, I want at least to begin to adumbrate four at least partially competing concepts of truth.
1. Truth is one and is known.
In this conception, all of life’s important questions can be asked, and for each question, there is one (and only one) true answer. More fundamentally, truth in this conception is a coherent unity existing on one plane. That is, all of the particular “pieces” of truth fit together perfectly, like pieces of an intricate jig-saw puzzle, ultimately comprising one clear and well-ordered image of the good – one unified portrait of truth that pertains to all people in all situations at all times. In this conception, therefore, truth is both intrinsic and objective. What isn’t truth, is error.
The methodological procedure most suited for this conception of truth is deductive reasoning. That is, from certain true statements, I can proceed logically to certain necessarily true implications; and given a true premise, I can logically reach certain necessarily true conclusions. Therefore, starting from certain fundamental or revealed truths, I as the truth-seeker can proceed logically outward and downward (“truth flows downhill”), eventually building a complex and seamless system of interlocking definitions, premises, and conclusions about all of life’s main questions.
2. Truth is one and can be known.
In this conception of truth, just as in our first, truth in principle is one, universal, and accessible to all; truth is intrinsic and objective, such that the only categories are truth and error; and each bit of truth fits smoothly into a larger coherent pattern, again like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, ultimately producing one unified and universally applicable portrait of truth.
But in this conception, we don’t already know the truth. Instead, we are diligently looking for it, like explorers looking for gold, or scientists in a lab. We don’t yet have the problem all worked out – there is still considerable confusion, disagreement, and clouded perception – but we know, we have faith, that if we try hard enough and long enough, we will win the prize and finally know what is true. We’ll find the gold.
The methodological procedure most suited for this conception of truth is inductive reasoning. That is, we start from small observable facts, and proceed incrementally outward and upward, piling up fact upon fact, until the weight of evidence leads us to certain empirically valid generalizations. Eventually in this way, the truth-seeker builds up a body of truth, similar to the way that a brick-layer constructs a wall – that is, layer by layer, with each layer resting securely on top of the layers that came before.
3. Truth is romantic.
In our first two conceptions, truth comes mainly from reason. But in the conception of truth as romantic, truth is larger and more powerful than reason alone and is not constrained by it. In this conception, we find the truth from our whole selves – our desires and intuitions, our thoughts, our dreams, our bonds with others, our needs, our history and our entire personality. We come to know that some things are simply too beautiful to be untrue. We come to know that some things are too important or too needful or too primitively potent to be untrue.
This conception of truth breaks decisively with the claims of universality and objectivity. It does not claim that there is one objectively true answer to each question, and it does not claim that all true answers fit together into one harmonious pattern of truth. Quite the contrary! In this way of knowing, what was once objective becomes subjective, and what was once whole and universal becomes partial and particular.
For these reasons, truth in this conception is no longer like a jig-saw puzzle, in which all answers fit together into one, but instead more like a brilliant painting on a canvas or a beautiful poem on a page, bursting particular declarations of human passion and power.
4. Truth is plural.
The fundamental premise of the conception of truth as plural is a kind of philosophical negation, or what might be called epistemological realism or modesty. The conception of truth as plural rejects the (in its view, pretentious) idea that the philosopher, like the person completing a jig-saw puzzle, can fit every important true thing about the universe into one harmonious whole. Instead, in this conception the truth-seeker accepts both the reality and legitimacy of values pluralism – the notion that, within certain (and debatable) ranges, there are, among persons of rational capacity and good will, inescapably diverse and at times conflicting understandings of what is good and what is true; and that, absent the resort by society to violence and coercion, these divergent views do not and likely will never fit together into a harmonious pattern in which every aspect of truth reinforces and is reinforced by all the other aspects.
Accordingly, in this way of knowing, a good question is usually better than a final answer; and in this epistemology we find a consistent emphasis on argument (that always leads to more argument) and on engagement (that always leads to more engagement). For these reasons, truth in this conception is neither like a jig-saw puzzle that is painstakingly assembled, or like a painting or poem that potently declares itself for itself, but instead more like of those Alexander Calder mobiles, with their multiple parts that can variously turn and spin and tilt and shimmer in relationship to one another, such that in principle no two views of the mobile are exactly the same.
Of course, these four proposed concepts are only ideal types. Real life is obviously more messy and heterodox than these stiff categorizations would imply. Many individuals, for example, mix and mingle these conceptions in their own journeys, seeming to partake of more than one of them.
My current obsession with this issue stems largely from my wrestling with the issue of gay marriage. From day one, my philosophical approach to the issue – both earlier, when I opposed gay marriage, and now, when I favor it – is what I (drawing on others) call “goods in conflict,” which fundamentally partakes of the view that truth is plural.
That is, I saw and still see the truth that marriage, more than any other arrangement, vitalizes the bonds between children and their biological parents and reflects institutionally the dual (male-female) origin of the human child. At the same time, I saw and still see the truth that homosexual conduct is benign and that homosexual love is equal in dignity to heterosexual love. I believed and continue to believe that, especially in the context of our current U.S.debate, these two truths – these two legitimate and to me compelling claims of what is good and what is true – cannot be fully reconciled. At least to some degree, they conflict. Thus the term “goods in conflict.”
But for me, working in this epistemological vineyard got confusing and at times depressing. When I opposed gay marriage, I could find hardly a soul on my side who agreed with my view that truth is plural. I’d ask those who are now my former comrades: Do you have any doubt at all on this issue? Do you see even one good argument on the other side? The answers were No and No. Hell, no. Absolutely not.
Now that I favor gay marriage, it’s the same thing. I ask my current comrades: Do you believe that your argument has any weaknesses? Is there even one valid reason to oppose gay marriage? The answers come back the same: No. Hell, no. Absolutely not. What category, then, are my new comrades in? Do they believe, with philosophical liberals like me, that truth is plural? Or do they, pretty much exactly like their opponents in the marriage debate, believe that truth is one and that what’s not truth, is error? The apparent answer to this question worries me.
For these and other reasons, I give it over to you, kind readers. What do you make of my descriptions of these four concepts? Are they accurate? Fair-minded? What’s missing? What needs to be added? Corrected? Once we get the descriptions right, we can proceed to evaluating the significance of these concepts in today’s culture wars and arguing over which one is the most … true.