“Truth”

     Summary

      It has been an embarrassing long time since my last post.  It is not entirely unexpected.  It is far easier to compose blog posts complaining in one way or another about my cancer.  When my experiences are ones for which I can only be enormously grateful, writing about the good news seems less urgent.The truth is that my chemo protocol, my prescribed anti-cancer regimen, coupled with the treatment accorded me by amazing and dedicated oncological nurses has resulted in a kind of temporary (hopefully long-lasting) stasis or balance.  My cancer seems to be at bay.  At the same time my body has somehow accommodated itself to the toxic drugs I’m receiving.  I am no longer so badly thrown off by the somewhat unpredictable side effects when they come.

      So this posting—rather than focusing on my cancer—is about “Truth”.[1]  It is prompted by a dinner conversation.  “What, exactly is Truth,” Monica asked, “given all the accusations of ‘fake news’, constant prevarications, and deliberate misdirections from our political leader(s)?”  

      It sounded like a reasonable question with a reasonable answer.  It turned out to be a long-historied issue debated by philosophers and theologians.This is my unlettered contribution to the dialog.

     Detail

Personal

In my parent’s generation, to accept a person’s word was to hear truth declared.

Protecting one’s word was of utmost ethical importance.  I can recall (perhaps from some high school ethics class) discussions about when and if it was ethical to lie—even to one’s enemies.  For example, was it breaking one’s word to answer an enemy’s question with, “They went that-a-way!” while pointing in the wrong direction?

Taking Oaths

      For very important juridical situations in the West, we’ve adopted the custom of swearing on a Bible to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”[2]  This invokes God to be a witness to the veracity of one’s testimony.  An oath is only truly effective, of course, if the individual swearing the oath believes in a deity.   Even if not, it raises consciousness in the oath-giver about how important is the veracity of one’s statements.
      Swearing an oath gives comfort to the adjudicators of Justice and the Public.

Ordeal by Water

      Another method of confirming whether or not a testimony is reliable is to verify it through trial.  One such method is to make a witness successfully endure a physical hardship, such as walking through a bed of hot coals to prove their truthfulness.[3]
      Accused witches (recall Salem) were sometimes stripped of their underclothes, bound with a rope and thrown in a pond of water.[4]   The rationalization for this bizarre test was convoluted.  It began with the presumption that witches were likely not to have been Baptised.  This supposition was strangely connected with a theory that—since water plays such a crucial role in the Sacrament of Baptism—water would repel witches and make them bob up to the surface of a pond or river.   Thus arose a cruel way of determining whether a woman was a witch or not.  Trussed and thrown into a body of water, those who were witches should be observed at the surface, rejected by the water.  Conversely, if a woman was not a witch, she should sink to the bottom of the pond and could be safely hauled up to be declared innocent… if, that is, her recovery was quick enough for drowning not to have occurred in the meanwhile.  But this did not worry the perpetrators of such despicable crimes.  To further shield them from committing murder there was a final rationalization.  If an innocent woman accidentally drowned, it was deemed to have been an intercession of a deity to correct the original miss-indictment and reassert the guilt of the deceased woman.  Either way, there was an external judge that exculpated the individuals active in the judgement and murder of women.  It was not their fault what happened!
      The emphasis with these techniques was to prove the veracity of the witness.  But what about the truth of their testimony?  Proving the veracity of anyone’s testimony has become increasingly problematic as science discovers the uncertainty of human perception.

Different Perceptions or Memories

      Psychologists set up an experiment to expose subjects to a staged traumatic event, like a robbery or accident.[5]  Afterwards, they interviewed their witnesses. To their surprise, the psychologists found that each of the subjects may possibly have “seen” quite different details.  Each might testify to their version of “truth”, but one person’s truth could be different from another witnesses’ “truth”.
      Indeed, few witnesses could correctly recall what actually occurred in the experiment.

The Problem of Single Witness

      Similarly, and equally disturbing, is the practical case in which no independent verification is possible of what actually happened.  Then, the testimony of a single individual may be enough to identify “Who done it?”  But would that individual’s testimony be true?
      Maybe.  Maybe not.

The Problem of Incomplete Information

      All of us can remember the Indian morality-fable of the blind men stumbling across an elephant and describing the beast from the perspective of what they touched: as in legs (The elephant is like a huge multi-trunked tree!”), the elephant’s side (The elephant is like a wall!”), the ears (the elephant is equipped with huge fans to keep him cool.), his tail (the elephant is like a rope!) or his curious tusks (The elephant is like a smooth spear!).
      Humans tend to extrapolate from inadequate information to a whole concept.  This is not a very reliable form of discovery according to Budhist scholars of the mid first-millennium BCE who first wrote down this morality tale.[6]

Testimony on the basis of Belief

      There is one category of truth that is incontestable.  It is in the testimony of one’s beliefs.  “Jesus is the Messiah” is an indisputable Christian Truth (with a capital “T”).  But a Christian’s Truth is not held to be true by others who hold the Judaic tenants of belief… or Muslim… or those who adhere to other faith beliefs, or none at all.  A declaration of a Christian believer can be considered an indisputable “Truth”.  But it is a truth circumscribed by qualifications.

Can Testimony ever be relied upon?

      The conclusion one reaches from this brief review is that a witness seemingly cannot be trusted to know the Truth (with a capital “T”).  Witnesses are not even reliable reporters of the truth (with a lower-case “t”.)  The awareness of such unreliability came early in human history.  This is verified by the development of numerous methods over time that were designed to attempt to ascertain and verify the truthfullness of a witness.  Notably, these many efforts were entirely independent of the actual testimony that was to be given.
      Regarding testimony itself, there seems to exist no independently verifiable method to identify truth versus error.

     Conclusion

      What, then, is the answer to the question “What is truth?”  Clearly, it begins with the veracity and truthfulness of the witness.  I’ve described, above, how difficult this is to attain.  Our parent’s generation gives us the correct way to think about truthfulness.  They taught that each individual’s habitual honesty, reinforced by ethical behavior, and expressed in accord with one’s core beliefs make a person’s testimony reliable.  Life lived according to these attributes confers what was called “character”.  It deserved careful and constant protection and preservation.
      The lives of persons of extraordinary character is often identified as wisdom, as, indeed, it is.  People who live a long life consistent with good character proclaim through their lives consistent and reliable truthfulness.  Christians call such people saintly.[7]
      We are blessed to have Saints among us.  Saints are models of the kind of witnesses we should each be to the world because the world has been shown to be replete with individuals less concerned about preserving character than by trading it in for worldly or short-term gain.  This is not a recent development but a persistent historical reality.  It might be claimed that debasing character is one of the “forces of evil” inflicting the world in which we live.[8]  It takes constant attention to recognize destructively self-centered behaviors.  It take a bit less effort to combat them with the character we choose to develop.  In the end, one can conclude that it is essential that we model the Saints we know if we are to exert a properly positive influence of truth on our world.
      One of the extraordinary qualities of Saints who have been historically revered as holy, is that their holiness is expressed through an enormous variability of talents that make them holy.[9]  This give us hope that in developing our own, sometimes seemingly idiosyncratic skills and talents, there is a road to our own particular sainthood.
      May we each become a witness to truth.
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[1] Google “what is truth?”
[2] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2004/04/where_did_we_get_our_oath.html
[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/ordeal#ref253092
[4] https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/trial-ordeal-life-or-death-method-judgement-004160
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunking
[5] https://agora.stanford.edu/sjls/Issue%20One/fisher&tversky.htm
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant
[7] https://www.dummies.com/religion/christianity/catholicism/defining-saints-in-the-catholic-church/
[8] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/forces-of-evil