Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Truth

Fact and Truth

While addressing his class, Indiana Jones once said “Archaeology is the search for fact… not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.” That quote keeps coming back to me lately. What are the differences between fact and truth?

indiana-jonesI named this blog “Finding Truth” because that’s always been important to me. When I first started blogging, the url was still “findingtruth,” but I actually had “Finding and Proclaiming the Truth” at the top of the page. I finally realized how arrogant that sounds. But when I began this blog (5 1/2 years ago!), I believed “the truth” was just one thing: the proper understanding of God’s Word, the Bible. Because of that, I’ve usually thought of truth as some monolithic thing — an absolute. Is it, or am I confusing it with fact?

Lately, I’ve come to think that truth may be a bit more relative. A few days ago, I read two blog posts about truth, which can be found here and here. In the posts, Don makes the argument that all truth is relative. Truth is merely the sum of all our beliefs and experiences at this precise moment in time. You live your life based off what you believe is the truth, regardless of how closely those beliefs match reality.

He makes a compelling case. I won’t say I completely agree, but only because this is an area I’m still working my way through. If nothing else, I do think that many of us sometimes try to look at a particular thing as either true or false in totality, and I believe that view is short-sighted. Most things have elements of both.

For instance, is the Bible true? In regard to its spiritual claims, I’d have to say no. But I do feel like it contains some truth. Look at Leviticus 19, for example:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner… You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him… You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind… You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor.

Those are good precepts. We can easily see the value in living that way. It does good for our fellow man; it’s how we would want people to treat us or our loved ones. So I think those statements are true.

We find other true statements in Matthew 19:19, Romans 13:9, and Romans 15:2:

Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.

And the truths of the Bible aren’t merely in some of its commands. In places, it offers some great insights into the human experience. Proverbs 15:14 says, “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.” Verse 18 says, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” There’s good advice in those verses.

Ecclesiastes is right in many ways when it says that there’s “nothing new under the sun.” It points out that people work throughout their lives only to die in the end. Sometimes everything seems futile. There’s a lot of truth in those statements.

But these examples of truth don’t prove that the Bible is true in every other sense. It’s possible for a person, a book, a belief, a set of principles, etc to contain both truths and falsehoods simultaneously. In fact, that’s what we typically see in everything around us. The most current science textbook is bound to have some incorrect teachings in it, even if the vast majority of it is correct. We as individuals contain a great deal of information, but some of what we hold true is actually false. We usually just aren’t aware of that yet. One of my best friends found out he was adopted during his first year of college. Prior to that, his idea of his own past was incorrect. Since we’re surrounded by so many inconsistencies, it shouldn’t be difficult to consider that the Bible may contain them as well.

But what about those who say they know the Bible is true, because they’ve experienced the truths within their own lives? That’s an interesting consideration. But such a position offers no evidence to anyone else. After all, people of different faith traditions could easily make the same claim about their own beliefs. Does it mean they’re all correct? It reminds me a lot of syncretism, which is basically the idea that “all paths lead to the same destination” (though many people who appeal to their own experiences as evidence tend to dismiss those of other faiths). But this idea of syncretism brings us back to what we talked about before: truth is relative to the individual.

At this point, it would probably be helpful to actually define truth:

  1. the true or actual state of a matter: He tried to find out the truth.
  2. conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of a statement.
  3. a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like: mathematical truths.
  4. the state or character of being true.
  5. actuality or actual existence.

This is the idea of truth that I am most concerned with. Not my “personal truth,” but whether or not my beliefs correspond to reality. Does my idea of truth match the facts?

It’s not always easy to know. When we’re talking about things like politics or religion, so many other factors come into play, so many competing sources of information. Religion is especially difficult because it usually carries with it the idea of punishment and reward. You aren’t free to simply look at the facts and make a decision — you’re told that your decision carries eternal consequences. It’s not easy to make a rational decision under that kind of pressure.

Ideally, we would all realize how difficult it is to align our beliefs with actual objective truth. Here’s what Don said in one of the blog posts I linked to earlier:

How much more tolerance could there be in the world if everyone honestly thought that another person’s truths were just as valuable, within the world of that person, as their own truths are to them? How much more peaceful would the world be if fanatics of all stripes did not seek to impose their “truths” on other people by force? That is not to say that we should never seek to convince another person toward our way of thinking, if invited to do so, by the force of our logic. But, if we do so, we should be just as willing to listen to their counter-arguments. Once again, that is one of the great values of having an open mind. Just like a cage, we have no freedom if the door is locked tight.

Perhaps it would be simpler to do this if we could separate our ideas of truth from fact. I think a great example is the evolution/creation debate. The evidence for evolution doesn’t disprove the existence of God. It’s still possible that God simply used evolution to create everything. Aside from making Genesis more allegory than fact, this notion wouldn’t do any real damage to religious belief. Or maybe God created everything as described in Genesis, but made it look as though evolution is true. Either way, there really doesn’t have to be a fight between the religious and scientific communities on evolution. Instead, we complicate the issue by laying our most cherished beliefs (or “truths”) on top of the issues.

As I posted not long ago, we shouldn’t feel so married to our positions. We should try to view them as separate from us and consider them objectively. Who knows, maybe we’ll be able to pull our truths closer to the facts?

26 thoughts on “Fact and Truth”

  1. Thank you for quoting me properly, and for having an open mind in consideration of what I wrote. As you may recall from those articles, I clearly distinguished between (what I believe) those words mean: truth, fact, and information. As to the possibility that a supreme being could have created the biblical universe by way of The Big Bang and evolution, I make exactly that same point in my upcoming book, so I strongly agree with your point. I look forward to reading more of your writings! Cheers, Don


  2. Thanks Don! I had planned to write this post for a long time, but I was really glad I came across your articles first. I think they made this a better post.


  3. As always, I enjoy your open and engaging style. I also appreciate your thoughts on the Bible.

    This is the quandary for me when talking about truth. When one says (not saying you’re going this far): “All truth is relative, there are no absolutes” Are they absolutely sure about that? Isn’t that also proposed as an absolutely true statement (or dareIsay an “absolute truth”? That seems to be cutting off the branch we’re sitting on.

    To say there is no religious absolute truth seems to be making an absolute truth statement about religion. That type of relativism seems to be masking itself as an absolute truth claim. Just a thought, I’ll look forward to yours. Peace and grace.


  4. Chief, that’s a great question. Sort of like “Don’t believe me, because everything I tell you is a lie”. In his article above, Nate gave the links to both of my articles on this subject; the first part explains how I define those terms. If you wish to see how I handled relativism vs. absolutes, please click on that link. Cheers, Don


  5. hmm. We KNOW facts when they are proven. I’ve always thought of truth and fact similarly, and seldom made any distinction. I always realized that what someone THOUGHT was fact or truth, could be mistaken, but I think that I understand the point.

    The problem that I see with religion is the lack of proof and the heavy reliance on faith (substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen). Without proof nothing can be completely verified as fact or truth, so in the absence of proof we hold to evidences, skepticism and faith. Religion, while it COULD be true, cannot be proven true and therefore cannot be shown to be fact or truth without a reasonable doubt.

    I realize this doesnt disprove religion as truth, it just makes it harder to share and convince others on.

    I’m still mulling this one over. Am i getting close?


  6. @chiefofleast

    Thanks for the comment! You raise some good points — I’ve thought about those things a lot as well. And honestly, this is still a topic I’m working out myself. 🙂 I’d like to echo Don’s comment and suggest that you check out his posts on the subject. I think he makes some really good points.


  7. Hi William,

    Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I think you’re looking at this about the same way I am. I had always viewed truth and fact as somewhat synonymous. But Indy obviously didn’t, and I try not to contradict Indy. 🙂

    Basically, I think the meaning of truth depends on its context. Sometimes people use it in reference to the ultimate facts of reality, but it can also be used to refer to our subjective beliefs about reality. I find it interesting to think about.

    Thanks for chiming in.


  8. William, what you lead to is the ultimate response of a believer to a non-believer: You can’t prove I’m wrong! My answer: Very true. One cannot prove the non-existence of a non-existent being. If you’re interested, my current blogs are on the history of mythology (i.e., religion) and why it has transformed throughout the ages — and continues to do so. Cheers, Don


  9. @Don Maker
    I’ve read them. It makes me want to look back into history as well. A very interesting subject. I look forward to you next post on the topic.


  10. @Don Maker
    Thanks Don. Thought compelling article you have there! Don’t want to misread, but what you’re saying is that truth, including moral truth, is preferential and set by the group/culture?


  11. Chief, thanks for reading my articles, and the comment. It’s just a definition of terms, perhaps only accepted by me, but we must understand our terms or communication is weak. There is no “moral truth”, because it is morality that is set by the group/culture–the group code of behavior. Ethics are the code of behavior of the individual, and whatever the individual believes is, for them, the truth. Personally, I don’t believe in “absolute universal truths”.
    An example of the terms: In 15th century Europe, the Catholic Church ruled absolutely, so they dictated what “morality” was. One “truth” of the Church was that the pope was, quite literally, the “voice of god”. A very moral man and a Catholic monk, Martin Luther, began to disagree with the behavior of the pope and the Church–i.e., his personal ethics began to erode his belief in the group code of behavior. Because he openly expressed his doubts that the pope truly spoke for god, due to what Luther considered very bad behavior, he was censured by the Church, and eventually excommunicated. By then, his code of behavior had veered so far from the “morality” of the Church that he was operating totally on ethics, his own code of behavior. The differences in both theology and bahavior became so far from the Church “truths” that his personal “beliefs” changed radically, and he eventually began to preach (“protest”) against following the pope, and a new sect of Christianity was born.


  12. Sorry, Chief, I wrote that in haste. Should have checked my facts: Martin Luther lived in the 16th century (1500s). Also, I did not address your word “preferential”. I don’t PREFER or advocate any given set of beliefs or code of conduct. I write about my own. I urge all other people to think about what they believe in and how they feel they should act, and then live by those principles, whatever they might be.


  13. I’ll answer that for myself, if you don’t mind, Nate. Yes, it is — but you would have to read my articles, which I don’t believe you will, to find out exactly what I mean. Briefly, I was stating one of my own truths; does that mean it is true for anyone else? Not necessarily. But I certainly don’t present it as a “fact”, as religious people claim that it is a “fact” that god exists, without any concrete evidence or logic to substantiate that assertion.


  14. This is a fine smorgasbord of a post you have here, Nate. There’s lots of good stuff to choose from. I think to make my first comment here brief; I’d say that neither the bible nor philosophy is particularly interesting subjects, when left in isolation from all other areas. It’s the examination and contemplation of the mosaic that make them compelling areas of study.

    When I first began making my bible study sites, I went to some religious sites to get some additional ideas. The lectures were boring unto the death. These were people who claim they’re against suicide. Yet, I was feeling I had to find some way to make the hurting stop after a mere ten minutes of watching their incredibly booOooooOOoring and lengthy observations of the obvious. I’d rather have watched Barney the Dinosaur, because I would have at least gotten a smile out of it.


  15. @William I think I’ll weigh in and say that you’re probably relying too much on Descartes’ method. Even scientists have moved away from his too narrowly focused point-of-view. There’s always uncertainty; it’s unavoidable.


  16. @chiefofleast To quote a somewhat famous passage of the Apostle Paul’s, “All Cretans are liars. A Cretan told me this.”

    That’s quite a paradoxical statement, wouldn’t you say?


  17. Donald, I think it’s only a “paradox” if you take the comment seriously. He was allegedly quoting the Cretan poet Epimenides, who was either using hyperbole (poetic license!) or joking with Paul. As such, it is not a true paradox, which would actually defy logic.


  18. Actually, Donald, I’m simply stating my opinion–as does everyone here. Do I really have to say, “Well, in my opinion…” to make it more palatable? If I’m not quoting someone else, then it’s my opinion, based on as much information on the subject as I can acquire. If having studied up on the subject instead of just spouting thoughts randomly makes me smart, then so be it. Even when I’ve disagreed with people here, I’ve never insulted them or questioned their intelligence.


  19. So what happens if “Truth” doesn’t matter? John Smith, founder of the Mormon religion said he got the book of Mormons from an angel on five tablets. I’m not a Mormon so I of course don’t believe him.

    Does that matter? The Mormons have done a lot of good over the years. Many of them, because of their faith, have helped those around them and tried to be a blessing to those around them.

    So even if John Smith lied, does it matter?


  20. Who knows if those people — Abram of Ur, Jesus of Nazareth, Muhammad of Mecca, or John Smith — lied, were insane, or really believed that what they said was the “truth”, at least as far as they were concerned? As you imply, their intent and actions spoke more loudly than their words.


  21. @Donald Miller
    Thanks. While I have a vague knowledge of Descartes, I have to admit that I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at. I very likely made some mistake in something i said earlier. I’m not a scientist – I only have a vague knowledge of that as well. could you be more specific and help me out?


  22. Nate,

    I never seem to have enough time to visit your blog and read your posts… but I read this article online in the news today, and my first thought was you. A woman who was raised in the church, left one day standing up from a pew while telling her missionary father, “this is bull****” and walking out. She finishes it up, saying among many other things, “her doubt is part of her faith”.

    I hope this helps you journey back.


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