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. Hi David,

    That’s an interesting article — thanks for sharing! I’ll ponder on this a while. My first reaction is in noting what seems to be a couple of differences between this woman and myself. First of all, I didn’t feel the need to hang out in bars and run around with random women when I stopped believing. Also, while her problems seemed to stem most from the problem of evil and suffering, my problems with Christianity came from at least 3 different fronts: the problem of evil, certain doctrines of Christianity (Hell, punishing the innocent to forgive the guilty, etc), and problems within the Bible itself. But again, I’m sure this story will stick with me for a while. Thanks again for sharing it, and I hope you’re doing well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s