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Terry McLaughlin: What is the truth, exactly?

Terry McLaughlin | Columnist

I have been around for more decades than I wish to admit, but it is only in the past few years that I have heard people use the terms “my truth” or “your truth.” Doesn’t truth conform to facts and reality rather than one’s perception?

The Greek word for truth is aletheia, which means “hiding nothing.” It conveys the thought that truth is available for all to see, with nothing being hidden or obscured. The Hebrew word for truth is emeth, which means “firmness” or “constancy.”

There has been much discussion in modern culture, politics, media and social media about misinformation or disinformation, but who can be the arbiter of what is or is not misinformation if we cannot agree upon verifiable and indisputable facts?

Truth is not defined by intent. Good intentions can still be wrong, and “the ends justify the means” falsehoods could appear to work for us but still be lies.

Truth is not simply what is coherent, understandable, or believed within a group. Because falsehoods are understood, agreed upon, and believed by a group of people, that does not make them true.

Truth is not simply what is believed. A lie believed is still false. Truth is not how we know, but what we know.

I could tell you that my truth is that I am a 6-foot, red-headed Romanian man. I may be able to dye my hair red, but no amount of disguise, surgery or pretense could ever make me 6 feet tall, Romanian or male. Truth must correspond to reality and nature.

A foundational principle of philosophy is being able to discern between truth and error, or as Thomas Aquinas observed, “It is the task of the philosopher to make distinctions.”

In this era of relativism, making distinctions seems to be out of fashion. The philosophy of relativism says that all truth is relative and there is no such thing as absolute truth.

So is the claim that all truth is relative a relative truth or an absolute truth? If it is a relative truth, then it is meaningless. If it is an absolute truth, then absolute truth exists.

If a relativist says to you that there is no truth, he is asking you not to believe him, and you might want to follow his suggestion.

Pluralism is another popular worldview, which says that all truths are equally valid. This is impossible. If you measure my height at 5 feet, but I tell you that I am 6 feet tall, both claims cannot be true. Something cannot be “X” and “not-X” at the same time. Although the spirit behind pluralism is an attitude of tolerance, it confuses the idea of everyone having equal value with the idea that every claim of truth is equally valid.

All people may be equal, but not all claims of truth are. Pluralism does not distinguish between opinion and truth.

The concept of absolute truth is often maligned as being “narrow-minded” — but by nature, truth is narrow. When a math teacher explains that 2 plus 2 equals 4, is that teacher being narrow-minded? Another objection is that it is arrogant to claim absolute truth. But is it arrogant for the math teacher to insist upon the correct answer to the math problem?

Another charge is that absolute truth is exclusionary, but by its very nature, truth excludes its opposite. All answers other than 4 are excluded from the reality of what 2 plus 2 equals. No matter how much you believe or desire 2 plus 2 to equal 5, it will still equal 4, as truth is immune to sincerity, belief or desire.

Why is it important to embrace the concept of absolute truth? Because life has consequences for being wrong. Boarding the wrong plane will not take you where you want to go. Boarding a plane on which the pilot cannot accurately judge or calibrate his instruments could place you in great danger. Boarding a plane engineered and built without precise dedication to exact measurements and settings will most certainly lead to disaster.

Today, many people seem to fear publicly and honestly stating facts and truth. Their silence is based upon a growing fear of being set apart, belittled, targeted or ostracized for their views, or a mistaken belief that no one else shares their viewpoint.

Into this vacuum of silence, a counter-narrative takes the megaphone. The louder and bolder voices dictate the rules and the agenda, regardless of whether they are founded upon actual truth and reality. It takes only one brave witness who will proclaim the truth to show the rest of us that we are not alone, and that others share our convictions, perhaps even the majority.

If we tolerate lies too long, we can become intolerant of truth, if we even know what it is. Lying creates a lazy mind that eventually becomes defenseless — defenseless to lies, but more importantly, defenseless to truth.

If we wish to heal the present divides within our country, our neighborhoods, even our families, we must be willing to share in truthful and honest discourse.

If your neighbor says the sky is blue, but you firmly believe it to be yellow, you must have the courage and curiosity to open the curtains and take a peek for yourself.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com


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