Opinion | Pursuit of Truth noble, but belief should be in truth
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 23:03
A recent edition of The Student included an essay on the nature of Truth and truth. While the author of this essay made some interesting points, I ultimately cannot help but feel he has an incorrect notion of the distinction between the two. And, because this difference was the foundation of his argument, the entire argument crumbles without it. Thus, with a proper definition of the difference, I will instead argue for the opposite: that it is those who ardently believe their views to be Truth who are unyielding and unwilling to be wrong.
As I am first and foremost a mathematician (though, I will note that my familiarity with Truth and truth comes from having made a study of ancient history as an undergraduate), I will naturally begin with more proper definitions. The notion of Truth is a somewhat intuitive one, that there exists one ‘fully correct’ set of answers to a given set of questions, such that these answers are the only answers which may be said to be correct, and they are indisputably correct.
On the other hand, the notion of truth without a capitalized t is a more subtle notion. It is more akin to the statement that a given set of answers to a set of questions is a set of correct answers, i.e., there is evidence that supports them, and they do not contradict anything else currently known to be true. Here is the essential difference, then, between this definition of truth and the author in question’s definition: in his article, he has somewhat confused the notion of truth with personal opinion.
At least in an academic setting, where an opinion holds no validity without some evidence, personal opinion is not wholly different from truth, but they are not the same thing. While a personal opinion may be a truth, the amount of evidence required to make an opinion valid is less demanding than that which is required to make something a truth. That is, there need only exist evidence to support an opinion, while, in order to be a truth, something must be consistent with all of the currently known evidence.
Thus, we reach the author’s main contradiction. He posits that the belief in “truth” comes so that we need not be wrong, but little could be further from being true. A truth can still be proved wrong if evidence that contradicts it comes to light, and one who refuses to take this into consideration is holding an opinion, rather than somehow choosing his or her truth selectively. It is true that two things can be true despite being apparently inconsistent, but this is fine because the nature of truth is tentative and changing.
And, ultimately, this is the value of truth. It is a notion, which allows us to say something with some authority without making it a rigid, dogmatic statement. On the other hand, once something is claimed to be Truth, it becomes rigid and immutable because of the complete nature of Truth as defined herein. Should one believe that something is a Truth, then he or she will naturally be inclined to dismiss any evidence against it.
This, then, is the reason that we, and by we, I mean academics who seek to acquire more knowledge, do not believe in Truth, but only in truth. It is not only arrogant to believe in Truth, but it is self-defeating to do so. That, however, is not to say that the notion of Truth is a bad one in and of itself, only that it is arrogant to claim possession of it is, given the imperfect and ever-changing state of human knowledge. Physics around the year 1900 is an excellent example of how believing that what one already knows is the Truth can be deeply detrimental to the advancement of knowledge.
In closing, I would say this. It is not a crime to seek the Truth. No, seeking it leads to better and more complete truths. We must, however, do it in a somewhat Platonic sense, in which Truth is the unreachable ideal that we strive toward. Perhaps we will never reach it, but the pursuit of it still leads to things that are more nearly the Truth, and we do need such an ideal in our pursuit of knowledge, because the nature of the world is subjective, and so we must have some unifying principle if we are to, in such a world, still find knowledge which is true and meaningful.