Opinion | The inconvenience of truth may lie in the fact that we want to remain correct
Published: Monday, February 25, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 22:02
Recently I was walking under the famous Upham Hall arch. I wish I was there for a different reason—something extravagant, like sharing that famous kiss with my future wife. But sadly, I was only shuffling toward class. I have made this walk countless times, but on this occasion the block letter words spanning across the apex of the arch caught my attention. Coldly graven into the moss-tinted cement were the words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
I was surprised the iconic Miami building had these words boldly posted on it. Ironically, many of the professors and students who work and study between the walls of Upham Hall do not believe in Truth. (Notice the capital T). Yes, we believe there are truths—multiple truths in fact. But these truths are merely relative, all in the eye of the beholder. A popular statement I have heard often by my classmates is, “There is no absolute truth.” This saying sounds nice—especially in our tolerant society—but it sadly is self-defeating. If there is no absolute truth, then the statement “there is no absolute truth,” is not absolutely true. This opens the door for there to be an absolute truth.
The belief in relative truth has been on the rise since the postmodern revolution, and even in spite of its logical inconsistencies, many people hold to it. There may be multiple reasons why this view is popular, one of them being that we do not want to be offensive to people who hold to another truth. We do not want to tell other people they are wrong. I have often thought on this reality, and much could be said on it. However, I would like to look at another major reason I believe our knowledge of truth remains elusive.
I think it is not so much that we do not want to tell others they are wrong, but even more compellingly, we do not want to tell ourselves we are wrong. If we ever did find the Truth, then our lives would have to conform to its reality. Truth would dictate our actions. It is easy for a student to sound dignified in her classroom by asking deep questions about truth, but if she walks away believing there is no answer, then she can go do whatever she pleases. If we believe there is no truth, then no one can tell us that we are wrong. Our actions are justified by us telling ourselves there is no truth.
It has been argued that if God offered us 1,000 correct ways to live, we would have wanted 1,001. This hints that the heart of our problem is not our inability to find truth, but our desire for autonomy and self-governance. We want to tell ourselves we are right and do not need to change. We want to make the rules. We want to play God.
This is what Aldous Huxley, a famous philosopher during the first half of the 20th century, had in mind when he remarked, “Science does not have the right to give to me my reason for being and my definition for existence, but I’m going to take science’s view because I want this world not to have meaning, because it frees me to my own erotic and political desires.” He said it more poignantly than most would say now, but his statement seems to be at the heart of our belief in no absolute truth.
The engraved words about truth now perched across Upham Hall were once spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago. Interestingly, near the time of his crucifixion he was asked the same question many of us are still asking today. During his trial, his executioner Pilate questioned him on why his accusers wanted him to be put to death. Near the end of his inquiry, Jesus said that he came to bear witness to the truth. Pilate, a well-educated Roman official, replied, “What is truth?” but after asking this, he turned and went outside the room. One would think he would stay around to hear Jesus’ response, at least giving the man who claimed to be truth a chance to answer.
However, Pilate showed an indifference to what Jesus had to reply, revealing he did not really want an answer to his question.
I wonder sometimes if we truly want an answer. Do we really want to know truth? Or are we satisfied asking the question, reveling in our sophistication, but not waiting around to hear a coherent answer?
Until we decide we want to know the truth, we will never find the answer, and words about truth will continue to be cold, meaningless and moss-covered symbols on our campus.