Anyone who knows me knows that I value truth greatly. My respect for, even idealism of, truth has always been clear to me.
I’m not entirely sure why this is so.
I suspect my parents teaching me honesty is part of it and, of course, my dad having introduced me to the life of the intellect. But it seems to go beyond just those factors. There is something about my personality or my life experience that has caused me to value truth more than even my dad who spent much of his life in academia. As a conservative Christian, he would probably put before truth any other number of values: love, obedience, service, etc. Most people would put something or another before truth… which is to say that most people would rather assert their preferred values as truth than to value truth itself.
I don’t personally know any other person who puts as much emphasis on truth as I do (not to imply that I live up to my own ideal). Even my life-long best friend doesn’t think about truth in the way I do, although he comes closer than most people. My desire for truth at times can be a visceral impulse, something felt at the core of my being. I experience life and look out upon the world through the lense of truth-seeking. It truly bewilders me that others don’t share this inclination, this way of being in the world.
Truth as a value often seems out of fashion. We live in an age where righteous fundamentalism competes with skeptical relativism. It has become the norm for all sides to question truth as a value worthy of respect, especially in terms of the Enlightenment. We have collectively loss faith in truth, that it exists or can ever be known. Instead, doubt has become dominant and pervasive. Truth has become a mere personal issue. There are just claims of truth, but no shared sense of truth or even shared value of truth.
Yes, people argue over what is true. But such arguments have increasingly become battles of rhetoric. As a society, we’ve become cynical. Psychological insight has taught us how weak is the human mind. Simple reverence for truth is beyond most people these days. It sounds nice, if a bit naive. With propaganda and advertising, we are always looking for the angle, the spin, the manipulation. Claims of truth seem loaded, potentially dangerous even.
The Nazis knew their truth. The communists knew their truth. Islamic terrorists know their truth. And conservatives like Bush jr know truth in their gut. Or on the other end of the spectrum, New Agers know their own version of truth. People who claim truth are to be considered with suspicion or maybe just seen as simpleminded. Truth has become nearly synonymous with blind faith and dogmatic righteousness. In the media, truth is decided by whichever side wins.
There are so many competing claims of truth that we’ve forgotten how truth has a closer relationship to questions than answers. To question is to be weak. People who question don’t become powerful, wealthy or famous. Even in academia, it is the preson who proclaims a new theory or interpretation who gets attention from his or her peers. To question without offering an answer seems dissatisfying or boring. It is an argument between people declaring opposed truths that is exciting, that gets attention. Pick a side and fight for your team or else stand alone on the sideline as the valiant skeptic demolishing other people’s truths.
There is a new kind of lifestyle truthiness. You look for the truth that fits your life, rather than conform your life to truth. Claims of truth are how you know which group someone belongs to. There is Christian truth and Atheist truth, Republican truth and Democratic truth. Every group has their experts. Other experts are mercenaries who work for the highest bidder, usually think tanks.
I try not to fall into too much cynicism because the ensuing despair can be paralyzing. I have faith in truth, if faith can be used in this way, but I don’t have righteous certainty about any particular truth.
In my understanding and experience, the discussion of truth certainly isn’t about rhetoric or talking points or dogma. It isn’t even about philosophy and rationality, not ultimately at least. I see truth as a basic human experience. We may be confused about truth, change our minds, and be deluded more than we’f prefer. Still, the desire for truth is there and it can’t be denied.
Ever since the Axial Age, humans have become transfixed by the notion of ‘truth’. Revolutionary thinkers showed up on the scene and told their fellow humans that wisdom and knowledge matter more than kinship tribalism, more than obedience to authority, more than rule of law and tradition. This was when the seeds of modern civilization were planted. These seeds eventually grew into the Enlightenment. And now we live in an era of science. Truth as a value has become the background of modern society. We take it for granted which is why it is so easy to be cynical about it.
It is strange how the value of truth has played such a major role in social development. There seems to be something in human nature that corresponds to the notion of truth. Even before the Axial Age, peopl had various views of what ‘truth’ meant, even if they don’t correpsond to anything that we now recognize as truth. The moment humans could speak and draw cave paintings, the human desire for truth was off and running, although rather blindly at first.
My own sense is that truth as an idea and ideal touches upon the archetypal. There is an experience of a truth, a desire of truth that precedes any particular claim of truth. Truth-seeking matters because it springs from an impulse deep within us.