“’What is truth?’ asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”
A lot of people think that quote is in the Bible, but it really isn’t. It’s Francis Bacon’s riff on the New Testament’s Gospel of John, verse 18:38:
“Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.”
In any event, Pilate did not stay around for an answer. And it’s just as well that he didn’t. The answer might have been more complicated than he expected.
These thoughts are prompted by “Are Religion and Science Compatible?”, a fine essay by Steven Williams at his blog A Questioner’s Journey. I don’t agree with all of its conclusions, but it’s well worth reading.
The essay covers a lot of ground, so I’ll focus on a central point. According to Williams, truth is “what aligns with reality, or describes what the universe is in fact like.”
That’s our common-sense view of truth: a true belief corresponds to one or more facts in the world. Most people, including most philosophers, never think any more about it. But is that the only kind of truth?
All theories of truth define truth as a relation between a belief and something else. They disagree mainly about what the “something else” is. For Williams, the something else is one or more non-mental facts verified by science or simple observation. Hence, like Spinoza, he sees in the Bible only a mishmash of legends and contradictions.
I’ll lay my cards on the table. I propose that if a large number of sane, educated, intelligent people say that something is true, then there’s probably at least some sense in which it is true. And the sense in which it’s true is the reason why they say it. It’s the “something else.”
We get into trouble mainly when we get confused about what kind of something else is relevant to particular beliefs.
And we do both believers and non-believers a disservice if we assume that “factual truth” is the only kind.
Consider some things that sane, intelligent, educated people might claim are true:
- There is a pencil on the desk.
That fits Williams’s concept of truth. There’s a fact we can see. (It’s not quite that simple, but close enough.)
- A hundred years ago, there was another desk in the same spot.
That kind of fits, but not as easily. There is currently no fact to which the belief corresponds.
- If you had a time machine, you could see the desk on that spot 100 years ago.
Well, maybe. Show me the time machine and we’ll talk. For now, there’s no fact to match the belief. It doesn’t fit.
- John is true to himself.
The belief as a whole can fit, at least with a little pushing. But the idea of someone being “true to himself” makes no sense on Williams’s definition.
- You have a civic duty to vote.
That doesn’t fit. There is no fact corresponding to a duty to vote.
- The tangent of an angle equals the angle’s sine divided by its cosine.
That doesn’t fit. There’s no corresponding fact in the world.
- God exists.
That couldn’t fit any “fact” unless you defined God as finite and perceivable, which Biblical religions do not. Even so, billions of people insist that it’s true. Lots of them have jobs, families, and college degrees. They obey the law. They’re lucid in conversation. They’re neither stupid nor insane.
- Electrons are negatively charged particles with spin 1/2.
That doesn’t fit. Electrons aren’t anything like the normal meaning of the description, so it’s a metaphor for something we can’t quite imagine: ironically, in that way it’s like statements about God.
All those cases involve some kind of relation, but only the first two involve relations between beliefs and what we take as “facts.” As for the rest:
- The belief about a time machine is true relative to an imaginable situation that doesn’t currently exist and might never exist.
- The belief about John is true relative to John and his sincere moral beliefs. The “truth of John to himself” is consistency between John’s behavior and his beliefs.
- The belief about a duty to vote is true relative to desirable behavior that the believer wants to encourage.
- The belief about the tangent of an angle is true relative to definitions of trigonometry and mathematical methods of proof.
- The belief about God is true relative to a particular foundational description of the world that has been socially and morally (albeit imperfectly) helpful.
- The belief about electrons is true relative to physical theories and measurements made with scientific equipment.
Beliefs are never true or false relative to brute facts, because we never know any of those. To know anything, we must first bring it into a system of concepts and beliefs. We relate it, classify it, and compare it with other things.
Religious beliefs are typically true or false relative to particular texts and traditions that the believers hold sacred. Such beliefs can have significant moral and social benefits, though an honest accounting must concede that they sometimes also cause harm. In his book God and the Bible, 19th-century British social critic Matthew Arnold said it well:
“At the present moment, two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.”
The same applies to any Biblically-based religion. People need moral guidance; they can’t just make it up as they go along. They also need a sense of accountability, a sense that it matters whether or not they live morally. Religious faith is one way to get those things. It’s not the only way, but it’s a way that’s accessible to most people. Abstract and esoteric philosophies aren’t so accessible.
As for any conflicts between religious truth and factual truth, they’re not a problem unless we confuse one kind of truth for the other. The late Harvard philosopher Hillary Putnam was both a scientific materialist and an observant Jew. How did he reconcile the two worldviews? He didn’t:
“As a practicing Jew, I am someone for whom the religious dimension of life has become increasingly important … Those who know my writings from that period may wonder how I reconciled my religious streak … and my general scientific materialist worldview at that time. The answer is that I didn’t reconcile them. I was a thoroughgoing atheist, and I was a believer. I simply kept these two parts of myself separate.”
Putnam found value in both kinds of truth, albeit different kinds of value. So can we.