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The Pursuit of Truth

“Does not the ear test words, as the palate tastes its food?” Job 12:11
We live in a world where people seem to be out of touch with reality. Whether it’s due to unrealistic dreams and expectations, misinformation, ignorance, spiritual blindness, or any number of other causes — Truth seems to elude many.  Some people go as far as denying the very existence of Truth as an objective reality, adopting instead a relativistic position on truth. In other words, there is no “Truth” with a capital “T”, instead, truth is subjective. Everyone has their own “truth” which, interestingly, does not have to coincide with anyone else’s version of truth. This, of course, is ludicrous and utterly untenable. Therefore, the need for critical thinking is urgent. Why? Because the ultimate goal of critical thinking is finding truth.
What do we mean by the word truth? Truth is a property of propositions that correspond to the way things are.[1]  This is often called the “Correspondence Theory of Truth.” Consider the following statement: the Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs 95 to 88 in game 7 of the NBA Championship held in Miami on June 20, 2013 to win the National Championship. This proposition is either true or false. Its truthfulness is not dependent on the observer or on anyone’s opinion. This is what we call objective truth. A statement is considered objectively true if the truthfulness of it is dependent on the “object” itself and not the “subject” (the observer). In other words, there are truths that are absolutely true, regardless of anyone’s’ opinion, perception, or understanding. Here are some examples of propositions that are objectively true:
  1. 2 + 2 = 4
  2. The Earth revolves around the Sun
  3. Water is composed of one molecule of Oxygen and two molecules of Hydrogen
  4. On July 21, 1969 Neil Armstrong was the first astronaut to walk on the surface of the moon
  5. God exists
  6. The Bible is God’s Word.
Each of these statements are objectively true. While most people don’t have a problem with the first four statements, there is much controversy today about statements 5 and 6.  However, the truthfulness of these statements is not dependent on anyone’s opinion. Either God exists or he does not and our opinion is irrelevant in shaping the reality of it. The Bible either is or is not God’s Word and our opinion is irrelevant with regards the reality of it. These are the types of statements that lead to productive discussions. Now consider the following statement:
“Basketball is the most entertaining sport of all time.”
This statement is clearly not objectively true. The truthfulness of this statement is dependent on the “subject” or observer; it is a matter of opinion. Some people find another sport to be more entertaining, some find basketball boring, and others don’t find sports to be entertaining at all. This is what we call subjective truth.  Here are some examples of propositions that are subjectively true:
  1. Dulce de Leche ice cream is the best ice cream ever
  2. 69o F. is the perfect temperature to set the air conditioner at night
  3. Women look better with long hair
  4. Being a doctor is the most rewarding career
  5. Atheism is intellectually fulfilling
  6. Going to church is boring
Each of these statements is subjectively true for the person affirming them. Notice that as a Christian you probably don’t agree with statements 5 and 6, but they are a matter of opinion. Thus, when we claim that Atheism is NOT intellectually fulfilling, that is subjectively true for us, but others may not agree.  Likewise, when we claim that going to church is awesome, that is subjectively true for us, but others may not agree.  Truth in this sense is dependent on the opinion of the subject instead of the object itself. Thus, arguing about subjective truths is usually fruitless. Our focus should be the pursuit of objective truth. Engaging someone with regards to claim 5 would require a shift into the realm of objectivity. Instead of arguing about intellectual fulfillment (subjective truth), the focus could be changed to whether atheism is true or not (objective truth). That would be a far more productive discussion.
The importance of establishing the truthfulness of an objective claim cannot be overstated.  As we mentioned above, the statement “God exists” is either true or not regardless of our opinion. So how do we determine whether it is true or not. As with any truth claim, there are a number of tests that can be applied to a truth claim to try to ascertain the veracity of it. However, it is important to distinguish between the nature of truth (correspondence) and various tests that might be necessary to help us recognize truth.[2] Ronald Nash presents three distinct tests that can go a long way in helping the critical thinker evaluate the veracity of a truth claim: the Test of Correspondence, the Test of Coherence, and the Test of Pragmatism.[3] Let us take a closer look at each of these.
The Test of Correspondence is applied to truth claims by attempting to physically verify the claim. How would one test the claim that my office is 1.5 miles from my home? That would be rather simple, get in a car, reset the mileage trip counter to zero and drive from my home to my office. If it is indeed 1.5 miles, then my claim would correspond with reality.  That simple test would establish whether the claim is true or not. How can we test the truthfulness of someone’s claim that God miraculously healed them from a cancerous tumor? Again, the test of correspondence would be very effective. A visit to the doctor and a second MRI followed by a comparison of MRI’s would show if the tumor has disappeared or not. This test can be very effective in many of the claims made against the Bible, against Christians or Christianity, claims of a scientific nature, etc., but there are claims where the test of correspondence is not available.
In cases where the Test of Correspondence is not applicable, alternative tests are available. The Test of Coherence is one such test in which a proposition’s truth is evaluated in terms of how well it coheres with all other relevant information available to us.[4]  Consider the following scenario:
A couple rents a vacation villa in the Florida Keys. In addition, the husband rents a fishing boat for the week. Early every morning he goes fishing and is back at the dock by Noon. However, on the fourth day of fishing he fails to return home.  When he is not back by 5pm, his wife calls the authorities and informs them that something must have happened to her husband. The Coast Guard is notified and within a couple of hours they have located the boat, but no sign of her husband. The boat is found anchored 2 miles off shore and inside they find his shoes, his wallet with several hundred dollars in cash in addition to all of his credit cards, his phone and his expensive Swiss Watch. The Coast Guard continues the search for the man for 3 days but they cannot find him.  At this point they notify his wife that her husband is presumed dead.
How does the insurance company verify the truthfulness of the claim that her husband is dead? Without the body, the test of correspondence is not applicable.  Hence, all of the evidence is analyzed in order to determine if it all fits together (coheres). After all, it could be a trick to collect his life insurance.  But upon closer examination, alternative explanations are ruled out. It wasn’t a robbery, because all of the valuables were left behind. Everything seems to point to the fact that her husband either fell from the boat and drowned or he went for a swim and drowned.
The Test of Coherence, however, has a few weaknesses. First, it cannot provide physical evidence that proves the correspondence of the claim, thus its conclusions are at best “highly probable” but not certain.  There could be other scenarios where the husband is still alive. Maybe he had someone pick him up in another boat so he can stage a disappearance. Maybe he swam to shore and is disoriented and hasn’t found his way home. In addition, this test seams to equate the “completeness” of the information with truth.    This test is often used in the United States legal system.  A jury is often asked to examine all of the evidence to see if it coheres beyond a reasonable doubt (not beyond all doubt) in order to establish the guilt or innocence of the accused.
The Test of Pragmatism is yet another test that can be used to seek the veracity of a particular claim. This test bases the “truthfulness” of a claim on whether it works or not.  A good example of this test in action is its application to the claim, “Everyone decides for themselves what is right and wrong.” Usually, this proposition is followed by its logical conclusion—“Who are we to judge?” This common proposition of moral relativism is hard to test with correspondence or coherence. However, the Test of Pragmatism does the job beautifully.  Does this proposition work? Here, by “work,” we mean—is it livable? Can people live out this proposition in everyday life?  If everyone decides for themselves what is right and wrong, then how can we possibly incarcerate anyone? If a thief decides for himself that stealing is the “right” thing to do, then how can we justify putting him in jail? After all, what he was doing is what he considers “right.” What if I decide that killing you is “right?” I’m sure that even the staunchest relativist knows that stealing, murder, and rape (among other things) are wrong—regardless of what anyone feels, believes, or decides. If a person tries to live by this proposition, they would have to be ok with others stealing from them, hurting their loved ones, etc. Nobody lives like that! Thus, the proposition fails the Test of Pragmatism.
Of the three tests, this is probably the weakest. Its biggest problem is that true propositions sometimes appear not to “work” while false propositions sometimes appear to work.   An example that is often cited is conflict between the Ptolemaic Model of the Universe and the Copernican Model. Today we all know that the Copernican Model of the Universe, which places the Sun at the center of our solar system and the planets rotating around it, is true.  However, when it was first suggested, the Ptolemaic Model, which placed the Earth at the center of our solar system, seemed to work better with the data that was observed, whereas the Copernican Model provided data that didn’t work. In other words, the erroneous Ptolemaic Model worked better at explaining the observed data than the Copernican Model, which was correct.  It took some time for scientists to figure out why the Copernican Model didn’t work, even though they really believed it was correct. As it turned out, Copernicus’ model originally had the planets orbiting the Sun in a circular orbit. When that was changed to an elliptical orbit, it worked perfectly—far better than the Ptolemaic Model.
The main problem with relativism, in all of its forms, is that it applies what we know to be the case regarding subjective truth—truth as a matter of opinion—to objective truth claims. Sometimes this is due to confusion with regards to categories of truth. However, more often, it results from the outright denial of objective truth.  Today’s culture wants to put Christianity, God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, the claims of Jesus, etc. under the category of opinion, when these are obviously objective claims that are true or false independently of anyone’s opinion.
Let us focus on just two amazing passages where the Bible addresses the concept of “truth.”[5] Let us consider the words of Jesus to the disciples in John 8:32, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” From this we can pick up two foundational concepts regarding truth. First, truth is knowable. Jesus’ words leave no room for denying the accessibility of truth. God made us in His image and gave us a mind to be able to acquire knowledge and find truth. Needless to say, the same ability allows us to differentiate between what is true and what is false.  Second, our freedom is directly related to our knowledge of truth.  Within the context of John 8, it is clear that Jesus is speaking of the deception that Satan uses as his most powerful tool (John 8:44).  This concept has never been more relevant than in today’s world where the enemy has embedded his lies deeply in the consciousness of the different cultures.  The only way to free ourselves from these lies is to know the truth. An alcoholic or a drug addict easily buys into the lie that they will always be an addict and that they can never change. If they fail to learn the truth, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When someone doesn’t know the truth, they don’t know any better and are stuck in the bondage of sin and death—right where Satan wants them.  But upon learning that they can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens them and they learn that Christ died to set them free—they are able to break those chains of addictions. That is why Jesus’ words are so powerful—learning the truth gives you access to the power of God and the forgiveness of Jesus.
Let us also consider Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” While this passage contains numerous profound teachings, let us focus on “the truth.”  Jesus identifies himself as the truth.  Thus, the pursuit of truth begins with and ends with truth HIMSELF—Jesus.  The way this passage is written in the Greek, leaves no room for alternative truths.  The article that precedes the word “truth” points to the exclusivity of truth.  There is only one source of truth—GOD! Jesus is the visible incarnation of truth! His teachings are pure truth! Is it any wonder that Satan wishes to attack Truth, the Bible (as God’s truth revealed) and the person of Jesus Christ (truth incarnate)?  The enemy knows that if we follow other “truths” we will miss “the Truth” along with all of its benefits—we will miss the way, we will miss the life, and we will not be able to go to the Father. This passage, as well as the previous one, highlights the importance of pursuing TRUTH!
Truth seems to be missing in action in a world of false expectations, misinformation, ignorance, and spiritual blindness. Confusion abounds as many fail to see the difference between truth (objective truth) and opinion (subjective truth). Some end up abandoning the concept of absolute truth altogether, relegating all truth claims to the category of opinion.  As Christians, we have a great responsibility to stand up for the TRUTH. The Truth, as it is found in God’s Word, is our most powerful and effective weapon against deception.

[1] Ronald Nash. Life’s Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 228.
[2] Nash, 228.
[3] Nash, 228-230.
[4] Nash, 229.
[5] An outstanding breakdown of the biblical view of truth is found in Truth Decay by Douglas Groothuis, IVP, 2000. Especially helpful is Chapter 3 titled, “The Biblical View of Truth” (pp.60-82) where the author provides and in-depth word study on “truth” as found in both the Old and New Testaments.  He also presents and explains the 8 core aspects of biblical truth and their importance.
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