Pontius Pilate made a seemingly contemporary statement almost 2,000 years ago, according to the Gospel of John. “What is truth?” is his retort to Jesus’ claim that he came as a witness to the truth. It is a world-weary, cynical reply, from a man who had been assigned the worst posting in the Roman Empire. Whereas it is not clear why Pilate was not in the good graces of the emperor, Tiberius, it would not be very long after that he ordered Pilate to go either into exile or commit suicide. The Roman Empire did not give pensions to failures.
Today the notion of truth is itself mocked. You have your truth, and I have mine, and it doesn’t matter if these “truths” contradict each other. Only those facts that can be empirically proven are allowed to be called truth, and even scientific truth has come under attack as being as much a “social construct” as other truth claims. If a social construct, then it has a history, and that history is written by those in power… you get the picture.
If some claim that “all truth is relative”, others claim there is no chance of even “relative” truth. Some who claim to “speak truth to power” do not actually believe there is an objective standard to which they are holding the powerful to account — they are merely seeking power for themselves. The comedian Steven Colbert invented the word “truthiness” for the impulse to take for fact that which one wishes to be true based on some intuition or emotion, and not to allow real facts to change one’s opinion. Welcome to the so-called “post-truth” age.
Now, on the whole, this state of affairs is disastrous for all human beings. Without some trust in what we know, human communities break down, and soon people suffer and die.
So what is truth?
To begin with, no one claims never to have told the truth, or never to intend to. No one ever declares they’ve never done the right thing and don’t care to start. No one says they want to be nothing but stupid. People just don’t talk that way — do you? Have you ever heard someone say any of these things? Of course not. This is not simply because of upbringing, i.e., social conditioning. Humans have to believe that we have a handle on reality. And that “handle” is our minds.
Our intelligence is what makes us the dominant species on Earth. At least for now. There are many ways our marvelous brains can fail us. And we might well be shuffling ourselves off this mortal coil with our inattention to climate change, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and other potential extinction events of our own making. The only chance we have to prevent such threats from wiping us off the face of the planet — not to mention natural disasters — is to use our minds together.
This means getting over the shallow denials of the possibility of truth that infect so much discourse today. It is to grasp the much more difficult nature of what knowledge is, and how we acquire it. But like the Israelites in the desert of freedom yearning for “the fleshpots of Egypt,” to return to the safety of being slaves, we can be all too comfortable in the lies we are told and that we tell ourselves. And there are plenty of people who want to keep us that way.
It doesn’t take much effort to accept that “all truth is relative,” for instance. However, on first glance, it should be obvious that this is an absolute statement about something universally relative. Is that statement relative as well? To what? If it is relative to itself, then that statement is also relative, and so on.
Either truth is only like a hall of mirrors, a regress into infinity of relative to relative, in other words, nonsense, or else the popular saying is itself absurd. It is one particularly blatant example of attempting to deny intelligence intelligently. There are a number of ways in which people try clever means to assert that we are all actually deluded by occult processes in the 1.5 kilograms of neurons between our ears.
However, pay attention to how your mind works. Your mind wants to know — it’s basic to all people. When we act on that desire, a method is engaged: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, inquiring, imagining, understanding, conceiving, formulating, reflecting, marshalling and weighing the evidence, judging, deliberating, evaluating, deciding. Finally, you can speak the truth you now know — communicate your discovery. None of us knows anything completely on our own.
But — and this is crucial — we come to know something true only through the action of our minds, and yet when we arrive at the truth, it becomes independent of our mental processes and can be communicated to others. Getting to the truth is “all in your head”, but once you get there, it isn’t.