Rebecca K. Reynolds

Honest Company for the Journey

Thoughts on Truth (Part I) - Introduction and Section I

When I wrote this post, I didn't intend to publish it on my blog. It's way too nerdy for most of the public to have much interest in reading.

I actually wrote this for Facebook as part of a discussion between several friends who have been talking about how to identify truth. However, Facebook is having some sort of technical issues at present, and I can't seem to post there today without the formatting getting all wonky.

So, here it is, if you want to look it over. If you don't care about this kind of stuff, don't worry. I'll get back to the more human bloggishness shortly. As you get alerts for "Thistle and Toad," maybe those of you who don't enjoy philosophy can just skip anything that shows up here with the heading "Thoughts on Truth."

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PART I OVERVIEW: I am breaking this discussion up into short sections. This first section briefly discusses the nature of humans and then moves on to establish some limitations for this discussion. Section 2 will begin to unpack several epistemic theories of truth.)

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NOTE TO READERS: I’ve spent today sketching out some possible approaches to discussing this matter, but it’s difficult to know where to begin. First off, though I’ve read about truth theory some, I am nowhere close to being any sort of scholar in this field. Secondly,  many of these ideas that I am going to present here unpack into complex micro-categories with nuances developed by many thinkers over many centuries. I’m not sure how to give broad strokes without missing important details.

So if you are interested in learning how people decide what to believe, maybe you can just use this general introduction to provide a couple of terms and loose concepts to launch you into a more detailed exploration of your own. 


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1. The Nature of Humans

This is an odd place to start, yet I think it might also be necessary, because every question I will discuss about epistemology (how we know what we know) has been developed by humans. How can we talk about humans knowing what they know without first establishing what the core nature of man is? J.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom suggests that over the past centuries, Westerners have primarily considered the nature of man in three regards:

a. We are thinking creatures. (Plato-Descartes, etc.)
b. We are creatures of will/volition. (The Great Revivals)
c. We are affective beings (vision/love-driven, daily lives a product of habit)

Smith leans toward the third model, noting how the majority of our life decisions and actions are actually products of habit instead of pure cognition, and that when we do change, that is often because we catch a vision of a better life to pursue. 

I’ve been teaching this book to students for several years now, and every year, as our group has dissected our own routines and choices, we have found support for Smith’s hypothesis. Although we have regularly tried to change our lives by logic and by will, in reality we tend to be pulled through decisions by a more affective “vision of the good life,” that has -- for good or for ill -- captured our hearts and created a sort of gravitational pull. 

In light of this, it’s fascinating to me that both secular and sacred attempts to diagnose and heal human brokenness tend to be rooted in the mind and in the will. Epistemology and philosophy are not exceptions to that rule. As we begin to look at different theories of truth, one of the first things we are likely to notice is that the majority of theories from many epistemological belief systems are grounded in the Platonic/Cartesian presupposition that humans are primarily cerebral. Our default (declared or undeclared) is to believe that the human identity is that of a mind mind toting around a body.

2. Our Limitations in this Discussion:

I find grave holes in this definition of man.  I value reason, of course. I use it every day, and I will use it in what I write here. I also think reason is almost comically dependent upon unprovable assumptions.

Most of the angry, foolish errors that I have seen both in extreme theology and in extreme atheism have begun with a failure to admit limitations in this regard.  So I hope you will allow me to establish one important disclaimer in regard to what is about to be written next. I don’t mind to talk in terms of human reason, deduction, induction, etc., and I will. Such an exercise can be useful and productive. It’s not a waste of time to sort through these things. 

But at the end of all of the strongest theories I have ever studied,  I haven’t found a single one that didn’t require some sort of leap in the dark. I don’t mean this just in regard to conservative, orthodox Christianity. Atheists, progressives, we are all in the same boat, here. 

Words are metaphorical, as Lewis and Sayers have argued. The name of a thing is not a thing. This breakdown in language/reality causes comprehension and communication gaps. Furthermore, the mind-body gap cannot ever be seamlessly bridged, and connecting dots between perception and reality is also impossible. The scientific method, the rhythms of math, all of the secular creeds that are held without question in our present culture can break down if you fiddle with them. We are not as strong as we think we are.

Does that mean that we cannot know truth at all? I don't think so. It just means we can’t proudly carve it out of a rock face using only the plastic spork of human power. We can use what tools we have been given (cognition, intuition, etc.) but the most trustworthy explorers I know have gone into the wilderness eager to kneel, eager to die, and slow to pick up a crown to try and reign. 

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Art: "The Search for Truth" by Rene Magritte (1963)