“We may not always know what is true, but we can develop some proficiency at detecting what is false” ~ Michael Parenti. This is such an intriguing quote, I was amazed to find it virtually buried on page 37 of Professor Parenti’s 2007 book – a compilation of essays. It is, pound for pound, a great look at the value of truth. He also wrote: “Our readiness to accept something as true, or reject it as false, rests less on its argument and evidence and more on how it aligns with the preconceived notions embedded in the dominant culture, and assumptions we have internalized due to repeated exposure.” So, what is true? How can we know it? How to defend it? Read on.
That’s no small question, and obviously folks from Thales to Socrates to Aristotle to Aquinas to Bacon to Russell to Hawking have been searching for an answer. It’s complex, yes. Look it up in the dictionary and you will have about as much insight into the value as you would if you looked up “particle physics.” Not much. But that’s the profundity of Parenti’s quotes; they indicate that finding truth per se – “capital-T” Truth – might be a challenge we often fail to succeed at. Perhaps that is just the way the universe works.
However, detecting what is not truth can be very helpful. That is the nature of skepticism, epistemology, and to some degree, religion. It’s not as tidy as what pastors at the mega-churches tell us is true, but hey, them is the breaks, as it were. Is it the case, as Justice Stewart said about pornography of all things, that “we know it when we see it?” Not exactly.
Truth is one of the values of the wise: the values and virtues which wise persons are attracted to and try to cultivate in their lives. Along with other classic ones such as beauty, justice, honor, creativity, and love, this value is a rare, noble, wonderful thing. Often-sought, hard to grasp.
For delusion, ignorance, and falsehood abound. As George H. Smith wrote, “It is my firm conviction that man has nothing to gain, emotionally or otherwise, by adhering to a falsehood, regardless of how comfortable or sacred that falsehood may appear. Anyone who claims, on the one hand, that he is concerned with human welfare, and who demands, on the other hand, that man must suspend or renounce the use of his reason, is contradicting himself.”
Can science help? Yes, absolutely. Here is a quote about truth from social psychologists David G. Meyers and Jean M. Twenge: “Science always involves an interplay between intuition and rigorous test, between creative hunch and skepticism. To sift reality from illusion requires both open-minded curiosity and hard-headed rigor.” Curiosity and rigor, yep sounds true to me.
Many believe that wisdom and truth cannot be apprehended from a purely rational perspective, though – and science is relegated to the realm of the completely rational. Mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that “It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason.” No less a thinker and creator than Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychoanalyst and contemporary of Sigmund Freud claimed that “Even a man of high intellect can go badly astray for lack of intuition or feeling.” However, capital-T Truth is very difficult to be sure of if intuition, feeling, or insight provides the basis for faith in the finding.
Enter skepticism. Which can be downright disturbing. Consider: “The experience of doubt in a heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world is a bit like being lost in a forest, unendingly beckoned by a thousand possible routes. …The initial horror of being lost utterly disappears when you come to believe fully that there is no town out there, beyond the forest, to which you are headed”Philosophy begins in wonder”
Debates over bailouts and price gouging, income inequality and affirmative action, military service and same-sex marriage, are the stuff of political philosophy. They prompt us to articulate and justify our moral and political convictions, not only among family and friends but also in the demanding company of our fellow citizens.”
He is subtly getting at questions about the nature of truth and justice. Where the rubber meets the road, as it were.
What is the main take-away from this essay? As is often the case, it is summed up brilliantly by the scientist and creator, Albert Einstein: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
I will end with some remarkable quotations on truth that really get at the idea of being skeptical, embracing wonder, philosophizing, and doubting while searching. One of the very reasons I founded Values of the Wise thirteen years ago was to get at the idea of truth – unvarnished, not pre-packaged, and not from one single source. It’s a journey, but it’s a fascinating one.
Errors like straws upon the surface flow; He who would search for pearls must dive below. ~ John Dryden
Why do philosophers want to talk about truth? Well, philosophy is about fundamental concepts and truth is a fundamental concept. If we’re going to use the idea of truth in our discussions (e.g., ‘Your beliefs are true’ and ‘Somebody has knowledge’) it would be best if we actually knew what the idea of truth amounts to; What is truth, anyway? What is it for a belief to be true?
To teach how to live with uncertainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy in our age can still do for those who study it.
The fact that people have religious experiences is interesting from the psychological point of view, but it does not in any way imply that there is such a thing as religious knowledge…Unless he can formulate this ‘knowledge’ in propositions that are empirically verifiable, we may be sure that he is deceiving himself.
Throughout human history, progress has come through the men and women who dared to challenge the precepts and dogmas that curtailed freedoms. Freethinking (which includes skepticism, rationalism, unbelief, atheism, agnosticism, humanism and so forth) has made great and lasting contributions to human freedom, human rights, and human equality.
[Art and philosophy] are trying to see into the ultimate nature of things, the ultimate mystery of existence; and if they fail it is only at the limits of human understanding that they fail.
Skepticism is more easily understood by asking What do I know?
The words skeptic and skepticism come from an ancient Greek verb meaning “to inquire.” Etymologically, then, a skeptic is an inquirer. Skepticism at its best is not a matter of denial, but of inquiring, seeking, questioning doubt.
Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt, particularly one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas, one’s axioms.
…philosophy, because it is noninvestigative, can answer questions that are beyond the reach of investigative science – questions that are more profound and penetrating than any questions answerable by science.
There are almost 1,500 quotes on this page’s The Wisdom Archive that feature the word truth (or which are really speaking about the value). However, you can narrow down those results dramatically by narrowing it down (e.g., philosophical truth), or specifying only female authors, or perhaps only persons who are from North America. Go to it; have fun! The truth shall set you free, as they say :p