Roman Ciapalo, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the Andrew P. Studdert Chair of Business Ethics and Crisis Leadership at Loras College. He has taught at Loras since 1982.Ethics Matters strives to bring into sharper focus moral issues of current relevance and perennial importance.
A few months ago a prominent individual suggested that truth is inherently subjective and that it is whatever you prefer to believe. Hence, we have currently popular expressions like “her truth,” “his truth,” “my truth,” “your truth,” and so on.
But, is this view correct, or is truth something objective and not subject to our feelings or desires? In other words, what is the truth about “truth”?
It might be helpful to come at truth from the direction of what is widely considered its opposite, namely, a lie. Lying is generally defined as the act of speaking against one’s own mind in circumstances when the person(s) being spoken to have a reasonable expectation of the truth. The ancient Greek philosophers put it more simply: our statements are true when they assert that “that which is, is” and that “that which is not, is not.” Hence, when the “is” in an assertion agrees with the way things actually are, then that assertion is true, and when it disagrees with the way things actually are, then that assertion is false.
But, where do we find “that which is” or “the way things are”? Here is where the family of wrens nesting in a bird house in our back yard comes in. A few weeks ago I noticed that a wren was showing some interest in the bird house hanging in our back yard. In a subsequent conversation I was told that wrens build nests in several bird houses or holes in trees and then look for a mate, who then picks one of the houses to lay her eggs in. I found this quite interesting, but wondered if it was true, because it seemed like a lot of trouble for this tiny little bird to go through in order to start a family.
So, let us consider how one might go about determining whether or not this description of the mating habits of wrens is true. Would we consult a reliable bird book? Sure, but how would we determine if it was reliable? Could we ask an ornithologist? Sure, but how could we tell whether or not the expert was credible and the explanation was true?”
So, who decides what is the truth? Is it me or is it the wren? And the answer is that, ultimately, it is the wren. Here then, is the final, and best, I think, definition of truth: it is the conformity between the intellect and reality. We know something truly when our mind is conformed to and shaped by that actual thing. What we say about the behavior of wrens is true if it conforms to, corresponds to, agrees with, or has been tested by, our experiences or observations of actual wrens. And if it is false (not true) that wrens build only one nest during their mating ritual, it is only because we have observed that they don’t do that. In either case, it is the birds themselves that tell us what we need to know, if we are able and willing to “listen” to them.
As Mortimer Adler once said: “Defining truth is easy; knowing whether a particular statement is true is much harder; and pursuing the truth is most difficult of all.” And, if there is a moral lesson to be learned from all of this, it is that the pursuit of the truth requires us to subordinate ourselves to things as they are and not as we want them to be or expect them to be. For it is the things themselves that are the founts of truth and the best that we can do is to endeavor to recognize them for what they are.
But, above all, the search for truth requires humility. For in order to know a thing truly, we have to surrender ourselves to its very reality, to what it really is, and allow its nature to reveal itself to us, as it were. We exercise a fundamental sort of receptivity to its reality by setting aside any preconceptions, prejudices, fears, and biases. And, we must be prepared for the possibility that we might get it wrong, or that our knowledge might be incomplete, and to be ready to learn from that. In the search for the truth of anything, it is the known, not the knower, that is in charge, so to speak.
The mind does not make truth. It can only discover it by conforming itself to what really is.