While truth might seem like a simple and unitary concept (“It’s either true or it isn’t!”), nothing so important is ever really so simple. Indeed, various competing conceptions of truth exist. Truth might be regarded as a relation between sentences and worldviews; a sentence is true if it corresponds with the speaker’s (or the evaluator’s) sense of how best to think about things. We might see truth as relative to some gold standard criterion; statements about historical documents, in this sense, are true if they correspond to what the relevant surviving document actually says — even if the document itself contains lies. Some use truth to refer to human attempts at understanding the way the world works; a statement is provisionally true if it matches the current cutting-edge products of our best research methods, with the understanding that later information might qualify or reverse the truth judgment. Or we might adopt a Platonic framework and regard truth as a substance or presence that exists in the universe independent of human thought or efforts, an entity that we might to some degree capture and possess but that we can never create.
Much in the LDS canon supports this basically Platonic perspective on truth. In the Bible, the Gospel of John in particular seems to centrally revolve around a conception of truth as a relatively autonomous entity in the universe. More specifically, for John, truth exists independently of human understanding, attention, and efforts, although probably not independently of God. (For John, there’s probably not a lot that exists independently of God.) Truth is variously identified as something which can be done (3:21), a place we can abide and a substance that may or may not be found inside us (8:44), Jesus himself (14:6), the Spirit (16:13), God’s word (17:17), etc. In most of the New Testament, by contrast, truth usually seems to refer either to the gospel or to the simple correspondence of a given statement with fact.
This Johannine conception of truth as an entity with some kind of relatively autonomous reality is embraced and, if anything, enhanced in distinctively LDS scripture. For example, literalizing the poetic expression of Psalms 85:11, Moses 7:62 and other passages record God promising, “truth will I send forth out of the earth,” an expression that treats truth as an independently existing and even material entity (truth in this passage is often interpreted as the Book of Mormon, but the context seems to call for a more inclusive reading).
In a different vein, Doctrine and Covenants 84:45 offers the somewhat perplexing formulation, “the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” So whenever God speaks, the result is truth, which is also light, which is also Jesus? Regardless of the details of how this passage is to be read, it seems clear that it regards truth as the kind of thing that can exist independently of whether any human is around to understand it.
Doctrine and Covenants 93 offers something of a culmination in this progression, a nearly perfect statement of the Platonic concept of truth:
Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. (29-30)
Here, truth is autonomous not only of humanity, but also even of God. Evidently, intelligence, truth, and light have some sort of definitional interrelationship; indeed, between this passage and the material in section 84 discussed above, it seems reasonable to regard them as synonyms. So all three of these words refer to a conserved quantity. While not even God is the author of truth, which apparently exists absolutely in itself, evidently deity can nonetheless move truth around and place it in one location or another. Truth, it would seem, also has a will of its own and the freedom of autonomous action. Whatever that means, it is clear that we are in the conceptual realm in which truth is a really existing substance which is autonomous from humanity and which might sometimes be captured by us but never created.
This way of thinking has caused me no end of trouble. When I was younger, I was substantially attracted to physics as a career option. I loved the mathematical models entangled in physical theories, and I was thrilled by the project of understanding the fundamental operation of nature. Unfortunately, I entangled these excitements with the Platonic conception of truth sketched above. I often thought that physics was wonderful because it offered the opportunity to learn equations that captured a portion of the substance of truth. But it just doesn’t work that way.
I became frustrated when I learned that classical physics was a very successful approximation but not a reality. Oh, well. One must therefore master quantum mechanics and general relativity — perhaps the project of a lifetime or more, but no large price to pay for access to truth. But, wait: it turns out that these two bodies of theory cannot both be correct. Quantum mechanics doesn’t work well with gravity, and relativity explodes with too-small distances. Perhaps both are only partial understandings, useful in their way but not, in fact, pieces of truth. String theory might solve the problems, but is it truth? For all its theoretical attractions, we just don’t have the tools to make a definitive pronouncement. Maybe we never will.
So, I concluded, physics did not offer the chance to capture a portion of truth for which I longed. One might argue that the successive partial approximations of physical theory represent a quest for or journey toward truth, but those concepts fit awkwardly with the Platonic conception. Truth in this conception doesn’t exist in degrees or approximation; something is either of the light or it is not. That which is not truth may be useful in its way, but it seems to lack reality.
I instead moved to the study of computer science. The abstractions of information theory were particularly attractive. Because they involve the study of man-made formalisms, it is possible to write down proofs whose conclusions are logically necessary given the postulates. In this realm of thought (the well-known limitations discovered through 20th and 21st century mathematics notwithstanding), it seemed as if truth in the Platonic sense might be within reach.
Yet the available truths were so much less vivid a part of the human drama than the approximations of physics! Fairly definitive statements can be made, for example, about the properties of possible computational solutions to the traveling salesman problem. Well and good. But pretty good approximations regarding the Big Bang seem to matter so much more than such truths.
In the end, I found my way through this maze. I now work in a career in which the gold standard is not truth but rather the best current understanding. I’ve come to realize that such is the way human understanding of the world develops. We don’t capture already-existing truth (even if such a thing exists in the domain of interest), but rather we construct a series of hopefully increasingly useful understandings based on evidence. Compared to the Platonic vision of truth, this is a serious compromise. Yet it seems far better suited to human capabilities.
I think religious truth mostly works the same way for us. We may, from time to time, receive revelatory bursts of the truth/light/intelligence/Spirit/Jesus phenomenon. Yet such revelation immediately becomes human knowledge. We systematize our insights, conceptualize them in light of other revelations and man-made schemas, work out applications, hypothesize the revelation’s extent and boundary conditions, interpret symbols, and refashion whatever we are given to some extent in our own image.
This does not deny the autonomous existence of truth or the reality of revelation. Truth may, as the Doctrine and Covenants would have it, exist apart from us or even God; this is, I think, a reasonable and venerable perspective. But that kind of truth is not really made available to us; we get the grubby, second-hand variety.