My Truth Pathologies

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  We might see truth as relative to some gold standard criterion; statements about historical documents, in this sense, are true if they correspond to what the relevant surviving document actually says — even if the document itself contains lies.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.

Comments

  1. Mephibosheth says:

    Wow.

  2. J. This was exceptional. Really.

  3. Seems to me that what truth is, even if independent, according to early Mormon usage wasn’t necessarily platonic. That said, I think what you have described is very much the standard interpretation and your compromise, as you say, is poignantly described here.

  4. John Taber says:

    “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.”

    So that’s how lawyers are preparing for exaltation . . .

  5. Language may be one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It provides a vehicles for thought, communication, and access to the divine. But instead of providing a conduit to God, language is the basis of our schemas. And so Heavenly Father, being merciful, speaks to us within our frames of reference. We can push the boundaries of language, and make new discoveries, but our language is inherently human rather than divine. Take math, for instance. It is the language upon which physics and computer science are built and operate. These disciplines have made a lot of progress in uncovering truths about the world that we see about us. And yet some of us suspect that math is a closed, self-validating system. The same thing can be said of our dictionaries. So does this mean that we are simply seeing what we want to see? That our expectations in the pursuit of truth are merely self-fulfilling prophecies? I believe the Holy Ghost speaks a language which transcends our temporal words and symbols. In fact, the Spirit may serve as the ultimate translator of godly concepts into human language. I don’t believe that this heavenly language is immediately corrupted when it comes into contact with humans. I think it depends on how receptive we are to the messenger and how prepared we are to accept, understand, and apply its message. To an outside observer, our attempts to express what we have received through the Spirit may come off as mere words. But just like Nephi, who said he wasn’t mighty in writing, when we speak by the power of the Holy Ghost our message can be carried into the hearts of those who hear us. It is not enough to put our faith in the languages of this world, whether they be spoken or computational. To the extent that we are doing God’s will, we will be given access to truth and our writing will be made mighty. And thus by the power of the Holy Ghost we can learn and share truth about all things.

  6. Thanks for the insightful post.

    My perspective is that truth’s “flexibility” extends beyond relativity, subjectivity, and any particular “truth” expressed in scripture.

    I would suggest that God may tell you that “truth” is objective and timeless, while he tells the person standing next to you that “truth” doesn’t exist and never will. In both cases, the only correct response is a faithful one.

    In daily life, this is important when making trade-offs. How should we really value our truths next to another person’s truths? And how should we regard those truths that we’ve only heard second hand, and not directly? I think that Joseph Smith and Paul were right to often express the desire that others would be able to get direct revelation.

  7. J,
    well done. I too have come to the conclusion that we are blind men groping an elephant when it comes to truth. I especially appreciate your throwing doubt (but just a little) on the hard sciences in the process. It almost makes up for how much more money they make than us liberal arts folk.

  8. So . . . I decided to try reading, out-loud, your paragraph which begins, “This Johannine conception . . . ,” thinking it an impressive passage and technical, thus a great exercise and test of my hopeful “superior” reading skills. I performed more or less impressively (the official story – sticking to it) until I came to “treats truth,” at which point the tongue twisted. Foiled again!

    Thanks for the great essay.

  9. The Right Trousers says:

    Fantastic, J.

    Possibly my biggest beef with most of the Saints is their tendency to assume that their exact idea of something, with all its subjective context and connotations, if understood while feeling the Spirit, is Universal Truth. I object to this on two grounds. First, the Spirit *must* testify of approxlmations, or we’d never learn. (What’s the probability your understanding will be precisely correct the first time? Effectively zero.) Nephi says as much. Second, why do we assume our brains are such crystal clear conduits for spiritual things? They’re as much the “natural man” as the rest of the body.

    Yet the attitude prevails, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s making the simple mistake of conflating two notions of truth, the actual and the understood.

    At any rate, that’s why I love this essay. It teases those apart.

  10. I’ve been drawn to cultural history for somewhat similar reasons. I think truth in those early Mormon sources is part of a more general expression of metaphysical correspondence, though I wouldn’t be dogmatic about this.

  11. John Mansfield says:

    Thanks for writing this, J. N-S. You may find “The Reals from the Rationals” interesting.

  12. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John M., thanks for the link — this essay was prompted by reading a draft of a similar if substantially more expansive statement. It’s substantially unclear to me that, as the quote at the end of your post suggests, God has a more direct way of thinking about the real numbers than we do… It seems at least possible to me that, when God does math, He has to follow the same rules that we do: otherwise, he isn’t doing math…

  13. Thanks for the post. A bit over my head, but appreciated none the less.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,484 other followers