What is Truth? Some alternatives

Essays

“Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18.38). Good question, and one to which we seem no nearer to having an answer than Pilate did then. I sometimes wonder if the question itself is merely a blind for the avoidance of the real issues, but let us take it at face value to see what might emerge.

In the UK on November 28th the Leveson report is published. This follows 8 months of an inquiry into what became known as the phone hacking scandal, sparked by the hacking into the mobile phone of murder victim Millie Dowler by some journalists and the deleting of messages. The result of this was that her parents were given false hope that Millie was still alive. A public outcry ensued, accompanied by further revelations that the mobiles of various celebrities had also been hacked into. The inquiry has been examining relationships between the media, politicians and also the police, and will recommend some form of statutory regulation of the press to replace the self-regulation that appears to have failed to control its conduct. The details of all this are themselves of interest as will be the heated debate within Parliament over whether or not the recommendations are to be accepted. This is not an area where faith communities have had much to contribute, but we might wonder why when so much is at stake in terms of public integrity and credibility.
What is truth here? Is part of the problem that it is so difficult to establish what has actually happened that one is tempted to give up trying to do so? By the time the report is published and debated the world has moved on in any case and most people have already lost interest. The old story about truth then – give it enough time and the trail will have gone cold. But it may be that some people care enough and still feel so strongly that the stories will not go away.

At a more local level I am involved in an institution where truth is equally difficult to establish. As a pastor I am called upon to listen, often in confidence, to accounts and interpretations that give me cause for concern. In the sense that the first task is to listen and respect what is being communicated, one has to decide whether it is best to reserve judgement on what one is hearing or whether one needs to take action in response to these accounts. Taking action would seem to require that one can establish “the facts of the case” as one would need hard evidence before moving to a next stage. This is by no means straightforward. Who am I to believe? The individuals who clearly have grievances and can recount events which have caused these, or the representatives of the institution who insist that all is well despite the grumblings of a few disaffected individuals who seem determined to stir up trouble? Almost by definition those who have now left that institution are more likely to have grievances to air and those that remain are more likely to defend the institution and its conduct as they have a vested interest and stake in doing so. So who am I to believe?

Can my second favourite discipline of philosophy help me out here? Various theories of truth are to be encountered. The correspondence theory which argues that the language we use corresponds in some way to objective states of affairs out there in the world. That seems to have gone out with the ark to be replaced by a consensus theory of truth which says that truth is simply what enough people decide is true at a particular point in time. But this surely leads to cultural relativism and to the possible dominance of the majority – and the majority can easily be wrong and often is. We believe what it suits us to believe, often because it leads to a quieter life and less hassle. Then there is a coherence theory which is a slight advance in that it requires that there is consistency and lack of contradiction in our overall beliefs. It sounds neat, but life unfortunately is often not that clear cut, nor do we as humans often achieve that consistency in practice. Truth as the process of circulating references is an idea that I find powerful and more realistic – derived from the work of Bruno Latour. The objective is to keep the references circulating and feeding into the equation ever more ideas and experiences. But then, there comes a point where one has to make a judgement or decision. How does one do this?

I come back to the notion that truth is as much about trust as about establishing “the facts of the case”. Whose account is less likely to represent a vested interest that is spinning me a line in order to defend itself or cover something up? Who, over time, presents themselves as being more trustworthy? This is very different from being plausible and good at public relations. Knowing how to restrict access to information and thus how to control the story that is told is a key skill in public life after all. When does the story get turned into propaganda? So perhaps we can get too hung up on the original question after all and use the confusing answers to avoid the crucial question which is “who is to be trusted? I cannot see how we can exercise a political and public theology without addressing this on an almost daily basis.

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