Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
October 9, 2000
Errant paths in the quest for truth
The search for truth has been a continuous human endeavour from early cave dwellers to Confucius and Socrates and everybody in between and thereafter. People, in every conceivable category of class and culture, yearn for a glimpse of the truth.
Traditionally, three avenues have been recognized as a way to arrive at truth: scientific observation, artistic intuition and divine revelation.
Truth in art is subjective and is open to interpretation, but it provides us with insights into the tangible and intangible world that cannot be readily expressed in numbers or axioms.
Scientific truth is open to revision with each new discovery. Science expresses its findings in measurements, laws and theories. It is said to be rational, logical and objective and open to independent testing.
Sophisticated technology, the handmaiden of science, has allowed us to probe where angels dare not tread. But no matter how large or how small the parts are that are quantified, the sum of the answers falls short of what we really hunger to know.
Revelation is subject to faith and is expressed in doctrine and belief systems. Those who are gifted with faith speak of having the fullness of absolute and universal truth.
The source of knowing, or more correctly, believing, is the very source of truth: Truth itself. But truth cannot be contained in holy script, locked tabernacle or massive cathedral. We cannot possess truth.
Theology, the science that treats of God and the things of God, admits that we cannot know God, but that we must accept in faith what we cannot know.
And so it is that our limited human understanding of the world is based on a m‚lange of faith, fact and fancy and strongly held convictions, each area presided over by specialists in their field. In prehistoric times, and in so-called primitive cultures, the roles of artist, scientist and priest were often performed by one person, the shaman.
As knowledge of the natural world increased, mythologies of earlier civilizations were dismissed as superstitious. During the heyday of scientific discovery at the end of the 19th century, there was talk that science would replace religion.
It has also been suggested at one time or another that poetry might replace religion as the means to approach truth. But reason is considered speculative and inspiration is deemed unreliable. Even the insights of mystics are questioned. That leaves organized religion as the only guardian of truth.
One thing is certain after all these centuries, and that is that truth is not self-evident. If so, we would all agree. Bitter disputes have raged over who has the corner on truth.
Thousands of martyrs have died in defence of truth and many more have been killed because they did not share our understanding of truth. Humanity, and perhaps truth itself, would be better served if we were united in the search for truth instead of divided in the defence of truth.
We sometimes glibly say that the truth will set us free, but the imposition of truth can be brutally oppressive. This was particularly true during the days of Inquisition, the Crusades, Reformation and colonization. Under fundamentalist regimes that danger remains.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was an artist and therefore only claimed to have an opinion, once wrote: "If the suffering of children go to swell the sum of suffering which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don't want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs."
Too often that has been the price humanity has paid in our zeal to convince each other of the truths we hold dear.
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