Ever started up a conversation with a stranger with a question like that? Didn’t think so.
But if you’ve never asked this question, either silently or aloud, I’d argue that you may be on the wrong side of consciousness! From the greatest philosophers to the humblest of thinkers, this is one of the most profound and universal questions.
And one of the most difficult to answer. One reason being we often talk past each other on questions like this, by using the same words, but with varying meanings attached to them. This Babel-like exchange can be frustrating rather than productive. How many times have you heard people talk about “their truth,” in opposition to someone else’s “truth,” which vacates the term of all objective meaning and leaves us adrift in a sea of subjectivity?
Trying to answer this question will lead to profound philosophical and theological debates – which is welcome, actually, as long the terminology ground rules are spelled out and agreed upon.
So here, in an effort to enable intelligent discussion, is my humble attempt to define a few key terms that will at least get us to the threshold…
Fact - a reality known and established by objective observation. Birds fly by wing motions – this is an actual occurrence, observable, verifiable, indisputable. Something that is factual is (small “t”) true. You are delusional when you cannot recognize or acknowledge what is plainly factual.
Belief/Opinion - confidence in the reality or truthfulness of something that may not be susceptible to the rigorous proofs that establish something as objective fact. You may believe, for instance, that Joseph Smith found golden plates that directed him to found the Mormon religion. But the evidence is strictly testimonial in nature and remains disputable. You may believe that the iPhone is better than the Blackberry. Some of us may “know” it’s a fact, but…OK, well it’s an opinion!
Theory - A proposed explanation devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena. Theories are always tentative and subject to revision, as opposed to the facts themselves. Theories will be colored by first-principle perspectives. For instance, a God-denying naturalist may attempt to explain the intricacies of the human eye through a theory of evolution, while a God-affirming theist may explain the same reality via a theory of intelligent design. The eye and its workings are in the realm of objective facts; the theory of how it got there is not.
- The cosmos is all there is, was, and ever will be.
- In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
- I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no-one comes to the Father, but by Me.
- There is no Truth.
- The is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet.
- There are many pathways to God.
- All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
- I’m OK, you’re OK.
Major worldview collisions happen at the Truth level. Because these are first principles, upon which entire belief systems, cultures, and individual lives are built, and because competing Truth claims tend to be exclusive and incompatible (e.g., you cannot hold to the idea of a self-existent, creating, active and sovereign deity, while simultaneously holding to pure naturalism as a True explanation of existence), it is here that we find the great dividing lines which lead to the lesser disagreements about opinion and theory.
Why do I call this “high-stakes”? Because at this level, we aren’t dealing merely with right/wrong. We’re talking about Right/Wrong. Here, we touch on the meaning of life, truth and falsehood, good and evil, heaven and hell, life and death. Wars begin on these fields. This is not preference-level stuff (you like Bud Light, I prefer Sam Adams – of course, you’re entitled to your view, but even though you’re wrong, we can joke about it and move along without anything at stake).
As you can readily see, terms matter. A lot of inflammatory and unproductive discussion and argumentation occurs when people conflate opinion with fact, or belief with Truth. And much difficulty arises from a failure to recognize first-principle perspectives that shape all the particulars. Here’s an exercise for you: take a blank piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, and put yourself in the center of a street, on each side of which is a demonstration/counter-demonstration regarding abortion. List out the first principles that inform what each side actually believes and says, and you’ll see why this debate can never be resolved. Hint: it’s not about gender selection or sociology or convenience or oppression or whatever. It’s about Truth. Incompatible first-principle perspectives.
So, descending from the hills of abstract thought to the trenches of here-and-now, how does all this play out in day-to-day life?
1. Facts are stubborn things. Best not to argue with them, lest you be locked up somewhere. Gravitational forces are real, they are factual, they are true; and they won’t respect your alternative opinions when you jump off a building to prove your point.
2. Theories are not facts. Scientific theories (such as naturalistic evolution or intelligent design) are attempts to explain observable phenomena through a systematic framework of possible mechanisms and explanations. Under the covers, however, they are infused with beliefs, and founded on (sometimes unacknowledged) Truth claims.
3. There is a tendency to equate “little t” truth with opinion. This is language abuse – reject it! A belief is a belief, an opinion is an opinion – don’t call it “my truth.” Truth is neither subjective, nor does it rest comfortably with a violation of the first principle of logic (a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite at the same time).
4. We can heartily debate opinions and beliefs, and do so with mutual respect and a spirit of humility. However, it is always most productive to drill down as soon as possible to first principles. For instance, if someone embraces the notion that there is no Truth (a bit of stretch, actually, since that is itself a Truth statement…), then to try to persuade him/her to embrace specific statements from, say, the Bible, will be fruitless without first coming to grips with the subjectivistic worldview that will always reject statements of truth/Truth.
5. There will never be peace in this world. Mutually exclusive, high-stakes Truth perspectives ensure this. The answer is not to reject the notion of Truth, nor is it to embrace the frightful tyranny of anarchy that will inevitably result from pure subjectivism joined to acquired power. Truth claims need to be openly aired and debated in a civil manner, without a cowardly retreat into illogic. The collision of worldviews won’t go away, and naivete and wishful thinking won’t change it.
6. The idea of Truth, and the pursuit of it, should profoundly humble us. What an honor to even be able to wrestle with such things! And to have the opportunity to learn from one another! Maybe, if we can just agree on the ground rules of discussion and the meaning of terms, we can exchange ideas more productively. Feel free to join the conversation…