What Makes it True?

     If you can answer the question in the title, you need read no further. I have spent a teaching lifetime working on an answer, and have come to the conclusion that this question is more important than any other, yet also more difficult to answer correctly. Part of the problem traces to the antecedent of “it.” The kinds of truth claims we make seem to require different kinds of justifications. If “it” references a scientific hypothesis–say a claim about a new drug’s effectiveness in treating acne– then “what makes it true” becomes both more weighty and more precise than if “it” refers to a claim about the quality of the newest summer movie blockbuster. You might think that this difference traces to the relative importance of the two kinds of claims. Matters of taste are simply less important than matters of health. But that doesn’t hold water. My taste in life partner certainly trumps nearly any medical issue I can think of. So perhaps precision is the reason: a drug’s effectiveness can be more precisely plotted on a graph than a film’s quality, yet if quality is judged by box office receipts, then nothing could be more carefully evaluated than the first weekend’s grosses.

     Perhaps you caught my sleight of hand in the preceding sentence. Who is to say that quality is to be defined by box office profits? Now we come to the crux of it. Our problem in deciding “what is true” is neither an issue of importance nor of precision. It is more basic. Our problem is one of definition. What thirty-five years of thinking about these issues has produced in me is a thirst for much greater clarity in how we define the most basic questions we ask, the ones whose answers gird and buttress all other answers we seek to provide. Without clear definitions, we literally don’t know what we are talking about, an unfortunate state made worse by historical conditions I explore in my book, What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justificationavailable on Amazon.com and Kindle.

     So what kinds of terms are we talking about? The kinds that are so basic, so central to all others, that we just assume everyone knows their meanings. But I challenge you to define even a few of them in ways that satisfy your own objections, never mind anyone else’s: truth, goodness, justice, liberty, equality, freedom, beauty. Consider some of the subdivisions we must use to make sense of these meta-terms: fact, opinion, belief, faith, trust, authority, expertise, experience, quality, morality, fairness, ethics, aesthetics, art. Think for a moment of the controversies that such terms engender: in disagreement, whose version of truth should prevail? in an information age, how do I discriminate what is true from what is false? how confidently can I assert my own opinions and how much trust should I place in others?  how do I decide what is qualitatively or morally good? can I trust (or resist) culture? what makes a creation a work of art?  Even a moment’s thought on the terms listed should open the floodgates to a hundred such questions, each deeply significant to a fully human life.

     But how can the answers be clear if the terms used to frame the questions are not? These confusions have their own history, and they cannot be untangled without recourse to the epochs that first knotted them.

     For the nonce, it suffices to connect only a few dots. The most powerful historical justification for truth claims has been for most of human history authority, buttressed by religious belief. But authority has a curious weakness as a justification for truth: it relies on the trust of the adherent for its warrant. This makes it both very powerful and very unstable: powerful because the trust that makes authority possible also discourages skeptical interrogation and unstable because once such interrogation begins, authority provides no recourse within its justification schema for satisfactory response. What this implies in practice is that authorities historically engender very little opposition until the trust that sustains them is sundered. At that point, they catastrophically collapse since other authorities rise to dispute their claims to truth or goodness and no means of choosing between authorities is implicit in the kinds of justifications authorities must appeal to. While this process is apparent in every case of competing authority–say between divorcing parents and their children– it produced an epistemological calamity in the greatest historical challenge authority has faced, one made even more calamitous by the absence of vibrant alternative modes of justification. I refer to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The collapse of authoritative warrant for crucial truth and goodness claims lasted for nearly two centuries and produced a multiplicity of other means of justifying claims to truth, goodness, and beauty. But in doing so, the meanings of the terms themselves underwent transformation. We should not be surprised that the older, authority-based meanings also survive as artifacts of the thousand-year reign of Christiandom, nor that these modes are hostile to other modes of warrant that replaced them. Such hostility is both historically explicable and epistemologically necessary. These newer modes will be the subject of next week’s post. But be forewarned: these warrants are flawed as well and bring their own definitional problems to common terms we use so thoughtlessly.

     Certainty is not possible, but clarity is. And as Disraeli said, “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.”


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