Is Truth Really Relative?
A short while back I was transiting through Auckland International Airport on my way home when I stumbled across Julian Baggini's A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World (Quercus, London: 2017). As my wife bought some drinks, I flicked through the pages and thought this might be an interesting read. So I bought it, and despite being rather tired, managed to read through a third of it in the next hour before boarding my flight.
I left it for a while, and then began again to re-read it from the start. It is one of those books that opens itself to being read several times, for it contains a vast arrange of gems that are easily missed. Then it struck me, the way Baggini has structured the book allows one to engage it in a conversation as one explores the various elements of truth he unpacks. So I thought I'd add this to my blog and see where it leads us.
Baggini writes in a contemporary fashion, using contemporary illustrations to make his point. His introduction opens with the question, is truth not simple and plain, and if not, what has occurred to make it such a complex narrative that allows relativism to declare it irrelevant? We would think truth to be plain and simple. Facts are facts, and what we see to be true is true. For example, Australia is an island, or fire burns, or snow it white. To say the contrary is simply untrue, and we all seem to know that. Baggini affirms that we do not lack the understanding of what truth means. The dogged pursuit of truth by philosophy has unleashed a bastardised form of social cynicism.
The problem of truth is not its reality, but how and by whom truth is established. The rapid onslaught of science, technology, and associate disciplines, combined with a free press that passionately exploits the flaws and inconsistencies of political and public figures, has raised questions about whether the basic assumptions we once considered as true can be sustained. This in turn has led to a more generalised questioning of whether anything we once considered true can be sustained.
Despite this, Baggini claims we still know what is true by what we now to be untrue. Falsely accuse the most ardent advocate of relative truth, and they will defend themselves fervently. There seems to be a form of naive hypocrisy here. If you claim all truth is relative, then one should assume that an accusation of some inappropriate action, like paedophilia, is simply an alternative narrative of truth. Try to argue that in a law court. The simple point Baggini makes is that the moment we declare that something is untrue, and argue our case for that, means that we advocate that something is true and no longer relative. Similar approaches are made toward our politicians. The general brooding cynicism toward political figures stems in the distrust people have developed over the lies, false promised, failed agendas, and inappropriate behaviours of these political leaders. We have a sense of what is true, and we expect people to adhere to these norms.
This real life experience has left a cynical approach to what is true and not true, as if we no longer know how to draw the lines between the two. It has become somewhat epidemic that it has forced us to question our own truth compass. Sure there are some truths that are complex and difficult to grasp. We have drifted away from the so-called experts, realising that even they do not know what it true, and have turned inward claiming only we as individuals can determine what is true for the individual. Hence the rise to the notional concept or relativism.
But Baggini advocates that this is not the end, only a momentary pause in how we deal with truth. By looking at the historical and philosophical treatments of truth, we can start to understand what truth is, and in doing so test the authenticity of truth claims. That is what he then does with the rest of the book, and what we will look at post by post.
It is refreshing to read a philosophical conversation that doesn't tot out the same tired old mantra of irrelevancy and ignorance. We know the truth, at least by contrasting it with untruths. But as Christians we also know the Truth itself, Jesus Christ, a truth that sets people free. If we are to engage a world that is cynical about any truth claim, we need to better understand the forms of those claims, and the measures by which they can be authenticated. In doing so, we then have a better opportunity to not just speak the truth, but to live out the truth, and allow others to experience the ultimate Truth through us.